Posts Tagged ‘Western Maryland’

The life and death of the snallygaster

March 8, 2014


I recently came across the following on John Michael Greer’s The Archdruid Report.  It brought back a lot of memories.

One of my solstice presents this year was a lively little book, Mysteries and Lore of Western Maryland by local author Susan Fair. Most parts of the United States have at least one book like it, collecting the ghost stories, spooky tales, and weird creatures of the area, and this one is a good and highly readable example of the species.

Reading it took me back to some of the least wretched hours of my childhood, when I found refuge from a disintegrating family, and a school life marred by American education’s culture of mediocrity and bullying, by chasing down anything that made the walls of the world press a little less closely against me on all sides. Monster lore played a significant role in that process, and so I was delighted, in reading Fair’s book, to make the acquaintance of one of the local “fearsome critters,” the snallygaster.

SnallygasterAny of my readers who happen to be adept in American monster folklore will no doubt be leaping for their keyboards to tell me that the same word’s spelled “snoligoster” or “snollygoster” elsewhere. Yes, I know; it’s different here. (In western Maryland, for reasons I haven’t yet deciphered, the letter A is more popular than its rival vowels; the Native American name for the local mountain range, written out as “Allegheny” everywhere else, is spelled “Allegany” here and rhymes with “rainy.”)

The snallygaster, as I was saying, was a dragonlike creature with huge wings, a long pointed tail, a single eye in the middle of its forehead, and octopuslike tentacles that dangled behind it as it flew.

This remarkable apparition was apparently all over western Maryland in 1909, and then again in 1932; during both flaps, the newspapers splashed the story all over the front page of issue after issue, and everyone in the region seems to have known someone who knew someone who knew someone who just missed seeing it.

Even when it met its end—it drowned, according to newspaper reports, after falling into a 2500-gallon vat of illegal whiskey in the notorious local moonshiner’s haven of Frog Hollow—its presence was evanescent: its body dissolved in the liquor, and the government agents who were raiding the operation when the snallygaster met its doom proceeded to break open the vat and spill the contents, rather than bottling and selling what would surely have been the most unique beverage ever produced by the region’s less-than-legal distilling industry.

via The Song of the Snallygaster.

I grew up in Williamsport, Md., in the 1940s and early 1950s and worked on the Hagerstown newspaper from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, and knew the story of the snallygaster.   I always thought of it as a tall tale told tongue-in-cheek.  Maybe not.