University of Delaware – Historically Haunted?

Nearly every college and university can claim a ghost story or two, but if even half its stories are true, the University of Delaware is among the most haunted in the country.

The University of Delaware opened in 1834 as Newark College and has undergone dramatic expansion in the intervening 186 years. It was established by Presbyterians under the auspices of the Academy of Newark, a school which graduated three signers of the Declaration of Independence. It became Delaware College in 1843 and the University of Delaware in 1921. Twenty-four years later, it merged with the Women’s College of Delaware to become a fully coeducational institution. Each change not only expanded its campus and enlarged enrollment, but cultivated stories and legends as well.

Take, for instance, the legend of the “Kissing Arches.” Storytellers say that when the Women’s College of Delaware opened on an adjoining campus in 1914, brick archways near Memorial Hall separated the two campuses. Young lovers rendezvoused under the arches before returning to their respective schools, and to this day, couples that kiss five times beneath the arches will be blessed with marriage.

It’s a romantic tale born from this unique relationship between the formerly distinct colleges, however, a university archivist told UDaily that men were always allowed to escort their dates back to the women’s campus. If they stopped to make out under the arches, it was by choice.

It’s the ghost stories, however, that have most captured students’ imaginations, and the University of Delaware has more than its share. Reportedly haunted locations include the Academy Building, Old College, Mitchell Hall, Smyth Hall, Memorial Hall, Recitation Hall, and Christiana Tower East to name a few.

The Academy Building at 105 East Main Street replaced a Colonial Era structure in 1841 and was originally part of Newark Academy. The University of Delaware acquired it in 1976 and today it is home to the Office of Communications and Marketing. Appropriately, this building is rumored to be home to the college’s oldest legend.

It concerns a young man who attended Academy of Newark during the Revolutionary War. He snuck off to join Continental forces and attended a training camp nearby. His father didn’t approve, so he marched to camp and dragged his son home. Humiliated, his son hung himself in the cupola. Of course, if true, the incident happened in the original building and not the current 1841 replacement.

Old College and Recitation Hall, at N College Avenue and E Main Street, form the historic heart of UD’s campus. With such a long history, it’s no surprise both buildings have accumulated folklore and ghost stories.

The Old College building is the longest-serving on campus. It was built in 1834 in Georgian style with white, Doric columns dominating the entrance. Two wings were added in 1902. It was the only building at Delaware College for 58 years, until Recitation Hall was erected nearby. Today, it serves as the University Museum.

In 1858, an argument over a literary contest turned violent, and a student named John Edward Roach was stabbed in the neck. He staggered to the main entrance before collapsing. A student named Isaac Weaver was acquitted of the crime, but according to legend, he later died horribly in a factory accident, and his wound looked eerily similar to the one on John Edward Roach. Construction workers renovating Old College reportedly heard unexplained sounds and saw shadowy figures stalking the empty corridors.

Built in 1892 and designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, Recitation Hall was the second building erected for Delaware College. It served as the college’s administration building for many years. According to legend, Furness was obsessed with the occult and cursed the building by incorporating occult geometry into its design. Strange deaths and accidents have been attributed to this curse over the decades, but a renovation in the 1990s seems to have put a stop to it.

Mitchell Hall was Delaware College’s first auditorium and was named after Samuel Chiles Mitchell, college president from 1914 to 1920. Like many theaters, Mitchell is purported to be haunted by a workman who fell to his death from scaffolding. Students have dubbed this phantom “Elmo,” although there is no historical basis for the story. The specters of a woman and two children have also been spotted, and unexplained laughter and electrical disturbances add to the theater’s paranormal menagerie.

Originally a library, Memorial Hall was erected in 1924 in Georgian Revival style as a memorial to Delaware soldiers who died in the First World War. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is currently home to the Department of English. It is a solemn building steeped in tradition, and some students say it’s haunted by the ghosts of the soldiers it honors. They report feeling cold spots and the sensation of being watched.

Several dorms and residence halls at UD are believed to be haunted, but Smyth Hall and Christiana Tower East are among the most notorious. Built in the 1950s as a charming brick dormitory, Smyth Hall is not unlike other campus residence halls. The unoccupied fourth floor seems to be the epicenter of its paranormal activity. Residents report unexplained sounds like pounding and scratching, and the door to the fourth floor seems to open and close on its own. A former all-female dorm, some have speculated it’s haunted by the ghost of a female student who was attacked there in the 1970s (sounds suspiciously similar to the legend of Pemberton Hall to me).

Like many college dormitories built in the 1970s, Christiana Towers on UD’s north campus resembled a public housing project. It consisted of two 17-story towers, East and West, with a found court and lounge in between. Citing high maintenance and operation costs, the University of Delaware closed the Towers at the end of 2018 and approved funds earlier this year for demolition. The East tower attracted its share of ghostly tales over the years, after one young man accidentally fell through his 17th Floor window to his death in 1974. Another student plummeted to his death in the 1990s. Typical ghostly activity, like electrical disturbances and feelings of being watched and followed.

With a student body of over 24,000, a campus nationally-recognized for its beauty, historic buildings, and solid academic programs, the University of Delaware will continue to be among the best the Mid-Atlantic has to offer, even if you might encounter a ghost or two!

Additional Sources

  • Delaware Federal Writers’ Project. Delaware: A Guide to the First State. New York: The Viking Press, 1938.
  • Norman, Michael and Beth Scott. Haunted Heritage. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2002.
  • Ogden, Tom. Haunted Colleges and Universities. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2014.
  • Thuma, Cynthia and Catherine Lower. Creepy Colleges and Haunted Universities. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2003.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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