One very creepy and intriguing area of the unexplained are those cases in which there has been some sort of mysterious figure terrorizing an area with no clue as to who or what they might be. These enigmatic intruders often take on qualities that make them seem supernatural in nature, demons, ghosts, or interdimensional interlopers that have come to our domain to run amok and cause havoc. Such cases often cannot be really neatly categorized into any one corner of the world of the weird, and here we will look at some of the very strangest of these.
The most well-known and oft-discussed phantom attacker is the one known as Spring Heeled Jack. Beginning in 1837, the industrial suburbs of London, Sheffield, and Liverpool, as well as the Midlands and even as far away as Scotland became the stomping grounds for a mysterious figure with the remarkable ability to make enormous leaps via springs attached to his feet, who persistently terrorized residents and was known to make his escape by swiftly bounding away. This specter quickly became known as Spring-heeled Jack, and was depicted as having a frightening appearance, with metal claws attached to his hands and in some accounts glowing red eyes and the ability to shoot blue and white flames from his mouth. Spring-heeled Jack was mostly seen as a decidedly malevolent force which sowed mayhem and misery wherever he went, but it was a very widespread tale all the way up to the early 1900s and word of this scary entity spread throughout Europe, including the region of Bohemia. Yet, although Spring Heeled Jack is the most famous phantom boogeyman, he is far from the only one.
Incidentally, an odd incident that happened at around the same time the Spring Heeled Jack phenomenon was dying down supposedly occurred in December of 1919 at the castle of Godego, near the Italian town of Castelfranca Veneto. At the time, there was stationed there a contingent of sentries charged with guarding the arsenal and stockpile of gunpowder that was kept there. Usually not much went on as they were on duty, the evenings quiet and filled with long stretches of boredom, but one night this would all change with the appearance of a rather strange visitor. It allegedly started when a sentry one evening noticed a glow approaching his position, and as it drew closer he could see that it was a luminous humanoid figure “issuing tongues of flame from its head.” The entity was able to make incredible leaps, and was soon almost directly upon the terrified sentry, who called out to the others, but when they arrived the specter took a giant leap and “dissolved into a ball of flame” as the soldiers fired upon it.
The following night, the strange phantom appeared again, and a Sicilian soldier of the guard approached the entity along with a number of his companions armed with rifles and bayonets. This time the soldiers actively engaged the entity, stabbing at it with their bayonets, but the weapons had no effect at all. The specter seemed almost amused by it all, and then it leapt up into the air to vanish while “leaving behind a fiery halo.” The following evening it appeared yet again, and this time the guards were ready for it, firing upon it in unison but with their bullets apparently doing nothing. The creature bounded about, totally unfazed by the blistering assault, and then disappeared into the night. After this encounter the soldiers fled their garrison to leave the arsenal and gunpowder unguarded. They all purportedly refused to return, and it was rumored that a few of them had actually gone insane from the ordeal. What was going on here?
There have been many other cases that are just as odd over the years that involve similar enigmatic entities. Around the same time that Spring Heeled Jack was terrorizing the United Kingdom there was the odd case of a black-clad apparition that prowled the area of Decatur, Illinois, in the United States. From around 1880, witnesses reported seeing a veiled black figure carrying a stick or bat lurking about in the shadows at night, which was described as a “creeping thing with awful eyes which burn like fire, the face of the terrible creature covered with a veil.” The sinister phantom would peer into people’s windows and chase, menace, or attack people walking alone at night, and was said to be extremely fleet-footed and unable to be captured despite on several occasions being chased by police and one time even being cornered by a gang of young men out to hunt it down. Some even claimed it could scale sheer walls or make incredible leaps far beyond what a human was capable of, as well as mesmerize with its gaze or even vanish into thin air, and no one could ever seem to catch whoever or whatever the perpetrator was. The news publications of the time were soon calling it “The Black Ghost,” and reports were coming in from all over the area. One eyewitness account of the fiend was made by two men by the names of Fred Travis and Del Hooey, and Travis would say of what had happened to them:
Hooey and I were about halfway between Cerro Gordo Street and the railroad, on Monroe, when we saw an odd figure in front of us and coming in our direction. The thing that attracted my attention was the fact that the figure did not have the motion of a man walking, but seemed to glide along. Then I noticed that the face was covered with what seemed to be a black veil. Hooey and I at once concluded it was the ghost and we ran forward. The man or woman or whatever it was turned and ran the other way. When it moved north from us, it still had that motion of gliding. I had a piece of board in my hand that I was taking home for kindling and I threw that at the figure but didn’t hit it. Just then the figure disappeared and I don’t know if it turned the corner and went out on the Wabash right-of-way or if it turned into a yard there. At any rate we could not find it and we made a search.
In another report a woman living at the Culver mansion claimed that the phantom had come down the chimney of her fireplace and then floated across the room to disappear. On one occasion several black citizens of Decatur near St. Peter’s African Methodist Episcopal Church reported seeing a “huge, dark object, darker than the darkest night that bore the general appearance of a gigantic man, headless and armless, and it moved swiftly, though it did not walk.” Some witnesses were rather high-profile, such as a sighting made by a Houston Singleton, who was the Macon County Board of Supervisors Commissioner at the time. As the fervor over the Black Ghost of Decatur spread, farmers began to complain of missing chickens or livestock and there were even rumors that people had disappeared or ended up dead under mysterious circumstances. There was much talk that this was some sort of supernatural intruder, but police, wanting to stave off a mass hysteria, were quick to offer that it was probably just someone dressing up and running around trying to scare people, and stepped up patrols in the hopes of apprehending whoever it was, even as armed vigilantes prowled the night looking for the apparition. It was turning into quite the hysteria, despite the best efforts of the police to calm people down, and then in 1903 the sightings just sort of stopped and it was all forgotten about. Who or what was the Black Ghost of Decatur? Who knows?
