The shadows and dark corners of our surroundings have always provoked fear and caused our imaginations to go wild. What might lurk within those blackened recesses hidden from our vision? What might be watching us from that inky soup of dark? In most instances this is simply what it is; the ramblings of a frightened mind. Yet, throughout history there have been strange phantoms that have called these shadows home and which have sprung forth to lash out at us and prove that our fears of the dark are not always totally unfounded. Many of these attacks by phantom assailants have gone on to propel themselves firmly into the annals of cases of strangeness that have never been satisfactorily solved, and which brush up close to the realms of the truly bizarre, toeing the line between what we know, what we don’t, and perhaps what we don’t want to. These are the oddest shadowy prowlers, phantoms, and strange intruders which have sprung out to show us that our fear of the dark might not always be a figment of our fevered mind, and that sometimes dangerous things do go bump in the night.
One of the most famous and notorious phantom prowlers made its presence known in 1944, in the sleepy midwestern town of Mattoon, Illinois, in the United States. This was during the days of World War II, when the country was embroiled in one of the bloodiest wars in history, and even in the homeland, far from the chaotic battlefields, most people were on on edge and on high alert, the ever looming specter of an enemy attack on home soil casting an oppressive shadow over everything. After all, it had already happened with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a relentless campaign of German U-Boat attacks off the eastern seaboard. There was also the persistent rumor that the desperate Axis powers might resort to mass attacks of chemical weapons on American soil. It was in this atmosphere of paranoia and burrowing fear that in late August, 1944, a new threat began to stalk the normally quiet town of Mattoon.
The first attack by what would go on to be known as The Mad Gasser of Mattoon allegedly occurred on the evening of August 31, 1944, when a man named Urban Raef claimed that he had been awakened during the night by a noxious odor in his room that had caused severe vomiting, shortness of breath, and general weakness all over his body. His wife had also been paralyzed by the pungent odor, unable to get her body to respond enough to even get out of bed to see if perhaps the stove gas had been left on. On that very same evening, a similar incident happened when a small girl fell ill from some strange smell, which had caused a severe coughing fit, yet the mother found that she had been paralyzed and unable to get out of bed to check on her ailing daughter.
The next day, on September 1, 1944, there would come what is perhaps the most well-known case. On this evening, a Mrs. Kearney was reportedly sleeping near a window with her youngest daughter as her her other two daughters, her sister, and her nephew slept in other rooms when she smelled a potent, sweet smell. The woman at first suspected it was merely the smell of summer flowers wafting in from outside, but the odor became steadily stronger until it was nearly overpowering, and she felt her body growing weak under its staggering might. As her legs threatened to buckle underneath her, Mrs. Kearney called out to her sister for help, who came into the room and was immediately hit by the potent sweet smell pervading the air. Fearful that it was some sort of gas attack, the sister ran to a neighbor’s home and had them call the authorities, yet when they arrived they could find no evidence of the alleged gas nor any prowler. Mrs. Kearney and her daughter are reported to have recovered from the effects of the “gas” shortly after the attack, although Mrs. Kearney continued to complain of a burning sensation in her throat.
When Mr. Kearney returned home not long after from his job as a taxi driver, he claimed that he saw a strange figure lurking outside his wife’s bedroom window. According to Mr. Kearney, it seemed to be a tall, thin man dressed in dark clothing and “a tight fitting cap,” and this odd trespasser had allegedly fled the scene into the night. Although Mr. Kearney chased the intruder, he was unable to catch whoever it was that had been skulking about, and he called police, who once again returned to search the property to no avail. The best explanation police could come up with was that it had perhaps been a would be robber attempting to steal something and being thwarted.
