Mysteries, Oddities, and Everything Strange: Snallygaster


Bridget Vaughan, Staff Writer

Snallygaster: A Gruesome Griffin

The realm of fantasy is a pretty exciting place. Wizards, witches, dragons, fairies, and knights in shining armor are only some of the most common entities found in tales of heroism and magic. One of the most well-known of these caricatures is the griffin, a hybrid of a lion and an eagle and a noble steed of many fictional protagonists like Harry Potter. The griffin is not the only famous fictional hybrid of mythological history. Some of these fusions are grand creatures left to vanish into history, but there is one certain gruesome creature that has terrorized central Maryland that defies this reputation. That creature is the Snallygaster, and its reputation as a terrifying chimera has preceded it.

The name “Snallygaster” doesn’t really strike fear into any listeners. It seems like a made-up sea creature that some seaside town would market as a local legend and sell merchandise for outrageous prices. Most descriptions of the Snallygaster have been rather rancid images, most notably denoted as a half-reptile and half-bird. An image of the creature can have any number of different animal features, like octopus tentacles, bird wings, and lion claws, among others. Many accounts from hundreds of years ago describe the Snallygaster as a hybrid between a bird and a demon or ghoul. Its preferred method of terrorizing locals doesn’t come from direct encounters but rather visiting them in the night and stealing cattle or unattended children.

The first modern accounts come from the 1730s, as German immigrants first colonized the Maryland area, specifically Frederick County. After witnessing the Snallygaster, they called it a “Schneller Geist” (translated roughly as quick spirit). The German witnesses described a long and powerful beak full of deadly teeth and a siren-like, terrifying exterior. It was noted to suck the blood of its victims using tentacles that protruded from its mouth in a grotesque fashion. The Germans reportedly used stars with seven points, which somehow scared the creature off and prevented any attacks from occurring. These relics still remain on many buildings in the Frederick county area as a reminder of the Snallygaster’s terrors.

The legend died down for some time, used as a tale to scare enslaved people into remaining on plantations and those who had escaped bondage from being returned to the institution. Serious registered sightings did not pick up again until 1909, when in February and March of that year local newspapers reported a beast with the usual features—spare a bulging eye in the center of its forehead. It had powerful steel-like claws, an enormous wingspan, and a call that mimicked loud train whistles at the time. A March edition even claimed that someone had been the victim of the Snallygaster, having his blood drained and then abandoned atop a hill. The article published by Valley Register in Middletown, Maryland caught the attention of then-president Theodore Roosevelt, who expressed interest in canceling a safari trip to Africa to pursue it. The Smithsonian Museum issued a reward for anyone who managed to score a piece of its hide.

Despite the national interest, newspaper authors George Rhoderick and Ralph Wolfe later revealed that they had collected details from local folklore to manufacture a tale that would bring more readers in, using other famous cryptids at the time as reference (such as the Jersey Devil). Despite its fictitiousness, reports began to spread like wildfire on the east coast. People from New Jersey, West Virginia, and Ohio all submitted terrifying tales of their experiences with the Snallygaster. In Maryland, a man working in Cumberland at a blacksmith workshop saw the creature, who promptly flew away after encountering him. Hagerstown, Lover’s Leap, Gapland, Burkittsville, Frederick county, and Carroll county all had prompt sightings. After this Snallygaster mania, the sighting rate died down significantly. The last reported sighting of the Snallygaster occurred in 1932.

The Snallygaster, although an old legend, has remained prominent in pop culture. It was featured as a mythical creature in J.K. Rowling’s arguably most famous book series of all time, Harry Potter. Washington D.C. hosts an annual bear festival called “Snallygaster” and it even makes an appearance in the Bethesda game Fallout 76. There is a Snallygaster museum located in Libertytown, Maryland, and local farms in Frederick county sell an ice cream flavor with the name of the creature: peanut butter ice cream with caramel, pretzels, and peanut butter cups. Even though the craze of the Snallygaster died down nearly a century ago, its reputation puts it as a highlight of local Maryland culture. So if anyone is to visit Washington D.C. in the near future, take a jaunt into the countryside to learn more about the underappreciated legend.