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The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria

The Mad Gasser Of Mattoon: Dispelling The Hysteria - Scott Maruna I almost never talk to people I don't know in bookstores, but this past weekend, I got into not one but two cool conversations with strangers. One of them, with a guy who also happens to believe that JFK was assassinated by the CIA. When we parted, he recommended this book to me, which as you can see, I found to be a five-star read. The other conversation led me to the book I will read after this. Hooray for strangers in bookstores!------------------------------------------------------------------"The Mad Gasser of Mattoon!" Sounds so quaint, doesn't it? ...like something you'd hear on Garrison Keillor's radio show, right? Not so funny, though, for the victims. In August 1944, over the course of two weeks, a spate of fifteen people in the rural township of Mattoon, IL suffered sublethal poisoning from gas piped into their houses by an unknown perpetrator. Victims' symptoms included temporary paralysis, weird itchy/tingling skin sensations, headache, nausea and vomiting. The descriptions of these effects were remarkably consistent from case to case, even though most of the early victims weren't even aware that other incidents had been reported. When the story was publicized, it became a national fascination for several weeks, and then faded from memory. If the story ended there, it would just be a minor curiosity. It becomes more interesting when the citizens of Mattoon started to pressure the local police to find the gasser. By its nature, it wasn't an easy crime to solve, since the gas rapidly dissipated, and authorities were not able to identify its composition. That would be crucial information for tracking how a person could obtain the gas, or possibly manufacture it at home. No suspects were identified, however footprints were seen at several of the crime sites, which seemed to indicate a pair of women’s' high-heel shoes. With nobody to question, no leads on the type of gas, and no other evidence like fingerprints or articles of clothing, there wasn't much to go on. Citizens of Mattoon weren't sympathetic about the complexity of the case; they wanted to find the culprit, and began to pressure Chief of Police C.E. Cole. The town’s newspaper excoriated ineffective law enforcement. In response, Cole decided the way to advance the case was to demand victims be medically examined. He issued a public statement that anybody else claiming to have been gassed, who then refused to submit to medical examination, would be arrested as the suspect! Like turning off a faucet, reports of gassings stopped, and the police concluded that the entire incident had been a case of "mass hysteria" (i.e. the gassings were all imagined, and no "mad gasser" existed). The case was declared solved and closed!Outrageous, but wait; it gets better. Six months later, enterprising undergraduate psychology student Donald Johnson from the University of Illinois at Urbana came down to investigate the psychological aspects of the case. The police conclusions of "Mass Hysteria" excited him, because that term had famously been attached to the Salem witch trials, but had never been rigorously studied by academic psychologists. Unfortunately, since the police had essentially declared the gassings to all be in the victims' imaginations, there was a certain embarrassment to being a victim. Understandably, none of the afflicted wanted to be interviewed by Johnson… but you know who was happy to speak with him? The police. Johnson produced copious notes interviewing all the police on the case. Of course, having come out with their conclusions already, the police had a professional interest in making sure Johnson arrived at the same conclusions. What do you think he concluded? That’s right: Mattoon was the first documented modern case of Mass Hysteria. With a lot of help from his mentor, Dr. R.P. Hinshaw (apparently a big name in the field at the time), Johnson wrote a paper for the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (“The Phantom Anesthetist of Mattoon: A Field Study of Mass Hysteria”, J Abn and Soc Psych, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan 1945) pp 175-186.). In this article, Johnson essentially legitimizes the police conclusions that the entire Mad Gasser of Mattoon incident had been the figment of fifteen peoples' imaginations, independent of each other, and spread out over two weeks. Thus, the good people of Mattoon got the label of “hysterics”, but did they deserve it? Not according to (author) Scott Maruna’s research. The case of the Mattoon gasser differs from all other professionally-recognized cases of Mass Hysteria (M.H.) in several ways: (1) Symptoms- usually M.H. manifests as fainting, seizure, psychosis/hallucinations, and nausea and/or headaches. The Mattoon gasser cases are the only ones where muscle weakness/paralysis and particular skin sensations are noted. (2) Social setting- usually M.H. victims all know each other through close family or friend circles. Most of the Mattoon victims did not know each other well, or at all. (3)Timeframe- usually M.H. cases are all tightly clustered within a few hours or less from each other. Only in Mattoon were the cases spaced out over two weeks, often with several days between incidents. (4)Associated Senses- most cases of M.H. appear to erupt spontaneously, with no identifiable trigger. Only in the Mattoon cases did victims (independent on one another) describe a preceding sweet/chemical odor, and/or the sound of rushing air/gas. (5)Emotional Context- most cases of M.H. occur with victims who are either under a particular degree of stress, or who all have reduced ability to cope with stress (e.g. -having reduced social supports, etc). No such pattern is observed among the victims in Mattoon. (6)Gender bias- from its unscientific origins in Salem to the modern day, there has been a tendency for the term “hysteria” to be more readily applied to female patients than male. The Greek