Although it was still unclear at this point just what was going on, the media went with the strange story with sensationalistic aplomb, splashing ominous headlines across papers that said things like “Anesthetic Prowler on the Loose!” In the midst of this media frenzy, more reports came forward in the following days from people who had apparently been assailed by the same mysterious intruder, with the description of a tall man dressed in dark clothes and cap remaining consistent across the board. Some reports made mention of the attacker carrying what is known as a “flit gun,” which is an apparatus used for spraying pesticide. The smell of the gas itself ranged from a flowery sweet smell, to an odor like perfume, to an unpleasant, musky scent. The symptoms varied as well. In most of these cases, the victims complained of a sickly odor and numerous negative physical effects including nausea, weakness, throat, lip, and eye irritation, swelling, muscle spasms, and partial paralysis, yet authorities were never able to find any evidence of an intruder or of anything broken or stolen in the targeted homes. However, in one of these cases, the mysterious phantom attacker finally left behind some evidence.
On September 5, at around 10PM, a Carl and Beulah Cordes returned home to find a strange white cloth lying upon their porch near a screen door. Mrs. Cordes allegedly picked up the cloth and noticed an odd odor emanating from it. When she held it briefly to her nose to give it a whiff, she promptly began to vomit uncontrollably as her face began to swell up and her throat began to burn as if it were on fire. At the same time, her legs wobbled and she felt as if she had no control over her limbs. She was taken to a hospital and these symptoms lasted for several hours afterwards. When the police arrived at the home they were able to find a well-worn key lying upon the sidewalk nearby, as well as a nearly empty tube of lipstick, although it is unclear what relation these two items have to the cloth, if any. An analysis of the cloth found no sign of chemicals on it, but Mrs. Cordes was adamant that there had been, and she was convinced it had been left out to knock out their dog in order to gain entry into the house. Although a man was found wandering about near the home around the time of the incident who told police that he was lost, he was soon ruled out as a potential suspect and set free.
For the next week similar reports would pour in of people being purportedly attacked by some sort of mysterious gas and of seeing the fleeting phantom attacker wearing dark clothing. Some of the reports were rather harrowing, such as the case of a Mrs. Leonard Burrell, who claimed that she watched as the phantom attacker broke into her room and proceed to spray her with the pungent gas. In order to deal with the threat and help to curb the profound panic that was starting to overtake Mattoon, state police were called in, as well as the FBI, yet no suspects were ever apprehended, although further evidence of the phantom attacker was forthcoming in the form of footprints that were often found outside of windows.
Despite these footprints, there was no real concrete evidence of the perpetrator or his mysterious chemical agent, and there was additionally no clear motive for the attacks, as no one had died and nothing had been stolen. The only thing known was that whoever it was had the disturbing ability to appear from the shadows, carry out their mysterious gas attacks, and then melt back into the night without a trace. Joining the police were droves of hunters and amateur armed vigilantes who patrolled the streets on the look out for the phantom gas-wielding intruder but no sign turned up. Additionally, doctors who examined the many people brought in for treatment for the gas attacks were not able to find any concrete cause for the symptoms; the mystery substance involved just as seemingly ghostly as the attacker itself. The assailant was by now known as The Mad Gasser, and around two dozen such attacks were reported until on September 12th they suddenly just stopped. Although the local populace was convinced that their town had been held under siege by a gas spewing madman or even a ghost, authorities would chalk the whole incident up to frayed nerves from the war and mass hysteria.
Interestingly, this was not the first incident of a shadowy, gas-using prowler. In the 1930s, a similar spate of attacks had occurred in late 1933 and early 1934 in Botetourt County, Virginia. On December 22, 1933, the wife of a Carl Huffman reported feeling a powerful sense of nausea after inhaling a strange smelling gas of some kind in her home. An hour later, the gas returned, and yet another alleged gas attack was allegedly carried out on the Huffman home in the early hours of December 22. In total, all 8 members of the Huffman family, as well as a guest staying with them, were sickened and affected in some way by the insidious phantom gas attack, exhibiting facial swelling, nausea, migraine headaches, convulsive fits, and respiratory problems.
