This guest post is by Courtney Pomeroy, social media specialist in the Library’s Office of Communications.
In the 2012 horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” as two characters are commenting on the film’s main antagonists (no spoilers), one character states: “They’re like something from a nightmare.”
“No,” another character protests. “They’re something nightmares are from…. remnant of the old world.”
As I re-watched the film recently, this line sent chills down my spine as I thought about what kind of unknown creatures may have once roamed the Earth… and which still might. As the days get shorter and the nights get longer, it is a good time of year to think about that sort of thing. Cryptids, that is. Creatures that have not actually been proven to exist, but still enjoy a generous amount of lore.
Despite humanity’s scientific advances over the centuries, there are still those who ignore all geological and astronomical evidence to the contrary, choosing to believe (as many once did) that the Earth is flat. And there are still those who swear, flying in the face of the best zoological information available, that monsters are lurking in the depths of Loch Ness, or the remotest parts of North American forests, or in the inky black shadows on the outskirts of Latin American livestock fields.
Those locations suggest, of course, some of the most famous cryptids: the Loch Ness monster, Big Foot and the Chupacabra. But there are many others out there. And although these stories were and are part of the oral tradition, being obvious choices for campfire tales, you can also find mentions of them in print. Look no further than historic newspapers.
I happen to have been born and raised in Maryland, and one of the most famous regional cryptids is the Snallygaster, a linguistic evolution of what German settlers apparently called the creature: “Schneller Geist.” Those who did not grow up in this area may associate the term “Snallygaster” with a popular local beer festival, but long before the craft brewing craze co-opted it, it was a far more sinister. A dragon-like creature, half-reptile, half-bird, with sharp teeth and sometimes described as having tentacles, was thought to be dangerous to humans and livestock alike.
A search for “Snallygaster” in the Chronicling America* newspaper archive turns up quite a few mentions, the first being the December 1932 edition of the Montgomery County Sentinel. Alongside a story about the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s plans for a new pumping station, an exceedingly alliterative headline reads: “Sleeping Snallygaster Snores Serenely In Sugar Loaf Sunday; Seven Snares Set.”
The first line of the story reads: “It has been 23 years since the dreaded winged monster, the ‘Snallygaster,’ has appeared in the Western section of Maryland. With a spread of at least 30 feet, reaching out his tentacles like some prehistoric inhabitant of the Miocene age, the Snallygaster, or winged Vovalopus, has been seen by two score residents of Washington, Frederick and Upper Montgomery counties within the past two weeks.”
The article and the subheadline make it clear that the legend of the Snallygaster, at some point over the many decades since it had first frightened the German settlers of the area, had been appropriated by bad actors with political motivations and used as a tool for suppressing the votes of Black Marylanders.
“Why the Snallygaster prefers, even insists upon the negro as food, is not clearly known,” the article says. “Some say that he appears after every election when the result shows that the colored voter cast his ballot for a Democrat. Others say that is just a G.O.P. fairytale and that the creature was originally an inhabitant of Liberia and the West Indes [sic] and therefore has always been accustomed to the same sustenance.”
Further north in the mid-Atlantic region, we find another airborne creature: The Jersey Devil. This one is so ingrained in the folklore of the region that the state’s NHL team is named after it.
The lore of the Jersey Devil, or the Leeds devil, was born in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, an enormous stretch of relatively undisturbed coniferous forest. More than a million acres of rural wooded land, a stone’s throw from some of the most populated areas of the country: A delicious recipe for urban legends. The area has been studied extensively by the Library’s American Folklife Center, including Stephen Winick, who previously ran the Delaware Valley Folklife Center in Camden. Stephen has written before about the Jersey Devil, reporting that an October 1790 sighting by woodsman Vance Larner is largely recognized as the first appearance, if far from the last. Larner wrote in his diary:
“It was neither beast nor man nor spirit, but a hellish brew of all three. It was beside a pond when I came upon it. I stopped and did not move. Nay, I could not move. It was dashing its tail to and fro in the pond and rubbing its horns against a tree trunk. It was as large as a moose with leather wings. It had cloven hooves as big around as an oak’s trunk. After it was through with the tree, it yielded an awful scream as if it were a pained man, and then flew across the pond until I could see it no more.”
