by Charly Mann
There have been a long series of strange unsolved murders and mysteries in the history of Chapel Hill. Some are well known and part of the local folklore, and many have been forgotten and never adequately investigated. I will attempt to describe the facts of all of these cases over the next few years in Chapel Hill Memories.
I will begin this series with the best known of these mysteries, the total disappearance in 1833 of UNC student Peter Dromgoole and the Legend of Gimghoul Castle. Dromgoole entered the University of North Carolina in 1831. and was known more for his interest in women and drinking than his academic achievements. The story begins with a letter Peter sent to his family in Virginia in the spring of that year telling them that he might do something that could cause them great sorrow, and that in the event that this occurred, they would probably never hear from him again. The family was alarmed at these words, and quickly dispatched Peter's uncle to Chapel Hill to talk to Peter and find out what he meant.
Gimghoul Castle Chapel Hill, photo 1940
When his uncle arrived there was no trace of Peter. He had vanished, and no one had any clue where he was. All that was left were a few of his clothes. His uncle talked to every student who knew Peter, as well as his professors, and no one had an explanation of what might have happened to him. He also described Peter to the drivers of all the stagecoaches that passed through Chapel Hill, and none of them had any recollection of seeing his nephew. At this point, the uncle returned home to Virginia, and the Dromgoole dissapearance went unsolved.
The modern legend says that Peter was killed in a duel, and buried somewhere near the sight of Gimghoul castle. I have discovered that this is probably true. The earliest evidence of this is the first book ever written about Chapel Hill called the Sea-Gift by Edwin W. Fuller (1847-1875) . It is a semi-autobiographical romantic novel detailing student life and a romantic relationship in Chapel Hill from 1857-1860. A critical part of the novel is a duel and the disappearance of a student much like the Droomgoole story. In the 19th century, dueling was still the way many gentlemen defended their honor or settled disputes. The practice was not condoned by the trustees of the University, and taking any part in a duel meant expulsion. It is for that reason that no student told the truth to Peter's uncle or the local authorities. Nevertheless, Carolina students knew the details of the duel, and passed the story down to incoming students. It was only thirty years after the event that Fuller heard the facts of the story when he was attending UNC.
Gimghoul Castle, Chapel Hill North Carolina
In the early 19th century enrollment at the University never exceeded 160 students, and everyone knew everyone else. In 1831, when Droomgoole came to Chapel Hill, there were very few young eligible women in town for a male students to become romantically involved with. The few young women of that age were usually the daughters of college professors. When Domgoole came to UNC there were probably six dating-age women in town, and they were almost impossible to visit or see unchaperoned. Fuller details his own experience of trying to meet young women in 1857 in his novel. Young men had to request a meeting with the young woman through her parents. If they were deemed worthy, they would be given a time to arrive at their home and be ushered into a parlor, usually with one or more other young men waiting for their few minutes to impress the young girl. When a student finally got into see the girl, she was always accompanied by at least one of her parents.
In 1893, 60 years after Peter vanished, a fellow student, and friend of his, admitted on his deathbed what had really happened. Dromgoole had had a close friend who was interested in the same girl he was. It seems that the girl liked his friend better than Peter, and this made him jealous. One day the two exchanged heated words, and after a small shoving match, Peter challenged this man to a duel.
Order of Gimghouls 1904, 22 years before the castle was built
The site for the duel was Piney Point, a favorite student gathering spot, which is now the site of Gimghoul Castle. From Piney Pont one has a gorgeous view to the East, as far Durham and Raleigh. Each man brought a second with him to the duel. Peter's was probably his roommate John Williams. Needless to say Droomgoole was mortally wounded from his rival's shot. The three other students panicked, realizing the consequences of this act, and hastily dug a grave nearby for Peter's body.
In 1889, Edward Wray Martin, William W. Davies, Shepard Bryan, Andrew Henry Patterson, and Robert Worth Bingham started a secret society at UNC using the story of Droomgoole's death and the secret cover-up as the theme of their group. It was called the Order of Dromgoole, and later changed to the Order of Gimghoul. They built a lodge for their society on the corner of Rosemary and Boundary Street. They also expanded the story into a chivalrous legend that became part of their initiation ceremony. In 1915 they bought several hundred acres of land near the University, including the sight where the duel occurred. That land is today Battle Park, where the Forest Theater is located, which they sold to the University, the Gimghoul residential neighborhood, and the site of their castle.
It is directly behind these boulders on the left that you find the "blood-stained" rock
The castle was built in 1926 for the then huge cost then of $50,000. It resembles an 11th century English Norman castle, and was assembled by the best stone masons in North Carolina. Also built at the same time was Battle Seat, a semicircular stone bench in front of the castle that is a long time favorite spot to take dates for romantic interludes, and where one has the best view in Chapel Hill. Below it is the trail I used almost daily come and go on from my neighborhood to the castle. From there I would continue to the University or downtown.
It is probably somewhere in these woods around Gimghoul Castle where the remains of Peter Dromgoole lie
What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. or the crisp October nights. No, our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is as it was meant to be, The University of the People.