Home » Episodes » Episode 72 – Denver, CO & Mattoon, IL (Cheesman Park & Mad Gasser)

First, read about Cheesman Park – a cemetery turned tourist attraction. Then learn about the Mad Gasser and decide if it is fact or fiction.

Story 1 – Cheesman Park

Speaking of super old things in Denver, we might take a stroll around Cheesman Park. This park has over 80 acres. It was established in 1890 and has fountains, walking trails, playgrounds, places to have picnics… Oh, and remember how I said it was “established” and not “it was built?” That’s because Cheesman park used to be Mount Prospect Cemetery. This park was straight-up converted… and some of the bodies are still there.

Mount Prospect Cemetery was built in 1858. It was 160 acres, and expanded from what is now Cheesman park to what is now the Denver Botanic Gardens. 40 of those acres were allocated to “Mount Calvary,” a place in which Catholics could be buried. 

The first man buried in Mount Prospect Cemetery was Abraham Kay. He died of lung infection and was buried on March 20, 1859. But as we know, Morbid Curious love a good story, so a lot of people think that the first person buried was a man hanged for murder. It’s not true, but it’s a better story. And it’s the story of the second man buried in the cemetery.

The second long-term resident of the cemetery was an immigrant from Hungary: John Stoefel. Allegedly, John came to Denver to settle a dispute with his brother-in-law. More likely, John came to take his brother-in-law’s gold, as he was a gold prospector. John Stoefel shot his brother-in-law and was hanged for murder. His body was dumped into the same grave as his brother-in-law at the edge of the cemetery.

This burial seemed to have sealed the cemetery’s fate, as the outermost edge began to fill with vagrants, criminals, paupers, etc. Residents of Denver started to give the cemetery nicknames, including “The Old Boneyard,” and “Boot Hill.”

In March of 1860, a gambler named Jack O’Neil got into a fight outside of a saloon with a man named Rooker. Jack suggested they settle this like men, you know, with a knife fight. Rooker was all, “I’m good bro,” so Jack started to talk shit, questioning Rooker’s heritage as well as that of his family members. Rooker retreated, but a couple of days later, Rooker blindsighted Jack O’Neil as he was coming out of the saloon by shooting him dead. The cemetery then gained the nickname “Jack O’Neil’s Ranch.”

For about a decade, the dead in this cemetery were left to rest in peace, though more “respectable” members of Denver’s society were buried elsewhere.

Then, in 1872, Congress declared Mount Prospect Cemetery was federal land. They were all “we got it fair and square from the Arapaho Tribe.” Nothing to see here, they definitely didn’t steal it or persuade anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do. And then Congress was all, “it’s cool, Denver. You can buy this land for $200, but it has to stay a cemetery. You promise, right?!?!” And Denver was all “cool cool cool cool.” So, in 1873, Denver renamed Mount Prospect to the incredibly original: Denver City Cemetery.

By the 1880s, the city of Denver revealed that it actually had been crossing its fingers when it made that deal with Congress. It turns out, not that many people were using the cemetery, and it was becoming quite the eyesore.

In 1881, there was a hospital for smallpox patients, but it was less of a hospital and more of a place in which people with smallpox went to die. The infected people were quarantined with others suffering from contagious diseases, as well as other sick people, old people, or people with handicaps. Eventually, these people would die and would be buried in mass graves.

Denver was flourishing at this point and they really wanted to make use of those 160 acres, so they started asking Congress if they could officially repurpose the land from cemetery land to park land. And, in January of 1890, Congress was all, “okay, Denver. For you.” Denver City Cemetery was renamed “Congress Park.” Families of people who were buried there were given just 90 days to relocate the bodies of their deceased loved ones.

Obviously, there was a lot of work to be done. In 1893, the city of Denver realized that they had to move approximately 5000 graves. E.P. McGovern, an undertaker, managed the project. Let’s just say he was someone who shouldn’t have had the power to manage anyone. Also, the government was not great. They decided to pay him $1.90 a head to relocate the graves. 

Turns out, this sounded like a good deal, but digging up bodies is a lot of work. As it turns out, he realized he could get paid 4x more for 1 body by using smaller coffins. E.P. McGovern was surrounded by scandal… including *allegedly* dismembering multiple corpses so they could be placed into child-sized coffins and relocated more easily. He apparently instructed his 18 employees to fill each coffin with different pieces of the same body… for example, one tiny coffin would have a skull. Another would have a leg, another would have bones from that person’s chest, and another one might just be filled with dirt.

