The snallygaster is a mythical cryptid that features prominently in American folklore. It is a fantastical dragon-like creature usually represented as a cross between a reptile and a bird.
Legend says it lives in caves in the South Mountains that form the northern part of the Blue Ridge range in Maryland. The earliest claimed sightings came from the Middletown Valley area in Frederick County, Maryland.
The snallygaster has roots in German folklore. German immigrants who settled in Frederick County in the 1700s came with stories about the snallygaster.
The earliest descriptions of the Snallygaster suggested it was a reptile-bird chimera.
A chimera is a grotesque monster or demonic entity that is a hybrid of different animal traits. The snallygaster was a half-bird, half-reptile hobgoblin consistent with the classic conception of a dragon with scales and wings.
German-American folklore portrayed it as a cave-dwelling monster with fantastical avian features. The features included a metallic beak, sharp pointed teeth, a pair of wings, and sometimes wriggling tentacles.
Some accounts conceived of it as a fire-breathing dragon with a blood-curling screech and hideous breath. Other accounts described it as a blood-sucking vampire that snatched children and farm animals and harassed lone travelers.
It flew in the night and swooped down like an eagle to snatch a human or animal victim. Maryland parents told horror stories about the monster to frighten children into compliance.
You could ward off an attack with objects such as a cross or a heptagram.
Folklore also identified another cryptid creature, the Dewayo (Dwayyo, Dwayo), as the snallygaster’s chief antagonist or archenemy.
The Dewayo was a werewolf or hexenwolf with thick fur and a bushy tail. It walked on hind legs and made frightful noises from its lair deep in the woods.
Sightings and Tales
The snallygaster in Maryland
The earliest alleged sightings of the snallygaster come from the South Mountains and Middletown Valley area of Frederick County, Md.
The reports gradually spread to other parts of Maryland and then to other neighboring states of the U.S.
The early association of Maryland with snallygaster sightings was likely due to a significant proportion of its population being German immigrants.
Many early German immigrants settled in Frederick County and other parts of Maryland in the late 1600s, and more followed in the 1700s.
By the late 1700s, Maryland had a large number of people with German origins. Many were refugees who came to America to escape the widespread social and economic disruption in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Many also came to escape religious persecution.
Stories about a terrifying monster known as the Schneller Geist (“Sprightly Fiend”) were part of the folklore of German settlers.
Newspapers later helped spread stories about the terrifying Schneller Geist beyond Maryland.
[Note: The term snallygaster is a anglicized mispronunciation of the German term “Schneller Geist” or “Schnellegeister.”]
Snallygaster stories: February-March 1909
Newspapers first became available in Maryland in the early 1700s. The first newspaper, the Maryland Gazette, was published in Annapolis in September 1727, and by the early 1900s, several were in mass circulation.
Some local newspapers began publishing hair-raising stories about snallygaster sightings.
Early in 1909, local newspapers, such as the Cumberland Evening Times, Middletown Valley Register, Shepherdstown Register, and Hagerstown Mail, began publishing tongue-in-cheek stories alleging snallygaster sightings and encounters by Maryland residents.
The stories claimed sightings in Middletown, Cumberland, Emmitsburg, Sharpsburg, and Hagerstown (Okonowicz, 2012; Boyton, 2012).
The Middletown Valley Register stories
The Middletown Valley Register stories, in particular, were widely read and caused a stir among superstitious local people.
According to one story, a resident who sighted the monster described it as a winged beast with a long sharp beak, hooked claws, and an eye in the center of its forehead.
Other fictitious witnesses described the cryptid as a tiger-vampire chimera that sucked victims’ blood. It snatched a man named Bill Gifferson, pierced his flesh with its bill, and sucked his blood (Boyton, 2011). It then dropped the body at a hillside.
The newspapers published fictitious narratives about sightings in various places. There were footprints in New Jersey, a sighting in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and an encounter with a woman in Scrabble.
It took refuge in a barn and laid an egg in a location around Sharpsburg, Maryland. Some people attempted to hatch the egg in an improvised incubator.
Thomas C. Harbaugh
Thomas C. Harbaugh, a man from Casstown, Ohio, wrote a letter to the Valley Register, claiming he sighted the monster flying over his neighborhood and making loud screeching noises.
Harbaugh said the beast had large wings, a long bony head, and a tail.
Three men engaged the monster in an epic battle near a railroad station in Emmitsburg, but it escaped to a neighboring county.
