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October 28, 2009

Halloween and The Snallygaster

Kevin E. Dayhoff

This Saturday is Halloween and taking break from local and national politics could not come a moment too soon.


Of course when the conversation turns to that of witches, potions, goblins, snallygasters, and the appearances of the supernatural, one may easily conjure-up visions of the contemporary American and Maryland political landscape.


With the exception of historic curiosity, imaginative ghost stories and watching children in the community enjoy the holiday, I have never been a big fan of Halloween. Fortunately, in the United States, the observance of Halloween is secular and celebrated as a part of pop culture.


Harkening back to the ancient origins of the observance, many communities had a fall harvest parade that over the years has become known as a Halloween parade.


Halloween was a day of religious festivities in various northern European and Germanic societies until the Romans and subsequently Christian missionaries appropriated it.


This centuries-old folk observance has a great oral history tradition that is particularly important as it explains the origin of many commonly used words, phrases, and customs – especially in north-central Maryland.


The term “Halloween” derives from Hallowe'en. This is an old contraction of "All Hallow's Eve” as it is the day before “All Saints Day” observed by some Christians. All Saints Day used to be called "All Hallows" or “All Hallowed Souls.”


As did many ancient civilizations, the Celts of England had a calendar that began with November 1 to coincide with the fall harvest of crops. Interestingly enough, the Celtic day begins at sundown. The harvest festival began every year at sundown on October 31 and Druids in the British Isles would light fires and offer sacrifices.


These fires were intended to keep the homes free from evil spirits such as "Sidhe." Pronounced "shee," the most notable of which are the “beán sidhe” or “banshees,” as when Mom would say that I am acting like a banshee.


At this time of year it was believed that the invisible "gates" between this world and the spirit world were opened and free movement between both worlds was possible.


Bonfires played a large part in these festivities and villagers would cast the bones of cattle into the flames to appease the spirit world. The word "bonfire" is derived from these "bone fires."


One symbol of Halloween, the jack-o'-lantern, has its origins in the carving of a turnip. 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, larger and easier to carve.


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 in some areas as “Mischief Night,” is often associated with pranks – a tradition that we can certainly do without today.


Perhaps the most elaborate example of a Mischief Night prank was Orson Welles' radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, originally aired on October 30, 1938. Mr. Welles' broadcast, passed off as a live newscast detailing the invasion of the United States by Martians, was accepted as real by many listeners and created a public panic.


Seems that no other season of the year brings out more ghost stories than Halloween – especially in Frederick and Carroll counties, where the belief in witches (“hex” in German) and supernatural spirits were part of the northern European-German culture brought into this area by the settlers.


For example, the word snallygaster doesn’t seem to be used as much in recent years, but it comes from a combination of two German words – "schnell geiste” – meaning "quick spirit."


From “Ghosts and Legends of Frederick County” by Timothy L. Cannon and Nancy F. Whitmore, we learn: “Reports of a strange flying beast known as the Snallygaster first appeared in Frederick County in early February, 1909. The story was carried prominently in Middletown’s Valley Register, a weekly newspaper, for about a month, when the story mysteriously died…


“Sightings of the Snallygaster were creating such a commotion that at one point it was reported that President Theodore Roosevelt might postpone a trip to Europe so that he could lead an expedition to capture it…


“The last sighting in Frederick County in 1909 occurred near Emmitsburg in early March. Three men fought the terrible creature outside a railroad station for nearly an hour and a half before chasing it into the woods of Carroll County…


“…the Snallygaster (was) last reported in these parts on March 5, 1909…. A great deal has been written about the Snallygaster since 1909. It has appeared in countless articles in the Middletown Valley Register, Frederick News Post, and other area newspapers. Is has also appeared in The Baltimore Sun, National Geographic, and Time Magazine.


“In 1976, the Washington Post sponsored an unsuccessful search for the Snallygaster, as well as other strange Maryland creatures.


“Frederick County is known for a great many things, but most will agree that none is as imaginative as the Snallygaster.


“Those of us who have been entertained by stories of the Snallygaster owe our thanks to the resourceful staff of the Middletown Valley Register, particularly George C. Rhoderick, Sr., and Ralph S. Wolfe, Sr., who in 1909 thought they would write a little nonsense to entertain the readers and boost circulation. Little did they realize that their imagination would continue to amuse for seventy years.”


When I was young, snallygasters were responsible for those unexplainable gusts of wind that closed doors, scattered papers, or in my experience – ate my homework.


Although my wife doesn’t believe me, in the current chaos of my office, I’m convinced that Mr. Schnell Gieste is still around and responsible for some papers that I can’t find. Happy Halloween.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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