A week or so ago, I saw that an author had revisited one of the classics of the paranormal, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Illinois, in which a mysterious figure terrified the population of the small town by ostensibly seeking to do them in or make them ill with gas attacks. Law enforcement officials pursued the monster for quite some time before they decided that the Mad Gasser was born of mass hysteria and called off the search for the miscreant.
After reading this bit of spooky nostalgia, I was reminded of one of my favorite paranormal assailants, the Phantom Marksmen of 1952-1954, who pestered both Great Britain and the United States with their unwelcome displays of target practice.
In Great Britain in May of 1952, something shattered the windshield of a car driven by a girl applying for her driver’s license, on the Scunthorpe-Doncaster road in Linconshire England. No pellet or anything else was ever found that could have caused the damage.
On that same English road on May 5, the windshield of a truck was suddenly shattered. No pellet, stone, or culprit was discovered.
On the next day, a window exploded on a school bus filled with children on that same road. Fortunately, none of the children were injured.
On May 9, 1952, on a road between Esher and Cobham in Surrey, a motorist named Eric Sykes had his windshield shattered.
Journalists quoted police officials as saying: “There have been about 20 incidents of this kind along here in the last 18 months, and we are completely mystified.”
On June 6, 1952, a Pittsburgh woman was wounded in the hip as she held the ladder for her husband while he tightened a shutter on the second story of their home. Her injury was attributed to a “spent bullet,” but there was no indication of whether or not a pellet was found in her hip or who had fired the “spent bullet.”
A “stray bullet” was held responsible for wounding a seven-year-old boy in Swissvale, Pennsylvania on June 20. Again, the official account neglected to mention whether or not that “stray bullet” had been found.
Five miles from Newbury in the Berkshires, a motorist reported having his windshield pierced by a bullet on June 12. Police there said that they, too, had had other reports of shots being fired at motorists on that stretch of road. No one, however, had ever found any evidence of the phantom marksmen, not even a spent bullet in some motorist’s seat cushion.
Back on the Portsmouth Road between Esher and Cobham, one incident mentioned a hole that had penetrated the automobile’s metal door. Still no pellet could be found, and official statistics showed that twenty-two windshields had been shattered on that road within the past fifteen months.
The next day after the release of those statistics, a motorist reported that he had just become the owner of windshield number twenty-three. A feature story in the Evening News claimed that their statistics indicated a more accurate total of thirty windshields shattered on the haunted road.
By September, the phantom marksmen had decided to seek new shooting galleries in the United States. By Thursday of the week of September 22, 1952, fifty businessmen in the city of Kokomo, Indiana, had complained that someone was shooting holes in their plate glass windows.
Captain of Detectives C.C. Unger had found that the mysterious perforations were all similar–a small opening through the glass, too small to have come from a B-B shot or an air gun pellet, with a crater smashed on the inside of the glass at the point of impact. The damaged area was about the size of a quarter and was at eye level or a bit above. It was apparent to the police ballistics experts that the holes had all been made by the same type of missile, but there was not a spent pellet to be found in any of the business places.
Captain Unger ordered extensive tests with all types of air rifles in an attempt to come up with the particular kind of gun that might be responsible for the damage to the downtown business district. With dismay the police investigator learned that no make of rifle available to the crime lab had caused the holes.
Police Chief Don Scott issued a front page appeal in the Kokomo Tribune, beseeching anyone who might have any knowledge pertaining to the steadily rising damage to the business district to step forward and declare himself.
No member of the citizenry came forward to per¬form his civic duty. Everyone was as baffled by the mystery holes as were the police.
Captain Unger grew increasingly frustrated. It seemed impossible that a phantom marksman could travel over central Kokomo shooting out windows over a sixty-block area without being seen by someone. Furthermore, it seemed equally impossible to accomplish the shattering of all those windows without leaving at least one pellet somewhere on the inside of the glass.
To complicate the case, the phantom rifleman paid a brief visit to Peru, Indiana, a city some twenty-one miles north of Kokomo during that same week in September. Apparently the invisible sharpshooter had found targets more to his liking in Kokomo, for he had only picked off six windows in Peru.
Then the mysterious sniping stopped altogether, with no official any closer to a workable theory than one put forward by a British magazine that a ghost fond of firing his dueling pistols had been responsible for the “bullet holes” in the windshields on that afflicted road in England.
