Sandra Moncrief, author of “The Phantom Barber” discusses her theories of the man who terrorized residents of Pascagoula, Mississippi in the summer of 1942. Did police arrest the wrong man or did the Phantom Barber escape the city?
In 1942, cities and towns across America watched as men and boys left home to fight World War II. The country was at war and tensions were on the rise. But people across the country were also working hard and rallying to produce materials troops needed to win the war and bring their men and boys home safely.
Pascagoula, Mississippi was a small town that experienced growth quickly during World War II. The population increased by 15,000 people in two years. Pascagoula was busy with workers manufacturing warships, which was a crucial industry for a nation. In 1942, an unexpected threat brought tension and uncertainty to Pascagoula.
With the increasing population came an economic boost for local businesses, but it also meant the an uptick in crimes such as burglaries and brawls in local bars. Police were working hard to keep the peace and help calm down an already tense town.
Tension and an over worked police force seemed to be the perfect recipe for hysteria when the people of Pascagoula heard that there was a man wandering the streets, preying on women and girls. His crimes involved breaking into his victims homes, cutting their hair and in some cases committing acts of violence. The man became known as the Phantom Barber of Pascagoula.
The first attack happened on the night of June 5th, 1942. Mary Briggs and Edna Hydel had gone to bed in the comfort and peace of the Our Lady of Victories convent. In the middle of the night, a strange noise stirred the women from their peaceful sleep. They saw a man climbing out of their bedroom window. The women were unharmed but within minutes they noticed something very strange….a single lock of hair was missing from both of their heads.
Police were called and when they arrived on the scene they asked the girls to give a description of the man they had seen climbing out of the window. It had been dark and Mary Briggs told police that all she could say about the man was that he was sort of short, sort of far and was wearing a white sweatshirt. This left police with little evidence to investigate.
One week later, the man struck again, breaking into the home of David Peattie and shearing his daughter, Carol’s hair. Mr. and Mrs. Peattie noticed a bare footprint near the window of their daughter’s room. Once again, police had one small clue but not much to go on.
Days later, there was another attack and this time the Phantom Barber turned violent. The attacker broke into the home of Mr. and Mrs. ST Heidelberg and attacked them, beating them viciously with an iron bar.
That night, police brought in bloodhounds and deputized six men to try to pick up the scent of the attacker. The dogs leds the deputies to blood stained gloves in the woods near the Heidleberg’s home. But that was it. The hounds weren’t able to pick up the scent again. This led police to believe the Phantom Barber may have hidden a bicycle in the woods for a quick and easy way to make his escape.
The final attack of the Phantom Barber happened two weeks later when he broke into the home of Mrs. RR Taylor and cut a two inch lock of hair from her head. When police arrived on scene, Mrs. Taylor told them she didn’t get a good look at the man but she did report a sickening smell and something being pressed to her face. Authorities assumed the attacker must have used a chloroform rag.
Then, the unexpected happened. The attacks ended. After that night there was no further reports of attacks by the Phantom Barber.
Months passed but the people of Pascagoula continued to feel on edge. Residents were so cautious that wartime production was affected on the coast due to Ingalls Shipbuilding and the Jackson County Mills being unable to fill their night shifts. Their workers were staying home to protect their families. They lived in fear of the next attack by the Phantom Barber.
Police continued to investigate, trying to calm the city. Late in the summer of 1942, police arrested 57 year old William Dolan who they said was the Phantom Barber. Dolan was a German chemist with reported German sympathies. He allegedly held a grudge against the Heidelbergs.
Mr. Heidelberg’s father was a local judge who had refused to lower Dolan’s bail on a trespassing charge months before the Heidelbergs were attacked.
Dolan was charged with the attempted murder of the Heidelbergs, but the actions of prosecutors have left a question lingering for decades. Did police really catch the Phantom Barber?
Dolan was never charged with one of the Phantom Barber attacks. The FBI had been brought in to help with the case. They searched Dolan’s home and found human hair and said it belonged to Peattrie, one of the Barber’s victim. Years later, theories would rise that the hair had been planted, to ensure police could arrest someone and calm down the people of Pascagoula.
William Dolan denied he had any involvement in the attack on the Heidelbergs and insisted he was not the Phantom Barber. But after Dolan was arrested, no attacks ever happened again. As far as police and the public were concerned, The Phantom Barber had been arrested and the city was safe again.
William Dolan was found guilty of attempted murder of the Heidelberg’s and was sentence to 10 years in prison. Six years later, the governor of Mississippi, Fielding Wright, reviewed the case and ordered that Dolan take a lie detector test, which he passed. The governor set Dolan free in 1951.
Sandra Moncrief is the author of The Phantom Barber, a book she was inspired to write while she was working in finance and met a victim of the Phantom Barber.
Sandra was a young child in Pascagoula during the summer of 1942 and she remembers the fear that set in across town. Listen to this episode to hear Sandra’s theories around the case and what it was like growing up in Pascagoula at the time the Phantom Barber haunted the city.
Mississippi’s Phantom Barber of Pascagoula Mental Floss. 14 August 2014
Have You Ever Heard Of Mississippi’s Phantom Barber? Southern Living
Pascagoula’s ‘Phantom Barber’ represents Mississippi on Huffington Post’s list of weird things Gulf Live 13 March 2014
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Southern Man “Southern Man”