“THE REAL JIGSAW”, “EXPLODING HEAD SYNDROME”, and More Scary True Narrations! #WeirdDarkness

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IN THIS EPISODE: Could the legend of the Pied Piper hint at a real horrific event that befell the town of Hamelin more than 700 years ago? (The True Story of the Pied Piper) *** Ever woken up suddenly by a loud blast like a gun shot or slamming door, only to wake up and realize there really was no sound at all that was made? This is known as Exploding Head Syndrome, and if you’ve experienced it, you’ve likely not got long to live. Or do you? (Exploding Head Syndrome) *** In 1944, the small town of Mattoon, Illinois was terrorized by a man in black who, according to witnesses and testimony, attacked unsuspecting homeowners with a paralyzing gas he would spray through their windows. Who was he? Why did he do it? The man and the motive are still a mystery. (The Mad Gasser of Mattoon) *** When you hear the name Jigsaw, you likely immediately think of the puppet with the creepy voice of a serial killer who sets up elaborate deaths for his victims in a game only he enjoys. But in 1935 another man’s brutal deeds earned him the same nickname… only his story wasn’t Hollywood fiction. (The Real Jigsaw)

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(Note: Over time links can and may become invalid, disappear, or have different content.)
“The Real Jigsaw” by Robert Walsh for The Lineup: https://tinyurl.com/ufhzmpf
“The True Story of the Pied Piper” by Orrin Grey for The Portalist: https://tinyurl.com/y7tsz3km
“Exploding Head Syndrome” by Melissa for Today I Found Out: https://tinyurl.com/qsuu4rt
“The Mad Gasser of Mattoon” by Troy Taylor: https://tinyurl.com/u599zfo
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“I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” — John 12:46 *** How to escape eternal darkness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IYmodFKDaM

It’s fair to say that Britain has had a long line of notorious felons and many of them have, by some means, secured an ignominious spot in criminal history. Doctor Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, better known as ‘Buck’ Ruxton, is certainly one of them.
In the early morning hours of September 15, 1935, Ruxton brutally murdered his common-law wife Isabella Kerr and their housemaid Mary Jane Rogerson at his home in Lancaster, England, then travelled to the Southern Uplands of Scotland to dispose of the remains. The media dubbed him the Savage Surgeon. The twin murders he committed were together known as the Jigsaw Murders due to the mutilation Ruxton inflicted upon the bodies of his victims, and the meticulous efforts investigators were forced to take in re-assembling and identifying the women slain. One of early 20th century England’s most shocking crimes, Ruxton is largely forgotten today outside of Northern England where he did his grisly deeds.
Ruxton, who anglicized his birth name, was born in Bombay, India on March 21, 1899. He qualified as a doctor and came to England hoping to ply his trade, initially doing well. Ruxton was popular in the local community, especially with his poorer patients. In a time before England’s National Health Service provided medical care free to all, Ruxton often waived his fees if he felt a patient was too poor to pay. All in all, he was a respected, well-liked professional man.
Yet tragically, Ruxton also had a dark side. He was hot-tempered, perpetually jealous, possessive and sometimes violent. He constantly suspected his common-law wife Isabella of infidelity. The couple fought badly and often, and Isabella had already left him twice. On September 15, 1935 Ruxton’s dark impulses turned deadly. Isabella vanished and so, oddly, did the family’s housemaid Mary Rogerson.
According to Ruxton, Isabella had left him again. He denied knowing anything about Rogerson’s disappearance. The police believed he knew far more than he was saying and they were determined to find out what. A search for the women was mounted and police, discovering Ruxton’s jealous and violent history, had him firmly set as prime suspect.
The mystery of the two women’s disappearance was soon resolved. Susan Haines was out walking near Gardenholme Linn, a river in the Dumfries area of southern Scotland, when she found body parts from two separate people, scattered about and wrapped in newspapers. The newspapers used to wrap the remains were the Daily Herald from August 6 and August 31, 1935, the Sunday Chronicle, and a special local edition of the Sunday Graphic dated September 15. The Graphic pages came from a local ‘slip’ edition distributed only in the Morecombe and Lancaster area of Lancashire, not far from Ruxton’s medical practice. Noticing that the women had vanished on or around September 15, police examined the subscription list and soon found a familiar name: Doctor Buck Ruxton.