With all of this sketchy business, E.P. McGovern was fired before all of the graves could be moved. Just to be very clear, this meant that all of the headstones were moved out of the park but all of the bodies were not. Like I alluded to before, a lot of the people buried in this cemetery were criminals or paupers, which made it easier for people to be sketchy. There weren’t great ways to contact relatives in the 1800s, and even still, it would be impossible to know who was related to any of the deceased.

In the early 1900s, the Mayor of Denver was Robert W. Speer… I didn’t look deeply into him but I’m guessing he did quite a bit for the city because “Speer” is a major street in Denver. He was a proponent of the “City Beautiful Movement.” He wanted to make Congress Park a beautiful place in which one could be haunted, but the city was short on funds. Which explains the tiny coffins. (Too soon)?

Mayor Speer started encouraging people to donate, and eventually, Walter Scott Cheesman died in 1907, at which time his widow and his children donated $100,000 for a pavilion. And alas, Cheesman Park was born.

As recently as 1950, Denver persuaded the Catholics to give Mount Calvary land to the city, so the Denver Botanic Garden was built onto this ground in 1966. Also in 1950, about 9,000 more bodies were discovered beneath the park and the gardens and subsequently moved.

Let’s jump forward to 2008. Construction workers were excavating at the Denver Botanic Gardens (within Cheesman), creating space for the new parking garage. Being mindful of their neighbors, the Botanic Gardens decided that 2 levels of said parking garage should be underground, as to not obstruct anyone’s view. As the workers were digging, they noticed splintered wood… and possible bones. 

Of course, construction stopped (but only until the next morning). The skeletons were moved, and I’m hoping no one got haunted.

In 2010, more construction workers found 4 well-preserved skeletons under Cheesman Park while digging out a new irrigation system. 

It is said that up to 2,000 bodies were never removed, and are still underneath the grounds at Cheesman Park. Contractors are warned that the park could be creepy, and there is a possibility of discovering dead bodies. Skeletons that are discovered get reburied in a different cemetery.

Workers have described the experience of finding bodies as “unsettling,” and upon reading that the first thought in my brain was “YOU FUCKING THINK?!?!?!” Some workers refuse to be in the park after the sun goes down.

Of course, there are a lot of people who think that Cheesman Park is haunted. Some people have reported cold spots. Others have sworn they’ve seen a singing woman or children playing who suddenly vanish. Still others have said that if you stand on the west steps of the pavilion on the night a full moon, you won’t see the park – but you’ll see the 19th century cemetery, headstones and all.

And that is the story of the Cemetery and the 2,000 bodies that still remain underneath Cheesman Park.

Story 2 – Mad Gasser

It starts in August 1944. Anxiety in Mattoon – and around the world – was high. World War II was raging and a lot of the “able-bodied” men from Mattoon were overseas fighting in the war. This had some major consequences in America.

Food, gas and clothing were rationed. Communities conducted scrap metal drives. To help build the armaments necessary to win the war, women found employment as electricians, welders and riveters in defense plants. And, other traditionally male workforces, like police departments, were lacking employees.

The lack of police presence had a major impact on this little town in Illinois during this strange stretch of time in 1944. It began on the night of August 31. A man named Urban Raef, a sheet-metal worker who had lost his brother in Normandy just a month early, woke up from his slumber feeling ill. He was queasy and felt dizzy… he nudged his wife who was asleep and when she woke up he asked her if she had maybe left the gas stove on? His wife attempted to get up and check but… she was unable to move her legs, like they were paralyzed.

The next night, just down the road, a young mother of two named Aline Kearney fell asleep next to her 3-year-old daughter. She was home alone with the kids because her husband had a taxi route that he ran at night, but on the nights that she was home alone her sister brought her son over and they stayed there, to keep everyone company.

Just like the man and woman from the night before, Aline had a strange, unsettling set of symptoms that night. But, Aline was a little bit more observant than the married company. She was laying there, when she suddenly noticed a sickening, sweet odor fill the bedroom. At the time she thought maybe it was the flowers outside the window but the odor got stronger and stronger and she started feeling paralysis in her legs and lower body.

Panicked, she screamed for her sister, who raced to open the bedroom window and let whatever gas had to be filling the room out. She looked around to see if she could see anything, but couldn’t. After a neighbor called the cops they alerted Mr. Kearney about what had happened – he of course sped home and when he pulled up he spotted a figure standing at the window peeking in. He tried to chase the man to catch him but the man go away. All that they knew was that now they had a description of person doing this… he was tall and dressed in dark clothing with a tightfitting cap.

That’s two nights in a row that people in the small town of Mattoon had experienced these strange symptoms.