More than a century later, there were sightings all the way in Delaware, as reported by the Evening Journal on January 22, 1909:
“The uncanny creature known variously as the “air hoss,” the “Leeds devil,” “Jabbernosk” and the “Grosswauk” that has started all New Jersey and Pennsylvania has come into Delaware. Last night it was reported to have been seen in Brandywine Village, Elsmere, duPont’s Banks, Holly Oak, Hillcrest and Claymont. It is believed the monster came from Philadelphia, where it has been scaring people for several nights.”
Heading out west, we come to the territory of the Grand Canyon wild man. “An Additional Attraction Has Been Provided at the Great Gorge,” a subheadline for a Bisbee Daily Review article on June 11, 1903 reads.
In the article, an I.W. Stevens of Cedar, Colorado, describes his encounter with the “wild man,” which is apparently just one of “many strange stories” of a similar nature told by travelers to the area over the years.
“I saw sitting on a large boulder a man with long white hair and matted beared (sic) that reached to his knees… He wore no clothing, and upon his talon-like fingers were claws at least two inches long. A coat of gray hair nearly covered his body, with here and there a spot of dirty skin showing, I had found the ‘wild man’ of the rocks!”
Stevens’ account goes on to describe the wild man’s “fiery green eyes” and an enormous club that he allegedly witnessed him use on two cougar cubs, whose blood he then drank. Stevens ends his account by supposing the wild man could be just a feral old man, driven mad by an encounter with “hostile Indians” and his time alone in the wilderness.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the “wild man” is also known as the Mogollon Monster, Arizona’s version of Bigfoot, and while Stevens’ account is the first in the newspaper archive, there have been others. They are detailed in a BLM Cryptids of North America report released in 2020.
Finally, popping all the way over to the West Coast, searches for “Cadborosaurus” turn up stories of a Pacific Northwest sea monster. A June 1936 article in The Daily Alaska Empire has quite a bit of context for such a small clip.
“1,300 Pound Sea Monster Discovered,” the headline reads. The article says crowds on Copalis Beach in Aberdeen, Washington, found a beached monster with “a long goat-like head, a body tapered like a buffalo’s and a 4-foot tail similar to that of a muskrat.”
“There is a possibility the monster may be a relative of Amy Cadborosaurus, a Vancouver sea serpent found a few years ago,” the piece goes on to say.
An earlier clip, an Associated Press brief in the April 1934 issue of Washington, D.C.’s The Sunday Star has a Victoria, British Columbia, dateline and simply reads: “Old Caddy and Amy Hiaschuckaluck Cadborosaurus, Pacific Northwest sea serpents, have been visited by the stork, Jordan River people believe. Mr. And Mrs. Charles Linder and Mr. and Mrs. A. Cox reported they saw the infant, which was about 25 feet long. They have named the youngster “Jorda.”
It’s worth noting that a generic search for “sea serpent” seems to indicate there was somewhat of a society-wide obsession with the creatures in the early 1900s, with many articles weighing the legitimacy of serpent sightings made around the globe.
Is there a hyper-local creature-based folktale in your own hometown, such as the Loveland frog of Ohio, or Champ, the Lake Champlain monster? If they don’t (yet) appear in Chronicling America, you might try checking your own local library’s newspaper collection, or your state’s folklife center to learn more about the odd tales that originated near you!
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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My father grew up near Frederick, Maryland. When I would show him some random insect bite or scratch, he would often declare, “Looks like a Snollygaster bite” (spelling derived from his pronunciation).
I never heard anyone else use this term, and was surprised to find this listed in the book ‘Weird Maryland’. I had thought my father made this up.
I live on Passamaquoddy Bay in downeast Maine. The local Passamaquoddy/Maliseet legendary sea monster is the Apotamkin, a serpent-like creature with long red hair that pulls people into the bay (particularly children) to eat them. Some have said the legend may have arisen when an oarfish (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oarfish) went off course and wound up in the bay. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apotamkin