Questioned, Ruxton denied having been in Scotland at the time. This might have worked if he hadn’t accidentally run down a cyclist near the town of Kendal while returning from dumping the body parts. A traffic cop stopped Ruxton in Minthorpe, due south of Kendal; the officer had noted Ruxton’s car description and registration number. Police now had a date, time, car, and driver. Now they needed to conclusively piece together the identity of the bodies. They managed that using, for the time, highly innovative forensic techniques.
The body parts were taken to Edinburgh where leading pathologist Sir Sydney Smith and a team of experts used forensic entomology to date the age of the maggots on the body parts. This established a window of time between their deaths and discovery. The researchers then superimposed a photo of Isabella over her skull, thereby identifying her in conjunction with dental records. With Kerr and then Rogerson identified it wasn’t long before they again visited Ruxton, this time bringing a search warrant and a pair of handcuffs. Ruxton was arrested on October 13, and charged with Mary Rogerson’s murder.
A thorough search of Ruxton’s home revealed bloodstains and bloodstained medical instruments, evidence strongly suggesting the victims had been killed and dismembered there. Ruxton’s flimsy explanation for a recent injury leaving his right hand bandaged didn’t help him much, either. On November 5, 1935, Ruxton was charged with murdering Isabella Kerr as well.
Arrested and charged, Ruxton’s trial began on March 2, 1936. It was a showcase of fine legal minds and big legal names. Ruxton was defended by Norman Birkett, KC (KC being a King’s Counsel, a senior barrister) and Philip Kershaw, KC. Birkett is still considered one of the finest lawyers of his generation with a well-deserved reputation for winning difficult cases.
The prosecution were no less distinguished. Joseph Cooksey Jackson was a KC as was David Maxwell Fyfe, later to become Home Secretary (nowadays Minister of Justice). Hartley Shawcross would later be lead British prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The presiding judge was Mr. Justice Singleton.
With circumstantial evidence so incriminating and forensic evidence so groundbreaking, it was no surprise that Ruxton was convicted of Isabella’s murder on March 13, 1936. He’s believed to have murdered Rogerson because she witnessed the crime. The verdict was unpopular locally, where Ruxton remained a popular figure. A petition with over 10,000 signatures went to Home Secretary Sir John Simon. Simon ignored it. Ruxton’s petition to the Court of Criminal Appeal was also denied. Unlike the United States where capital cases drag on for years, English law allowed only a minimum of three Sundays between sentencing and execution.
On May 12, 1936 he was taken from the special Condemned Cell at Strangeways Prison at 8:00 A.M. Only a short walk separated him from hangman Thomas Pierrepoint (uncle of Albert Pierrepoint) and Pierrepoint’s assistant Robert Wilson. The formalities lasted only seconds. As Ruxton reached the gallows the prison clock started chiming the hour.
Before it finished chiming, he was dead.

If you watch enough horror movies, sooner or later you’ll hear a character utter a variation on the phrase, “Every legend has a basis in fact.” Whether or not that statement is true, it is a fact that many of our most outlandish fables and fictions are rooted, at least somewhat, in actual history, and that truth often is stranger than fiction.
Chances are, most of us have encountered some variation on the fairy tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It is one of many folktales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, and has appeared in the writings of Robert Browning and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, not to mention worked its way into popular culture from A Nightmare on Elm Street, to Bill Willingham’s Fables tie-in novel Peter & Max, to the TV show Lost Girl. Alleged sexual predator R. Kelly has even called himself “the Pied Piper of R&B.”
The story generally goes that the town of Hamelin was plagued by an unusual number of rats, and a stranger from out of town, wearing multicolored (or “pied”) clothes, showed up and offered to get rid of the rats in exchange for payment. The stranger then produced a flute or pipe and began playing a tune, at which time all the rats in town followed him out through the gates of the city and either to a nearby mountain or into the river, depending upon which version you encounter.
When the townsfolk saw how easily the piper had rid the town of rats, they regretted the amount that they had offered him and reneged on their deal. The piper vowed revenge, and later—according to one Brothers Grimm account it was on June 26, 1284—he returned and once more walked through the town playing his pipe. This time, all the town’s children—130, according to one of the earliest written accounts of the event—followed him out through the town’s east gate and up to the nearby mountain which, in most accounts, opened wide to swallow them up and they disappeared, never to be seen again.
