It’s a great winged beast, with scales like a reptile and the wings and talons of a great bird. No. It’s half bird, half wildcat with yellow and black stripes. No. It’s a sable-eyed muskrat with a tuxedo front.
It’s the Snallygaster, and for several years in the late 1920s and early 1930s it caused a sensation in Frederick County, Maryland. Area settlers had told stories already for hundreds of years of a beast that stole chickens and other small farm animals and was generally viewed as a pest by farmers in the region. Many would paint symbols - called “hex signs” - on their barns in the hopes of warding off the monster.
The name “Snallygaster” is actually a mispronunciation of the term Schnellegeister - which is, itself, a corruption of the German term “schnelle geist,” or “quick spirit.” In Pennsylvania Dutch traditions, a “quick spirit” is responsible mostly for things like sudden drafts knocking over lightweight household objects or scattering papers.
For generations, the story didn’t change. No one ever saw the Snallygaster, but everyone assumed it was there. The monster’s reappearance coincided with Prohibition. Moonshiners in the forests and mountains of northern Maryland coopted the old story in an effort to scare revenue agents away and to explain the sounds (like explosions and bending metal) that came from their stills at night.
Accounts of thunderous explosions and loud screeching sounds began circulating with disturbing regularity. As the noises became more common, so did reports of a winged creature - this time with huge tentacles - that would swoop down and snatch grown men up and drag them off into the night. If bodies were found, they were said to be drained of blood and scorched.
A local paper, The Middletown Valley Register, got on the case. Publishing detailed reports of the sightings, they painted a grim picture of the dangerous mountain regions of the area. It was decided that this new monster was the offspring of an egg that had been reported a generation prior.
Other papers jumped in on the act. The Baltimore Sun published articles, as did the Washington Post. As scrutiny increased, more pressure came to catch or photograph the Snallygaster. Supposedly, National Geographic was preparing an expedition to capture it on film.
Trying to avert a panic, the Baltimore Sun reported the Snallygaster’s death in November 1932. A shadowy photo of the dead creature accompanied a questionable account of how it had drowned in a vat of whiskey mash on a Baltimore County farm. By suspicious coincidence, the report stated that Federal Prohibition Officers "inadvertently" blew up the still before the carcass could be examined. In yet another so-called "coincidence", Prohibition ended just a short time later, and in the resulting celebration, the Snallygaster Incident seemed but a foggy, post-hangover delirium.
So beware if you venture out after dark. And whatever you do, stay away from chicken coops and whiskey stills.
Originally blogged at Appalachian History
Ghosts and Legends of Frederick County
by Timothy L. Cannon and Nancy F. Whitmore
Studio 20 Inc, 1979
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