Magonia 48, January 1994
The main claim to fame of Mattoon, a central Illinois town of about 16,000 souls, is the alleged activity almost fifty years ago of a prankster never apprehended or identified. During a short period at the end of the summer of 1944, more precisely from 31 August to 12 September, this individual, and perhaps some copycats, terrified young women by releasing some kind of gas in their rooms, gas that was never identified, but that gained him the name of the Phantom Gasser of Mattoon.
It is truly remarkable how the episode of the so called “Phantom Anaesthetist” of Mattoon has become a stanchion of contemporary ufological (and other) literature, as a classic example of mass hysteria. Furthermore, it has been used to support opposite contentions. For example, one writer emphasises the differences between the onset of UFO waves and the start of mass hysteria flaps. (1)
Another quotes it to stress the thesis that cattle mutilations have a naturalistic interpretation, (2) namely, the hysteria of the farmers, rather than a bizarre explanation due to UFOs or other preposterous circumstances, thus denying the objective existence of UFOs. Years ago, in a series of papers appearing in the MUFON UFO Journal, the Mattoon incident was cited and used to maintain that “mass hysteria probably has nothing to do with UFO reports”. (3) Probably not, unless one is suggesting that the connection is that both are imaginary events.
Even now, the Mattoon Anaesthetist, like the phoenix, rises from his ashes and is offered again as a convenient example of hysterical contagious illness (4) and somehow associated with other forms of irrationality such as the Anti-Satanist panic.
I wonder how many of those who so freely talk about the ‘anaesthetist of Mattoon” in order to affirm one point or another have really gone to the original literature to inform themselves. Not to be like them, I secured at great cost a copy of Donald M. Johnson’s initial paper (5) and my investment has paid handsomely. Before going into the nifty gritty, I hasten to point out that from the very beginning the intentions of Johnson, who at the time was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, (6) seem to have been to “prove” a case of mass hysteria, regardless of the evidence that he himself had found in Mattoon. This is an impression that assaults the reader from the first line when, for instance, Johnson tells that:
“The story begins on the first night of September, 1944, when a woman reported to the police that someone had sprayed her.”
All the preceding remarks are false: the story did not start on 1 September, and she did not report it to the police, but to a friend and to her husband, who called the police.
Now to the details, all provided by Johnson. (5) According to him, and after a careful reading of his paper, the true chronology is as given in Table 1.
A grand total of 25 cases in 13 days. However, the weight of all these cases is not the same: the case of Mr and Mrs B, for instance, occurring before the key case (Mrs A) supposedly triggering the total sequence, cannot be suspected, as Mr B was the one to feel sick and smell the gas. This was not hysteria, but a real event. As for Mrs C, she was with her daughter, so one could suspect a case of folie a deux but without a stimulus, as again this was prior to any publicity. It seems more rational to accept that this was also a real incident. Considering now Johnson’s key case, Mrs A and her daughter, it is also an episode with two witnesses and, moreover, Mr A coming home much later and unaware of previous events, saw a man run from the window. Hysteria, or plain fact? I think there is no doubt, unless we postulate that Mr A had obscure motives to gain public attention: a prowler was prowling, and scared Mrs A and her daughter. Thus, the sequence, if imaginary, was triggered by a real incident.
No judgement can be advanced for the other cases, as there are no more details. But we have made progress, as we have easily disposed of the totality of the initial incidents. Perhaps the others were prompted by the sensationalist handling by the media, particularly the local paper, the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette, the only paper with a large circulation in the city and, according to Johnson, read at the time by 97% of the Mattoon families.
In fact, there is a curious detail here, glossed over by Johnson: the story appeared on the front page (2 September) in a column headed “Mrs A and daughter first victims”. How come? Only one incident was known at that time, apparently considered by the paper and the police as a serious attack, and yet we find this “first” as if the reporter knew there were more to come. Johnson dismisses this as an error, but such a contention does not resist analysis. Too many people see the headlines of a newspaper before it goes to the presses. Was the whole thing an organised effort to bring national attention to Mattoon, otherwise a faceless community in the state of Illinois?
