Murder on College Campus in 1858 Never Solved

A perennial truth: Crowds of twenty-somethings get rowdy.

Sending a child to college feels riskier than it should. Despite alcohol, fraternities, drugs and everything else, twenty-somethings are statistically safer on campus than off. Still, things happen and always have. Take, for instance, the 1858 murder of Delaware College student John Edward Roach in Newark. Stabbed in a dorm brawl, Roach bled to death in a crime that was never solved. But, as a sort-of apology, the college went out of business.

“I assume the murder made the college less popular and hurt its reputation,” the late university historian John A. Munroe told the UD Review in 1989. “Something dreadful like that happening on campus would make it harder to get parents to send their children here.”

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The University of Delaware traces its history to 1743, when a Presbyterian minister opened a free school in his home in Chester County, Pa. The school relocated several times and, in 1769, was operating as the Academy of Newark. In 1843, it merged with a newly founded state school as Delaware College.

Finances were always shaky. In 1825, Delaware had established a state lottery, which raised about $100,000 to fund the college. By the 1830s, though, the morality of lotteries was questioned, and Delaware’s was eventually discontinued with no replacement. Meanwhile, faculty and administrators squabbled, and enrollment lagged. In the 1840s, most students were from other states.

“Apparently, Delaware College was not attracting the children of wealthy Delawareans,” wrote Munroe. “These boys probably were being sent to college in other states.” In 1857, Delaware Gov. Peter Causey—a member of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party—proposed that the state subsidize the tuition of one student from each of its 100 school districts. Delaware College’s entire student body was barely that large, so such a measure would have been a major boost for the school. But the Democratic-controlled legislature ignored the idea.

Then, someone insulted the mother of John Edward Roach. It was the spring of 1858, and the college was preparing for the annual Junior Exhibition, an evening of debate and oratory. The junior class was very small, so the faculty ruled that the event would be a combined effort of the junior and sophomore classes.

Mockery of the event was almost as important as the thing itself, and annually took the form of a printed fake program that ridiculed the participants. That year’s fake, Drovus Juniorum Donkey-Orum et Eorum Ape-pendage-orum Delavariensis Collegii, was the work of a senior, Samuel Harrington of Dover. As later testimony revealed, Harrington had obtained a copy of the actual program a few weeks earlier. So, the fake was especially brutal.

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Charles du Pont Breck was described as a “powder monkey,” fashioned by nature into an “outrageous piece of humanity.” Anthony Higgins was “All-gass Higgins … pity he drinks.” Eugene Mitchell was an animal “spiled in the makin’.” Roach was the “Maryland hedgehog.”

“The fust ever heerd of [Roach], he was suckin’ rotten eggs in a Chesapeake hen-roost, which accounts for the kinder drawn up conformation of his mouth,” wrote Harrington. “If he favors any of his ancestors, we judge they are cannibals on the paternal and orang-ou-tangs on the maternal side.”

Yes, it sounds pretty juvenile but, noted Munroe, the misspelling and hyperbole was actually common in 1850s humor. A few years later, Abraham Lincoln was a big fan of writer David Locke’s fictional character, Petroleum V. Nasby, a Southern sympathizer who quenched his thirst with “terbacker joose from (Jefferson) Davis’ spittoon, dilooted with whisky.”

Roach, however, was the son of a single mother. His father had died early, and the boy grew up strongly attached to his remaining parent and proud of his family. At his funeral, the Rev. A.C. Heaton would describe his “native simplicity, ardent enthusiasm and scrupulous uprightness.” Very possibly, the reference to his mother as an orangutan offended him. (The sole surviving copy of the sham program, in the UDel archives, bears a penciled inscription, “first libeled, then killed.”)

When word got out about the contents of the fake program, Roach and several friends decided that they would never see the light of day. Shortly after noon on March 30, several of the anti-sham party—Roach was not present—pushed aside a guard in what is now UD’s Old College building and kicked in Harrington’s door. The sham programs, found in a trunk, were soon stuffed into the wood stoves that each student had in his room.

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Meanwhile, the pro-sham guard brought reinforcements. A fight broke out among, perhaps, 20 students in a room 15-foot square. Flaming papers were pulled from the stove and scattered across the floor. In the melee, student Eugene Mitchell saw blood spout from Roach’s neck. Roach stammered, “M-m-m-m-mich,” staggered from the room and collapsed near Old College’s front door in a pool of blood. Roach’s jugular was cut and he was soon dead.

Two months later, another student, Isaac Weaver, who had been seen earlier with a knife, was acquitted of Roach’s murder. No one saw him with the knife in the room where the fight occurred, much less striking the blow. The verdict was widely criticized. Years later, after Weaver died from a neck wound received from an explosion, many thought justice done.

Meanwhile, enrollment fell, no state funding appeared and the college’s small endowment melted away. Classes were suspended a year after Roach’s death, and remained so until 1870, when the college reopened. 

   Image Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society

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