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Thursday, May 22, 2003 02:20 pm

Your Turn. . .5-22-03

Calling out to the Class of 1960

Dear editor,
I'm part of a group of women from Feitshans High School, Class of 1960, trying to start a girls night out with all of our old classmates. We have met four times so far, always at different restaurants around Springfield for dinner. This has given us a chance to talk over old times, catch up on what's new, and get to know each other in today's world. Two of us make calls every month trying to reach everyone on our school list to let them know of the dinner meeting. We are still missing a lot of women. From 7 to 13 show up for each of these dinners, and everyone seems to really enjoy getting together. We laugh, talk, and just delight in seeing each other again.

At our last dinner we voted on meeting the first Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m. in Vic's Pizza on Wabash. Our next dinner is June 3. Now that we are all grown and older we realize how short life really is and how important friendship is. Please consider mentioning our dinner meetings in Illinois Times. Feitshans' women can call me at 483-3840, or Alice Tratro (Stites) at 546-6511. We feel this might be a way to reach more of our class members and to also let other women know how much fun it is to meet old friends and to possibly set up something like this with their schoolmates of yesteryear.

Sincerely,
Margie Wright (Shull)

 

Reopening the case of the "mad gasser of Mattoon"

Dear editor,
Cinda Klickna's review of Scott Maruna's book The Mad Gasser of Mattoon (May 1-7) was positive, indicating that Maruna made "compelling arguments" and leaving the impression that the case is solved.

Not so. At first glance, Maruna's hypothesis--that the "Mad Gasser" was Farley Llewellyn and his two sisters, Florence and Katherine--is intriguing. But it is highly speculative. The thin evidence is unconvincing, and his ramblings about paranormal theories undermine his argument.

Maruna, a Jacksonville chemistry and physics teacher and a "scientific researcher of paranormal phenomena," as his book jacket proclaims, asserts that an antisocial misfit, Farley, a U. of I. chemistry student, used nitromethane on numerous people in Mattoon as his revenge against society and that his sisters took over when he became allegedly a suspect. They ended their spraying spree, according to Maruna, because the nitromethane degraded, one sister's high-heeled footprint was found, and Farley was shipped off to a mental hospital.

I question his assumptions and generalizations about the mad gasser, if there is indeed one.

Maruna assumes that Farley is the mad gasser for two reasons: a psychological profile points to him and because a "large proportion of Mattoon's current over-eighty population knew, and knows, that Farley was responsible for the gassings." First of all, he does not say who prepared this "profile." Was that the FBI? Police? Scott Maruna? Because psychological profiles are generally prepared by professionals before a criminal is caught, how do we know that this "profile" is not manipulated to fit the personality after the fact? Also, citing no statistics, how are we to know if the "over-eighty population" consists of 100 seniors, or two, or just one?

Maruna also assumes that Farley uses nitromethane. He cites no documentation. He assumes that Farley's sisters "covered" for him because of "high-heel prints outside a bedroom window." He cites no documentation. He assumes that a crowd showing physical symptoms was felled by an accidental spillage of nitromethane. Again, he cites no documentation.

His book is filled with unsubstantiated claims. He cites a bibliography but has no footnotes for references that could be checked. He also uses such phrases as "most now explain," "all who knew him" (twice), and "most of the town" (twice), but again cites no references for assertions.

In addition, Maruna's book is filled with dozens of misspellings (e.g., "doue" for "due" on page 43), punctuation errors, and grammatical mistakes. This copyediting sloppiness also undermines his arguments because it calls into question his attention to detail.

Maruna also is apparently unaware of the article that sociologist Robert E. Bartholomew and I wrote that was published in the July/August 2002 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Called "The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: How the Press Created an Imaginary Chemical Weapons Attack," we concluded from new research--much of it done at the State Historical Library in Springfield--that "The 'mad gasser' was triggered by a confluence of factors: sensational press coverage, ignorance of human perceptual fallibility and memory reconstruction, fear of Nazi poison attacks, an escaped Nazi in the city, and a robbery/crime wave."

In the article, we pointed out that a "gassing" was assumed by the unidentified Mattoon newspaper reporter. Neither Mrs. Kearney or her sister, who were quoted at length in the first newspaper article about the "attack," ever mentioned a prowler or gasser. When Mrs. Kearney's husband came home later, he said he saw a shadowy figure at the bedroom window. It was the reporter who put the two separate accounts together and, along with the headline writer, asserted that an "anesthetic prowler was on the loose."

Bartholomew, who also read the review and Maruna's book, has stated in correspondence with me: "To me, Maruna's writing is so off base and jumps to such wild conclusions, it's comparable to someone claiming that JFK was a space alien!"

To further show how the media contributed to the hysteria, I would argue, is to look at entertainment, namely the movies. There are many different names given to the "mad gasser." One name frequently cited in the newspapers for this bogeyman was "phantom." For example, the "phantom anesthetist" was used. The word "phantom" did not appear, however, in the headlines or text of the Champaign News-Gazette until Sept. 8, the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette until Sept. 9, and the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Herald-American until Sept. 11. What started playing at the Mattoon Theater on Sept. 6? It was Invisible Man's Revenge. Over the ad for the movie were the words, "The Phantom Shadow!"

Among Maruna's other paranormal references in his book was the one concerning a local psychic who claimed that an "ape-man" was the gasser. Yet another possible gasser! The September 16 issue of the Chicago Herald-American reported on it with the headline "Ape Man Clue at Mattoon." What movie was playing in Chicago at that time? It was The Hairy Ape, starring William Bendix and Susan Hayward. Was this a coincidence?

Maruna asserts that nitromethane does not affect the eyes. Although that may be correct, one cannot assume that this constitutes proof of the chemical used by the alleged "mad gasser." Also, if Farley's lab blew up just before the Mattoon incident, did he lose the alleged nitromethane? If so, how did he manage to make more of it in such a short time?

Mass hysteria, or psychogenic illness, thus remains as the most likely cause of the two-week incident in Mattoon in 1944, not Farley Llewellyn and his sisters. Until real, convincing scientific evidence is advanced, this family, like the one in the movie The Burbs, should be relegated to fiction.

Sincerely,
Bob Ladendorf
Springfield

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