The following is an excerpt from my book Wild & Wonderful (and Paranormal) West Virginia:
There is another type of phantom dog known to haunt West Virginia—this one, though, is jet black in color; it has a fierce red mouth, large paws, and glowing eyes. The dog-like apparition is known as the Snarly Yow, named after a legend that originated in Wales centuries ago. Ghostly black dogs, as well as mysterious black cats, appear quite often in the folklore of the British Isles—sightings are still reported there to this day.
The Snarly Yow is most commonly spotted in the South Mountain area of Maryland. However, the creature’s range extends as far south as Hillsboro, Virginia and encompasses parts of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, especially around Harpers Ferry.
During the early 1900s, many people in the tri-state area reported seeing a massive black dog with a red mouth. The beast often confronted travelers and then quickly disappeared. Curiously, the creature never harmed anyone; it did, however, put a scare into anyone who saw it. Though the Snarly Yow never hurt anyone, people who encountered the creature tried their best to kill it. Their efforts failed—bullets passed right through its body without causing harm or drawing blood. There is a Civil War historical marker in Boonsboro, Maryland with a sidebar briefly recounting an encounter with the Snarly Yow:
Beware of the “Snarly Yow”
Legend has it that the shadow of a black dog used to prowl the heights of South Mountain. One night, a huntsman, famous as a sure shot, encountered the beast. He aimed and fired his rifle. The shot went right through the animal with no effect. He fired again and again, each shot passing through the shadowy beast. Finally overcome with dread, the huntsman fled.
After the rash of sightings in the early 20th century, the Snarly Yow faded into obscurity. This would not last; the legend was resurrected in the 1970s when sightings of the creature began anew.
During the new round of Snarly Yow encounters, motorists began reporting a dog that would suddenly appear in front of their cars. In 1976, a Frederick County, Maryland couple reported hitting a large, bluish-black dog with glowing eyes. When they stopped to investigate, it had vanished without a trace.12 This is a recurring theme with the Snarly Yow. Other motorists have reportedly hit the creature after it materialized in front of their car only to have their vehicle pass through it and see the creature standing in the road behind them.
If the Snarly Yow does exist, and there is enough history behind the legend to suggest that something is going on, it most certainly is an apparition rather than a flesh-and-blood animal. The creature seems to lack physical properties; some witnesses have seen the phantom dog pass through fences.13 Similarly, in the 1970s, a person who became startled by the appearance of the creature began throwing rocks and sticks at it—all of which passed right through its body. The creature glared at its attacker and snarled before disappearing into the brush.14
The entire area where the Snarly Yow has been spotted over the years was a focus of activity during the Civil War. The town of Harpers Ferry was hotly contested and changed hands many times during the conflict. The bloodiest battle of the War Between the States took place in nearby Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Battle of Antietam claimed over 22,000 casualties in a single day of combat. Many ghost stories are set in the area near the Antietam Battlefield.
South Mountain, in Maryland, claimed to be the Snarly Yow’s home, was also the site of intense fighting during the Civil War. Soldiers marching along the hills seemingly made of vapor have been reported. Perhaps the violence and bloodshed of the war somehow brought about the dog-like apparition. However, the mountain has mysteries and mysticism predating the Civil War. Skeleton Indians have been rumored to roam the hillsides.15 Some suggest that the mountain sits on a ley line—energy from the earth, that we do not fully understand, accounts for the supernatural occurrences.
If you favor a more mundane explanation for the Snarly Yow, it might be explained by the introduction of Old World legends brought to the New World by Europeans. This may be. Still, though, something that isn’t fully explainable seems to be taking place on South Mountain and beyond.
- Sue Anne Pressley, “From the Snallyghaster to the Snarly Yow, He Loves the Strange,” Washington Post, October 29, 1989, accessed November 27, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1989/10/29/from-the-snallygaster-to-the-snarly-yow-he-loves-the-strange/fea487c6-728e-4b6c-be63-e88f6801989e/.
- L. B. Taylor, “Some ‘Extraordinary’ Monsters” in Monsters of Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Old Dominion (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2012), 70.
- 15. “’South Mountain Magic:’ Tales of Fact and Fantasy.” The Morning Herald (Hagerstown, MD), January 20, 1975.