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Blasts from the Past – The News that Time Forgot
The Phantom Barber of Pascagoula

The strange history of a Mississippi town - an old legend of disappearance, a UFO abduction tale, and a case of hair fetishism that terrified factory workers during World War II.

Phantom Barber


The fortean claims to fame of the Mississippi town of Pascagoula rest on two things. There is the legend of the Pascagoula River, or Singing River, so named due to a peculiar sound that rises up out of its waters from time to time. The residents of Pascagoula thought the river was haunted and even sent a letter to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle asking him to investigate it. [1] The other major anomalous event is the famous UFO abduct­ion of Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker in 1973, during a night fishing trip to the river. But this was not the first abduction to have occurred there.

In 1885, a newspaper recounted the already fading legend of a mermaid sighting in Singing River and her abduction of a whole tribe of Native Americans who were never seen again. “Many years ago,” the newspaper wrote, “there lived by the side of the stream a race of Indians… A great temple stood in the midst of their wigwams, roughly erected of stone and sand, overhung with moss and wild vines. In the centre of this was a beautifully carved statue of the sea maiden around which they dance and sing in great numbers at stated times.”

A priest tried to convert them to Christianity. His work went well until “a most unexpected event” occurred. “One night, when the Moon was at her zenith and the whole world was bathed in silvery light, there was a fluttering upon the water, as if the still air had been flapped into a whirlwind by myriads of invisible wings sweeping overhead. The placid water was convulsed, and rolled from bank to bank in rapid oscillations, and as it heaved, a groan was heard to issue from its depths. Suddenly, it formed itself into a pyramid, or water-spout, and afterwards into a tower of foaming, boiling waves, in the very midst of which appeared the mermaid. Singing with a voice that fascinated by its sweetness, she gazed down upon the world beneath her. The Indians and the priest rushed to the river bank to contemplate the strange spectacle. When the mermaid beheld them, she turned her voice to still more ravishing sweetness, and beckoning them with her white hand, she chanted: ‘Come to me, come to me, Ye children of the sea! Neither bell, book nor cross, Shall win ye from your Queen.’”

Under the spell of the chanting, “at last one of them plunged into the water, and was seen no more; another and another followed in quick succ­ession, and finally all – men, women and children – followed and were lost in the depths below. As the last one disapp­eared, a wild laugh of exult­ation arose from the foamy tower, and the sea maiden sank into the green mist beneath. The towering column fell down with a terrific explosion, and the river returned to its bed once more.”

The newspaper further explained that when music was heard at rare intervals floating over the river, “[I]t is the voices of their brethren celebrating their deliverance in the palace of the mermaid.” [2]

In between the legend of the mermaid of the singing river and the abduct­ion of the two fishermen by wrinkled and clawed aliens, we find another anomalous series of events: Pascagoula’s Phantom Barber scare of 1942.

In 1942, the population of Pascagoula, formerly a sleepy little town, had swelled in just two years to some 15,000, mostly employed in the rapidly expanding production of warships. The town also suff­ered from what one newspaper termed “the new crime wave” or, as it added, “perhaps crime hair wave would be a better phrase, as hair seems to be the marauder’s sole objective. Pending his capture and positive identification, he has been nicknamed ‘The Phantom Barber’, the supposition being that only a barber gone berserk would risk his life for such loot.”

The Phantom Barber had struck one night in early June of that year, cutting the hair of little Mary Evelyn Briggs and Edna Marie Hydel while they lay asleep in their bedroom at the convent of Our Lady of Victories.

“Everybody in town today was just as mystified over the motive of the ‘phantom barber’ as they were about who he might try to clip next.

“Without robbing or otherwise disturbing his victims, he breaks into homes at night and snips the hair of heavy sleepers. He has given haircuts to three persons in the past week and not one of them even woke up during the process.”

