Maryland’s Infamous Monster

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a collector of stories.  I like learning new things about people, places, and things (ok, just nouns in general), and it’s rare that I hear a story that I deem completely insignificant or unworthy of remembering.  That said, my love of stories is much like an addiction: each story ups my tolerance, leaving me wanting more.  I’ve harvested and collected hundreds, thousands, of stories over the years, always in search of a new favorite.  That’s why I was surprised to learn that a centuries-old story has been quietly lurking right in front of me (or maybe above me) my whole life.  That story is a Western Maryland legend known as the Snallygaster.  With Halloween fast approaching, now seems to be the perfect time to share the Snallygaster with you.

If you’re new to the Snallygaster legend, you’re in for a treat.  Accounts vary, sometimes wildly, which adds to the allure of the beast.  It has been described as a dragon-like creature, half-bird and half-reptile, with sharp teeth, a metallic beak, and a single eye in the center of its forehead.  Sometimes it is described as having tentacles like an octopus – you know, in addition to the dragon wings, cyclops eye, metal beak, and razor-sharp teeth.  It’s no wonder people were terrified of it.

Some belive the Snallygaster dates back to the 1700s when the area around Middletown, MD in modern day Frederick County was settled by German immigrants.  Though the name Snallygaster may sound like a fictional beast, similar to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, its name is actually derived from the German schneller geist, meaning “quick ghost”.  “Snallygaster” seems to be an improvement, given that the creature is said to swoop from the sky, silently carrying off its victims whose blood may or may not be drained, depending on the Snallygaster’s mood; “quick ghost” just doesn’t have the oomph necessary to instill fear throughout a region.

Yet fear of the Snallygaster spread.  It has been seen as far west as Cumberland, MD and even parts of West Virginia.  Before you assume this is an old, obscure legend that folks used as a boogeyman story to keep kids in line, consider these facts:  In February and March of 1909 a series of newspaper articles were published that described encounters between residents and the Snallygaster.  The articles reached Washington, D.C. and the Smithsonian Institution offered a reward for the hide of the Snallygaster.  It’s even said that President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid hunter, considered postponing an African safari in favor of hunting the Snallygaster in Western Maryland.

Luckily, (or sadly, depending on your perspective) the Snallygaster seems to have been lost to the annals of local history.  The last credible sighting was in 1932, when a Snallygaster crashed from the sky, overcome by the fumes eminating from a Middletown moonshiner’s still during the last days of Prohibition.  The Snallygaster reportedly fell into the vat of moonshine, just as federal agents arrived to destroy the still.  Deciding to literally kill two birds with one stone, the agents used dynamite to destroy the still and the Snallygaster inside.

The Snallygaster has all the makings of a great and terrifying monster, but not everyone sees it as such.  Some believe it was a condor, eagle, or another large bird that was misidentified by immigrants in a new land.  Even so, how does that explain the tentacles, or the multiple eye-witness accounts of the Snallygaster attacking humans?  Like any great story, the legend of the Snallygaster leaves us wanting more, asking more questions than it answers.

So, if you’re ever in Western Maryland and you hear a screech like a train whistle or see a shadow crossing the moon, remember the Snallygaster and play it safe.