Throughout 1942, residents of Pascagoula, Mississippi were terrorized by a “Phantom Barber.” He would break into homes late at night, but he wasn’t there to rob the home. Instead, he was there to give women and girls an unwanted, nocturnal haircut, leaving with nothing but a handful of hair.
In mid-June of that year, he chopped the hair off three little girls in the space of just one week. The first two girls to fall victim to the Phantom Barber were 11-year-old Mary Evelyn Briggs as 12-year-old Edna Marie Hydel. The two girls had been fast asleep in their bedroom at the convent of Our Lady of Victories, when somebody crept into the room and snipped off their hair.
Bloodhounds were called to the convent the next day, and they were able to follow the trail of the man to the edge of woodland, where it appeared he continued his quick getaway on a bicycle.1
The next victim was 6-year-old Carol Peattie. She had been awoken after sleeping next to her twin brother to find that somebody had cut off her blonde curls. Her parents would find a sandy footprint on an empty bed in the bedroom, presumably from the Phantom Barber.
All three girls reported that the Phantom Barber had not harmed them. One of the girls had awoken to see a man launching himself through her bedroom window. She described him as “short and fat.”
Police Chief A. W. Ezell said he could not understand what would motivation somebody to commit such a bizarre crime, but said that the complaints were coming in “hard and heavy.” In an attempt to try and identify the elusive barber, police would put forward a $300 reward that could lead to their capture. He also gave pistol permits to six volunteer officers and ordered the rest of his task force to remain on high alert.2
At the time, the Army had dim-out regulations which had allowed the Phantom Barber to move throughout the area without fear of being sighted. The Army would relax these regulations, in the hopes that the elusive barber could be apprehended.3
Police would put more patrols on the streets to try and nab the barber, and requested some assistance from the state police. Police Chief Ezell said in the media: “Not only that, just about every man in town is armed. I would advice strangers to proceed with caution.”
The reward fund would swell to $400, as the Ingalls Shipbuilding company, a local bank and a manufacturing company would put their own money towards the fund in the hopes that it could lead to the apprehensive of the Phantom Barber. Another $100 was added to the pot when Sheriff Guy Krebs of Jackson County joined in on the search after it was reported that the Phantom Barber had appeared in several other smaller towns and communities in the area.4
Pascagoula had a population of just 4,900 in 1940 but by 1942, that had increased to 14,000 due to war industries. Nevertheless, police speculated that the mysterious barber was a long-time resident and well acquainted with he layout of the town. He was able to meander through the town in the dead of the night without being seen.5
Before the month of June came to a close, the Phantom Barber took another victim’s hair. This time, the victim wasn’t a child but instead, a woman. Mrs. R. E. Taylor had been sleeping with her husband and two daughters when she had a vague recollection of “something passing over my face.” She said she woke up and felt ill and found that some of her hair had been snipped off. She said she believed that the Phantom Barber had used chloroform to keep her asleep while he cut off two and a half inches of her hair.6
The next day, it was announced that a man had been arrested in connection with the nocturnal haircuts. The area let out a collective sigh of relief. While the Phantom Barber had not harmed anybody, the notion that somebody could slip into your home undetected and chop off your hair was a terrifying one to the entire community. Many feared that the crimes of the Phantom Barber could have escalated.
In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Terrell Heidelberg had been attacked on the night of the 13th of June. They were both beaten with an iron pipe as they slept in bed. Mr. Heidelberg was beaten with such force that he lost a couple of his teeth.7 Police in the area theorised that the attacker was none other than the Phantom Barber. Others weren’t so sure; the modus operandi behind this attack and the earlier ones of the Phantom Barber were not remotely similar, other than creeping into a home late at night.
The relief wasn’t to last and police would determine that the man was not connected with the string of haircuts or the attack on the Heidelberg couple, and police were back to square one. Around the same time as the Phantom Barber break-ins, there had been a spate of other break-ins in the area. Late at night, somebody had been cutting screens and creeping into people’s homes through their windows, much like the Phantom Barber. However, instead of cutting somebody’s hair, this person would take clothing and strew it across the floor and then take dishes and chinaware and scatter them across the floor.
Some speculated that the Phantom Barber and this late-night intruder were the same person.
In late-July, police arrested 57-year-old William A. Dolan, a German-educated chemist, in connection with the Phantom Barber crimes. He was charged in connection with the attack on Heidlberg and his wife. Dolan had been arrested some months prior for trespassing and he had problems with Heidleberg’s father, who was the local magistrate. According to Police Chief Ezell, a quantity of human hair was discovered behind Dolan’s house.8
They theorised that Dolan had committed the Phantom Barber attacks “to impair the morale of war workers.” Some who knew Dolan said that he had expressed sympathy for Germany. He was charged with attempted murder.
Once again, the community let out a collective sigh of relief, believing that the late-night trimmings were done. However, after Dolan’s arrest, he professed his innocence on all charges. He would be ordered to stand trial for the attempted murder and would be found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison.
While the conviction answered some questions, one massive question still remained: Was William A. Dolan the Phantom Barber? While he was never convicted of the late-night haircuts, his name was forever associated with the Phantom Barber.
Ten years after his conviction, the case was reviewed and Mississippi Gov. Fielding Wright granted Dolan a limited suspension. In 1951, Dolan was released from prison. While the opinion on his guilt still remains very much divided, the case of the Phantom Barber still technically remains unsolved.
- The Newark Advocate, 19 June, 1942 – “Phantom Barber Sought as Convent Curl Clipper”
- The Columbus Telegram, 18 June, 1942 – “Phantom Barber Has Whole Town Guessing”
- The Rock Island Argus, 19 June, 1942 – “Relax Dim-Out To Help in Capturing Phantom Barber”
- The Commercial Appeal, 20 June, 1942 – “Rewards Spur Hunt for Phantom Barber”
- Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 20 June, 1942 – “Mississippi”
- The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 23 June, 1942 – “Phantom Barber Clips Fourth Victim, Asleep With Family”
- Sun Herald, 13 March, 2014 – “Phantom Barber Story is State’s Weirdest Thing”
- Metropolitan Pasadena Star-News, 14 August, 1942 – “Phantom Barber Shorn of His Trust by Arrest”