[As Halloween fast approaches, Frederick N. Rasmussen has written an excellent capsule history of this mythical local monster that appears in today’s Baltimore Sun: “Spinning the tale of the Snallygaster.” Check it out – and cautiously look to the skies if you’re anywhere near South Mountain in Western Maryland!]
“Better run and hide…the Snallygaster’s comin’ to get ya!”
by Tom Warner (Baltimore Or Less)
I had never heard of Western Maryland’s long-standing “rural legend” of the Snallygaster – a dragon-like creature described as being half-bird, half-reptile and with a screech like a “locomotive whistle” – until I bought a record called The Legend of the Snallygaster by Frederick, Md., indie garage rock band The Skeptics.
This band – formed in the ’80s and originally comprised of guitarist Andy McCutcheon (whose name should be familiar to anyone who has purchased his family’s fine line of apple products and preserves), bassist Dennis Crolley, and drummer Stephen Blickenstaff (a talented “monster-art” illustrator best known for drawing the Lux Interior caricature appearing on the cover of The Cramps’ 1984 LP Bad Music for Bad People) – released their lone LP in 1986, taking its title from the mythical monster that, according to local lore dating back as far as the 1700s, sweeps down in the dark of night to snatch away small game, farm animals, and even young children. The album – whose art features a razor-beaked, one-eyed Snallygaster designed by Blickenstaff – is best known for the Presidents Day-friendly holiday song “The Ghost of Abraham Lincoln;” local filmmaker and horror-fan Chris LaMartina (President’s Day, WNUF Halloween Special) later directed a stylish music video for the song.
In Snallygaster: The Lost Legend of Frederick County (2011), author Patrick Boyton writes that the Snallygaster has sometimes transcended regional lore to infiltrate pop culture, citing the 1972 children’s book title Fred Flintstone and the Snallygaster Show (albeit as a backwards-flying lion) and Mountain Dew’s 1960s vanilla ice cream soda float the Snallygaster (aka the “Snow White” if made with 7 Up or Sprite).
Interestingly, in the Flintstones book, Fred describes Snallygasters thusly: “…it flies like a bird, only backwards.It has a nose like an airplane propeller and a head like a lion. And it has very sharp claws, lives in old bowling alleys, and nobody’s ever seen one.”
Boynton also wrote a Halloween-themed children’s book called Beware the Snallygaster (2011), featuring the artwork of Meghan Boehman.
There’s even an artisinal beer festival named Snallygaster held annually at Washington, DC’s Union Market. The Snallygaster is also described in detail in Ed Okonowicz’s book Monsters of Maryland (Stackpole Books, 2012), as well as other books (a list appears at the end of this post).
The word Snallygaster traces its origin to the German phrase “schneller geist,” meaning quick spirit or ghost, and was probably first used by the German immigrants who settled in the Western Maryland and Southern Pennsylvania regions. And though associated with Frederick County, sightings have also been reported in neighboring Cecil and Washington Counties, Baltimore and Cecil County, and even similar activity in West Virginia and Ohio.
According to Mary K. Mannix (Maryland Room Memories, Gazette.net), the Snallygaster is a Maryland cryptid, a creature that falls “outside of taxonomic records.” Other well-known cryptids include Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the Yeti, the Chupacabra (which must be real because The X-Files did an episode on one!), and the Loch Ness Monster. (Not all cryptids are so far-fetched; the Kangaroo was once considered one. See also: “Top 10 Cryptids That Turned Out to be Real.”) In addition to its wings and claws and affinity for snatching things, its defining characteristic may be it’s lone cyclops eye. Mannix likens it to a flying octopus, an image I rather like (hmmm, I wonder if someone will create a Snallygaster sushi roll?).
But the aspect of this Blue Mountain monster legend that intrigues me most is learning that in 1909, then-President Teddy Roosevelt allegedly almost cancelled an African safari to instead hunt for this big-beaked game in the wilds of Western Maryland. He must have been reading the sensational headlines in the Middletown Valley Register, where a February 1909 article claimed that a winged creature snatched a man, sank its teeth into his jugular and dropped the drained body off a hillside. The story opened the floodgates to a series of subsequent reported encounters with the creature, which the paper christened the Snallygaster.
Some of those encounters were quite “colorful,” as Susan Fair reported for Blue Ridge Mountain (“Mountain Monster: The Snallygaster“). They included such adventures as “…laying an egg the size of a barrel, picking a railway worker up by his suspenders, and even speaking to one man, mysteriously declaring, ‘My I’m dry, I haven’t had a good drink since I was killed in the battle of Chickamauga!'” (The Battle of Chicamauga! If only Civil War reenactors added the Snallygaster to spice up their battles, I might follow their activities with more interest!)
There was a lull in snallygaster sightings until 1932, when one reportedly crashed into a Middletown moonshiner’s mash barrel. Then, in 1948, a another one was spotted in Westminster. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that there was a true resurgence of sightings. The Baltimore Sun reported that in 1973 Maryland State Police began searching Sykesville for “a huge, hairy monster” standing six- to seven-feet tall with a “bushy tail and black hair” that allegedly killed a cow and some dogs and left behind footprints measuring 13 1/2 inches long and six inches wide. Residents described the beast as a cross between a “dwayyo” (a human-like creature that local folklore claims is hatched from a snallgyaster egg) and a snallygaster. The Sun reported several years later that a man claimed he was chased by a dwayyo along the banks of the Severn River.
Alas, despite its local ties and fearsome characteristics, no one yet has created a Halloween costume of the Snallygaster. Nor has the American Visionary Art Museum’s Kinetic Sculpture Race featured a cryptid critter-themed amphibian vehicle to date. Maybe next year?
Mysteries & Lore of Western Maryland: Snallygasters, Dogmen, and Other Mountain Tales (Susan Fair, History Press, 2013)
Snallygaster: The Lost Legend of Frederick County (Patrick Boyton, 2011)
Beware the Snalylgaster (Patrick Boyton & Meghan Boehman, 2011)
Ghosts and Legends of Frederick County (Timothy Cannon & Nancy Whitmore, 1979)
Beware the Snallygaster (Pulse of the Paranormal site)
Beware the Snallygaster (Gazette.net)