Eighty years ago, it was the summer of 1942, and Pascagoula, like many other small towns across the country, was doing its part for the war effort.
Because of its coastal location, Pascagoula was a prime place to build warships at nearby Ingalls Shipyard. Soon the population of this sleepy town increased quickly from about 5,000 to 15,000 due to people moving in to work at the shipyard.
World War II had been ongoing for a few years. Times were tense and people were paranoid. The shipyard was considered a potential target of the enemy. People were distrustful of strangers and war propaganda had people thinking that anyone, even their neighbors, could be a spy.
The Army had instituted restrictions on the town because resources were at a premium. Blackout regulations were considered a security matter. The idea was that if everyone turned off their lights at night it would be more difficult for enemy forces to figure out where to bomb. Many people had blackout curtains so they could have their lights on at night.
So with all that going on you can imagine how unsettling it was when suddenly there were home invasions in which an intruder took locks of hair from the people whose homes he broke into, earning him the name “Phantom Barber.”
In early June, two young girls, Mary Evelyn Briggs and Edna Marie Hydel, who shared a room at the Our Lady of Victories convent, were the first known victims.
Young Briggs was the only one who actually got a look at the intruder and described him as “a kind of short, fat man.” She said she was awakened in the night and saw him bending over her with something shiny in his hand. He told her to “Shh” and was fooling with her hair. When she saw him she yelled, awakening Hydel, and they watched the man jump out the window.
Both girls were unharmed, but they were shocked to discover that each of them was missing a lock of hair.
It was discovered that the bedroom window screen had been cut. The next day, bloodhounds were brought to the convent and they followed the trail of the intruder, but lost the scent at the edge of the woods.
A few days later, the nighttime barber struck again.
This time he had crept into the room of six-year-old Carol Peattie who shared the room with her twin brother. After he had left, Carol had missing locks but her brother was untouched.
Again, the bedroom window screen had been cut, just like at the convent. Her parents found a sandy footprint on a bed in the bedroom.
Two incidents of midnight break-ins which resulted in hair cuttings led people to become nervous and cautious. Residents started nailing their windows shut since that seemed to be the way the phantom entered the homes.
And just what did this Phantom Barber want with the hair anyway? Was he a weirdo? Did he have a hair fetish? Or was it something more concerning, like was the hair being sent to Germany to be used as crosshairs in military guns and bombsights?
Not long afterwards, someone broke into the home of Terril and Lillian Heidelberg, also presumably from a cut window screen. But this time the couple didn’t have their hair snipped. The intruder attacked them with an iron pipe. The Heidelbergs were injured, but both survived. They said the attack happened so fast that neither one of them could describe their attacker.
It was believed that these crimes were related, but if that was so, how? Police theorized the attacker was the Phantom Barber, but others weren’t as sure as the modus operandi of the attack on the Heidelbergs and the earlier hair cuttings weren’t in any way similar.
The community was now on edge and in a panic as the attacks had escalated from the bizarre to the brutal. Who would be next? And if there was another attack would it be a haircut or a beating?
Whoever this midnight marauder was he didn’t stop with the Heidelbergs and struck again. This time, however, it wasn’t a child to undergo a non-consensual haircut.
Mrs. R.E. Taylor had been awakened by a sickening smell which made her violently ill. Once she recovered, she realized her hair had been cut. And while she was grateful for not being injured during this attack, she was upset at the loss of her hair because she had just gotten a permanent and now a very visible two inches was missing.
The sickening smell Mrs. Taylor refers to is thought to have been chloroform, and that led to suspicions that the criminal used it to keep the young girls from waking.
Only that’s not exactly true. The world of fiction has misled people into believing that to subdue someone with chloroform you just put it over someone’s mouth and they’re out like a light for a while. But that’s not how chloroform works. You have to keep it on someone’s mouth and they have to inhale it for several minutes to be knocked out.
So who knows what was used on Mrs. Taylor that made her so sick. But it didn’t seem to matter as the phantom remained at large, and the residents were on guard.
The blackout conditions provided an opportunity for the sneaky thief to carry out his mayhem under the cover of darkness. It also compelled the law-abiding citizens of Pascagoula into changing their routines.