Illinois would have another mysterious visitor years later during World War II. One of the most famous and notorious phantom prowlers made its presence known in the summer of 1944, in the sleepy Midwestern town of Mattoon, Illinois, in the United States. 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.
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 attacking people with a pair of scissors, and although not as violent as 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.
Another frightening phantom from World War II seemed to be not a malevolent force, but one of the good guys. This tale comes to us from the country of Czechoslovakia, which the Nazis relentlessly and brutally moved in to occupy between the years of 1938 to 1945, and the oppressed and conquered Czechoslovakian people were forced into hard labor at oppressive factories producing tanks, guns, and artillery, in horrid conditions and routinely worked until they fell in exhaustion or death. All through this, the Czech people were subjected to numerous, countless cruelties, offenses, and human rights abuses, and the occupying Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia were quick to deal out death and suffering to those who would dare to oppose them, although there were scattered resistance groups that were largely ineffectual.
The worst atrocity carried out against the Czechs happened in the after math of the assassination of SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s deputy and Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, which resulted in swift and merciless reprisals. The villages of Lidice and Ležáky were razed to the ground, 1,300 were ruthlessly murdered and 10,000 arrested and sentenced to rot or be executed in concentration camps without trial. It was somewhere around this time, when the people of Czechoslovakia were lost in despair, without hope, and with their villages in ruins, that a curious, enigmatic stranger began to make his presence known.
There began to circulate rumors of a mysterious man dressed in some sort of black body armor and wearing a face mask that held within it glowing eyes. This shadowy figure was said to have all manner of strange powers, in particular the astounding ability to make superhuman leaps of extraordinary magnitude, with witnesses describing the way he could bound across rooftops, over speeding trains, high gates, and even buildings with ease. In at least one report the black-clad figure was said to be able to leap completely over the Vitava River at its widest point, during which he was said to fly effortlessly through the air “like a shuttlecock” and to unleash an ear shattering, unearthly whistling sound. This power to leap great distances with ease led the stranger being called Pérák, or literally “Springer” or “Spring Man,” with the name deriving from the Czech word péro, meaning “spring.” Adding to this impressive leaping ability was Pérák’s alleged phenomenal speed, stamina and agility, all of which were said to make him impossible to follow or capture. His strength was said to be at superhuman levels, able to toss a full grown man aside easily or to punch through walls.
At first, Pérák was seen by the populace as a menacing, almost demonic figure to be feared. Early versions of the story have the mysterious apparition scaring or chasing and terrorizing innocent people, and even killing or raping citizens, and people began to avoid going out at night or refusing to go to work night shifts at the weapons factories to the extent that it even had a negative impact on the Nazi arms production output. However, this image as a sinister and diabolical boogieman quickly changed as time went on. Word began to spread that Pérák was starting to turn his attention to the ruthless German occupying forces, sabotaging their equipment and leaping from the shadows to slit their throats before bounding away. Although he seemed to mostly prefer stealth and moving in the shadows, there were reports of the phantom actively engaging German soldiers, throwing them about like ragdolls and stabbing at them with swords, clubs, or knives, as well as using some sort of ear-piercing sonic attack to stun enemies and make them reel in pain. It was rumored that during these violent encounters he seemed to be impervious to bullets when fired upon by the Nazis, with some accounts even describing German bullets ricocheting off of him to hit other soldiers, and he was always able to use his amazing jumping abilities to easily evade pursuit.
Pérák not only showed great athletic and combat prowess, but also showed great skill with explosives and pyrotechnics, being credited with blowing up German supply lines, vehicles, and even destroying a tank in Grébovka Park. In a few stories he was seen to use some sort of fireworks as a weapon, spewing flames from devices on his wrists at the enemy. He was also known to allegedly steal secret Nazi plans and documents, such as the plans to an unspecified German secret weapon from the ČKD factory in Vysočany. There were even those who went so far as to claim that it had in fact been Pérák who had assassinated Reinhard Heydrich. Throughout all of this one-man struggle against the juggernaut German war machine, Pérák was said to leave bold and taunting anti-Nazi graffiti on walls or gates in normally inaccessible places, further strengthening his legend.
This growing image of him as a sort of superhero for the Czech people led to Pérák evolving from his beginnings as a mysterious, possibly supernatural threat, to a potent symbol of resistance against the Nazi regime, a savior for the people, and the fantastical stories quickly fanned out across the countryside to embed themselves firmly within the collective consciousness of the oppressed populace. Pérák seemed to be everywhere. It got to the point where nearly every problem, mishap, accident, or death the Germans suffered was attributed to the Spring Man of Prague, and he was widely seen as a hero and a ray of hope piercing through the gloom and death of the Nazi occupation. The legend of Pérák steadily gained momentum until the end of the war, when he seemed to vanish as suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared, leaving a powerful legend behind. Who or what was this mysterious phantom stranger and what became of him? Was he ever real at all or was this just a morale boosting tall tale for the Czech people? We will probably never know for sure.
What are we dealing with in these cases? Is there anything paranormal about any of it or is this just a bunch of guys running around playing pranks? How do we explain some of the more mysterious details of these events? Is it all just mass hysteria and urban legend? It seems that the answers to such questions are beyond our reach for the time being, and they remain very peculiar oddities that are likely doomed to remain unexplained.