The details of the story vary with the telling, as these sorts of tales are wont to do, and given that the story of the pied piper has been retold hundreds of times since 1284 (so many, in fact, that there are two different Wikipedia pages devoted to adaptations of the legend), there are numerous variations, not to mention plenty of disagreement as to the meaning of the pied piper figure himself.
The tale has been retold by the likes of Robert Browning and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who also incorporated elements of the pied piper story into his famous play, Faust, but it has also found its way into plenty of less renowned art. The pied piper himself appears as a character in one of the Shrek sequels while the legend is recounted in a song by the band Demons and Wizards.
Variations on the pied piper story have even found their way into anime, with the Violinist of Hamelin replacing the piper’s flute with a very large violin and Problem Children are Coming from Another World, Aren’t They? suggesting that the piper is actually the personification of natural disasters.
This highlights one of the many things that we see in various adaptations of the story into other forms: disagreements abound as to who the pied piper really is, what his motivations are, and what he represents. The recent TV series Once Upon a Time, for example, posited that the pied piper was really Peter Pan, and that he was using his magic pipes to lure potential “lost boys” away from their homes.
A great example of this confusion as to the particulars of the story can be found in the seedy, low-rent 1995 horror comedy film Ice Cream Man, starring Clint Howard as the homicidal driver of an ice cream truck. The film makes heavy use of the pied piper story, with one of the kids who act as the film’s protagonists reading a book of the story throughout the film, and making frequent allusions to it.
In one scene, he is explaining the story to some of the other kids on the playground when an old man who is picking up trash approaches. As our protagonist gets to the part about the piper luring away the rats, the old man gleefully says, “Then he got the kids!”
“That’s what happens when you don’t pay the piper,” the old man later adds. The kids disagree, however, informing him that the children got away. “Kids always get away,” one of them tells him.
Besides an example of varying takes on the specifics of the legend, this is also an example of how the pied piper story has entered into our everyday lexicon. To “pay the piper” is usually defined as to pay a debt you owe or else face unsavory consequences, and its idiomatic use goes back at least as far as 1831 in the United States.
While it has been connected to the longer phrase, “who pays the piper calls the tune,” meaning that whoever is footing the bill for something gets to decide how it’s done, the idiom “pay the piper” is generally linked with the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In fact, in its advice on how to use the phrase, the website Grammarist actually recounts the legend in brief, stating that, “The moral of the story was to pay the piper, or keep up your half of the bargain.”
Grammarist also points out that the phrase usually has a pejorative connotation, pointing out that, “When it is time to pay the piper it is time to accept the consequences of a thoughtless or rash action” or to “fulfill a responsibility or promise, usually after the fulfillment has been delayed already.” Both of these meanings probably tie back to the legend of the pied piper.
Even the words “pied piper” have entered into common usage to mean everything from “a charismatic person who attracts followers” to “a leader who makes irresponsible promises” to “one who offers strong but delusive enticement,” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary entry for pied piper meaning. “Pied piping” is also a phrase used to describe a certain phenomenon in linguistics in which some words “drag” others along with them when moved to the front of a sentence.
In this way, the meaning of pied piper has gone beyond the original story to become a frequently-used metaphor that shows up in common speech every day.
One thing that every variation seems to agree upon is that the pied piper is almost always someone who lures people—usually rats, at least since 1559, and then children, but sometimes other individuals, depending on the use that the metaphor is being put to. From there, variations are the rule, with some accounts even forgetting the actual meaning of the “pied” part of the pied piper’s name and not depicting him in multicolored clothes.
The story is a familiar one, but what most of us probably don’t know is that it has its feet at least somewhat planted in an apparently true event that took place in the real-life town of Hamelin, Germany in 1284. The earliest accounts of the story don’t include the rats, which wouldn’t show up until around the year 1559, but they do include the piper, dressed in his “clothing of many colors.”
Our first clue about what really happened in the town of Hamelin comes from a stained glass window that stood in the town’s Market Church until it was destroyed in 1660. Accounts of the stained glass say that it alluded to some tragedy involving children, and a recreation of the window shows the piper in his colorful clothes and several children dressed in white. The date is set by an entry in Hamelin’s town chronicle, which was dated 1384 and said, simply and chillingly, “It is 100 years since our children left.”
