Back Story: Spinning the tale of the snallygaster

Since we're on the cusp of Halloween, better beware of the possible return of the dreaded snallygaster, which has periodically been scaring the dickens out of Marylanders since the mid-1700s.

The what?


The snallygaster is a half-bird, half-reptile creature that swoops down from the clouds searching for its prey of small game, farm animals, inattentive pets and even young children.

I turned to Ed Okonowicz, the Elkton author who has written more than 20 books chronicling the ghosts, monsters, apparitions and other weird goings-on that have raised the hair on the backs of the necks of Marylanders and Delawareans since Colonial times.


In his book "Monsters of Maryland," which was published last year by Stackpole Books, Okonowicz spins the tale of the snallygaster.

When German immigrants settled in Western Maryland and Southern Pennsylvania in the 1700s, he wrote, they brought more than their language, music, dances, customs, beer and bratwurst. They also brought their monsters, the snallygaster being one of them.

"Among the most distinctive creatures to settle in and hide among the wooded niches of America's Eastern mountains and valleys is the snallygaster — a fearsome, dragon-like flying beast," he wrote.

"The creature has been described as having a very long (up to a 25-foot) wingspan, claws with sharp talons made of hot glowing metal. A long, pointed beak, and a third red, blazing eye in the middle of its forehead," he wrote. "Another description tells of a creature that is half-reptile, half-bird, sporting a loud snapping metallic beak lined with razor-sharp teeth, and possessing several octopus-like tentacles."

Okonowicz reports that the snallygaster has a keen sense of smell that aids in helping track down its dinner and emanates an "unpleasant smell."

It derives its unusual name from the German words "schnelle geist" or "schneller geist," which mean "quick spirit" or "fast ghost."

Okonowicz wrote that the snallygaster makes an appearance in the book "Spirits of Frederick," written in 1992 by Alyce T. Weinberg. She points to 1735 as the year the snallygaster first flew onto the scene.

"Since the dragon-flying, child- and animal-snatching monster conducted much of its terrorizing at night, confirmed sightings were rare," wrote Okonowicz. "But the lack of eyeball evidence did not deter country folk from blaming the mountain creature for any misfortune that fell upon the region."


Snallygaster sightings were reported in Maryland newspapers, including this one, as far back as 1906, when one was seen near Frederick.

Even President Theodore Roosevelt had heard the weird tale of the snallygaster and considered postponing an African safari to hunt the hills and mountains of Western Maryland to bag the creature. He later decided Africa was a more important destination.

The snallygaster faded from the scene until 1932, when it was reported that one measuring 14 feet crashed into a moonshiner's mash barrel in the mountains near Middletown and drowned.

But one has to seriously question the validity of this report, considering its source: a moonshiner who might have been performing a little too much quality-control testing on his product.

In 1948, the snallygaster was seen soaring above the spires of Westminster, and in 1973, Maryland State Police began searching Sykesville "for a huge, hairy monster described by residents as a cross between a dwayyo and a snallygaster," The Baltimore Sun reported.

According to lore, the dwayyo hatches from a snallygaster egg and has human traits.


Residents of Sykesville told police that the creature, standing 6 to 7 feet tall with a big bushy tail and black hair, had killed a cow and several dogs, and left behind footprints that measured 131/2 inches long and 6 inches wide.

A woman told the newspaper that she heard it "cry like a baby and then scream like a woman." Several years later, a man told the newspaper that he had been chased by a dwayyo along the banks of the Severn River.

Now, the snallygaster is not to be confused with the "snollygaster," a word that was commonly used in the South beginning in the 1860s to describe a shyster or bad politician.

Probably the last president to employ the term "snollygaster" was Harry Truman, who applied the word in a 1950 letter to Washington Post music critic Paul Hume, who had panned his daughter Margaret's singing.

I called Okonowicz the other day to see if, in his vast experience of exploring and writing about weird things, he had even seen a snallygaster.

"I've never seen one, not even a snallygaster costume," he said. "And if I had seen a real snallygaster, I wouldn't be talking to you right now."