Random thoughts on the world's mysteries

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Who was the Mad Gasser?

In August of 1944, during the worst of World War II, the city of Mattoon, Illinois came under attack. A phantom "gasser" attacked women in their bedrooms at night, spraying a strange "sweet smelling" gas in through the bedroom window. The gas left victims paralyzed, at least in part. They also suffered from dizziness, dry mouth, palpitations and difficulty walking.

The authorities investigated, but never discovered the culprit. In 1945, The Journal of Abnormal Psychology wrote an article characterizing the attacks as a classic case of "mass hysteria" brought about by war jitters. Why those jitters should manifest themselves so oddly in one Illinois town, and nowhere else in America, went unexplained.

Since then, aficionados of the odd have considered the strange case of the Mad Gasser a classic example of "Fortean" phenomena, akin to England's "Springheel Jack" sightings of the 1800s. On the skeptical side of the aisle, introductory psychology books have long referenced the case as a classic instance of collective behavior gone awry. As one sociologist put it:
Could the case of the Mattoon episode have been initially triggered by a real prowler or phantom gasser, or could it have been caused by a paranormal entity as some have suggested? Theories involving a real prowler or gasser are highly speculative and made in ignorance of basic theories of social psychology (specifically, conformity dynamics, reality-testing, perceptual and memory fallibility), and a knowledge of the scientific literature on epidemic hysteria and collective delusions.
The man who wrote those words, like most of the people who have written about the incident over the decades, never visited Mattoon.

In 2003, writer Scott Maruna, a former resident of Matoon, published a book which revealed some little-known aspects of the case. The inhabitants of that city always felt that the Gasser was real. They even knew who he was: An emotionally disturbed fellow with the unlikely name of Farley Llewellyn, the offspring of a well-regarded family.

He was an amateur chemist, widely thought to be homosexual. The derision he encountered in those less-enlightened times caused him to become somewhat unhinged, and the attacks, it is said, were his means of achieving vengeance. All of the attacks were within a short distance of Llewellyn's household.

The police considered Llewellyn a prime suspect and, although they had him under surveillance for a brief period, they never did find enough evidence to charge him. The "Mad Gasser" attacks ended when Llewellyn's family had him committed to a mental institution. Maruna argues that the gas involved could well have been 1,1,2,2-, tetrachloroethane, which smells sweet and produces symptoms similar to those described by the victims.

Here we see the difficulties facing anyone who investigates "X-File" material. Whenever a case of this sort occurs, one type of person will immediately espouse an unprovable supernatural explanation, while an opposing faction will fasten on vague psychological theories. Farley Llewellyn was neither a spook nor a figment of the mass imagination, and the gas he used was hardly outside the range of the possible.

But one mystery remains..

An exactly similar series of attacks occurred in Botetourt County, Virginia, between December of 1933 and February,1934. Residents (usually women) were overcome by a sweet-smelling gas that left them dizzy, with headaches, nausea, and partial paralysis.

"Prowlers" were seen running from the crime scenes. On one occasion, no less than four "prowlers" were chased off.

The perpetrator(s) were never caught.

When the Mattoon incident occurred, local journalists made no reference to the Virginia attacks of a decade previous. No print source connected the Botetourt attacks to Mattoon until the 1980s.

Did Farley Llewellyn somehow "catch wind" (so to speak) of the Virginia mystery?

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About Me

I'm a Democrat. That means my goal is to enslave humanity beneath the spike-heel boot of Bolshevism. We, the elite, the few, shall one day rule the planet. Until then, we gather in secret, sacrificing goats, devouring newborns, studying the ancient Goetic rites, and luring unsuspecting youths into the evil and mysterious worship of the Mighty Satan. Soon, soon, all humanity shall tremble at the supernatural power of our Dark Lord, and the puling, putrid, pious partisans of the pretender from Palestine (who died because he was weak and stupid) shall be consigned to the ovens and used to feed our dogs.