“It was that young fool Farley!” The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

I’ve been meaning to post about this since I read it, but it’s all old media, you know. I read it on paper, in issue 216 of the Fortean Times. It’s an article by Jonathan Downes, a musician, cryptozoologist, and author, who’s been interested in the story of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, IL (aka the “Anesthetic Prowler”) for many years.

It happened back in September, 1945. For about a week there were reports of families waking up to a weird sweet smell that caused nausea and lightheadedness. The incident is commonly cited as an example of mysterious, spontaneous hysteria in a community, arising out of nowhere and disappearing just as quickly.

Anyway, Downes recently got a chance to visit Mattoon, and was surprised to find out that as far as the residents of the town are concerned, there is no mystery.

The journey was a real pilgrimage for Downes:

It was a strange experience standing in the warm, early summer rain outside the home where, 60 years before, the Kearney family had been attacked. For the first time, I understood why generations of American tourists would fly to London and stand in awe outside a building society in Baker Street, as they searched for the authentic Sherlock Holmes experience. I may have been six decades too late, but I was looking at one of the real ‘Mad Gasser’ locations, and nobody could take that away from me.

In one of his first encounters with a local from that neighborhood, an old man tending a grocery store, he passed himself off at first as a journalist researching life in the Midwest in the war years, but eventually dared to ask a question about his real interest:

I gritted my teeth and asked the old man whether he had heard of the Mad Gasser. Fully expecting ridicule, I was amazed by his answer. “Yeah, sure. It was that young fool Farley. His family used to own this store.” […]

It has always been implied that, like Jack the Ripper or Spring-heeled Jack, the culprit was never identified or caught, but this is simply not true. Everywhere I went in Mattoon I was told the same thing. Yes, of course they knew about the Mad Gasser — and they all knew who he was: a tragically disturbed young man called Farley Llewellyn.

This conclusion had already been publicized by Illinois historian Scott Maruna, in his 2003 book The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria. Farley had lived in a trailer behind his parents’ store. He had been a chemistry major at the University of Illinois before coming home. He was alcoholic, and homosexual, and the target of rumor and gossip in the town because of this and because of his increasingly erratic behavior, which included chemistry experiments in his trailer which at one point, shortly before the attacks, caused an explosion that damaged the trailer badly. “Farley would never reveal what had caused the explosion, but Maruna believes that he had been synthesizing 1,2,2,2-tetrachloroethane(C2H2Cl4), which, as he writes, ‘is a clear, oily liquid that is extremely volatile, with a sweet, fruity odour. Breathing high levels of this can cause fatigue, vomiting, dizziness, and possibly unconsciousness.'”

If it was Farley’s gas behind the attacks, it couldn’t have been Farley behind all of them, because he was arrested on the 10th of September and there was one attack on the 11th. However, that attack was reportedly committed by someone short, plump, and wearing women’s shoes, which describes neither Farley nor the previous Gasser descriptions, but which does describe Farley’s two sisters, who were about as well integrated into the community as Farley himself was.

If the explosion did arise when Farley was synthesizing that gas, the gas would only have been effective through about September 11th, 1945.

Downes continues:

..I visited several shops and spoke to a number of the older members of the community I found there. Everybody knew of the Mad Gasser; everybody knew that it was Farley; and everybody told me that, because Farley’s father had been such a well-loved and popular member of the community, nobody had been prepared to pillory the family in public just because his son was insane. In order to protect the reputation of Farley’s family, the whole town had put up with 50 years of visiting UFO freaks, conspiracy theorists, and assorted nutcases…

Now there were no longer any living relatives, people were prepared to talk, and several told me they were happy to do so because — at long last — the myth of Mattoon’s Mad Gasser could be laid to rest.

It’s hard to describe how big a deal this is in terms of American Forteana, at least as I know it. It would be up there with discovering the ape suit used to fake the Patterson Bigfoot film (if it was faked…) — or, I don’t know, finding out that there was a secret military balloon project which was responsible for the “saucer crash” at Roswell but which couldn’t be discussed for decades because it was classified… No, wait. That actually happened. (Unless of course there’s something more sinister or strange behind that story…)

Anyway, there was no version of this article on the web to link to or I would have gratefully done so. I hope I haven’t over-quoted but I think this is information that should be more widely available, at least for those few people interested in such a topic.

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