✯ Mike's Site

What a gas

There are zillions of one-horse towns across the US, and most of them have a minor story worth going "huh, that's interesting" over. Mattoon, IL, (pronounced MATT-TOON with no obvious stress on either syllable, but certainly not muh-TOON) the hub of my maternal family side — a town that barely tops 15,000 people even today — has a couple that are way stranger than that.

The first of these is the country's original Burger King. The origin story was just that an ice cream stand called Frigid Queen (lovely...) needed a king when the owners expanded to fast food, and the logical choice was Burger King. In 1968 a court ruled that the more famous Burger King can't have a location within 20 miles of Mattoon, nor can the Original Burger King operate another restaurant outside the area. It's still there, and thriving as far as I know, at least to whatever extent a little burger shop can thrive in a tiny midwest town.

Perhaps more famous is the story of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon aka the Phantom Anesthetist, a 1940s incident that has over time become known as a textbook example of mass psychosis. Atlas Obscura has an interesting article on it. They posit that wartime situations and fears may have contributed to the weird hysteria that hung over the town like a fog. A chemical fog which of course did not actually exist. They make a good case.

Mattoon newspaper front page

Look at this newspaper from the time to get an idea of the national mood. Hopeful but war-weary and still afraid of phantom Nazi or Japanese enemies attacking while most of America's men are away. So what actually happened? We might never know if there was really an "Anesthetic Prowler" or if any of the attacks actually happened. But it's a creepy story and a fun one to have in the family.