Fortunately, Johnson provides us with detailed statistics of the coverage, in square inches of newspaper space, devoted to the series of events. Although to judge the value or truthfulness of an issue by the press coverage in square inches of print is common usage for the practitioners of the soft sciences, it only indicates the editorial bias of the media, of which we have a daily example in the morning news. And in this case, if there was foul play behind the scenes, the statistics of the column coverage by the Daily Journal-Gazette seem to bear out this possibility.
It is interesting to correlate those numbers to the actual dates and the number of incidents, as reported to the police:
The significance of this information in supporting a journalistic confabulation becomes glaring when presented in graphic form, where the points represent the newspaper coverage and the bars the number of witnesses:
The press coverage started on 2 September, when Mrs A’s incident was reported on the front page with a sensationalist headline: “Anesthetic Prowler on Loose”, out of character for the rather conservative Mattoon newspaper, and continued unabated in every issue until 15 September when the story was dropped. The number of reported cases reached a maximum on 10 September, which was the peak of police activity in their efforts to catch the culprit in flagrante delicto. Only one further incident took place (12 September), and since the Daily Journal-Gazette was still carrying the story, it seems self evident that the prankster (and his copycats) were suddenly discouraged by the police attention.
Thus, contrary to Johnson’s assertion that there were two hypotheses (either a “gasser” or “hysteria”) to explain the facts, we have already three: (i) mass hysteria, triggered by an incident real or imaginary; (ii) an organised newspaper buildup, as a prank or for more serious unknown reasons; and (iii) a real “anaesthetist”.
Before discussing those possibilities in some depth, let’s take a moment to examine, as Johnson does, the nature of the reported gas used by the attacker. He says that it did not affect others in the room, a patent falsehood when one considers Mr B’s case (31 August), where the husband was the first to feel sick. Johnson also informs us that one of the effects reported, vomiting, was independently verified, but dismisses this as a symptom of hysteria, as was the excited condition observed in the victims. In fact, the original article (5) transcribes a pertinent passage by Janet: (7)
“I choose, for an example, what happens to a woman somewhat impressionable who experiences a quick and lively emotion. She instantly feels a constriction of the epigastrium, experiences oppression, her heart palpitates, something rises in her throat and chokes her…” (emphasis added).
What Johnson apparently did not realise is that this scholarly opinion requires the a priori existence of a stimulus and the fact is that the appearance of the symptoms as reported is prima facie evidence of the reality of the incidents. Had the victims remained calm and collected after going through such an experience the investigator would have been correct in suspecting foul play. Since the vomiting was a fact, as well as the independent testimony of husbands (or maybe husbands are not independent) that they had really smelled gas, it follows that at least the three initial incidents (31 August and 1 September), and perhaps some of the others had an objective reality.
From a perspective of almost fifty years, it is hard to make a guess as to the real nature of the gas, but from the details reported by Johnson, it is conceivable that the “gasser simply used natural gas, that he either carried or that he just released from sources existing at the homes he visited.
Johnson, whose experience in sociology was probably no more than an introductory course, (6) also considers the victims as a group, and marvels that there are few children in his sample, after he rejects some because of parental influence. We are given some demographic information which is partially transcribed in Figure 3
It follows that the majority of the victims were women of poor education and modest economic level, their ages peaking for the 20-29 group. No attacks were reported the two high-income areas of Mattoon and all the cases seem to have occurred within a uniform socioeconomic group. As shown in Table 3, the demographic factors are quite at variance with those corresponding to the population of Mattoon at large, as indicated in the last column.
The unavoidable conclusion is that the selection of the victims was not random. This peculiarity leads to two and only two possibilities:
• (1) selectivity by the perpetrator (i.e. hypothesis (iii) is correct);
• (2) selectivity due to the susceptibility of this group (hypothesis (i) is correct).
