Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

One of the most difficult things about establishing what actually happened in an incident is that people are so damn suggestible.

It's nobody's fault, and psychologists understand the phenomenon pretty well, but it really complicates matters when you're trying to piece together what happened based on eyewitness testimony.  Once our brains have been contaminated by someone's suggestion of what they think happened, our memories simply aren't reliable any more.

Even a single word choice can make a difference.  Way back in 1989, researchers D. S. Lindsay and M. K. Johnson showed the same video of a car accident to a bunch of teenagers, and then afterward asked them to estimate how fast the vehicles were traveling at the time.  However, the researchers used different words to ask the question -- "How fast were they moving when they (bumped, contacted, collided, hit, crashed)?"  They found that the intensity/violence of the word choice strongly affected the volunteers' estimates of the speed -- they thought the cars were traveling far more slowly if the researchers used the word "bumped" as compared to using the word "crashed."

The video was the same each time; a single word choice by the researchers changed how the teenagers remembered it.

Suggestibility also comes into play when our emotions get involved, especially strong emotions like fear or anger.  This is thought to be the cause of mass hysteria (more formally known as mass psychogenic illness), when symptoms of an apparent illness spread through a population even though there's no known organic cause.  One person experiences symptoms -- whether from an actual physical illness or not -- and one by one, other people interpret their own conditions in that light.  Susceptible people then become frightened, and focus their attentions on every aberrant ache, pain, or twinge, which (of course) makes them more frightened.  The whole thing snowballs.  (This is likely the origin of the "witch fever" during the Salem Witch Trials -- combine mass hysteria with religious mania, and you've got a particularly deadly combination.)

This brings us to today's topic, which is the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.

On August 31, 1944, a man named Urban Raef, of Mattoon, Illinois, woke in the middle of the night because there was a strange, sweet odor in his house.  He felt nauseated and weak, and in fact threw up twice.  He woke his wife for help, but she found she was partially paralyzed and unable to get out of bed.  At some point the Raefs recovered sufficiently to open the windows, and made their way downstairs to the kitchen to see if there was a gas leak from the stove.  (Although gas leaks don't exactly smell "sweet.")  Everything seemed in order.

In the wee hours that same day, a neighbor living nearby experienced the same symptoms -- coughing, the presence of a cloyingly sweet odor "like cheap perfume," and temporary paralysis.

Within two days, four homes total had been affected, and that's when it hit the press.  A local paper blared the headline, "Anesthetic Prowler on the Loose!"  Between September 5 and September 13, twenty more incidents were reported to the police, including sisters Frances and Maxine Smith who claimed to have been attacked three separate times -- during one of which, they said they heard a "motorized buzzing sound" from the machinery being used to expel the gas.  Another individual found a white cloth on her front porch, sniffed it, and immediately became violently ill.

Only twice -- Fred Goble on September 6, and Bertha Burch on September 13 -- did victims report seeing anyone suspicious.  Neither one got a good look at the prowler's face, although Burch reported that she thought the person she'd seen was "a woman dressed as a man."

The police didn't have a lot to go on.  The symptoms reported by victims were similar to those you'd get from inhaling organic solvents like chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, or trichloroethylene, but analysis of the hard evidence (like the cloth) showed no traces of any toxic chemicals.  After the last report on the 13th, the attacks -- whatever they were -- stopped.  All of the victims made complete recoveries, and the "Mad Gasser of Mattoon" went down as yet another unexplained mystery in the annals of Fortean phenomena.

So, what actually happened here?

Hysteria needs a trigger; the experiences of the first three victims, the Raefs and the unnamed neighbor, were probably real enough, whatever their cause.  One person who has researched the incident extensively, Scott Maruna (in fact, he wrote a book about it called The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria), believes that at least some of the attacks were perpetrated by a Mattoon resident named Farley Llewellyn, an alcoholic, chronically angry recluse who was known to dabble in chemistry, and in fact once blew a hole in one wall of his house in a laboratory explosion.

The problem is, no one has ever been able to prove Llewellyn was involved.  Every town has its oddballs, and (after all) being a peculiar, introverted science-nerd type is hardly a crime.

Fortunately for me.

Most of the people who've looked into the case believe that the majority of the reports were the result of mass hysteria induced by the rather terrifying headlines, possibly compounded by episodes of sleep paralysis.  (Which can be a pretty damn scary experience in and of itself, even without a crazy anesthetist running around.)

The bottom line, though, is that we'll probably never know for sure.  Once you've had an experience like that -- hooking into some powerful emotions -- it permanently alters what you remember.  At that point, trying to tease out what you actually did experience from what you feared and/or had heard about from other sources becomes next to impossible.  

And even in less alarming situations, our memories are remarkably plastic, and therefore unreliable.  It's always a good idea to keep this in mind -- just because something is in our heads doesn't mean it's true and accurate.

Or as Robert Fulghum put it, "Don't believe everything you think."


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