By Charity Cohen
According to popular legend, in 1833, at what is now the location of Gimghoul Castle, two UNC students stood ten paces from one another, waiting anxiously with pistols in hand. Filled with fear, but motivated by love, with hearts racing, palms sweating, and shallow breathing, they prepared for their pistols to be drawn at midnight.
Following a heated exchange earlier that day between Peter Dromgoole and another male student who has never been identified, it was decided that the two would meet in an open field at the eastern edge of UNC’s campus to duel for the love of Miss Fanny, a well-admired woman in the town.
It is said that both students were excellent marksmen, but this proved to be less true for Dromgoole, who was said to be fatally shot in the duel, and died on a large rock nearby that is rumored to still be stained with his blood.
The tragic story of this ill-fated love triangle is one that has been told throughout the town of Chapel Hill for generations — except apparently, none of it actually happened.
It’s true that Dromgoole was a student at UNC, and he did mysteriously disappear around the time of the duel; however, not much can be confirmed about the duel’s existence. In fact, some have argued the folk story was based on a duel fought by Dromgoole’s uncle, George C. Dromgoole, years after in 1837.
Liz Howard, a former UNC student, said she has always been puzzled by the uncertain nature of this legend. Each retelling of it made it even more difficult for her to discern what really happened that night.
“I read that the spirit of whoever died in that duel still lives in that castle, but some say that no one actually died,” she said. “No one seems to be able to prove anything.”
This legend hasn’t proved to be completely useless though, as it inspired the founding of the Order of Gimghoul, a historically white secret society for male upperclassmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
According to a digital exhibit from the university, the Order was founded in 1889 by Robert Worth Bingham, Shepard Bryan, William W. Davies, Edward Wray Martin, and Andrew Henry Patterson — all undergraduate students at the university at the time. Membership was eventually extended to faculty members, and is now said to be comprised of students, faculty and alumni.
Veronica Kirk, a first-year student at UNC, became obsessed with The Order’s mysterious history while she was researching interesting attractions at UNC.
To Kirk’s surprise, her search pointed her in the direction of Gimghoul Castle, which was built by the Order in 1915 after they purchased 94 acres of land to keep the land from development and to build a sacred meeting place.
Housed at the end of the road of a quiet suburban neighborhood, the castle holds whispered stories of local lore, of a fatal love triangle and memories of a secret society. As the road leading to Gimghoul Castle transitions from pavement to dirt, the atmosphere shifts from warm and comforting to cold and sinister. It’s as if the curtain of reality lifts, allowing entry into the fantastical world of the members of the Order.
The castle is closed off for entry, but can be visited and viewed from the dirt road that it is situated on.
Kirk said when she and her mother visited the castle, they felt the castle’s heavy, eerie presence. For Kirk, part of this strange feeling comes from the looming presence of the Order’s members on the university’s campus.
“I know in some of the research I did, they talked about various people who UNC buildings are named after that might have been involved,” she said. “I feel like it’s a weird, kind of eerie presence on campus that does create some level of discomfort.”
Between the years of 1895 and 1946, members of The Order of Gimghoul would insert coded messages into the university’s official yearbook, along with images of the Gimghoul emblem, which features a grinning ghoul wrapped around a column holding the “Mystic Key” and the “Cross of Gimghoul.” The Gimghoul ghoul is depicted with a moon to the left of its head and seven stars to the right of it.
After their last recorded message in the university 1946 yearbook, the Order’s communication with the world beyond the castle’s walls was limited.
Yet within the past few years, instances of their continuance have been seen. A fairly recent account of a sighting of members of The Order marching to the cemetery on Halloween sporting black hoods accompanied by a photo of this sighting can be found on the internet.
This is something that Kirk found to be disturbing.
“They say that sometimes the Order marches through the cemetery to the castle on Halloween with candles and in hoods,” she said. “Thinking of them marching around in black hoods and candles at night is scary.”
Alexis Jamison and Mykēl Yancey, two seniors at UNC, caught wind of this sighting and decided to see if they could see this ritual happening live. They visited Gimghoul Castle on the night of Halloween, but said they never saw any hooded figures entering the castle.
“It felt very spooky because it was Halloween,” Jamison said. “The thought of seeing people marching in hoods also gave me KKK vibes.”
Yancey said the castle seemed out of place and secluded. That alone was unnerving for him.
“I felt uneasy and terrified because it was a medieval castle in the middle of Chapel Hill,” he paused. “In the United States.”
The current status of The Order’s activity is unknown, offering another level of mystery to their history and status — but there’s little doubt that the Order is still around.
A zoning and development application visible on the Town of Chapel Hill’s website said the Order celebrated their 125th anniversary in 2014 and planned to commemorate the milestone with renovations to the castle and the property.
Beyond this record from 2014, there isn’t much to be known of the Order’s current whereabouts, or the capacity in which they operate — as to be expected from a secret society founded on the premise of a folklore legend.
Edited by Brian Rosenzweig