The local Police Chief confessed he didn’t have the slightest clue as to motive, but the complaints were such that he announced a 0 reward and gave pistol permits to six volunteer officers. [3]

The town was in a state of terror, with bloodhounds sent in and the Army even modifying its blackout regulations “to help the people… capture the phantom barber”. 4 According to one newspaper, a pattern had established itself: the Phantom Barber only struck on Mondays and Fridays at midnight – breaking this habit only once – and gained entry by slitting the window screens:

“Thus, on the Friday following the Monday when he had raided the convent of Our Lady of Vict­ories, he struck again, this time at the home of David G Peattie on one of the town’s principal residential streets. Mrs Peattie was in the hospital at the time, a Mrs Walter Henshaw and her husband being on hand to look after the 6-year-old Peattie twins, David and Carol, a girl. Hearing a noise in the children’s room late at night, Mrs Henshaw woke her husband and together they went to investigate. At first glance all seemed as usual; both children were sound asleep.

“Then Mrs Henshaw noticed the print of a man’s bare foot etched in sand on the white counterpane of the vacant bed by the window. Awakened, Carol sat bolt upright, feeling for the blond locks that ordinarily swept her shoulders. “Why – why!” she stutt­ered, looking dazedly around her. “Where’s my hair?”

The following Friday night, it was the turn of Mr and Mrs ST Heidelberg, son and daughter-in-law of Pascagoula’s city judge. After slitting a window screen, a man entered the bedroom where the young couple was sleeping.

“The mode of entry sugg­ests that it may have been the barber. But from that point on, the events were not characteristic of him. Instead of hair, Mrs. Heidelberg lost a couple of front teeth, knocked out, before she could scream, by a blow with a solid iron bar. The same bar, applied to Mr Heidel­berg’s skull, prevented any outcry from him. It all happ­ened so quickly that the victims were unable even to describe their attacker.

“It was after this foray that the aroused townsfolk and police imported the bloodhounds. The dogs picked up a man’s trail under a window of the Heidelberg house and led a posse to a pair of bloodstained gloves, discarded in the nearby woods. They lost the scent a little farther on in a clump of underbrush, where, it was supposed, the fugitive had mounted a bicycle.

“The final ‘incident’ occurred on a Sunday night two weeks later. And this time there was no doubt who was responsible for it, for the loot was once more hair – a two-inch-long grey curl from the head of Mrs RR Taylor. ‘I was aroused by a noise about midnight,’ she told the police. ‘Then I have a faint recollection of something passing over my face, something with a sickening smell. I woke up later, violently ill.’ The generally accepted interpretation was that, after cutting the screen of the window beside which she was sleeping, the thief had simply leaned in, passed a handkerchief soaked in chloroform under Mrs Taylor’s nose, and snipped off one of her locks.” [5]

This is a curious and signific­ant detail, as it is reminiscent of the Botetourt County, Virginia, Gasser case of 1933 and 1934, and foreshadows the 1944 events in Mattoon, Illinois when that town was gripped by a ‘mad gasser’ panic.

Two months later, in August, Police Chief Ezell announced the capture of the Phantom Barber who had broken into “at least 10 homes”. The suspect was one William A Dolan, a 57-year-old German chemist who was born in America but had received his education in Germany. He was charged with the attempted murder of the Heidelbergs. Apparently Dolan had been arrested some months previously for trespassing, and held a grudge against Mr Heidel­berg’s father, the local magistrate, who had refused to lower his bail. There was general agreement that the Heidelberg assault was out of character for the Phantom Barber, but Chief Ezell stated that a quantity of human hair had been found behind Dolan’s house; the FBI had identified some of it as belonging to Carol Peattie, one of the Barber’s victims. More­over, one of the prevalent theor­ies developed during the scare (which included the idea that the hair was stolen for “back country ‘hex’ ceremonies”) was that the Phantom Barber was a Fifth Columnist, working to collect hair to be used in making Axis bombsights. And there were several Pascagoulans who had signed statements that Dolan had expressed his sym­pathy for Germany. Ezell thought so too: he stated that Dolan’s chief objective had been to “impair the morale of the war workers”. [6]

