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The Phantom Barber of Pascagoula

In 1942, as World War II raged and fear and paranoia among the general populace was rising, a bizarre series of break-ins occurred in the town of Pascagoula, Mississippi. The case was temporarily declared solved, but today it is disputed whether the convicted man was truly responsible, and what the perpetrator was even after in the first place.

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Stolen Locks

Mary Evelyn Briggs and Edna Marie Hydel awoke in their bedroom at Our Lady of Victories convent on the night of June 5, 1942 to the sight of a man climbing out of the window. Nothing was stolen other than a lock of each girl’s hair. Briggs would describe the mysterious intruder as “sorta short, sorta fat, and he was wearing a white sweatshirt,” but this description does not seem to have been sufficient in finding any leads.

A few days later, the home of the Peattie family was hit seemingly by the same person. As 6-year old Carol Peattie slept next to her twin brother David, an intruder cut some of her hair before exiting the house. It was later discovered that a cut had been made in a window screen, through which the intruder had entered. A sandy footprint was left behind, but like the description given by Briggs, this does not seem to have helped in finding leads.

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Escalation

The following Friday after the Peattie home invasion, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Terrell Heidelberg was hit, with a cut window screen again being used as the point of entry. But this time the intruder wasn’t simply after some hair.

The Heidelbergs were attacked with a heavy iron bar, knocking Terrell unconscious while his wife lost some of her front teeth. The attack occurred too fast for either of them to be able to provide a clear description of the perpetrator.

The final incident attributed to this individual occurred a few days later against Mrs. R.E. Taylor. She was woken by “something with a sickening smell,” and then her next memory was of waking up again and being ill.

Afterwards, it was discovered that Taylor’s attacker had entered through a cut window screen, used a chloroform rag on her, and then stole a lock of hair.

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The Investigation

Local news outlets dubbed the perpetrator of these incidents the “Phantom Barber” and both residents and police in Pascagoula took this mysterious phantom very seriously. It was assumed the same man was responsible for all of these incidents — a newspaper at the time reported that at least ten homes were hit — and police were offering a $300 reward for any information that might lead to capturing him.

After the assault on the Heidelbergs, six men were deputized by the police and bloodhounds were brought in to help with the investigation. The bloodhounds were able to briefly follow a trail, but they hit a dead end in some nearby woods when they discovered a pair of blood-stained gloves. Police speculated that the Phantom Barber might have stashed a bicycle in this location in order to make a fast getaway.

In the meantime, the residents of Pascagoula were living in fear. Sandra Moncrief, who was a young child in 1942, recalled, “My dad worked at the shipyard, and he made this big, old, iron Billy stick, and they would take turns sitting up around the clock because the story was [the Phantom Barber] was cutting the hair off of blond children, and I had blond hair.”

Police Chief A.W. Ezell even enlisted the aid of Mirris Talley, a detective with the Pinkerton Agency, and two months after the final attack, it was announced that the Phantom Barber had been captured.

William Dolan, his wife Lucy, and attorney Howard McDonnell

William Dolan, his wife Lucy, and attorney Howard McDonnell

The Suspect

The man in custody was 57-year old German-born chemist William Dolan. Before coming to the United States, Dolan obtained a degree in chemistry. He ran a pharmacy in New Orleans for several years before selling it and retiring with his wife in Pascagoula.

According to Ezell and Talley, Dolan had a “coast to coast” record of charges prior to his settling in Pascagoula. In addition, there were multiple witness accounts that placed him at the scene of the assault on the Heidelbergs. One neighbor claimed that Dolan had asked for a ride to a place not far from the Heidelberg home, and that an hour later he had returned to that neighbor’s truck saying that some trouble had occurred. Another witness that went unnamed by Ezell and Talley reported that they had seen Dolan come out of the Heidelberg house that night the couple was attacked.

Perhaps most damning of all, police claimed that a bundle of hair had been found either in Dolan’s house or in the yard behind it. Somehow, it was determined that some of this hair belonged to Carol Peattie.

As to a motive, Ezell and Talley had answers for that as well. Allegedly, Dolan had a grudge against Terrell Heidelberg’s father, a judge who had refused to lower Dolan’s bail in regards to an unrelated trespassing charge several months prior to the Phantom Barber incidents.

However, this would only explain the attack on the Heidelbergs, and not any of the other break-ins attributed to the Phantom Barber. Not to worry, naturally Ezell and Talley had an explanation.

Ezell suggested Dolan’s motive was to scare locals and weaken morale. This idea came from the fact that many shipyards and manufacturing plants used for military production were in the area, and to Ezell, this meant that Pascagoula was a valuable military target. Add to this that the German-born Dolan was alleged by multiple witnesses to have made positive statements about Hitler and the Nazis, and Ezell had a case for a German plot against the town.

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Aftermath

Unsurprisingly, Dolan claimed he was innocent. Also unsurprisingly, he was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison. However, he was only charged with attempted murder in the case of the Heidelberg assault, and no charges were ever brought against him in regards to the other Phantom Barber incidents.

This didn’t stop the town and local news outlets from proclaiming that the Phantom Barber had been caught. And since there were no more incidents attributed to the Phantom Barber in Pascagoula after Dolan was in prison, most people assumed that police had caught the right man.

But while it seems like there was a decent case for Dolan being the perpetrator in the attack on the Heidelbergs, there doesn’t seem to have been much to tie him to the other break-ins.

The Heidelberg assault didn’t really have much in common with the other incidents attributed to the Phantom Barber. It was far more violent, and clearly motivated by something outside of the theft of some hair. Most who examine the case today seem to come to the conclusion that while Dolan might have been guilty of the attempted murder he was put in prison for, he was likely used as a scapegoat and framed for the other Phantom Barber incidents.

Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright was moved to reexamine Dolan’s case six years later, and administered a lie detector test to him, which Dolan apparently passed. Dolan was given a limited suspended sentence and then set free in 1951, all of which seems to suggest that there might have been doubt even in the case of the crime for which Dolan went to prison.

So was William Dolan the Phantom Barber? It doesn’t seem likely, and the truth of this bizarre case will probably never be known with any certainty.