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October, 2013:

Happy Halloween!

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by T. Mike Childs

Happy Halloween! You may or may not know that North Carolina is full of chilling legends and myths! Here are some of NCpedia‘s spookiest entries to get you in the mood for this haunted holiday:

And here’s another spooky story. On February 25, 1884, an unexplained shower of blood allegedly fell in Chatham County. It was witnessed by a female African-American sharecropper named Bass Lasater, and reported in the local paper, the Chatham Record. It covered a rectangular space about 50 by 70 feet, with drops “… of sizes varying from that of a small pea to that of a man’s finger and averaged about one to the square foot.”

Francis Preston VenableFrancis Preston VenableThere the story would likely have stopped and been long forgotten, had it not aroused the interest of University of North Carolina chemistry professor Francis Preston Venable. Venable heard the story, “… mentioned in some of the State papers, but little notice was taken of it.” Venable said the affair was “…looked upon rather as a joke and no analysis was made for some time. When it was taken up several days afterwards there seemed to be sufficient interest attaching to it to warrant paying a visit to the locality where the matter fell.” Unfortunately, “… nearly three weeks had elapsed, and several heavy rains had fallen…” and “no vestiges of the matter could be found on the ground, and only one or two marks of drops on the fence.” Venable acquired samples taken by others and tested them, satisfying himself that “… the samples examined had blood upon them.” Venable offers some speculations on what might have happened, but like a good scientist, he does not ascribe anything to the supernatural. He remains confident in science and its ability to explain strange phenomenon over time:  “I have deemed this strange matter worthy of attention. Other similar observations hereafter may corroborate it and combined observations may give rise to the proper explanation.”

We’re still waiting for a proper explanation.

Venable went on to become president of UNC, chair of the Chemistry Department, and to have the campus building named after him. The journal in which Venable reported his analysis was that of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, which Venable had helped found only a year before, in 1883.



Shaffer , Josh.  “Shaffer: The day it rained blood in Chatham County.” Raleigh News and Observer.  October 6, 2013. (accessed October 31, 2013).

Venable, F. P. “‘Fall of Blood'” in Chatham County. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society (1883-1884).  38-40. (accessed October 31, 2013).

Maxwell, Tom. “‘For the Scrutiny of Science and the Light of Revelation’: American Blood Falls.” Southern Cultures (Spring 2012). (accessed October 31, 2013).

The Legend of Peter Dromgoole

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by T. Mike Childs

I’m going to tell you a good ghost story … and then I’m going to ruin it. With facts!

It was the 1830s, and there was a young student at the University of North Carolina named Peter Dromgoole. He fell in love with a young local woman named Fanny, but alas so did … his best friend! This tangled tragic love triangle destroyed their friendship and soon the nasty words between them brought them to the field of honor. There was no choice but to settle the matter with a duel. High on Piney Prospect, not too far from campus, they stepped ten paces, turned, drew, and fired. Miss Fanny had gotten word of the duel and arrived just in time to see Peter fall dead! He fell on a boulder, staining it with his blood. The very same rock upon which the lovers had whiled away many a pleasant afternoon.

His opponent and the seconds, panicked and buried him on the spot on the very hill where he died, using the blood-stained rock to cover up his shallow grave. They swore all present to silence. Miss Fanny pined away for Peter until she died also, shortly after. They say Dromgoole’s blood still stains the rock today! Do their tormented ghosts still haunt that blood-stained, diety-forsaken rock!?

The Order of Gimghouls page in the 1890 UNC yearbook, The Hellenian.

The Order of Gimghouls page in the 1890 UNC yearbook, The Hellenian. Any cryptographers know what that stuff at the bottom says?!

Then in 1889, a new campus secret society was founded. Originally called the Order of Dromgoole, they quickly changed it to the Order of Gimghouls, and adopted and recounted this legend. The legend itself had already popped up in a number of literary works.

A tragic murder connected to a mysterious secret society? Better and better!

The Order of Gimghouls bought the hill and built an actual gothic castle on it in 1926. Seriously. A castle. This is how you prove your secret society is better than other secret societies: with a castle!

So what’s the truth? Was there a Peter Dromgoole? Yes! Peter Pelham Dromgoole was born in 1815. Was he a UNC student? No. He wanted to be, but failed the entrance exam, but he was getting some tutoring, and said he would get in next time. Was there a Fanny? No, apparently not. Did he die? Technically yes, eventually, because that’s unavoidable. But not in any duel. It was his uncle who was in a duel, Virginia congressman George C. Dromgoole killed Daniel Dugger in a duel in 1837, miles away in Northhampton County, four years after Peter disappeared. Oh did I not mention that? Peter disappeared in the summer of 1833! Under mysterious circumstances? Sort of. He had a falling out with his strict Methodist minister dad over failing the exam and the sort of vices college students get up to, and there is some testimony that Peter joined the army under the assumed name of his former roommate, Williams. What happened to him since then nobody has figured out yet.

What’s the lesson here? Human beings love a good story and we don’t let facts get in the way. And there’s usually a nubbin of truth in there somewhere, because making things up totally from scratch is hard. We seek a narrative that appeals to us, and we impose it on the facts, and we’re all guilty of that in one form or another.

Breaking Brick Walls in Genealogy: Cluster Genealogy

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an image of a brick wall

As we wrap up Family History Month 2013, I would like to talk about a research method I often use known as “Cluster Genealogy”. This method is useful for 2 reasons, maybe more: it helps to break brick walls by looking at other people in an ancestor’s life and it helps to give a richer and fuller understanding of their life.  As researchers, we sometimes seem to hit that brick wall sooner or later – the point where we cannot seem to get past a certain ancestor.

At its core, cluster genealogy is doing genealogy on the extended family and others who may not be related, but whose name often appears in conjunction with our ancestor.  You may notice on land records or census and tax records that a name often appears along with your ancestors.

This past week I helped a researcher and found their ancestor sold and bought land from the same man almost half a dozen times. I later discovered he was the administrator of his will. There was obviously a deeper connection between these two men than just neighbors. Sometimes, that connection could mean they migrated to NC from another state together or it could mean they were best friends who grew up together. Sometimes researching those who are not direct ancestors can help your research or your understanding of an ancestor. (more…)

Content from the North Carolina Digital Collections now in the Digital Public Library of America

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The State Library of North Carolina is very pleased to announce that through collaboration with the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, content from the North Carolina Digital Collections can now be accessed in the Digital Public Library of America.

With over 5 million records and counting, the DPLA is a national digital library that brings together metadata from digital collections around the country into a single, searchable website. It also makes that metadata available to developers through an API (application programming interface), enabling reuse for all kinds of purposes – from visualization to data mining.

The metadata of over 33,000 items currently in the North Carolina Digital Collections is now accessible by searching the DPLA website. This will provide many more users the opportunity to find and appreciate the wonderful resources our state has to offer.

The Digital Heritage Center is working with additional institutions around the state to add even more content from North Carolina. If your institution is  interested in participating, read information about DPLA participation.

This blog is a service of the State Library of North Carolina, part of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Blog comments and posts may be subject to Public Records Law and may be disclosed to third parties.