Murders Mysteries & Misadventures

Who Killed John Roach In A Crowded Room and Got Away With It?

The Old College building and lawn. It is a brick building with white columns and stairs leading up to it.

The “Old College” hall building where the tragedy took place, Wikimedia Commons.

In the spring of 1858, a 20-year old Delaware College student named John Edward Roach was preparing for the annual Junior Exhibition, an evening of gentlemanly debate and speeches.

Little did the school know, things wouldn’t be so gentlemanly and the exact events would remain a mystery forever.

Mockery of the event and its participants was almost an official part of the event and even included a fake program mocking the participants. A senior named Samuel Harrington obtained a copy of the official program a few weeks early and used it to create an accurate fake program.

Most of the insults included in the fake program were childish and merely ridiculous. Charles du Pont Breck (du Pont stories here) was called a “powder monkey fashioned by nature into an outrageous piece of humanity.”

The front view of the steps up to Old College hall.

Wikimedia Commons

Other participants received a similar treatment: John Edward Roach was the ‘Maryland hedgehog,’ “If he favors any of his ancestors, we judge they are cannibals on the paternal and orang-ou-tangs on the maternal side.”

The joke about his family did not sit well with Roach. His father had died when he was a child and he was extremely close with his single mother.

Several of Roach’s friends decided to confiscate the fake program before it could widely circulate. Roach did not join them when they kicked down Samuel Harrington’s door and found the fake programs stored in a trunk. They burnt them in the wood stoves each student had in his room.

Those who wanted the fake programs to circulate gathered together and a larger fight broke out between the students, now including John. Flaming papers from the wood stove were pulled out of the fire and scattered around the room.

During the fight Eugene Mitchell, one of those who had been mocked in the program as well, saw blood suddenly sprout from Roach’s neck. Roach staggered out of the room and collapsed near the front door in a pool of his blood. His jugular had been cut and he bled out quickly, dying on the spot.

Two month’s later a student named Isaac Weaver, who had been seen with a knife earlier that day, was acquitted of Roach’s murder. No one had actually seen him with a knife in the room during the fight.

Years later, Weaver died from a neck wound after an explosion at his factory job caused debris to sever his carotid artery- many thought it was karma served. Officially, John Edward Roach’s murder was never solved.

The murder did not help the struggling school. Since its inception, the school had failed to attract the wealthier students it had hoped would secure them financially and an endowment or support system was never established.

After the murder, enrollment continued to decline, state funding never arrived and the college’s small endowment finally ran dry. Classes were suspended a year after John’s death and remained so until 1870 when the college reopened, eventually becoming the University of Delaware still in existence today.

*(If you’re a local, the murder happened in UD’s Old College building).

John Edward's engraved tombstone which says that he died while at college.

John Edward’s grave in Maryland, source.

Sources: 1, 2, 3