A separate attack by the Virginia gasser happened on December 24, when a Clarence Hall, his wife, and their two young children were overcome with a sweet smelling odor that made them sick to their stomachs. Police would later find a hole drilled into the wall, presumably for the purpose of putting gas into the home. There would be a further three incidents of people having their homes injected with some mysterious chemical agent, and in one of these cases a section of discolored, odd smelling snow was found to contain a mixture of sulfur, arsenic and mineral oil. It is unknown if this series of gas attacks have any connection to the Mad Gasser of Mattoon or not.
There have been many theories on what was behind the Mad Gasser of Mattoon. One prominent theory is that this is all precisely as the authorities of the time said; a bad case of mass hysteria or delusions fueled by war, dark rumors and the media. Another is that the many factories and plants of the area may have been leaking industrial waste, gases, or toxins that could have been responsible for the incidents. Yet others point to an actual, physical assailant, although the exact form of this attacker remains in dispute, with theories ranging from a demented psychopath armed with a gas canister to a German agent, to an actual supernatural specter, to some sort of extraterrestrial being. We will probably never know for sure and the case of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon remains unexplained.
The days of World War II would produce other strange cases of phantom attackers as well. During the war’s early days, one of the big manufacturers of warships for the U.S. Navy was the small town of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Even as its population dramatically swelled in relation to its boom as an integral component to the military shipping industry, the town would also be notable for one of the stranger cases of mysterious phantom intruders. In 1942, a strange, elusive prowler would begin to stalk the town, and although not as violent os the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, it is no less bizarre.
The attacks would commence in June of that year, when on the night of June 5, 1942, a mysterious intruder would break into the house of a Mary Briggs and Edna Hydel. The two women claimed that they had been awoken in the middle of the night by a noise and had managed to catch a glimpse of a figure in the dark that was described as being short, somewhat fat, and wearing a white sweatshirt, as he climbed out of their window. Although nothing in the room seemed to have been taken and neither of the girls were injured, each found that they had been oddly missing a lock of hair that had been chopped off. As far as they could tell, this was the only thing that the stranger had taken.
This account alone was enough to start the media machine going, with the perpetrator soon being dubbed “The Phantom Barber of Pascagoula,” and whoever it was was not finished yet. Not long after the initial attack, the Phantom Barber would cut open a screen door and infiltrate the Peattie home to snip a lock of hair from the family’s 6-year-old daughter Carol. A footprint ringed by sand near the window would be the only other evidence left behind. Several other reports came in over the next several weeks of people complaining of a mysterious trespasser slitting open window screens and entering homes only to shear off portions of hair from the victims. In every case, the mysterious prowler seemed to prefer blonde hair.
Although no one was apparently hurt, the intrusions were still enough to instill panic in a population already on edge due to the looming shadow of World War II. There was also one attack that was decidedly more violent, when a Mr. and Mrs. Heidelberg were assaulted in the middle of the night by a raging attacker wielding an iron bar, who knocked out teeth and left them unconscious. The attacker in this case did not take any hair trophies, but nevertheless came into the room through the Phantom Barber’s typical method of slitting open the screen door to stealthily sneak in. The Phantom Barber left the whole town in a panic, with people purchasing weapons and refusing to leave their homes in the hours after sunset. Things got so bad that the ship building industry was affected by fathers staying home from work to protect their families from the Phantom Barber.
In response to the growing panic, authorities made efforts to catch the perpetrator, including modifying the wartime curfew laws and enlisting the help of bloodhounds, but no one was ever arrested for the crimes. In the meantime, the barber claimed another victim, when he broke into the home of a Mrs. R.R. Taylor and clipped off a portion of her hair. In this case, Taylor described that she had woken up in the middle of the night to a noxious odor and something pressed to her face, after which she had fallen unconscious and later become violently ill, leading police to suspect that a chemical agent such as chloroform had been used.
Increasingly desperate authorities were able to apprehend one suspect in the form of a German chemist named William Dolan. The man was considered to have a grudge against the Heidelbergs, who had been violently attacked with the iron bar, and was subsequently arrested for their attempted murder, but he was never charged with the other instances of trespassing, even though a lock of human hair was apparently found in his back yard.
