; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pursuing the Snallygaster

The Blue Ridge Mountains area was settled by German immigrants beginning in the 1730s. Early accounts describe the community being terrorized by a monster called a Schneller Geist, meaning "quick spirit" in German.

It has been suggested the legend was resurrected in the 19th century to frighten freed slaves.

Reports of a strange flying beast known as the Snallygaster first appeared in Frederick County in early February, 1909. The story was carried prominently in Middletown's Valley Register, a weekly newspaper, for about a month, when the story mysteriously died.

In the early issues, the flying beast seemed to be everywhere at once: New Jersey, West Virginia, Ohio, and headed this way. It was reported to have created quite a stir in New Jersey, where its footprints were first discovered in the snow.

The first person to see it, James Harding, described it as having enormous wings, a long sharp beak, claws like steel, and one eye in the middle of its forehead. He said it made shrill screeching noises and looked like a cross between a tiger and a vampire.

A vampire may have been a good description, for it was reported to have killed a man, Bill Gifferson, by piercing his neck with its sharp bill and slowly sucking his blood.

It was also seen in West Virginia, where it almost caught a woman near Scrabble, roosted in Alex Crow's barn, and laid an egg near Sharpsburg, where it was reported some men had rigged up an incubator to try to hatch it.

T.C. Harbaugh, of Casstown, Ohio, wrote a letter to the Valley Register in early 1909, telling of a strange beast that flew over his area making terrible screeching noises. Harbaugh described it as having two huge wings, a large horny head, and a tail twenty feet long. He said it looked as though it was headed this way.

Sure enough, the Snallygaster was first sighted in Maryland by a man who fired a brick-burning kiln near Cumberland. The strange beast was seen cooling it's wings over the outlet of the kiln. When the beast's sleep was disturbed by the man, it emitted a blood-curdling scream and angrily flew away.

It was also shot at near Hagerstown, sighted south of Middletown at Lover's Leap, and seen flying over the mountains between Gapland and Burkittsville, where it was reported to have laid another egg...big enough to hatch an elephant.

Sightings of the Snallygaster were creating such a commotion that at one point it was reported that President Theodore Roosevelt might postpone a trip to Europe so that he could lead an expedition to capture it.

Apparently the Smithsonian Institute was also interested in the beast. From the description provided by a sighting at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, they determined the strange beast was a Snallygaster.

The last sighting in Frederick County in 1909 occurred near Emmitsburg in early March. Three men fought the terrible creature outside a railroad station for nearly an hour and a half before chasing it into the woods of Carroll County.

Twenty-three years passed before the Snallygaster appeared again in Frederick County.

First reports were received from just below South Mountain in Washington County. Eyewitness accounts claimed that it flew toward them from the Middletown Valley.

The beast was often seen flying back and forth over the area and was described as being as large as a dirigible, with arms resembling the tentacles of an octopus. The creature appeared to be able to change its size, shape, and color at will.

Although the creature made no attempt to harm any of the residents of the Valley, most people sought the safety of their homes as it flew overhead.

All descriptions seemed to indicate it was the Snallygaster, last reported in these parts on March 5, 1909. As the life expectancy of a Snallygaster is only about twenty years, the most logical explanation seemed to be that the latest sighting was the offspring of the 1909 creature, possibly hatched from one of the eggs laid near Burkittsville.

Since the Snallygaster appears so rarely, the Middletown Valley Register requested that local residents sighting the creature provide as accurate and detailed a description as possible for scientific purposes.

Two such residents, Charles F. Martin and Edward M. L. Lighter, were able to provide the necessary information. While driving a truck on the National Pike just east of Braddock Heights, they spotted the Snallygaster flying about twenty-five feet overhead. They thoroughly confirmed the descriptions published the previous week.

The Snallygaster finally met his end in a way some might envy. The creature was flying near Frog Hollow in Washington County when it was attracted by the aroma of a 2500-gallon vat of moonshine. As the beast flew overhead, it was overcome by the fumes and dropped into the boiling mash. A short time later, revenue agents George Dansforth and Charles Cushwa arrived on the scene. They had received information about the still, but were rather startled at the sight of the dead monster in the vat.

The two agents exploded five hundred pounds of dynamite under the still, destroying the remains of the Snallygaster and John Barleycorn's workshop.

A great deal has been written about the Snallygaster since 1909. It has appeared in countless articles in the Middletown Valley Register, Frederick News Post, and other area newspapers. Is has also appeared in the Baltimore Sun, National Geographic, and Time Magazine.

In 1976, the Washington Post sponsored an unsuccessful search for the Snallygaster, as well as other strange Maryland creatures.


Snallygaster: German "schnell geiste", a Pennsylvania Dutch term meaning "quick spirit" or "fast spirit" often associated with those strange draughts that slam doors, topple over lightweight objects, or scatter papers. The visual or physical appearance of the Snallygaster is confusing since there are several variation narratives, some having roots in the dragonlore of the early settlers. Thus, the Snallygaster more often has similarities to dragons, green and scaled, and winged.

Tales exist around the South Mountain region where the Snallygaster is a monstrous bird preying on young children. Literary accounts of the Snallygaster were printed in the local newspapers. These narratives were most likely invented tales by two rival editors. To end the rivalry caused the Snallygaster demise; sent plummeting headlong into a boiling vat of whiskey. Such a just end for this unseen spirit. Of interest to scholars is the nature of the various tales likely invented, those which were patterned after Dragonlore, the absence of Native American influence, and its connection to Pennsylvania Dutch lore.

NOTE: even though the Snallygaster is said to be the 'Maryland Monster' you rarely hear much about it...though there have been a few 'hunts' conducted within the Patapsco and Cunningham Falls State Parks in recent years. I even heard that a Snallygaster den was located near Camp David at one time. Believe what you may...Lon

Ghosts & Legends of Frederick County
Monsters of Maryland: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Line State
The Dragon Keeper's Handbook: Including the Myth & Mystery, Care & Feeding, Life & Lore of these Fiercely Splendid Creatures
Weird Maryland: Your Travel Guide to Maryland's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets