Witch hunt thankfully not a Halloween tradition in Carroll [Eagle Archives]

A snallygaster relaxes in a moment of contemplation about whether or not there are any ghosts at the Westminster Cemetery.
A snallygaster relaxes in a moment of contemplation about whether or not there are any ghosts at the Westminster Cemetery. (Photo by Kevin E. Dayhoff, Oct. 22, 2013)

Get ready: Next Thursday is Halloween!

Celebrated in much of the western world for centuries, its observance in the United States is celebrated as a part of pop culture.


Carroll County oral and written traditions are full of references to ghouls and goblins and ghost stories. Seems that no other season of the year brings out more ghost stories than Halloween—especially in Carroll.

Historian Joe Getty reported in research he did for the Historical Society of Carroll County many years ago that the belief in witches and supernatural spirits were part of the northern European-German culture brought into this area by its settlers.


"Newspapers articles from the turn-of-the-century also document other Halloween customs such as trick-or-treating and parties held in the homes," wrote Getty. "Pumpkin pie, gingerbread, cider, apples and homemade candy were popular refreshments at Halloween parties. Local businesses also sponsored seasonal events such as the annual pumpkin contest held at Wampler's Furniture."

You might be surprised to learn, that one popular Halloween custom, the jack-o'-lantern, has its origins in the carving of a turnip. Not as tasty, by the way, if you are making pie.

Although several hundred years ago pumpkins were quite smaller than they are today, colonials used a pumpkin because it was more easily available than turnips.

The practice of carving a frightening face and placing fire inside the pumpkin was to frighten away banshees or "schnell geistes" from the spirit world.

The night before Halloween, known to many as "Mischief Night," is often associated with pranks—a tradition that we can certainly do without today.

Although political witch-hunts are still popular in Maryland, one tradition that fortunately never caught on in Carroll County is the practice of "the hanging of women assumed to be witches."

Yes, gentle reader, you read that correctly. It is suggested that you hide underneath the bed as you read the rest of the story. Just saying.

If you will recall, in Salem, Mass. in the summer of 1692, 19 men and women were convicted of being witches and hung.  An additional octogenarian was crushed to death under rocks for refusing to agree to go on trial.

Hundreds of townsfolk were accused of being witches and many spent months in the lock-up awaiting trials, until everyone went back on their medication and just as quickly as the hysteria began, it stopped.

Now the historian in all of us wants to know, why did this witch hunt happen? Apparently, it was all a bad combination of economic conditions, constituent strife, boredom, and personal jealousies.

However, you say, that occurred in Salem.  Something like that could have never occurred in Maryland, could it?  I'm glad you asked.

According to research by Getty, Carroll County native son and celebrated jurist, Judge Francis Neal Parke wrote an article entitled 'Witchcraft in Maryland' that was published in the December 1936 edition of the Maryland Historical Magazine. In the article, he examined five cases of alleged witchcraft that took place in Maryland colonial courts.


For those not familiar with Judge Parke, according to Getty, he "was born in Westminster in 1871 and admitted to the bar in 1893. He was appointed Chief Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit in 1924 and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1941. He returned to private practice until his death in 1955."

Local attorney, and my childhood Babe Ruth League baseball coach, Neal Hoffman, is named after Judge Parke.

Getty wrote, "Judge Parke's research focused on how the courts of colonial Maryland dealt with issues of alleged witchcraft. The earliest cases involved the hanging of women assumed to be witches while aboard ships travelling from England to the colonies in 1654 and 1658.

"Five cases before the colonial courts of alleged witchcraft were examined in detail by Parke. The first four cases occurred between 1665 and 1686, and the fifth was in 1712. These cases involved the prosecution of four women and one man. In general, the charges were practicing the black arts upon their victims to cause their bodies to be wasted, consumed and pined.

"The Maryland courts adhered to the statute of James I that imposed the death penalty when the victim was 'killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined or lame in his or her body or any part thereof.' The results in the five cases involved one death penalty for which the defendant was executed, one death penalty for which there was a reprieve, two acquittals and one case where the charges were dropped.

"From the historical perspective of the Salem witchcraft trials, Parke concludes that: 'A review of the judicial and historical material now available does not indicate that there ever was a period of maniacal prosecution [in Maryland]. In view of the almost universal belief of the times in witchcraft and its malign consequences, the statute would seem to have been enforced with moderation and restraint.'"

In recent years, our arsenal of protections from ghouls, goblins, witches and "maniacal prosecutions," does not seem to include many references to the word "snallygaster." The word comes from a combination of two German words: "schnell geiste," meaning "quick spirit."

As I was growing up in Carroll, the "Schnell Gieste" or snallygasters were often responsible for gusts of wind that closed doors, scattered papers or, in my experience, ate my homework.

Although my wife doesn't believe me, the current chaos of my office convinces me that Mr. Schnell Gieste is still around, and is responsible for some of the papers I simply can't find.

Maybe a turnip pie or better yet, some Halloween chocolate will bring 'em back. Happy Halloween.

When he is not looking for chocolate to ward off the evil spirits, Kevin Dayhoff may be reached at kevindayhoff@gmail.com

Recommended on Baltimore Sun