The facts of this story are true. The supernatural elements are left up to your imagination. Content warning: contains violence
The spring of 1858 brought the robins and the apple blossoms back to Newark, and anticipation of the annual oratory exhibition brought excitement to the students of Delaware College. As according to a time honored tradition, the sophomore and junior classes were preparing for an evening of speeches and debate. Meanwhile, the seniors were preparing for their equally honored tradition of printing a phony exhibition program, meant to lampoon the presenters and skewer their topics. This year the seniors had an ace in their pocket: they had an advance copy of the real exhibition program.
Knowing exactly who would be speaking allowed the seniors to craft some specific, cutting satire. Samuel M. Harrington, Jr., the son of the Delaware Chancellor, was the author of the phony program. He called Charles duPont Breck, a member of the famous gunpowder manufacturing family, a “powder monkey.” Anthony Higgins, later to become a United States senator, was “all-gas Higgins.” When the phony program came to light, no one took the criticism more to heart than John Edward Roach. Roach was called the “Maryland hedgehog.” Harrington wrote about Roach, “If he favors any of his ancestors, we judge they are cannibals on the paternal and orang-ou-tangs [sic] on the maternal side.” For Roach, raised by his widowed mother with whom he was extremely close, that insult was unforgivable.
Delaware College occupied a single cruciform-shaped red brick building close to the western end of Newark’s Main Street. The Greek revival architecture featured a flight of 18 steps rising to a portico at the center of the second story where four Doric columns supported the roof above. The building held both classrooms and dormitories for the resident students. Inside college hall the sophomores and juniors decided that the phony program would never be made public.
Shortly after noon on March 30, several of the sophomores and juniors, including Roach, pushed past a student left on guard and kicked in Harrington’s door. The fraudulent programs, found in a trunk, were stuffed into a wood stove in another student’s room. Meanwhile, the student who was left on guard duty ran down Main Street calling to his friends in the boarding houses where they were eating lunch. Students from both sides of the fray rushed to the college to join the struggle in the 15 square-foot room. About 20 students had gathered with sparks and fists flying as the seniors attempted to pull the smoldering programs out of the stove. Amid the smoke and chaos, someone noticed that blood was spurting from Roach’s neck. Roach stumbled out of the room with a knife cut to his jugular vein. When he reached the sill of the main door he collapsed in a pool blood, and died within an hour despite the attention of a doctor who happened to be in the building for a Board of Trustees meeting.
Two months later a student named Isaac Weaver was tried and acquitted of Roach’s murder. Although Weaver had been seen with a knife in his possession earlier in the day, no one had witnessed him stabbing Roach. Weaver was expelled from the college and found a job in Baltimore, MD. When he bled to death years later from a neck wound received in an explosion, many Newark residents speculated that Roach’s spirit had taken its revenge on Isaac Weaver. Roach’s spirit also had its revenge on the college. Falling enrollment and chronic funding problems drove the school to close just a year after Roach’s death, and it remained closed until 1870. Locals whispered, “Was the college cursed?” Later Delaware College became the University of Delaware, where a single copy of the phony program can still be found in the library's special collections. Pencilled next to Roach’s name is the haunting epitaph: “First libeled, then killed.” Old College Hall still stands, and students still pass through its front door. Little do they know that they could be passing by the ghost of John Edward Roach.