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Once upon a time, there was a young man named Peter Dromgoole. That much we know. Beyond that, like all cool legends, the facts grow progressively elastic. Evidently, Peter, the

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Once upon a time, there was a young man named Peter Dromgoole. That much we know. Beyond that, like all cool legends, the facts grow progressively elastic. Evidently, Peter, the

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Peter Dromgoole. That much we know. Beyond that, like all cool legends, the facts grow progressively elastic. Evidently, Peter, the son of a prominent Virginia family, grew restless of his overbearing father and, in 1833, decided to set off to Chapel Hill for university. Peter liked to party, and he supposedly failed his entrance exam. (Hardly the first or last student to struggle to get into UNC from out of state.)

Afforded some unexpected downtime and possibly cruising Franklin Street (affectionately known as The Street), Peter, as the story goes, met a local lass identified only as Miss Fanny. The pair shared strolls to an overlook called Piney Prospect, just east of campus. Peter and Fanny fell madly in love — because this is legend, after all — but there was a second gentleman who also sought Fanny’s affection. Naturally, our anonymous antagonist possessed a jealous streak and thus challenged Peter to a pistol duel, which apparently was the only way to settle disputes back in the day (see: Hamilton).

UNC Chapel Hill students in the Order of Gimghoul secret society.

In the early 20th century, members of the exclusive Order of Gimghoul built themselves a medieval clubhouse that is still used by the group. Photography courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Image Collection #P0004, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill

Sparing the gory details, let’s just say that, according to one version of the story, Peter Dromgoole finished his pistol-dueling career with a 0-1 record, supposedly drawing his last breath on a boulder at Piney Prospect that still bears his crimson bloodstains (a modern UNC geology student has suggested it could be rust). Some of Peter’s buddies, possibly concerned about an honor code violation, allegedly buried Peter beneath the rock. Other versions suggest that Peter might also have zipped off to Europe.

The Dromgoole legend somehow found its way into a lecture in University President Kemp P. Battle’s history class in 1889. Because UNC basketball did not yet exist to occupy the imaginations of young Tar Heels, five inquisitive (and possibly inebriated?) students in Dr. Battle’s class were inspired to create a secret society, open to “notable” male juniors and seniors, and based on the ideals of Arthurian knighthood and chivalry. They dubbed it the Order of Dromgoole. When that title was deemed not creepy enough, the founders ultimately settled on the Order of Gimghoul, “in accord with midnight and graves and weirdness.”

The founders settled on the Order of Gimghoul “in accord with midnight and graves and weirdness.”

In 1915, when the land at Piney Prospect was listed for sale, the knights of Gimghoul kicked in 50 bucks each to purchase the acreage around Dromgoole’s Rock. That area would eventually comprise Battle (yes, that Battle) Park, the Gimghoul residential neighborhood, and, secluded in the forest at the dead end of Gimghoul Road, Gimghoul Castle. (Stumbling onto a medieval castle in Chapel Hill is an anachronism along the lines of discovering that your cousin is a Viking.)

Constructed in the 1920s by Waldensian stonemasons from Valdese, Gimghoul Castle has essentially served as a clubhouse for the Order ever since. The real estate paperwork can be found in the Order of Gimghoul archives at UNC’s Wilson Special Collections Library, which also disclose photos of medallions, nameplates, keys, spoons, and goblet-shaped trophies. There are even a few grainy images from inside the castle, one depicting a formal banquet hall outfitted with chandeliers, bearskin rugs, and a grand fireplace. Supposedly, there are also suits of armor, because of course there are.

• • •

The Dromgoole/Gimghoul legend has become a popular anecdote during UNC freshman orientation, roughly as reliable as the one about sipping from the Old Well on the first day of class to guarantee academic success. Challenging the very definition of a “secret” society, for much of the 20th century, the Order of Gimghoul published a roster of its membership (and, predictably, a secret coded message) in UNC’s yearbook, the Yackety Yack. The alumni, which include notable names — like Craige and Ehringhaus — that now appear on campus dorms, are significantly less yackety in this millennium, having sealed the past 50 years of their records.

Gimghoul Castle is heavily fortified by security cameras and “No Trespassing” signs. Wandering the periphery, hoping for a glimpse of Dromgoole’s Rock, I half-expected a menacing Monty Python figure to pop up from the ramparts, accusing my father of smelling like elderberries. A YouTube search turned up a few poorly planned stormings of the castle by inquisitive (and possibly inebriated?) UNC coeds, many of which concluded with a dismal retreat from an unpleasant encounter with a shadowy caretaker.

Illustration of Gimghoul Castle on old postcard

A vintage postcard depicts the 1920s Gimghoul Castle in its former glory.  Photography courtesy of Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill

According to a 2019 story in UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel — misleadingly headlined “Gimghoul, Exposed” — one intrepid student scanned records of the Gimghoul initiation rituals and posted them to Facebook. Soon after, she claimed to have found a note slipped under her door. Sporting a Gimghoul emblem and sealed in red wax, it read simply, “LOOK NO FURTHER.”

The level of paranoia on campus is such that many of the students I approached on the subject accused me of being a Gimghoul narc leading a nefarious plot to out them. After several weeks of fruitless “investigation,” I finally secured a meeting with the partner of a former Gimghoul leader, who has entered the castle several times. She requested anonymity and admitted that her partner dodges even her questions about the Order (he obviously declined to speak with me). Other anonymous (and possibly credible) sources attest that the Order of Gimghoul currently functions as a prime networking opportunity for well-Heeled knights, whose current weirdness apparently consists largely of — in the true spirit of Peter Dromgoole — an occasional keg party at the castle.

Or not.

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This story was published on Mar 25, 2024

Tim Crothers

Crothers is a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who is currently a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and freelance sports writer. He is the author of The Man Watching, a biography of Anson Dorrance, the legendary coach of the UNC women’s soccer team.