Ed Okonowicz, a writer and former University of Delaware professor, used to give ghost tours through the campus.
His first stop was always Old College.
That’s where the life of John Edward Roach ended on March 30, 1858, and the stories of his ghost began with tales of strange occurrences in the building.
Roach was surrounded by a large group of students when he died, according to Okonowicz and other sources, and he died on an infamous spot.
“I think it was the Choctaw Indians that came to campus on an exchange program from the Midwest to the East Coast,” Okonowicz said. “There were about 11 of them on campus, and this guy fell down the steps of the Old College and had his cracked open and he died.”
Roach died on the same spot, Okonowicz said.
Richard C. Quick chronicled Roach’s death for the now-defunct journal “Delaware Notes” in 1858.
The yearly Junior Oratory, an event at which Junior classmen would deliver addresses to show off what they had been learning to family and friends, had just been announced by the Delaware Gazette.
The oratory for that year was different than previous ones because it combined the junior and sophomore classes. The doubling up reflected the bad finances of Delaware College — UD’s predecessor.
“The financial issues weighed much more heavily on the Board and tiny Faculty of Delaware College at that time, as one can see fiscal problems mentioned in the Board’s and the Faculty’s respective minutes,” said Lisa Gensel, coordinator of UD Archives, in an email.
“But at a small college where the president was also an instructor, the young men attending couldn’t have been unaware. And I would think that caused lower morale than there would have been were the school booming.”
It was common for rival classes to put out a spoof of the Oratory’s program literature designed to blatantly insult the speakers.
The name of the 1858 spoofed pamphlet was “Drovus Junirum Donkey-Orum et Eorum Ape-pendage-orum Delavariensis Collegii.”
The Drovus is said to have begun with a senior, Samuel Harrington, who had intercepted a real copy of the Oratory’s program weeks before it was to be available to the public.
“The faculty had made efforts to curb the project when it seemed particularly offensive, but it was finally deemed not troublesome enough to warrant disciplinary action,” Quick wrote. “As each exhibition approached, some ingenious youth was found willing to lead his schoolmates in the preparation of a false program.”
The 18-page pamphlet insulted every member of the exhibition but dedicated nearly two full pages to Roach, attacking him, his family and particularly his mother, with whom he was especially close.
At noon on March 30, a group of students planned to raid Harrington’s room on the top floor of the Old College in an attempt to steal and destroy the false programs.
Harrington and some friends were eating in the dining room of the house of George Platt on Main Street when they were alerted of the break-in.
Roach, who was seated with them, was the first to break out of the dining hall and run for the Old College. Harrington and associates soon followed.
By the time Roach got to the dormitories, the raiding group was busy burning the pamphlets. There were so many pamphlets that multiple furnaces were lit in different rooms. Roach immediately jumped in to help.
By the time Harrington’s group made it to the dorms, there were roughly 20 students gathered in the dorms, some brandishing weapons.
The arguments became physical, with people scuffling over the remainder of the pamphlets. People were pulled, pushed and held back.
Roach was punched in the nose.
Then, at some time during the commotion, Roach’s throat was cut. He stepped from the room unnoticed, leaving a trail of blood behind him until he reached the building’s main doorways, near the bottom of the steps.
As the rush up the stairs had been happening, a Board of Trustees meeting was simultaneously occurring in the building.
As Roach began bleeding out in front of the doorways, Delaware College President Ellis James Newlin decided to check on all the noise.
When he saw Roach, he immediately called for a doctor, but there was nothing the doctor could do.
Edward D. Porter, a professor of civil engineering and natural philosophy, was in the crowd surrounding Roach when someone suggested asking who stabbed him, according to Quick’s account.
“Porter complied, saying, ‘Mr. Roach, who did it?’ Roach said, ‘Sir?’ Porter repeated his question and Roach answered weakly, ‘Harrington.’
“Porter could not believe what he had heard and remarked in astonishment, ‘Harrington?’ To this Roach replied, ‘Yes, Harrington did it.’
“Unbelieving still, Porter asked, ‘Mr. Roach, what did he do to you?’ The reply was, ‘Harrington stabbed me.’”
Isaac Weaver, who was seen with a large knife during the time of the murder, was formally charged with the murder of Roach. Weaver was found not guilty, partly because no blood was found on the knife when it was recovered.
On March 30, 1859, exactly a year after the murder, Delaware College officially shuttered its doors due to poor financial standing.
Years later, Weaver was killed in factory explosion in Baltimore, where a piece of shrapnel cut his throat.
It’s not clear what happened to Harrington, who became something of a ghost himself after Roach’s death, but accounts say that authorities didn’t believe Roach was in his right mind when he accused Harrington.
For a long time, Okonowicz would remind tour patrons that death comes in threes and that the curse of John Edward Roach hadn’t claimed its third victim.
Okonowicz stopped doing that, he said, after giving a tour with a particularly excited patron who had bought the last ticket and subsequently tripped down the stairs, breaking his leg.
The storyteller has heard reports of objects going missing around the Old College, particularly tools during times when the building was being remodeled.
“They say that in old places like museums and art galleries and historical sites where battles and murders occurred, the dead never rest,” Okonowicz said. “They like it when it’s nice and calm and nothing disrupts them. When they start doing refurbishing and painting and knocking walls down and all, they get upset cause they like it the old way.”
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