Beware the Snallygaster
Photo courtesy of The Maryland Room
On Halloween, when vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and witches start to arrive at your door, keep an eye out for the Snallygaster.
The Snallygaster is one of Maryland's own cryptids, a creature that falls "outside of taxonomic records." These are the animals of myth and legend, the creatures that are seen but whose existence is never proven. These are the beasts whose photographs are always out of focus, always fuzzy. What does the Snallygaster look like? How will you know it when it appears on your doorstep looking for candy? (Truthfully, the Snallygasters are more known for their fondness of blood than candy corn.)
Perhaps the Snallygaster's most defining feature is its one eye and its very large wings. Other characteristics are debated, but it probably has a beak. It is reported as having claws, but it is also reported as having hooves. At times it has tentacles. It is reptilian, it is bird-like. It resembles a flying octopus.
The word Snallygaster has its origins in the German phrase "schneller geist," meaning quick spirit. There are early references to ghosties and ghoulies that could be the Snallygaster throughout Frederick's history. The documented Snallygaster, however, is a twentieth century beast. The first newspaper article about the Snallygaster appeared in 1909 in the Middletown Valley Register. A smattering of articles appeared during that time. The Snallygaster then went dormant in this area until 1932, when a series of sightings were again reported in the Middletown paper.
The Snallygaster's travels throughout Maryland are not limited to Frederick County. It has been seen not only in neighboring Carroll and Washington Counties, but as far away as Baltimore and Cecil Counties.
Some accounts place Snallygaster activity in Ohio and West Virginia, communities that have migrant patterns out of Western Maryland. Coincidence - or an illustration of cultural traditions?
While people may have seen less of the Snallygaster as the twentieth century progressed, it was still very much in the minds of Frederick Countians. In the late 1940s, for example, a Thurmont algebra teacher would threaten his less studious charges with the beast. He also threw erasers at them. It is unclear which threat was more successful.
Information about the Snallygaster can be found in several books on Maryland legends. There is a Snallygaster chapter in both "Spirits of Frederick" (1992) and "Weird Maryland" (2006). The definitive history of the Snallygaster tale was recently published by local researcher Patrick Boyton in "The Snallygaster: The Lost Legend of Frederick County."
Boyton's well-researched book details the history of the legend, its coverage in local newspapers, and the role of this beast in popular culture. Did you know that the Snallygaster has a connection to Teddy Roosevelt? Boyton's book explains this presidential interest in our local beast.
In the coming months the public will have several opportunities to talk to Boyton and learn more about the Snallygaster. Just in time for Halloween, he will be speaking at 7 p.m. Monday at the Middletown Branch of Frederick County Public Libraries. For further information about this sighting please call the Middletown Branch at 301-371-7560.
If you happen to see the Snallygaster this Halloween please let the Maryland Room know. Snallygaster sightings can be reported to 301-600-1368.
Mary K. Mannix manages the Maryland Room in the C. Burr Artz Public Library, 110 E. Patrick St., Frederick.