If the phantom marksmen really were interdimensional beings out for a bit of tasteless sport at Earthlings’ expense, they must have wearied of the game until April of 1954. This time, the windows in Bellingham, Washington seemed to be the most inviting.
In one week, the newspapers reported that an unidentified “someone” had cracked more than 1,500 windshields.
Life magazine carried an account of the Bellingham windshield siege in its April 2, 1954 issue: “With ghastly regularity the tiny pellets flew through the air and glass cracked, sometimes as cars were in motion,” recounted Life. “But drivers failed to see how the deed was done. The phantom respected no one. Jagged, ugly scars ap¬peared in the windshields of police cars. Angry businessmen stalked one another, but glass kept breaking.”
Once again, in spite of numerous theories, no one found a single pellet on the inside of the splintered glass.
On April 15, the perforating pranksters aimed their sights at the city of Seattle. The Seattle Daily Times carried a front page story lambasting the “windshield-peppering hoodlums” who had cracked hundreds of windows in one night. Police Chief H.J. Lawrence was quoted as stating that he had called a conference of police officials in a cooperative effort to stem the situation that had spread from Bellingham to Seattle and other communities to the north.
“It would take 200 people to do the damage being done in Seattle,” he said. “It seems a physical impossibility for any group to have done this damage. It would take a carload of whatever material is being used to do the damage already inflicted in Seattle.”
Chief Lawrence and his busy officers were as unable to duplicate the perforations in their ballistics depart¬ment as had any of the other beleaguered police across the nation. Nor did any of his men find a single B-B or pellet.
On April 17, three counties in Northern Ohio were struck by the invisible marauders.
Then the phantom marksmen seemed to go on a real rampage–reports of suddenly shattered glass came from Los Angeles, Chicago, Kentucky, Cleveland, New England, and a dozen cities in Canada.
At last, in Portland, Oregon, someone saw something — tiny. round, blackish pellets about one thirty-second of an inch in diameter. One woman claimed that she saw some hit a windshield of an automobile and eat right through it in a kind of “bubbling action.”
A newspaper reporter in Cleveland, Robert Cubbedge, did not claim to have seen any pellets, but he did serve as eye-witness to craters appearing on ninety windshields in a used car lot.
Cubbedge described the phenomenon as “some kind of transformation taking place” while he watched. He wrote that there was no gravel, sand, or pellets falling on the clean windshields, but he stated firmly that he had “… watched the mysterious something that pockmarks automobile windshields develop before my eyes.”
In King County, Washington, two sheriff’s deputies watched the same thing happening to truck driver Robert M. Noble’s windshield. When they went back to their patrol car to radio in their report, they found that their own windshield had been pitted.
Mr. and Mrs. Gary May of Port Weller, Canada, were sitting in the family car when they heard sharp pinging sounds on their windshield. Mrs. May put her hand outside and quickly withdrew it, with a sharp, stinging pain in her right thumb. She was later treated for a small, burn-like welt.
A man in Binghamton, New York, was also struck by one of the hot, invisible pellets and was treated for a small flesh wound on his arm.
Manuel Careaga, a well-known attorney and realtor of Ensenada, British Columbia, heard a thud against the rear window of his car. When he stopped to investigate, he found no pellet of any kind, but as he watched, his rear window “melted like snow.”
Sooner or later, people always demand that their experts and authorities announce a solution to such a mystery–especially when the enigma is a costly one. By the same token, experts and authorities usually feel compelled to provide the citizenry with comfortable and logical explanations for all mysteries–regardless of whether or not the explanations may suit the facts.
The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company attributed all the handiwork of the phantom marksmen to pitting caused by flying sand, gravel, or the chemicals used to de-ice highways.
From Great Britain came word that the more than one hundred windshields that had eventually been shattered on the stretch of highway between Esher and Cobham had all been caused by one or more of five contributing factors: stress caused by ill-fitting glass; frame distortion; vibrations from unequal road surface; changes of tem¬perature; sound waves from the exhausts of passing vehicles.
The phantom marksmen went laughing back into their own dimension, once again chortling about what fools those mortals can be. They lay quiet until August of 1961 when they paid an evening’s visit to Springfield, Massachusetts, and shattered the rear windows of one hundred randomly selected automobiles.
That seems to have been the end of that particular perverse pastime, however. After all, even a fun thing like smashing glass can be¬come boring after so long–even for phantoms from another dimension.