The stories claimed that the Smithsonian Institution had offered a reward for the skin or hide of the mythical beast and that National Geographic was considering an expedition to film the beast.
The Valley Register added that following alarming news of the snallygaster, President Theodore Roosevelt, a big-game enthusiast, planned to send troops armed with Gatling guns to kill it. The president also wanted to postpone a hunting trip to Africa until after the beast was captured or killed.
Middletown Valley Register ended its series on the snallygaster in March 1909. It isn’t clear why the newspaper stopped the series. However, authors Timothy Cannon and Nancy Whitmore wrote in their book Ghosts and Legends of Frederick County that Valley Register writer Ralph S. Wolfe and editor George C. Rhoderick concocted the stories to boost circulation (Okonowicz, 2012).
Other mainstream newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun, later published snallygaster stories to expand their audience.
Snallygaster stories: 1930s-present
Media outlets resumed publishing stories of snallygaster sightings in the late 1920s and early 30s.
In November 1932, the Middletown Valley Register carried a story about a resident Charles Main who reported sighting the long-lost beast flying at a low altitude over Braddock Heights (Boyton, 2011).
He estimated the wingspan at 12 and 14 feet. The version of the beast Main saw appeared to have wriggling tentacles. It also had shapeshifting powers and changed color as it flew overhead.
The Worcester Democrat (Worcester County, Maryland) reportedly published a story about a fictitious sighting on July 27, 1934.
According to the story, Edward Lewis, a resident of Pleasant Walk in the Middletown Valley, killed a snallygaster believed to be the offspring of the one Main sighted in 1932.
Alyce Weinberg reported in Spirits of Frederick (1992) that Folger McKinsey, an editor with the Federick Daily News, killed off the monster in a nine-part story published in the 1950s (Okonowicz, 2012).
However, stories about the snallygaster’s demise in a liquor vat at Frog Hollow date back to 1932. The Morning Herald (Hagerstown, Md.) ran a story about the Frog Hollow incident in December 1932.
According to Folger’s version of the story, the cryptid was flying over Frog Hollow in Washington County when it became irresistibly attracted to fumes from a 2500-gallon vat containing moonshine made by a resident. The cryptid crashed into the boiling vat. Two revenue agents searching for illegal liquor amid the prohibition happened upon the scene of the crash. Before the monster could extricate itself from the boiling vat, agents George Danforth and Charles Cushwa blew up the beast and the moonshine factory with five hundred pounds of dynamite.
But snallygaster enthusiasts soon learned that the cryptid lays multiple eggs, meaning that the offspring killed in Pleasant Walk in 1934 might have had siblings that accounted for further sightings in the 1940s.
The Sykesville Monster
In 1973, the Baltimore Sun carried a snallygaster story about Maryland State Police investigating a sighting in Sykesville of a monster that appeared to be a cross between the werewolfish Dewayo and the snallygaster (Okonowicz, 2012).
Salacious rumors suggested that the snallygaster had an amorous relationship with its archenemy, the Dewayo, and left a hybrid offspring to carry on its legacy.
A local described the fearsome hybrid beast as “6 to 7 feet tall with a big bushy tail and black hair,” according to the Sun.
It killed a cow and several dogs and left footprints measuring 13.5 inches long and 6 inches wide.
|Other Name/s||Snallygaster, Schneller Geist, Quick Ghost, Schnellegeister|
|Habitat||Cities, Countryside, Farmland, Human Society, Mountains|
Where to find
Monsters of Maryland: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Line State, Ed Okonowicz, 2012
Snallygaster: the Lost Legend of Frederick County, Patrick Boyton, 2011
Ghosts and Legends of Frederick County, Timothy L. Cannon, Nancy F. Whitmore, 1979
https://www.newspapers.com/clip/40777776/mythical-bird-in-frog-hollow-mh120232-16/, “Death of snallygaster is reported: Accounts differ,” accessed on January 29, 2023
https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/bs-xpm-2013-10-24-bs-md-backstory-snallygaster25-20131024-story.html, “Backstory: Spinning the tale of the snallygaster,” accessed on January 29, 2023
http://www.fearsomecritters.org/snallygaster.html, “The snallygaster and its abominable friends,” accessed on January 29, 2023
https://www.times-news.com/news/local_news/looking-back-1947-flying-discs-seen-over-cumberland/article_f50abc2f-80f0-57dd-80f8-eaa1ee143992.html, “Looking Back 1947: ‘Flying discs’ seen over Cumberland,” accesssed on January 29, 2023
Last modified on February 21st, 2023 at 11:41 am