Secrets of Gimghoul Castle

Some of our family’s happiest times were while living in North Carolina for the second time from 1969 to 1971. Our close friends, the Booth family, were instrumental in the creation of many of those fond memories. Bob Booth Sr., head of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, his wife Barbara, a native Tarheel, their intellectually gifted elder child Susan, and Bobby Jr., who was my age, were extremely knowledgeable of the region which included neighboring Orange County to the west, the location of Chapel Hill. One of the enigmas of Chapel Hill, the college town home of one of the three oldest public universities in the country, the University of North Carolina, was a place known as Gimghoul Castle.

The Booths personified “Southern Hospitality” and grew to become like members of our own family. They were there when my sister Kimberly was born on October 23rd of 1969. In fact, Kim’s middle name was attributed to Susan Booth, who correctly predicted a few months earlier while we were all watching the lunar landing that my expecting Mother would be giving birth to a girl. It was no surprise that Susan scored extremely high on Duke University’s parapsychology aptitude examinations. It was through Susan that Bobby Jr. and I had heard tales of the mysterious site near the UNC campus. One afternoon, Bobby and I ventured over to Orange County to explore the mysterious structure.

Kimberly Susan Dowell’s 1st Birthday – 1970
Left to right: Bob Sr., Barbara, Kim in high chair, Susan

It was an autumn afternoon when we arrived at the location of the “castle”, which was located in a densely wooded area some distance east of campus. There were “private property” and “no trespassing” signs posted all around the entrance, but Bobby and I ventured forth along the gravel drive undaunted. The place was really dark and spooky even in broad daylight, but we were able to get right up to the building and peer into the windows. I distinctly remember climbing up to a window and seeing inside through the leaded glass where a young male student was sitting on a burnished leather sofa in the Great Room reading. He was well groomed with glasses and wore a cardigan sweater. There were full bookshelves throughout the room, a suit of armor along one dark paneled wall and a roaring fire in the huge stone fireplace. It looked warm and cozy inside, but extravagant. You could sense the expense for the inhabitants of the place which appeared to be an elaborate fraternity house.

After Bobby and I felt that we’d seen enough of Gimghoul Castle, we went on to the movie theater in downtown Chapel Hill. I believe the feature was “Patton” with George C. Scott. After the movie, we went to the Rathskeller, a well-known college hangout with some of the best pub fare on the planet. Of course, Bobby and I were way too young to partake in the popular German beers offered there, but it was still a fun place to eat.

Many years, in fact, decades, later, I thought of Gimghoul Castle and decided to Google it for the sake of nostalgic curiosity. What I discovered is the source of the mysteries which turned out to be even more enthralling than our innocent little exploratory excursion nearly half a century ago.

According to the UNC graduate school website article, The Legend of Gimghoul Castle, the mysterious stories, at least partially based on real events and people, revolve around a love triangle in the early 1830s involving an 18 year old UNC student named Peter Dromgoole, a young lady named Miss Fanny, and another unnamed third party also in pursuit of Miss Fanny.

Popular legend claims that Peter dueled the unnamed suitor over Miss Fanny. Being on the losing end of the match, Peter was buried in a shallow grave near the castle. A boulder rolled on top to hide the makeshift burial supposedly still bears the discoloration from the young man’s blood after all of these years.

Another account states that Fanny visited the castle daily after hearing of the disappearance of Peter. Not knowing of his fate, Fanny visited daily until her own passing from a broken heart.

Yet another tale describes how Fanny was aware of the duel and arrived just as Peter fell from taking the bullet of his nemesis. He is said to have died in her arms with a spattering of his blood on the rock, resulting in the stain that lasts to this day.

The records show that Peter Dromgoole indeed applied to UNC in 1833 but failed his entrance exam. He was said to have then left for Europe, never to be heard from again. The facts also show that Peter’s uncle George C. Dromgoole was involved in a duel in 1837 which resulted in a more favorable outcome for the Dromgoole family.

Order of the Gimghoul member portrait – ca. 1923

The castle has long been shrouded in secrecy and allegedly was the center of a collegiate secret society founded in 1889 known as the “Order of the Gimghoul” consisting of high profile UNC alumni. To this day, little is known of the secret society or its activities due its closed membership and strict confidentiality regarding information about the order, only that it is purely social in nature and not believed to be involved in any type of clandestine activity.

Originally known as Hippol Castle, Gimghoul Castle was built by French artisans in the early 1920s at a cost of $50,000 and was cut from 1,300 tons of stones.

Grandfather Mountain, NC – 1973
Left to right: Dad, Mom (Kim in front) Bob Sr. (Susan in front), Me, Bobby Jr. Photo taken by Barbara

A few years ago, I got a wild hair and decided to call Bob Booth Sr. who still resided at the same home in Colony Park, the subdivision in west Durham where we all lived at the cusp of the 1960s and 1970s. He seemed very depressed and downtrodden, explaining that he had recently lost Barbara to a lengthy bout with cancer. He informed me that Bobby Jr., who went on to graduate from UNC, was serving as the assistant to the President for international development at Duke after a career in state politics precluded by service on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. and that Susan was married with children of her own and doing quite well in her career as well. I didn’t bother to tell him of the tragic fate of Kim in 1985 or of Mom in 1987 when he asked about them, I simply told him they were both in a good place.

Four years ago, I read where Bobby Jr. died at home at the age of 53. I don’t know the specific cause of his death but do remember him having health issues in his youth that included a hemophiliac type disorder and asthma. He seemed to be rather sickly at times back then, even while being one of the highest rated amateur tennis players in the state. Almost two years later, I read where Bob Sr. succumbed to declining health at the age of 83. Bob was a pillar of the community in Durham as well as in Charlotte before his Durham days and highly lauded for his many monumental achievements in the development of Duke University making it one of the leading academic institutions in the nation and the world. Bob’s Father had served at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. The only survivor of the old Booth clan today is Susan.

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