Let us go back now to the three possible hypotheses and by using Occam’s razor attempt to arrive at a reasonable solution.
(i) Mass Hysteria
Johnson concludes that “the hypothesis of hysteria fits all of the evidence, without remainder”. This is only wishful thinking, because nothing is further from the truth if we are going to believe what the same Johnson has reported. The initial incidents,which indeed took place, have not been explained. The word ‘first” in the headline of the Mattoon Daily journalGazette remains cryptic and, in fact, opens even now interesting possibilities. The independently witnessed symptoms, like vomiting and a great degree of excitation, were unexplained then and now (how could they have happened if there was NO gasser to provide the stimulus?).
The lack of cases on 7 and 11 September represents an anomaly, compounded by the fact that the graph shown in Johnson’s paper apparently peaks precisely on 7 September, perhaps because he refers to telephone calls listed in the police blotter and not to verified incidents. As shown in Graph 1, the actual number of incidents peaked on 10 September and, in spite of hammering by the newspaper until 15 September, only one more case was reported (12 September).
The hysteria hypothesis is contrived, and not only fails to satisfy the evidence, but doesn’t explain how people who didn’t know each other, apparently belonging to the same socio-economic and educational level, and perhaps living in the same neighbourhood, could come up with similar descriptions (as, for instance, in the cases prior to 5 September).
All of this suggests the activity of unknown parties localised in a given area. Moreover, the victims were young females, all but one married (hence, friend psychologists, no great possibilities of hallucinations due to sexual frustration), corroborating selectivity by the perpetrator very unlikely to occur with an imaginary gasser.
Of course it may well be that initially, as supported by the evidence provided by the first cases, one or more unknown parties (the copycat is always a possibility), started to terrorise young women perhaps as a prank, perhaps for some obscure sexual motivations, but became scared when the community over reacted, and the state police came into the act. To this day, he is probably recalling with nostalgia these incidents of his youth, and maybe smiling secretly, if he reads the ufological press, every time he is mentioned in pro or con arguments on the existence of UFOs.
The later cases were very likely caused by the journalistic influence and no more than hysterical episodes prompted by the presence of prowlers, which during the period were reported at the rate of 8-10 a week. Author Johnson vehemently denies this, and states that “the hypothesis of hysteria fits all the evidence, without remainder”. Sadly, this points out that Johnson’s main goal was to document a ‘true’ case of mass hysteria come what may, even if it required ignoring that the initial cases were real, and doesn’t say much for his experience as an investigator
(ii) A Journalistic Scam
The second hypothesis is daring but quite tenable. That word “first” in the 2 September issue cannot be lightly dismissed, and we must keep in mind that after all, the press controlled the publicity given to the affair, and finally spiked it when it got out of hand. It is quite possible that the original cases (which could have a simple explanation, such as a gas leak) inspired a young reporter to make a name for himself (remember, we are in 1944 during the war years) and devote considerable space to the phantom anaesthetist in the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette. The story was picked up by out-of-town newspapers, among others the Chicago Herald-American which, according to Johnson, handled the story most thoroughly and most sensationally, and pretty soon it was out of control.
Perhaps after a while the editor of the paper got wise, but what could he really do, except what he did? That is, backpedal and write “few real” in the 11 September headline, then change the tone toward the jocular (13 September), move the story to page 6 on 15 September and finally let it go by the board.
There is another piece of evidence in favour of this hypothesis: the lack of motivation. Nothing was stolen, the circumstances did not offer gratification to a peeper, and even the victims did not have a reason to come forward with false claims. Yet, our postulated ambitious newspaperman had everything to gain and nothing to lose, a true statement as demonstrated by time. Too bad we don’t even know his byline!
And finally, one must remember that prophetic “first” which appeared on 2 September!
