For nearly two centuries, the legend of Peter Dromgoole has enchanted the students of Chapel Hill – an irresistible story of a lover’s spat, a moonlight duel and a secret burial beneath a bloodstained boulder.
In the most romantic version, young Dromgoole quarreled with a fellow student in 1833 over the affections of a woman known only as Miss Fanny, choosing to settle the rivalry as gentlemen scholars: with pistols.
And as Dromgoole fell from his challenger’s bullet, dying in Miss Fanny’s arms, his blood spilled onto the rock that would conceal his body, forming an everlasting stain that lured generations of UNC freshmen into the dark.
The story proved so alluring that in 1889, it helped inspire the Order of Gimghoul, a secret student society with a gargoyle logo and a castle that still lurks in the woods just north of the UNC campus. Dromgoole and Fanny remain Chapel Hill’s most famous ghosts, and the list of UNC’s past Gimghouls includes luminaries from Bill Friday to Frank Porter Graham.
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But a new book from E.T. Malone Jr., a UNC alumnus who lives in Warrenton, reveals what really became of Dromgoole after his famous 1833 disappearance – a true story that involves no duels, boulders or Miss Fanny but still ends in murder.
In the book, Dromgoole is transformed from the wild and moody debauchee of legend into the son of a stern, overbearing Methodist minister. In the pages of “Dromgoole: Twice-Murdered,” Chapel Hill’s misunderstood folk figure is shown to be a student who tried and failed at academic success and then fled campus in shame – using an alias and never contacting anyone from his past life.
Stop reading now if the ghost story is too appealing to destroy.
But in Malone’s book, the Dromgoole who inspired the Gimghouls died a lonely death in Florida, an Army sergeant killed by a musket blast from one of his own soldiers – an older Irish immigrant who blamed the crime on drunkenness and repented on the gallows.
The true story
Though Malone shatters the Dromgoole myth, he creates a story that is equally rich and all the better for being true. Malone spent four years on the trail, poring over microfilm, military records and through graveyards before finding his man in St. Augustine.
He cautions that he is no professional historian, rather an ex-journalist, former English professor at N.C. Central University and Episcopal priest. But he has some connections to the story through family and has always nursed a desire to dig deeper. To Malone’s knowledge, no one else ever wrote more than a chapter or two about the doomed student.
“In a sense,” he said, “it would have been nice to leave it as an unsolved mystery. As I found out what happened to him and eventually went to his grave and put my hand on the tombstone, I’m glad I pursued it to the end. I felt he had made a new start but nobody knew it. He made recompense for his transgression, but nobody in North Carolina ever knew it.”
The Dromgoole fantasy story did not emerge immediately after the boy disappeared in 1833.
It grew in campus lore thanks to Dromgoole’s Uncle George, a UNC alumnus and congressman from Virginia, who really did duel with an innkeeper named Daniel Dugger on the banks of the Roanoke River. News of a congressman fatally shooting a man over a barroom insult and a slap made for huge headlines in 1837, only four years after Peter Dromgoole went missing.
So to Malone’s mind, the stories blended into one with Miss Fanny thrown in for spice.
The real story is twisted over decades, wrapping around multiple UNC personalities, particularly President Kemp Plummer Battle, who helped nurse the duel story from his classroom. The scholars who formed the Gimghoul society were drawn to its homegrown mystery and romance.
But few realize that Peter Dromgoole spent only a brief few months in Chapel Hill. He had failed his entrance examinations and felt enormous guilt, and as a double blow, had committed some academic sin grave enough for UNC faculty to write his father in Virginia.
Letters of shame
In a pair of 1833 letters unearthed almost a century letter, Dromgoole wrote his father in shame, announcing his plans to leave for either Europe or the American West.
“I have determined never more to see that parent’s face whom I have treated with so little respect,” wrote Droomgoole.
He might have disappeared forever but for a Presbyterian minister and acquaintance of the Dromgoole family, who spotted the fleeing student in Wilmington and encountered his landlady. In a letter Malone’s book details, the landlady disclosed that her tenant had been introducing himself around town as John Williams – the name of his former Tar Heel roommate.
Under that name, he joined the Army in Wilmington and rose quickly to the rank of sergeant. He got dispatched to Florida to serve in the wars with the Seminole tribe being uprooted at the time. But after years of digging through military records and news clippings, traipsing through graveyards, Malone found him in St. Augustine – victim of a private named Samuel Wright.
“I was drunk,” Wright lamented at his execution, “and from some aspersions thrown on me by the unfortunate victim of my folly, I committed the deed for which I suffer. ... Adieu, world!”
Having resurrected Dromgoole from his rocky grave in Chapel Hill, only to discover him ingloriously shot in a Florida Army camp, Malone had a new name for the subject of his book: “Twice-Murdered.”
Whatever Dromgoole left behind in Chapel Hill, whatever loss of dignity, whatever made-up ghost story, he reinvented himself in the end.
“When I, coming from North Carolina, placed my hand on his stone,” wrote Malone, “it seemed that some sort of spiritual circuit had been completed.”
Somewhere, a smile must be crossing the lips of the ill-fated Tar Heel, whose story is finally told.
“Dromgoole: Twice-Murdered” is available for $29.95 through E.T. Malone’s Literary Lantern Press at www.malonesmaps.com.
The Order of Gimghoul is a secret student society in Chapel Hill with Hippol Castle (sometimes referred to as Gimghoul Castle) as its meeting place. Built in 1924, the castle cost nearly $50,000 and required hundreds of tons of stone. Few enter the castle, and it remains, like its society, a campus curiosity.