Men refused to work the night shifts at Ingalls Shipyard stating they needed to be home to protect their families, and that had a direct impact on production for the war effort. Women refused to go out at night. People started applying for firearm permits. The police were at a loss and offered a $300 reward (about $5,379 in today’s money) for information.
Suspect Arrested and Trial
A couple months later in mid-August, a suspect was arrested.
William Dolan, a 57-year-old German-educated chemist, was arrested for the attack on the Heidelbergs. And after a search of Dolan’s house turned up a bundle of human hair and a couple pairs of barber scissors, he was tagged as being the Phantom Barber.
Dolan was charged with attempted murder on the Heidelbergs because he’d had a disagreement with Mr. Heidelberg’s father, who was a judge. Police theorized that Dolan’s disagreement with the judge was his motive for the assault on the Heidelbergs. They also believed that he committed the nocturnal hair cuttings to impair the morale of war workers.
The public was happy to see someone arrested and were finally able to sleep soundly knowing he was behind bars.
At trial, the jury took only three hours to find him guilty and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison at Parchman Prison.
Dolan had always maintained his innocence, and after about six years into his sentence, Governor Fielding Wright believed him to be innocent and decided to give him a polygraph test. Today polygraphs are inadmissible in court, but back then, they were still considered science and thought to be reliable.
Dolan passed the polygraph and he was released early on limited suspension in 1948.
In 1951, Governor Wright informed the State Penitentiary that in the three years since Dolan had been out of prison, he had been rehabilitated. He changed Dolan’s limited suspension to indefinite pending good behavior. Eventually, Dolan was pardoned by Wright’s successor, Governor Hugh White.
Once he was pardoned, Dolan and his family moved away from Pascagoula and settled in Waveland. But eventually Dolan became frustrated and he signed over everything he had to his wife and disappeared.
Three weeks after Dolan went missing, a body was found in the Mississippi River near Chalmette, Louisiana. Dolan’s wife and stepdaughter took some friends with them to go claim the body.
Even though there was no identification on the body, they all identified the body as being William Dolan. Mrs. Dolan was adamant it was her husband based on various scars and tattoos. She claimed the body and buried it in the Cedar Rest Cemetery in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in an unmarked grave, ignoring the fact that when she started to wash the clothes given to her by the mortuary they were too big to be her husband’s.
The Mystery Deepens
Interestingly, before Mrs. Dolan claimed the body, the dead man’s fingerprints were sent to the FBI for comparison with those taken from Dolan at Parchman Prison.
The prints didn’t match.
In April 1954, the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department received an inquiry from the FBI checking on the fingerprints of a man named William Dolan. The prints identified Dolan as having been arrested in Sacramento, California for vagrancy, but then released the next day. This William Dolan gave his age as 70, gave no next of kin, and never mentioned Mississippi.
So who was this guy?
Before he left Mississippi, Dolan had purchased an insurance policy and left it for his wife. Mrs. Dolan made a claim against the policy, however, after Dolan was arrested in California and questions arose about who was actually buried in Bay St. Louis, the insurance company refused to pay the claim. It wasn’t until a photo of the man arrested in California was compared with a known photo of Dolan that people realized the two men were one and the same.
They had buried the wrong man.
So what about the Phantom Barber? Who was he?
Even though Dolan was eventually pardoned, many believed he was indeed guilty. After all, he was German, he was an outsider, he was secretive about his life, and hair had been found at his home along with barber scissors. And, after his arrest, there were no more hair cuttings so it had to be him, right?
But who really knows? There are so many unanswered questions about this case. If it wasn’t Dolan, who was it?
Was it someone who got his kicks out of creeping into the homes of sleeping females snatching locks of their hair?
Was it someone who set up Dolan with the hair bundle and scissors for some nefarious reason?
Or maybe it was something more sinister, say an act of sabotage?
During the 1940s German U-Boats had been sighted in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pascagoula. That, along with the perpetual fear of Germany and what they might do on Mississippi soil so close to the shipyard was something no one wanted to consider. Perhaps the activities of the Phantom Barber were an attempt to scare residents into staying home and out of the shipyard, thereby halting the production of warships.
One thing remains for sure – the real Phantom Barber was never identified. It’s unlikely he’s still alive, but maybe he continued living out the rest of his life quietly in Pascagoula. The Phantom Barber will likely always remain a mystery.
*Unknown artist’s rendition of the Phantom Barber