While there is not enough historical data to ascertain for certain what happened in the town of Hamelin in 1284, there is little doubt that something occurred there which left a heavy mark on the town, and on world folklore. Theories advanced over the years include that many of the town’s children died of natural causes that year; or possibly drowned in the nearby river; or were killed in a landslide, thus explaining the recurring motif of the rats being led into the water, or of the mountain opening up and swallowing the children. The pied piper himself is considered a symbolic figure of death.
One other explanation is that the children may have died of the Black Plague, which could be why the rats were later added into the story, though the Black Plague didn’t hit Germany until the 1300s, making its arrival probably too late to be the source of the legend.
Other theorists hold that the story of the pied piper actually refers to a mass emigration or even another Children’s Crusade like the one that may have occurred in 1212. Many individuals have posited that the children may have emigrated—or even been sold—to places in Eastern Europe, including Transylvania or Poland. Linguist Jurgen Udolph has performed research suggesting that surnames from Hamelin may have found their way into modern-day Polish phonebooks. The modern-day website of the town of Hamelin invokes this interpretation, arguing that the “children” in the legend were actually citizens of the town who were willing to emigrate. After all, it points out, aren’t all inhabitants of a city that city’s children?
In this version of events, the pied piper isn’t a single person, but instead represents the call of territorial rulers who recruited citizens of the town to resettle in Moravia, East Prussia, Pomerania, and other places.
Whatever the facts of the story, it is far from forgotten in the town of Hamelin. In the 16th century, when a new gate was built in the wall around the town, it was inscribed with the following legend: “In the year 1556, 272 years after the magician led 130 children out of the town, this portal was erected.”
The Rattenfängerhaus or Rat Catcher’s House remains a popular tourist attraction in the town to this day. Built in 1602, the building once bore an inscription about the legend, and today it is a city-owned, pied piper-themed restaurant.
In 2009, the city was home to a festival commemorating the 725th anniversary of whatever strange and unknown disaster gave rise to the legend, and every year the people of Hamelin celebrate Rat Catcher’s Day on June 26th. The town also sells rat-themed merchandise in gift shops and online, including an officially licensed, Hamelin-themed edition of Monopoly.
Today, the town of Hamelin, which is now home to a population of around 56,000, maintains information about the legend of the pied piper on its website, and during the summer months actors perform interpretations of the story in the town square. The road along which the children supposedly passed on their way out of the East Gate, never to be seen again, is called the Bungelosenstrasse, or “street without drums.” According to an article published in the Fortean Times, it is against the law to play music or dance on that street to this very day.

Ever been suddenly awakened from sleep by something that sounds like booming thunder, a shotgun blast, or perhaps a bomb singing the song of its people? But when you awake, you realize there was no apparent external source for the sound? Well, congratulations, you just experienced a rather curious condition known as Exploding Head Syndrome, and you’ve likely not got long to live….
Or do you?
Well, you’ll just have to keep reading to the end of this video to find out!
Who first documented the bizarre phenomenon isn’t precisely known, though Rene Descartes’  seems to have experienced such. As described by Adrien Baillet in his La vie de Monsieur Descartes, where he states after Descartes had one of his famous three dreams, he lay awake thinking about the “blessing and evils of this world,” and then drifted off back to sleep on November 10, 1619. He then…
*** “…had a new dream in which he believed he heard a sharp and shattering noise, which he took for a clap of thunder. The fright it gave him woke him directly, and after opening his eyes he perceived many sparkling lights scattered about the room. The same thing had often happened to him at other times…” ***
While Descartes seems to have thought these particular dreams on that night were divine in nature, modern physicians think it likely he simply was one of at least 10% of people, and probably many more, who occasionally experience the phenomenon of Exploding Head Syndrome.
As for the first medical professional to not only document the syndrome, but study it in great detail, we have to fast-forward to 1876 and famed American physician Silas Weir Mitchell, today known as the father of medical neurology. For example, in his Lectures on Diseases of the Nervous System: Especially in Women, he describes the experience of one patient:
*** “When just falling asleep, he became conscious of something like an aura passing up from his feet. When it reached his head, he felt what he described as an explosion. It was so violent and so loud, that for a time, he could not satisfy himself that he was not hurt. The sensation was that of a pistol-shot, or as of a bursting of something, followed by a momentary sense of deadly fear…” ***
In another case, he notes the individual in question when perceiving this aura traveling up his body, if he awakened himself to full consciousness before it reached his head, he could stop the explosive sound from ever occurring.