(iii) A Flesh-and-Blood Gasser
As we have already indicated, the first 3 cases (31 August and 1 September) definitely were real incidents, each one with two witnesses and, since they were not publicised until later, they could not possibly have triggered the incidents that followed. As I am not a psychologist, I can hardly argue with Johnson about the suggestibility of young females of low education and social status. But I can assert that items not printed in the local newspaper certainly could NOT have influenced anyone.
The arguments advanced by Johnson on the nature of the gas are specious, to say the least, and attempt to prove that since the characteristics of the alleged gas are impossible, so is the reality of the anaesthetist. However, when the complaints of the victims and their symptoms are considered in some detail, it becomes very likely that the gas could have been regular cooking gas, accidentally or otherwise released in the rooms. In fact, Mr B reported asking his wife if the gas had been left on when he woke up sick in the middle of the night. I rest my case.
The fact that people reported seeing a prowler who might have been the anaesthetist is dismissed without further ado by Johnson, since prowlers are frequently reported in Mattoon. I agree, but how can one distinguish on sight between a regular prowler and the gasser? The plot of police calls shown in (5) shows almost equal numbers for both events.
What is the bottom line?
Johnson’s conclusion that the Mattoon affair was “entirely psychogenic” is unwarranted and not supported by the evidence. The idea of a journalistic scam is very attractive, has possibilities, and should not be ruled out. It would be interesting to go back to Mattoon and dig in the morgue of the Daily Journal-Gazette to obtain further information about the reporter(s) covering the case. As for the third possibility, the existence of a real perpetrator, it follows from the details of the first three incidents, and perhaps could be corroborated by further study of the records. It is also clear that some of the later cases could have been prompted by the influence of the media, but I doubt that a true hysteria epidemic could have been turned off so suddenly. However, such an abrupt termination would be expected if we had a gasser that felt cornered by the police and decided it was safer to quit.
In a direct application of Occam’s razor, (8) I favour a combination of (ii) and (iii), as reasonable and fitting the information as it has reached us. But one thing is certain: it has been in Johnson’s paper for all these years for anyone to read. It was not a sequence of imaginary events triggered by another imaginary event, not even by a real one (made public only after some of the crucial cases had already occurred). If mass hysteria means what I think it means, and if there is such a phenomenon, definitively the case of Mattoon is not an example; in fact, it is no more than a “gasser”.
- BALLESTER OLMOS, V.J.’Tienen relation los avistamientos OVNIS con la poblacion?’, Stendek, 27, March 1977,31-39
- STEWART, J.R. ‘Cattle mutilations: an episode of collective delusion’, The Zetetic, 1,2,1977,55-66
- SWORDS, Michael. ‘Hysteria and UFOs: is there a connection?’, MUFON UFO Journal, No. 196, July-August 1984
- SANDELL, Roger ‘Satanism Update’, Magonia, No. 46, June 1993, 13.
- JOHNSON, Donald M. ‘The “Phantom Anesthetist” of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 40, 1945, 175-86
- The official records of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign show that Donald Max Johnson was a student there, and that he graduated on 15 June 1952 with a Master’s degree in Education. In 1944 he was very likely a freshman, with rather questionable qualifications to investigate the Mattoon affair, which explains the shortcomings of his article. Dr R. P. Hinshaw, listed by Johnson in his acknowledgements, was an Instructor in Psychology during 1944-45, and therefore was able to guide Johnson during the critical period, sponsoring the publication of his article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.
- JANET, P. The Mental State of Hystericals, Putnam’s, New York, 1901
- William of Occam (d. circa 1349): English scholastic philosopher, a Franciscan, sometimes called the Invincible Doctor. He argued that reality exists solely of individual things and that universals are merely the signs by which the mind represents reality to itself. They are identified with abstract knowledge and do not touch reality. Logic, then, deals with signs rather than with realities. Some matters, such as the existence of God, immortality and the existence of the soul are the object of faith alone (The Columbia Encyclopedia). Occam’s razor can be expressed as: “The simplest explanation that covers all the facts is the right one.”