The next day, Aline Kearney’s story ran on the front page of Mattoon’s Journal Gazette. The headline read “‘Anesthetic Prowler’ on Loose.” Kearney and her daughter were labeled as the prowler’s “first victims,” but as they all found out later, there had also been another case.

Here’s what the article said:

Night after night there were various sightings of men matching the prowler’s description reported to the police, but there wasn’t necessarily physical evidence. Until September 5. That night, around 10 p.m., Carl and Beulah Cordes returned home after a night out. They walked up to the front door and noticed a white cloth pressed against the screen. Without even thinking, Beulah grabbed the fabric and smelled it… because I know I smell every piece of fabric I find on the streets. Well, this was a mistake because Beulah started feeling sick immediately. Her legs gave out under her and she felt paralyzed. Her throat started burning and she started coughing so much that she coughed up blood!

A couple of other random clues popped up that night too. On the sidewalk next to the porch there was a skeleton key laying there next to a tube of lipstick. Super odd. Because the police force was so limited they had to call in reinforcements. First they called for assistance from the Illinois Department of Public Safety.

And without a doubt, this resulted in pure panic setting in across Mattoon. The “Anesthetic Prowler” quickly became known as the “Mad Gasser”. Don’t you have such a strong image of what this person looks like? Like, the Mad Hatter, but with a gas mask.  

Anywho! The people of Mattoon decided it was time to take action. Armed citizens took to the streets, organizing watches and patrols to try to stop future gasser attacks. Literal gangs of townspeople armed with shotguns and pistols were stalking the community at night. Even women started carrying bats and clubs whenever they left the house. Others started staying with friends instead of risking sleeping alone. Everyone was on high gasser alert.

But, despite all these efforts, attacks kept taking place, even getting more frequent! And now, the attacker was getting sloppy. He or she was leaving behind evidence like footprints and slicing window screens left and right!

One night the local vigilantes managed to arrest a suspect, but he passed the always accurate polygraph test and was released.

At this point, the big dogs (aka local businessmen) got involved. They announced that if the police didn’t start doing something more, the would hold a mass protest. Follow the money, baby. Once the businesses start saying they’re going to protest then it’s not ONLY an issue of public safety, but also a *gasp* political liability. 

By now, the editorial staff of the Journal Gazette is strongly criticizing the different city officials’ that were handling the case. They started writing that the police force was understaffed by half. Then the newspaper’s editorial board claimed that political infighting had hampered the investigations.

Despite this goading the gasser incidents continued and the police didn’t make much progress.

The next incident took place at the home of Mrs. Violet Driskell and her daughter, Ramona. They woke up late in the evening and heard someone removing the storm window on their bedroom window. Then they jumped out of bed and tried to run for help, but the fumes overcame them and they started vomiting. Next they claimed to see a man running away from the house.

A little while later that same night, the gasser sprayed fumes into the partially-opened window of a room where Mrs. Russell Bailey, Katherine Tuzzo, and Mrs. Genevieve Haskell and her young son were sleeping. They were trying to camp out together to protect themselves and it still happened!

That same night at another home, Miss Frances Smith, and her sister, were also overwhelmed with gas and got sick. They also mentioned the sweet odor – and they also took it one step further and mentioned a “thin, blue vapor” AND a buzzing noise coming from outside that they thought was the “spraying apparatus” of the gasser.

Pretty soon they had to call in the even bigger guns and called five squads of Illinois state police to come in and assist with patrols. Panic was still on the rise and the public opinion of the police department was on the DECLINE something fierce.

With public opinion of the investigation SO low the police chief C.E. Cole declared the case a “mistake from beginning to end” and pointed the finger of blame. (Side note: why do all these old school police chiefs and fire chiefs have these names like this “F. Lee Bailey” and “C. E. Cole” and J. Edgar Hoover. Ha!) Anyway, C.E. Cole pointed his fat little blame finger over at a place called Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Co. C.E. said that the police found large quantities of something called carbon tetrachloride being used at the plant. They said that it has an odor like that that was being reported. PS carbon tetrachloride is used to make refrigerants and propellants for aerosol cans, as a solvent for oils, fats, lacquers, varnishes, rubber waxes, and resins, and as a grain fumigant and a dry cleaning agent.

Anywho, they claimed that the wind was blowing this around and it was going into people’s homes. THAT’s what was happening. Not a Mad Gasser. Silly people.

Of course the officials over at Atlas were like HELLL NAW. They said the police had not even been to the plant so how could they have inspected it? And also their workers weren’t sick so….? And also how was the wind slashing windows and leaving footprints?

