Epidemics of Accusations

Medieval and Modern Witch Crazes

In the small town of Mattoon, Illinois, a woman says that a stranger entered her bedroom late at night on Thursday, August 31, 1944, and anesthetized her legs with a spray gas. She reported the incident the next day, claiming she was temporarily paralyzed. The Saturday edition of the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette ran the headline "ANESTHETIC PROWLER ON LOOSE." In the days to come, several other cases were reported. The newspaper covered these new incidents under the headline "MAD ANESTHETIST STRIKES AGALN." The perpetrator became known as the "Phantom Gasser of Mattoon." Soon cases were occurring all over Mattoon, the state police were brought in, husbands stood guard with loaded guns, and many firsthand sightings were recounted. In the course of thirteen days, a total of twenty-five cases were reported. After a fortnight, however, no one was caught, no chemical clues were discovered, the police spoke of "wild imaginations," and the newspapers began to characterize the story as a case of "mass hysteria" (see Johnson 1945; W. Smith 1994).

Where have we heard all this before? If this story sounds familiar, it might be because it has the same components as an alien abduction experience, only the paralysis is the work of a mad anesthetist rather than aliens. Strange things going bump in the night, interpreted in the context of the time and culture of the victims, whipped into a phenomenon through rumor and gossip—we are talking about modern versions of medieval witch crazes. Most people do not believe in witches anymore, and today no one is burned

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