In yet another case, the individual notes, for him, it’s not actually a loud explosion, but the sound of a ringing bell, and sometimes “that of a guitar string, rudely struck, and which breaks with a twang.”
Fascinatingly, Dr. Mitchell even found one single example of a person who experienced the phenomenon not just while drifting off to sleep or while asleep, but also while fully awake. She described: “…after a slight heat-stroke, and a new exposure to severe fatigue of body and mind, I experienced… a sensation like the explosion of a pistol in my head. I hardly know how otherwise to describe it. A few months later, I began to have what I have always since called my shocks. A peculiar something, which for want of a better name I call electricity, starts from my head, chest, stomach, or bowels, and seems to pervade me in a flash, then comes the sense of shock in the head and an uncontrollable shriek. At first, it never came unless my eyes were shut, but for one week, when I was most highly nervous and sleepless, it would come if I was startled by any sudden sound, and then I found that for a short period I could cause it by touching a spot over my stomach… Of late these shocks are not always preceded by any length of warning, and are in the head alone. They come mostly as I am going to sleep, and by straining my eyes to keep them open, I can sometimes prevent the shocks altogether. I should say, that there is often some queer sense of chilliness in my head for an hour before the shocks, which is in a general way a warning of what may come….After absence from home and freedom from cares, I have been exempt from these shocks for weeks or months.”
This condition eventually became known as  “snapping head syndrome” in the early 20th century, but didn’t receive more serious attention until 1989 when neurologist J.M.S. Pearce examined 50 patients with the condition. In his paper, Clinical Features of the Exploding Head Syndrome, he notes,
*** “[Although] some start in childhood . . . the commonest age of onset remains middle and old age . . . . The pattern of episodes of explosions is . . . variable. Some report 2 to 4 attacks followed by prolonged or total remission, others have more frequent attacks up to 7 in one night, for several nights each week and may then remit for several months…” ***
A separate study, this one done in 1991, The Exploding Head Syndrome: Polysomnographic Recordings and Therapeutic Suggestions, states,
*** “Five of the six cases who underwent daytime polysomnography slept during parts of the recording in stages 1-2. Only two reported attacks of explosions. One patient had two attacks while she was awake and relaxed . . . . In . . . her attacks there was . . . an alerting effect. The other case reported after the recording session that he had experienced an explosion during sleep. According to his EEG, he had not, in fact, slept at all during the recording. . .” ***
Beyond the whole extremely loud exploding or banging sound, as alluded to, among the interesting symptoms described by patients includes a bright flash of light and a sensation of inability to breathe for a moment, resulting in the subjects having to very forcibly and consciously start breathing again. As you might imagine, this is a rather disconcerting sensation, with some misinterpreting it, their racing heart, and sometimes a temporary stabbing pain or bizarre tingling sensation in the head or extremities as perhaps having a stroke or a heart attack. Others interpret the whole thing as maybe being brain tumor based, and some even go so far as thinking perhaps they were abducted by aliens or the like and placed back in bed after. The boom and flash of light then presumably being the space ship rocketing off.
So what actually causes Exploding Head Syndrome?
Lizard people of course.
But for those wanting the root cause put forth by those refusing to accept the truth or otherwise pushing the agenda of our Lizard overlords, may they reign forever, as for Dr. Mitchell way back in the 19th century, he strongly connected it with people who were stressed or exhausted, noting, “I have seen a large number of persons who suffer in like fashion from some one of the various forms. The most of the cases are women worn out, or tired out, and hysterical, whether strong and well-nourished or not. In sturdy men it is rare, unless they be excessive users of tobacco.”
So what advancements of modern physicians made on tracking down the source of the problem? Well not much actually in terms of anything definitive, though there is a pretty solid hypothesis as to what generally is going on, even if the specifics aren’t clear.
First, modern physicians agree with Dr. Mitchell that anxiety, stress and fatigue seem to contribute to triggering it. One study, Topiramate Responsive Exploding Head Syndrome, looking at the effectiveness of topiramate (an anticonvulsant used to treat seizures) did note “mother and daughter have similar symptomatology, raising the possibility that [EHS] may be hereditary,” but whether this is actually true has not yet been proven.