So, C.E. walked back his comments and instead began to just start dismissing reports of attacks and suggested that local residents were merely imagining things about the gasser. It was easier to claim that he never existed at all than to admit that no one could find him. New stories started appearing in the paper, where psychology experts opined that the women of Mattoon had dreamed up the “Gasser” as a desperate cry for attention. Probably because their husbands were overseas fighting in the war and they were damsels in major distress!

In fact.. this entire story is a bit of a trick because today it is quite commonly referenced as a case not of mass malice, but instead of mass hysteria. Like, this case has long been cited in college psychology classes as a perfect example of mass hysteria.

So, we did talk about mass hysteria in episode THREE way back forever ago when we talked about the dancing plague. But, for a quick refresher, here’s the scoop.

Mass hysteria is also described as a “conversion disorder,” in which a person has physiological symptoms affecting the nervous system in the absence of a physical cause of illness, and which may appear in reaction to psychological distress.

Because mass hysteria can take so many different forms, it is very difficult to provide a clear definition for it, or to characterize it with confidence.

To help with characterizing a phenomenon as an instance of mass hysteria, there are five principles to follow:

  • “is an outbreak of abnormal illness behavior that cannot be explained by physical disease”
  • “affects people who would not normally behave in this fashion”
  • “excludes symptoms deliberately provoked in groups gathered for that purpose.” Such as when someone intentionally gathers a group of people and convinces them that they are experiencing a symptom
  • “excludes collective manifestations used to obtain a state of satisfaction unavailable singly, such as fads, crazes, and riots”
  • “the link between the [individuals experiencing collective obsessional behavior] must not be coincidental,” meaning, for instance, that they are all part of the same close-knit community

So, was this mass hysteria. Well, as the Journal Gazette wrote, the entire community was looking for a culprit but no one could find one. There were no arrests, gasser attacks were slowing down and people were divided on whether or not the gasser existed. Eventually the State’s Attorney William Kidwell fully declared the Mad Gasser was mass hysteria fueled by the Journal Gazette reporter who had such a vivid imagination.

The last “Gasser” attack took place on September 13 (so all of this happened over the course of two weeks, by the way). Interestingly, the last incident was also the strangest. It occurred at the home of Mrs. Bertha Bench and her son, Orville. They described the attacker as being a woman dressed in man’s clothing and who sprayed gas into a bedroom window. The next morning, footprints that appeared to have been made by a woman’s high-heeled shoes were found in the dirt below the window. 

After this night, the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon” was never seen or heard from again.

So, in 1945, a University of Illinois psychology student Donald M. Johnson suggested the reason for the hysteria was that it was war time. The men were off fighting, residents were reading the war news from Europe and might have thought the Nazi’s were attempting a poisonous gasser attack in the heart of the U.S. – an area that was supposedly safe from attack.

So, as the American Psychological Association put it at the time, “One woman’s hysterical report of being gassed and paralyzed at night led to heightened suggestibility of many others.”

You just couldn’t trust women to legitimately report when a gasser had attacked them, evidently, since they were only ever doing it as a desperate ploy for male attention, explained American Hauntings Ink. That’s why whenever one woman reported that they were attacked, other women appeared to confirm that it happened to them as well.

The Illinois Times noted that the overrepresentation of female victims makes statistical sense. Owing to the war, there was a higher concentration of women to be victims, and nothing more ought to be read into it.

I will say, there were some that still thought it was a person. Some pointed to local resident and university student Farley Lewellyn who was studying chemistry. He was the town genius who could be found with “his nose buried in books” at his family’s grocery store. He also drank too much, kept a secret laboratory, and experimented with various chemicals. Once, an explosion from his lab rocked the neighborhood.

Lwellyn had been shunned by the small community for the suspicion of being a homosexual. Many suggested that the attacks were based on his “mental instability and pent up anger.” So there were people who were actually thinking it was a real person. But, to this day, no one has ever arrested for being the Mad Gasser.

AND, Scott Maruna, a high school chemistry and physics teacher in Jacksonville, actually wrote a book about this in 2003 and leaned into this theory about Lwellyn. His book was called The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: Dispelling the Hysteria (Swamp Gas Book Co., 2003).

Maruna’s 100-page book presents the facts surrounding the cases, the police investigations, and similar events in other cities across the United States.

In the end, he dismisses the 60-year-old claim of mass hysteria and points to Farley as the obvious chemical genius behind the gassings.

He claims that it was a fit brought on by mental instability and years of pent-up rage against a town that would not and could not accept him. So, he tinkered and toyed with various organic solvents in an attempt to create a weapon.”

Maruna even goes so far as to identify Farley’s chemical as tetrachlorethane, a chemical with all the properties to induce the symptoms reported in the gassings.

So, what do you think? Was it mass malice or mass hysteria?

We may never know…


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