prefix “hyster” refers to the uterus (appearing in words like “hysterectomy”), which was first supposed to be the cause of the condition. There seems to be abundant evidence, including in Maruna’s references, that the phenomenon called “hysteria” is equally distributed between the genders, but that female patients are more likely to get the diagnostic label. The thing is, Johnson must have known about this bias, because he fudged his data to reflect a strong female bias among the Mattoon victims, where none existed. Fifty two percent of the Mattoon gasser’s victims were female, but Johnson records in his paper that 93% were female! He does this through a mathematical sleight-of-hand, by recording individual female victims as female, individual male victims as male (only 7% of the cases, it happens), but in cases where several people were gassed at once, they are all recorded as female! This gives Johnson the female bias he knows his publishers are expecting to see. The fact that this didn't come out when the article was submitted is a testament how lax the fact-checking of this article was. It really is an embarrassment to the journal that published it....So it seems if Mattoon is in fact an example of a Mass Hysteria, it is so atypical that experts ought to at least question and discuss the validity of that diagnosis. After all, the engines of academia and the whole “marketplace of ideas” supposedly subjects ideas to scrutiny, rigorous debate and questioning, right? Ideally, Johnson’s flawed and even partially falsified research and his poorly-supported conclusions should have been deconstructed, judged lacking, and rejected. Instead, once enshrined in the immortality of publication, his paper became widely-cited, and to this day Mattoon is often held out as an example of mass hysteria in modern day. Only in 2003, with the publication of this book, does somebody get around to calling Johnson out. That somebody is Scott Maruna, a high school Chemistry teacher from nearby rural Illinois with an interest in this case.To his credit, Maruna doesn’t merely disprove the M.H. label; he offers a credible alternative theory. Digging through town records, as well as transcripts of police and local news reports from the time, he uncovers information about the Farley family, who owned a grocery store in the center of town. The Farleys consisted of Llewellyn (Lew) and his two older sisters, Katherine and Florence. Lew had been valedictorian of his high school class, and had done well studying Chemistry at U of Illinois, but then had some sort of mental breakdown at the end of college. He never sought employment, but rather returned to live in a shed behind his sisters’ grocery store, working on assorted projects in his chemistry lab. About a week before the “mad gassings” started in 1944, local papers reported a violent explosion in the lab, with fortunately no injuries to anybody. Maruna speculates that the explosion was related to the production of Nitro methane (CH3NO2)… a volatile gas with a characteristic sweet/chemical smell, which is known to cause the symptoms described by the gasser victims, and which can be synthesized in a small lab for low cost, but whose production is delicate, because if the reagents are mixed unevenly, the gas can become unstable and explode. More interesting still: under normal storage conditions, a batch of nitro methane is only good for about two weeks before it degrades… just the same amount of time as the whole “gasser” outbreak! Perhaps the police had some of this information too, because it happens that Lew was detained for several days during the “gasser” outbreak, on suspicion of being involved. He was released only when two gasser incidents occurred while he was in police custody… the same two incidents in which women’s footprints were found at the scene! Maruna quite reasonably speculates that Farley’s sisters, who were known to be very protective of him, perpetrated these incidents to clear the suspicion surrounding Lew. Finally, to solidify the theory, Maruna finds one common thread between all of the victims: every last one of them was in Lew Farley’s graduating high school class! He was gassing his old high school foes! It makes sense! I really think Maruna solved the case, and I think it is great! I love that a high school Chemistry teacher, applying some basic detective work as well as his knowledge of chemistry solved this 59 year old mystery. It’s kind of funny, but it is very cool too. Okay... I hear some skeptics out there. Perhaps none of this is actual proof. Perhaps Farley is innocent and there is some other explanation. Still, I think Maruna has offered a better hypothesis than the Mattoon police did in 1944. Most of the persons involved are now dead, and the old Farley store and the shed with the chemistry lab are gone, so it will all never be known for sure. As important as developing a solid alternative theory to explain the gassings, I also love that Maruna exposed the failings of Dr. Johnson's paper on mass hysteria. What I don’t think is cool is a police department telling an entire town that they are crazy, just because they [the police] can’t solve a crime… and getting away with it for 59 years. I also don’t think it’s cool that some undergrad with no previous field experience, but with the support of a Big Fish advisor, was able to publish a piss-poor paper which was apparently not adequately vetted and peer reviewed… and which then got treated as a groundbreaking study in Mass Hysteria, which remains a very tenuous diagnosis. Maruna documents another supposed case of “Mass Hysteria” in a London hospital in the 1990’s, which was then disproved as M.H. It turned out to be a chemical contamination of some sort. That’s the take-home message I got from this book: how much damage a widely-cited, poorly-written scientific article can cause. That, and how much a determined non-expert can piece together from a 59 year old unsolved case. Nice job, Mr. Maruna!Fun fact: Maruna includes information on which X-Files episode makes reference to the Mattoon Gasser!