On July 5, 1942, two young girls living at the Our Lady of Victories convent in Pascagoula, Mississippi were shocked to see a man climbing out of their bedroom window. One of the girls later reported that she "saw the figure of a kinda short fat man bending over me with something shiny in his hand and he was fooling with my hair. When he saw me open my eyes, he said 'shhh'... I yelled ... He jumped out the window." Though neither of the girls were harmed in any way, they were astonished to discover that they were both missing a lock of hair.
Just a few days later, the mystery intruder struck again when he cut his way through a window screen and climbed into the bedroom of six-year-old Carol Peattie and her twin brother. In the morning, the parents of the children were horrified to discover that Carol was missing a lock of hair. Along with the broken window screen, the intruder had also left a sandy footprint on the floor of the bedroom. On July 13, just a week after the first incident, the intruder struck again. After cutting his way into the house of Mr. and Mrs. Terrell Heidelberg, he attacked the couple with an iron bar as they slept in their home. Both victims were knocked unconscious and several of Mrs. Heidelberg's teeth had been knocked out.
By this time, the entire town of Pascagoula was gripped by hysteria surrounding that "Phantom Barber" as he had been named by the press. While many newspapers focused on the more bizarre aspects of what was happening (one headline read ""DELILAH ON THE LOOSE IN MISSISSIPPI"), police were taking the attacks more seriously. Six men were deputized to be part of a police posse, along with bloodhounds, to investigate the latest incident. While the dogs eventually found a pair of bloodstained gloves in a nearby forest, that was as far as the investigators could follow the trail.
In the meantime, the "phantom barber panic" continued. Men armed themselves with rifles (this was Mississippi, after all) while women locked their doors carefully at night. But there would still be one more attack, this time at the home of Mrs. R.R. Taylor. In her statement to the police, she said that she was woken up by a "sickening smell which caused her to become violently ill." Police determined that the intruer had entered the house by cutting a window screen and, based on Mrs. Taylor's claim, used chloroform to knock her out so he could collect her hair.
Two more months passed without any more barber attacks though residents continued to lock their doors. Finally, in August 1942, Police Chief A. W. Ezell told the press that the case was solved. After an investigation in which he was aided by a detective from the Pinkerton Agency, Mirris Talley, Ezell declared that William A. Dolan, a 59-year-old chemist was the man behind the phantom barber reign of terror. According to newspaper accounts of the case, Dolan had received a degree in chemistry from Heidelberg University in Germany and had come to the U.S. to continue his education. After running a pharmacy in New Orleans for many years, he had sold his business and retired with his wife to live in Pascagoula. While a Harvard and M.I.T.-trained chemist must have seemed like an unlikely suspect, the police charged him with attempted murder for the attack on the Heidelbergs. His wife was even charged with obstruction of justice for her own presumed role in helping her husband carry out his scheme.
According to Chief Ezell and Detective Talley, Dolan had a police record from "coast to coast" with charges ranging from petty crimes to armed robbery. Also, a man living near Dolan reportedly found large quantities of human hair behind his house and, according to Ezell, some of that hair had been identified as belonging to Carol Peattie (your guess being as good as mind as how this was possible in an era before DNA testing). Also, a neighbour insisted that Dolan had asked for a ride in his truck to a location not far from the Heidelberg house on the night of the attack. An hour later, Dolan reported returned to the truck, which was still parked where Dolan had been dropped off, and said that there had "been some trouble." Another witness (who Ezell and Talley refused to name) reported seeing Dolan emerging out of the Heidelberg house on the night of the attack
As for his motive for stealing hair and attacking the Heidelbergs, Chief Ezell argued that Dolan had conducted his "one man reign of terror" to frighten local residents and weaken military morale. Since the U.S. had recently entered the war in Europe, Pascagoula's population had skyrocketed over the previous three years due to the military plants and shipyards in the area. This, according to Chief Ezell, made the town an important target for military saboteurs. To bolster their case against Dolan, the police collected statements from numerous witnesses who reported Dolan making numerous positive statements about Adolf Hitler and Nazism . The witnesses had gone on record as saying that Dolan had told that that, "Hitler is a good man" and that "Germans are better than Americans."
WhileWilliam Dolan emphatically denied being guilty, the case against him seemed solid enough to convince a jury. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison. While the sentence related exclusively to the attack on the Heidelbergs, the public was convinced that he had been the Phantom Barber and that the people of Pascagoula could breathe a little easier.
But not everyone was satisfied that justice had been done. After spending six years in jail, Dolan's lawyers managed to convince then-Governor Fielding Wright to review the case. He was then was asked to take a polygraph test which verifed that he was telling the truth about being innocent. After being granted a probationary suspended sentence, he was eventually set free and allowed to start a new business in Bay St. Louis. His later life wasn't particularly happy and he eventually left his family to wander the country as a vagrant. Dolan's wife eventually identified a body found floating in the Mississippi River as belonging to him and had it buried in the family plot. While there was some speculation that a vagrant later spotted in California was really Dolan, nothing more was ever heard of him.
Was William Dolan really the Phantom Barber? Or, for that matter, was there ever a Phantom Barber in the first place? Though the 1942 panic in Passagoula had all the earmarks of mass hysteria (aside from the attack on the Heidelbergs), the evidence used to convict Dolan was sketchy at best and raises serious questions about whether a miscarriage of justice took place. All that we can really say at this point is that the Phantom Barber of Pascagoula is in distinguished company with other famous media panics along with the Mad Gasser of Mattoon and Spring-Heeled Jack. Whether the Phantom Barber hysteria led to the conviction of an innocent man is something we will never know for sure.