After Dolan was imprisoned for his crime, the phantom barber attacks stopped, leading many to believe it was actually him behind all of the incidents, although Dolan himself always firmly denied this. Was the barber Dolan, and if so why did he so viciously attack the Heidelbergs while leaving the other victims simply without some of their hair? What were his motives? Why take hair and nothing else? Dolan was eventually set free in 1951 and there have been many who feel he was innocent and merely arrested for being German at a time when anti-German sympathies in the United States were running high. Whatever was going on here, the weird case of the Phantom Barber of Pascagoula has never been conclusively solved.
World War II is certainly not the only era of mysterious phantom attacks, and this phenomenon goes far back into history. One spooky case from way back in the late-1700s concerns what would come to be known by the rather sinister nickname “The London Monster.” The whole, eery affair would begin on January 19, 1790, when two sisters, Sarah and Anne Porter, were on their way home to their father’s hotel when they were approached by a stranger who stared at them before shouting “Oh ho! Is that You?” and subsequently bashing Sarah on the head. The two young women retreated, and as they knocked on the hotel door to be let in the mysterious stranger appeared behind them and proceeded to stab Sarah in the hip with a knife. The whole time he is reported to have been grinning maniacally, and he only left when the the two sisters made more of a commotion and were allowed in by their brother. The brother, John Porter, had the area searched but no sign of the phantom attacker could be found.
That very same night, the mysterious grinning stranger would go on to assault four other women. In each case the scenario was similar, with the man approaching attractive, well-dressed young women, staring intently at them, saying crude or vulgar things, and them stabbing them in the hips, thighs, or buttocks, before retreating away into the night. In later days, the attacks would continue, and sometimes the mysterious assailant would change his routine, apparently having women smell a bouquet of fake flowers before stabbing them in the face with a sharp instrument hidden within. Other reports claimed that the prolwer had knives or razors attached to his shoes, which he would use to kick out to carry out his attacks. Although the methods varied, these attacks were always accompanied by various shouted obscenities or crude, sexual talk from the stranger, and seemed aimed at hurting, terrorizing, or disfiguring rather than killing. Most victims claimed that it had been too dark to get a good look at their attacker, but they mostly seemed to agree that it was a large male with a pale, long, narrow face and dressed in dark clothing. However, in at least one case the Monster was described as a shorter, rotund man with a large nose. He was usually said to be extremely nimble and quick on his feet.
Between May of 1788 and April of 1790 there would allegedly be over 30 attacks from what the media called the London Monster, panicking the populace and sending frantic authorities posting rewards for information and scouring the streets for anyone suspicious. During this time, the London Monster struck out unabated, although apparently lowering his standards to women who were not necessarily well-to-do and attractive. All through this, the relentless media machine put out astounding headlines that put people into such a panic that many women opted to not even go out at night, with those that did covering up their buttocks with copper pots, and the streets were patrolled by groups of armed men.
The baffled authorities eventually arrested a man named Rhynwick Williams, mostly on the evidence that he was an artificial flower maker and this had been a prop that had become a part of the Monster’s MO. Although Williams had alibis for the nights of the attacks, and many coworkers vouched for him, he was nevertheless accused of being the London Monster, although he was found guilty not of attempted murder, but rather of cutting clothes; a fairly grievous crime at the time that netted him a 7-year prison sentence. Additional trials would see the charges brought against Williams dropped, and he was charged with the crime of cutting with intent to kill, which was oddly a lesser offense. The strange tale of the London Monster has been chalked up to stemming from a mass hysteria rooted in the growing crime rate of the streets of London at the time, but the case has never really been solved.
Not all phantom assailants are as violent as the ones I’ve covered here so far, and some are comparably tame, yet no less weird. In 1838, there is the rather bizarre tale of the strange attacker known simply as “Whipping Tom.” Although inflicting no permanent harm, this phantom assailant would conjure up a good deal of panic all the same. Operating in the 1680s, between Holborn and Fleet Street in London, this particular attacker had a penchant for approaching women in the street and proclaiming “Spanko!” before lifting their skirts and spanking their behinds with his hands or sometimes with a metal or birch stick before retreating into the night.
