Four Serial Criminals Who Didn’t Really Exist

When a crime spree is a figment of a whole town or country’s imagination
Four Serial Criminals Who Didn’t Really Exist

A serial killer (or attempted killer or burglar or whatever) on the loose can panic a community, frightening residents into such drastic acts as locking themselves in their homes or starting podcasts. Obviously, you should secure your home before bed if there’s a Night Stalker prowling around, but some of those people no doubt felt a little silly in cases where it turned out there never was any serial criminal at all. Such as…

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

“The Mad Gasser of Mattoon” sounds like a rejected Superman villain, and that’s basically what “he” was. He was blamed for a series of alleged attacks that occurred in the late summer of 1944 in Mattoon, Illinois, all of whose victims described smelling a strange odor and then experiencing sudden paralysis, nausea and vomiting, and coughing fits. One of the first so-called attacks was described breathlessly by the local newspaper as the work of an “anesthetic prowler” of whom a woman and her daughter were simply the “first victims,” and for the next two weeks, reports of similar incidents poured in. One woman was creatively gassed when she found a scrap of fabric sitting on her porch and made the unhinged decision to stick her face in it.

Except the state crime lab couldn’t find any trace of toxic chemicals on the fabric. In fact, there was no evidence of any attacks outside of sightings of vaguely suspicious figures near the crime scenes and a key and a tube of lipstick on the sidewalk near another (also known as street trash). When the local police started threatening to arrest people who made reports without agreeing to a medical exam, those reports mysteriously dried up.

Experts have cited, with varying plausibility, potential pollution from nearby chemical plants, sleep paralysis (it’s more common than you think!) combined with the smell of late summer middle-of-nowhere Illinois drifting through open windows, and plain old mass hysteria to explain the experiences of the victims of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon. The case for the only suspect seriously suggested by researchers basically amounts to “There was a weird guy in town,” and if every Town Weird Guy got blamed for everyone’s sleep paralysis, America’s small towns would be a lot less colorful.

Spring-Heeled Jack

U.K. readers are no doubt puzzled by this subheading because Spring-Heeled Jack is kind of like Bigfoot over there. Of course, he’s not real. But like Bigfoot, the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack began with what was presumably earnest confusion. It started in 1837 London with reports of a series of attacks in which a man described as looking like a bull, ghost or devil used metal claws to slash women’s clothes before leaping away to supernatural heights, hence the nickname.

These initial attacks may have been real, if deeply exaggerated. Officials suspected at the time that they were the work of a group of wealthy men dressing up and having some lightly criminal fun, like a reverse Batman, but he might have been a complete hoax perpetrated by women who didn’t want to explain their disheveled appearance. This was Victorian London, though, which meant newspapers could print whatever they liked, so the shadier ones staunchly ignored such theories in favor of whatever would sell copies of the paper.

Within a year, as credible reports dwindled, Spring-Heeled Jack became a true supervillain, earning additional magical powers like fire breathing and popping up in pulp stories. The last official alleged sighting was almost 70 years after the first, an impressive duration for a career based on agility.

The Kosovo Student ‘Poisoning’

In 1990, the Albanian and Slavic populations of Kosovo weren’t exactly sharing a lunch table. In fact, they literally weren’t sharing any school space, because early in the year, the schools were segregated, with Slavs attending in the mornings and Albanians in the afternoon. Tensions were obviously high, which probably didn’t help when a few Albanian students came down with a mysterious illness that caused fainting, vomiting and convulsions. Immediately, that number grew from a few to a few hundred, and within a year, to a few thousand. The Albanian community suspected poisoning by Slavic Kosovars.

There was just one little problem: Independent commissions never found any evidence of poisoning. Foreign experts have repeatedly attributed the “mysterious illness” to mass hysteria brought on by political tensions that caused panic when combined with a handful of sick kids. It’s important to note that this is an extremely contentious finding among Kosovar Albanians and Slavs, the former of whom still believe they were poisoned and the latter of whom have called the whole thing a false flag operation. The Wikipedia talk page is a mess

So for the record, we believe whatever you believe, Kosovar reader.

The Halifax Slasher

For about two weeks in November 1938, the English town of Halifax was rocked by reports of some guy going around attacking people with razor blades for no apparent reason. He didn’t seem to be trying to kill them, as it was kind of a “drive-by slashing” situation, and the victims — all 12 of them — appeared to be completely random. With so little to go on, the town became a collection of vigilante groups, so thirsty for blood that they tried to lynch a guy who’d just showed up to help. “Any man who seemed to be out of place or appeared odd was in danger of being beaten up,” the local newspaper said, which would have included all of us.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you know what’s coming: The “Halifax Slasher,” as he was nicknamed, didn’t exist. Every one of the supposed victims made it up, going so far as to slash themselves. Their reasons are murky — a young woman explained that she’d just had a fight with her boyfriend, clearing nothing up — but four of them ended up doing prison time for their false reports. Ironically, in the invention of a fake criminal, they’d created several real ones.

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