As for something more specific, the limited studies monitoring the activity of the brain while people are experiencing the phenomenon show a marked spike in neural activity right when explosive or other symptoms are occurring. This seems to happen right when the body is more or less transitioning from wakefulness to sleep, with, as one researcher studying the phenomenon, Brian Sharpless of Washington State University, describes as like a “hiccup in the reticular formation”, a network in the brain that plays a role in maintaining consciousness and general arousal, among other things.
Sharpless goes on, “We think the neurons [responsible for processing sound] are all firing at once”. The result is then a really loud bang, even though your ear drums didn’t actually initiate the neurons firing.
Presumably a similar thing is happening for flashes of light and strong smells experienced by others, sometimes in addition to the sound or sometimes by themselves.  In essence, this seems to be some sort of a sensory version of the hypnagogic jerk that pretty much everyone has experienced from time to time when transitioning from wakefulness to sleep.
As for treatments, going back to 19th century Dr. Mitchell, he avoids recommending leeches, and instead recommends rest and reduction of outside anxieties. Fast-forwarding over a century, and the recommendation remains the same, albeit a bit more specific, things like Yoga, relaxing reading (so, you know, not politics or social media), a hot bath before bed, relaxing music, and listening to the soothing, calming sound of Yours Truly as a lull you to sleep with creepy stories. In a nutshell, all of this trying to get you to relax before bed (and listen to more episodes of my podcast, to stroke my ego, of course).
It’s also noted that patients who previously didn’t understand what was happening when this occurred, and thus often had anxiety about it when falling asleep, tended to have a marked reduction in recurrence simply by learning about the syndrome and that it seems completely harmless other than being a bit startling to endure. As Dr. Sharpless asserts, “You can help a lot just by reassuring a person that they’re not crazy or experiencing symptoms of a tumor or some other brain disorder.”
That said, we feel obliged to point out that just because experiencing Exploding Head Syndrome isn’t a marker of being crazy, the fact that you have doesn’t actually mean you AREN’T crazy either. It just means you’re not imagining this phenomenon. You still could be crazy or have a brain tumor and be about to die… any minute now.
As for drug treatments, in a 2010 study, the aforementioned quite limited sample study indicated that topiramate lessened the intensity of EHS events but did not diminish its frequency. The study’s authors also noted that other helpful drug therapies have included clonesapam, nifedipine, flunarizine and clomipramnine. That said, even for those drugs that have shown signs of being effective, when you actually look into the matter as we did, the data supporting this conclusion is mostly non-existent, usually studies looking at just a handful of people for their sample. Given the condition is pretty random as is, judging whether the medication actually helped or not falls squarely in the age old “further research needed” camp.
On that note, not only is further research needed on every facet of this seemingly quite common phenomenon, even the name has been suggested to need further tweaking, as hearing a loud explosion is just one form of probably the same basic syndrome, given others experience flashing light, or strong smells and the like instead or in addition to the noise.  Thus, it’s been suggested that a more apt name would be “Episodic Cranial Sensory Shock”, though that doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Exploding Head Syndrome” and certainly wouldn’t get as many clicks for those of us trying to spread the word about the condition, and that it’s nothing to worry about.

In early September 1944, a strange series of events occurred in the small Central Illinois town of Mattoon. According to eyewitnesses, numerous sightings, and even physical evidence left behind, the town was under attack by a mysterious man in black who was – for unknown reasons – spraying some sort of paralyzing gas into the windows of unsuspecting residents. Who this man was, what his agenda might have been, and where he vanished to, all remain a mystery to this day.
The bizarre events began on the night of August 31, when a man awakened feeling sick. He questioned his wife about leaving the gas stove on, but when she tried to get out of bed to check, she was unable to move. Later, it was learned that a neighbor experienced the same effects that night.
The next night, Mrs. Bert Kearney was awakened by a strange, sweet smell in her bedroom. When she tried to move, she found herself temporarily paralyzed. Her screams brought neighbors, who called the police, but no sign of a gas leak was found. Around midnight, Bert Kearney returned home from work, unaware of what had happened earlier that evening. As he turned into the driveway, he spotted a man lurking near the house, dressed all in black, close-fitting clothing and a black watch cap. He was standing near a window when Kearney spotted him and turned to run away. Thinking he was a window peeper, Kearney gave chase, but lost the man in the darkness.