There are no reports of any further attacks by Pascagoula’s Phantom Barber after Dolan’s arrest. He was sentenced to a prison term of 10 years for the attack on the Heidelbergs. Although the press made no mention of the deeds of the Phantom Barber, by now Dolan’s name was inextricably intertwined with the phantom’s escapades. [7]

Six years later, in 1948, Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright was reviewing the case, having listened to witnesses for and against Dolan. After having given Dolan a lie-detector test, he granted him a limited suspension. [8]  In 1951, Wright set Dolan free. The latter sett­led in Bay St Louis, where he ran a small shop and faded into history. [9]

So was Dolan was the Phantom Barber? He was never convicted of the hair clipping attacks, although he might have attacked the Heidelbergs. Dolan himself, according to one newspaper, “stubbornly contended that he was innocent”. Although several newspapers stated that the Phantom Barber was never seen, there never­the­less was one vague description by little Mary Evelyn Briggs: “He was sorta short,” she said, “sorta fat, and he was wearing a white sweat shirt.” [10]  Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any physical descript­ion of William Dolan. Neither did I find any mention of that barefoot imprint having been compared to his.

On the other hand, taking into account what must presumably have been favourable results of the lie detector test, Dolan’s own statement and the out-of-character assault on the Heidelbergs, we might conclude that the old chemist was not the phantom hair clipper at all. Perhaps his unwisely expressed sympathies for Germany at a time when America was at war made him an easy target to quell any panic in a rapidly expanding community with its own social tensions in the midst of a world war and thus with other, pressing priorities. The only connection between Dolan and the Phantom Barber is that clump of human hair allegedly found behind his house. But why would an obsessive phantom hair-clipper carelessly leave his most prized trophies there instead of gloating over them in some secret recess, knowing that this incriminating evidence might be found? Or was someone with a grudge performing a hex ceremony on the unsuspecting Dolan, or simply setting him up? But if Dolan wasn’t really the Phantom Barber of Pascagoula – then who was?

1 “This Fish Sings While He Waits For The Bait”, The La Crosse Tribune And Leader-Press, La Crosse, Wisconsin, 18 Aug 1925.
2 “An Interesting Indian Legend”, Iowa State Reporter, Waterloo, Iowa, 2 April 1885.
3 “Phantom Barber Clips His Victims While They Sleep”, Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, 18 June 1942.
4 “Army Suspends Dim-out to baffle ‘Phantom Barber’”, Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Wisconsin, 19 June 1942.
5 “‘Phantom Barber’ Clips Fourth Victim, Asleep With Family”, Brooklyn Eagle, Brooklyn, New York, 23 June 1942; “Steals Their Hair While They Sleep. Strange Exploits Of The Phantom Barber”, San Antonio Light, San Antonio, Texas, 30 Aug 1942.
6 “Mississippi’s Bizarre Mystery of ‘Phantom Barber’ Believed Solved”, Corpus Christi Times, Corpus Christi, Texas, 14 Aug 1942; “‘Phantom Barber’ Caught After Intensive Search”, Marysville Tribune, Marysville, Ohio, 14 Aug 1942; “Phantom Barber Attempted to Impair War Workers’ Morale”, Mason City Globe-Gazette, Mason City, Iowa, 14 Aug 1942; “Hinders Morale By Cutt­ing Hair”, Middles­boro Daily News, Middlesboro, Kentucky, 14 Aug 1942.
7 “‘Phantom Barber’ Gets 10-Year Prison Term”, The News-Palladium, Benton Harbor, Michigan; “William A. Dolan Gets 10 Years As ‘Phantom Barber’”, The Delta Demo­crat-Times, Greenville, Mississippi; “Phantom Barber Gets 10-Year Term”, Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, all 19 Nov 1942.
8 “Wright May Pardon ‘Phantom Barber’”, The Delta Democrat-Times, 2 May 1948.
9 “Phantom Barber Given Freedom”, The Delta Democrat-Times, 20 May 1951.
10 “Steals Their Hair While They Sleep. Strange Exploits Of The Phantom Barber”, San Antonio Light, 30 Aug 1942.


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