There are so many variations on the story of the Prince George’s County Goatman that it is nearly impossible to keep them straight. For some, he is but a lonely, angry goat herder who went berserk after finding his beloved goats dead due to teens’ tampering. To others, he is in the same family as Bigfoot–a mythical beast that roams the Earth. In perhaps the most bizarre tale of them all, the Goatman is the result of a ghastly experiment at the Beltsville Research Agricultural Center. The USDA facility has actually been forced to deny that one.
The Goatman terrorizes lovers, chases teens and decapitates dogs. He yells, squeals and, yes, makes goat noises. He’s made reported appearances all across the region. He has inspired fear and fascination for decades, but according to historian, author and Mark Opsasnick, the foremost expert on the Maryland legend, there is a canonical Goatman origin story. And it begins on Fletchertown Road in Bowie.
The first media mention of the Goatman came on October 27, 1971, in the Bowie-based Prince George’s County News. In the article, writer Karen Hosler took a deep dive into the University of Maryland Folklore Archives. She mentions the Goatman along with the ghosts and something called the Boaman that also haunt the woods around Fletchertown Road. Two weeks later, Hosler wrote another newspaper article with the headline “Residents Fear Goatman Lives: Dog Found Decapitated in Old Bowie.” The article described the search of a family–the Edwards–for their missing puppy named Ginger. Days later, Ginger was found near Fletchtown Road–dead and headless.
The article connected the deceased dog with the Goatman, saying that a group of teenage girls (including the Edwards’s 16-year-old daughter, April) had heard strange noises and seen a large creature on the night the dog had disappeared. It also reported that sightings of an “animal-like creature that walks on its hind legs” were increasing along Fletchertown Road.
On November 30, the Goatman got its first introduction to a larger audience thanks to the Washington Post. An article headlined “A Legendary Figure Haunts Remote Pr. George’s Woods,” identifies the young men who found Ginger: Ray Hayden, John Hayden, and Willie Gheen. The Prince George’s County Police are also quoted in the piece saying that “the legend just gets passed on from generation to generation” and that they’ve been receiving more recent calls about Goatman sightings.
Opsasnick grew up mere miles from Bowie in Greenbelt and remembers very clearly the first time he heard the Goatman legend. He was in seventh grade and in the backseat of his friend’s older brother’s car. “We would get rides…when we would act up in the backseat, they would tell us to shut the hell up or they’ll dump us on Fletchertown Road and the Goatman will get us,” Opsasnick says. He became enamored of the story.
While attending Roosevelt High School, Opsasnick and his friends would go “Goatman hunting.” In fact, searching for the monster had become a local teen obsession. Opsasnick describes Goatman parties on Fletchertown Road (and nearby Crybaby Bridge on Lottsford Road) that sound like something out of Dazed and Confused. “Halloween night 1979 was one of the craziest nights of my life,” Opsasnick says.
Dr. Barry Pearson is a professor of folklore in the English department at the University of Maryland and was in charge of the aforementioned University of Maryland Folklore Archives. Even today, he says, “If I mention the Goatman on the first day of class, all the locals know exactly what I am talking about.”
Pearson thinks the legend of the Goatman was influenced by car culture in the ’60s and ’70s, which gave teens the freedom to discover the world around them. It might also be tied to what students were learning about Greek culture and the half-man, half-goat god Pan in school. Certainly, the newspaper accounts helped. And goats are, you know, kind of freaky anyway: “Goats are known to be smelly and sometimes kinda charming, but if you look at them closely, especially in their eyes, they are really scary in their own way,” Pearson says.
In 1987, Opsasnick started writing for Strange Magazine and wasted no time getting to the Goatman. In 1994, he wrote what he thinks was the first thoroughly researched piece about the legend, titled “On the Trail of the Goatman.” (He would later expand the article into a chapter for his book). He tracked down the Edwards family and the men who found Ginger.
John Hayden told Opsasnick he and the others had seen an animal the night before–it was about six feet tall, walked on two feet, and was hairy. Hayden also noted that it made a “high-pitched sound, like a squeal.” Opsasnick was also able to speak with April Edwards, Ginger’s owner. “People came here and called it folklore and the papers made us out to be ignorant hillbillies who didn’t know any better,” Edwards said, “but what I saw was real and I know I’m not crazy…. Whatever it was, I believed it killed my dog.”
Mark Opsasnick doesn’t believe the Goatman exists: “I can’t believe in something until I see it with my own eyes,” he says. He feels bad saying that, because he genuinely believes that the people he’s talked to saw something. “I mean, anything is possible in this world,” he says. “Maybe there is a half-man, half-animal creature out there.”
Matt Blitz is the head of the Obscura Society D.C., the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura. He writes about discovering the world’s mysteries for Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Washingtonian.