As the events of the two nights became publicly known, panic gripped the town. The newspapers handled the story in wildly sensationalistic manner and years later, would be blamed for creating a hysteria that would be used to explain all of the weird things that happened — but the newspapers could not be blamed for the very real happenings taking place in Mattoon.
By the morning of September 5, the Mattoon police department had received reports of four more “gas attacks.” The details in each of these attacks were eerily similar, even though none of the witnesses had compared notes or had time to check their stories. In each of the cases, the victims complained of a sickeningly sweet odor that caused them to become sick and slightly paralyzed for up to 30 minutes at a time.
Late on the night of September 5, the first real clues in the “Mad Gasser” case were discovered. They were found at the home of Carl and Beulah Cordes, but what the clues actually reveal still remains a mystery. The Cordes returned home late to find a white cloth lying on their porch. Mrs. Cordes picked it up and noticed a strange smell coming from it. She held it up close to her nose and felt immediately nauseated and light-headed. She nearly fainted and her husband had to help her inside. Moments later, her lips and face began to swell and her mouth began bleeding. The symptoms lasted almost two hours. The police were called and they took the cloth into evidence. As they searched the property, they also found a skeleton key and an empty tube of lipstick that was found on the porch. They decided the prowler was probably trying to break into the house, but had failed. Apparently, he had dropped his lipstick and a cloth with gas residue on it, too. The mystery was just getting deeper by the day.
Later that night, the gasser attacked again, this time spraying gas into an open window. The attacks continued and Mattoon residents began reporting fleeting glimpses of the gasser, always describing him as a tall, thin man in dark clothes and wearing a tight black cap. More attacks were reported and the harried police force tried to respond to the mysterious crimes that left no clues behind. Eventually, the authorities even summoned two FBI agents from Springfield to look into the case, but their presence did nothing to discourage the strange reports. Panic was widespread and rumors began to circulate that the attacker was an escapee from an insane asylum or a German spy who was testing out some sort of poisonous gas.
Armed citizens took to the streets, organizing watches and patrols to thwart any further attacks, but several took place anyway. The gas attacks were becoming more frequent and the attacker was leaving behind evidence like footprints and sliced window screens. A local citizens’ “vigilance group” did manage to arrest one suspect as the gasser, but after he passed a polygraph test, he was released. Local businessmen announced that they would be holding a mass protest rally on Saturday, September 10, to put more pressure on the already-pressured Mattoon police force. Now, the gasser was becoming more than a threat to public safety — he was becoming a political liability and a blot on the public image of the city.
The gasser, apparently not dissuaded by armed vigilantes and newspaper articles, resumed his attacks. The first incident took place at the home of Mrs. Violet Driskell and her daughter, Ramona. They awoke late in the evening to hear someone removing the storm sash on their bedroom window. They hurried out of bed and tried to run outside for help, but the fumes overcame Ramona and she began vomiting. Her mother stated that she saw a man running away from the house. A short time later that night, the gasser sprayed fumes into the partially-opened window of a room where Mrs. Russell Bailey, Katherine Tuzzo, Mrs. Genevieve Haskell, and Mrs. Haskell’s young son were sleeping. At another home, Miss Frances Smith, the principal of the Columbian Grade School, and her sister, Maxine, were also overwhelmed with gas and became ill. They began choking as they were awakened and felt partial paralysis in their legs and arms. They also said that as the sweet odor began to fill the room “as a thin, blue vapor,” they heard a buzzing noise from outside and believed that it was the gasser’s “spraying apparatus” in operation.
By September 10, “Mad Gasser” paranoia had peaked. FBI agents were trying to track down the type of gas being used in the attacks and the police force had to divide its time between looking for the gasser and keeping armed citizens off the streets. Neither law enforcement agency was having much luck. By the following Saturday night, several dozen well-armed farmers from the surrounding area had joined the patrols in Mattoon. In spite of this, six attacks took place anyway, including the three previously mentioned. Another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart B. Scott, returned to their farm on the edge of Mattoon late in the evening to find the house filled with sweet smelling gas.