The attacks continued until women were carrying knives around to protect themselves and men would dress up as women in the hopes of luring him in, all while the media promoted the mysterious intruder as “Whipping Tom,” or “Smack the Whipper,” as well as “the enemy of milk wenches’ bums everywhere.” The odd attacker was so deft at defying capture that there were many who were convinced he was some sort of supernatural entity. None of the attacks ended up in any permanent physical harm or injury, and always involved the attacker merely roughly spanking his targets. Although some suspects were eventually arrested in connection with the covert spankings, it is unclear what ever became of this weird case.
Some phantom assailants don’t make any physical contact at all, but rather lash out psychologically. Thus is the case with the strange incident of the Phantom Whistler. In 1950, in the sleepy town of Paradis, Louisiana, 18-year-old Jacquelyn Cadow began to be visited in the night by a very odd intruder indeed. The unseen stranger had the habit of hiding in the bushes near Cadow’s house at night, often right under her window, and whistling wolf calls. On every occasion a search by the family of the premises turned up no sign of the mysterious trespasser, yet the whistling continued for months, sometimes heard by neighbors or passerby.
This is certainly odd enough, but the mysterious whistler would soon graduate to more ominous activities when Cadow became engaged to state trooper Herbert Belsom. The whistling changed from random wolf calls to the sinister tune of a funeral dirge, and sometimes the whistling would be topped off with what was described as a shrill moan. In addition, the menacing stranger began to make threatening phone calls to the house, promising to make sure that Jacquelyn would die before she was allowed to marry Belsom. Some of the calls were made to Jacquelyn’s mother, who she lived with. In one of these calls, the stranger said “I’ll kill her. I’ll stick a knife in her. Your daughter will never marry Herbert.” On another occasion, when Jacquelyn was at her fiancee’s house, the whistler called to tell the mother, “Tell Jackie I know she’s at Herbert’s house.” This all caused the mother to lament:
We can’t get away from him. I don’t know when we’ll get a peaceful night’s sleep.
By this time, newspapers had picked up the story and there was talk everywhere of “The Phantom Whistler” that was haunting Jacqueline Cadow and her family. The police did what they could to try and get to the bottom of the whole strange affair, but were unable to find any suspects or even any evidence of an intruder, indeed no police officer ever heard the whistler, leading the sheriff’s department to start to believe that the whole thing was a hoax, and at one point the sheriff made the cryptic statement that it was an “inside job,” without further elaboration. Nevertheless, the calls and provocative whistling continued, eventually causing so much stress on Jacqueline that she once collapsed. Yet despite these ominous threats and the elusive stalker, Jacqueline was determined to go through with her wedding. On October 1, 1950, Jacqueline Cadow and Herbert Belsom were finally married without incident.
In the wake of the wedding, the whistling and phone calls stopped. In the meanwhile, the sheriff changed his stance and proclaimed that he had solved the case, although he never did divulge any details on this, explaining that he did not want to “embarrass” the persons involved. There are a lot of questions left behind on this case. Who was the Phantom Whistler and what did he want? Was he a prankster or a potentially dangerous stalker? Was he at the wedding and if so had he planned to actually carry through with his threats? Was he even real at all, or was he a hysterical figment of the imagination? What exactly did the sheriff mean when he said he had “solved” the case and just what did he mean by the earlier claim that it was a hoax and inside job? It all remains unclear.
Here we have looked at some of the weirder unexplained phantom attackers through history, although there are certainly others. Each case brings with it its own unique brand of bizarreness and it is hard to come to any concrete answers with any of them. Were these the product of mass hysteria and delusion, or were these the work of very real shadowy figures with inscrutable agendas we may never know? If they were real, who were they and what did they want? Are there some cases where they were perhaps not even human at all? It seems we may never have the answers to these questions, but one thing that does seem apparent is that these strange phantoms have made their mark upon the landscape of the weird, that there will perhaps always be mysteries hiding in the shadows, and that they are perhaps ready to pounce.