This seemed to be the last straw for the Mattoon authorities. While several gas attacks were reported on the night of September 11, they were all dismissed as false alarms. Newspaper accounts of the affair began to take on a more skeptical tone, and despite claims by victims and material evidence left behind, the police began to dismiss new reports of attacks and suggested that local residents were merely imagining things. The gasser could not be caught and it seemed easier to claim that he never existed at all than to admit that no one could find him. New stories began to appear in the papers, where psychology experts opined that the women of Mattoon had dreamed up the “Gasser” as a desperate cry for attention, as many of their husbands were overseas fighting in the war. This theory ignored the fact that many victims and witnesses were men and that this so-called “fantasy” was leaving behind evidence of his existence.
The Mattoon police chief issued what he felt was the final statement on the gas attacks on September 12. He stated that large quantities of carbon tetrachloride gas were used at the local Atlas Diesel Engine Co. and that this gas must be causing the reported cases of illness and paralysis. It could be carried throughout the town on the wind and could have left the stains that were found on the rag at one of the homes. As for the “Mad Gasser” himself, well, he was simply a figment of their imaginations. The whole case, he said “was a mistake from beginning to end.”
Not surprisingly, a spokesman for the Atlas Diesel Engine plant was quick to deny the allegations that his company had caused the concern in town, maintaining that the only use for that gas in the plant was in their fire extinguishers and any similar gases used there caused no ill effects in the air. Besides that, why hadn’t this gas ever caused problems in the city before? And how exactly was this gas cutting the window screens on Mattoon homes before causing nausea and paralysis?
The official explanation also failed to explain how so many identical descriptions of the “Gasser” had been reported to the police. It also neglected to explain how different witnesses managed to report seeing a man of the gasser’s description fleeing the scene of an attack, even when the witness had no idea that an attack had taken place.
The last “Gasser” attack took place on September 13, and while it was the last incident connected to the attacker in Mattoon, it was also possibly the strangest. It occurred at the home of Mrs. Bertha Bench and her son, Orville. They described the attacker as being a woman who was dressed in a man’s clothing and who sprayed gas into a bedroom window. The next morning, footprints that appeared to have been made by a woman’s high-heeled shoes were found in the dirt below the window.
After this night, the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon” was never seen or heard from again.
To this day, the identity of the Mad Gasser remains a mystery, as does the reason why he chose to wreak havoc in Mattoon. Stories have suggested that Mattoon’s Gasser was anything from a mad scientist to an ape-man (although who knows where that came from?) and researchers today have their own theories, some of which are just as wild.
Could he have been some sort of extraterrestrial visitor using some sort of paralyzing agent to further a hidden agenda?
Could he have been some sort of odd inventor who was testing a new apparatus? Interestingly, I was sent a letter in 2002 from a woman who explained to me that her father grew up in Mattoon during the time when the gas attacks were taking place. He told her that there had been two sisters living in town at the time who had a brother who was allegedly insane. A number of people in town believed that he was the Mad Gasser and so his sisters locked him in the basement until they could find a mental institution to put him in. After they locked him away, her father told her, the gas attacks stopped. Is this the answer to the mystery?
Or could the “Gasser” have been an agent of our own government, who came to an obscure Midwestern town to test some military gas that could be used in the war effort? It might be telling that once national attention came to Mattoon, the authorities began a policy of complete denial and the attacks suddenly ceased. Coincidence?
Whoever, or whatever, he was, the “Mad Gasser” has vanished into time and, real or imagined, is only a memory in the world of the unknown. Perhaps he was never here at all. Perhaps he was, as Donald M. Johnson wrote in the 1954 issue of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, simply a “shadowy manifestation of some unimaginable unknown.”
But was he really? How do we explain the sightings of the “Mad Gasser” that were made by people who did not even know the creature was alleged to exist? Or identical sightings from independent witnesses who could not have possibly known that others had just spotted the same figure? Was the “Gasser,” as some have suggested, a visitor from a dimension outside of our own, thus explaining his ability to appear or disappear at will? Was he a creature so outside the realm of our imaginations that we will never be able to comprehend his motives or understand the reason why he came to Mattoon?
Perhaps this is the solution to the mystery – that this is a mystery that we’ll never understand. If you think about that long enough, it can make your head hurt. It’s a solution that simply causes more questions to be asked. And, in keeping with that, here’s one:
If the rules of physics don’t actually apply to a phantom attacker like the Mad Gasser, and he is capable of traveling from one dimension to another, coming and going without explanation, where might he appear the next time?
Think about that one when you turn off the lights and get into bed at night.

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