"Bad luck to you, McGarry, An' your pure Roscommon brogue! You led me into trouble You
blarneying ould rogue!"
—John F. Finery, Dooley's Lamentation
There is nothing more beautiful than a Canadian sunset. Lakes the color of amber,
catching the glow of the limitless horizon, itself the color of a new-forged chalice
only moments from the kiln. Mallards skimming the marsh waters, rippling the surface
into gentle designs. Soft lullabies of loons. Silhouettes of a diversity of trees
chestnut, firs, many more—against the sky, still, without a twitch, in the pause
of wind between light and dark. And the perfume of a million blossoms blended, distributing
a mix between the fragrance of evening dew and the sweetness of applejack.
But, those who lived in Biddulph Township, Ontario, on February 3, 1880, sensed little
beauty in the transition of day into night. Serenity obscured by Man's doubt. While
the ice encasing the rivers, bogs and streams must have reflected a brilliant provincial
dusk, no one noticed. Darkness came early, if not in fact, then in theory. It came
skittishly. Irish citizens of Lucan village near the old Roman Line Road later said
they had felt the phantom sulking in the shadows. Some heard the Ban-Sidhe, the Banshee,
the spirit woman who wails at impending death. And when an Irishman says he hears
the Banshee, sure and there's no doubt the Banshee is there.
Following is a story combining fact and legend, about the slaying of the Donnelly
family of Southern Ontario the Black Donnellys, they were called by a vigilante mob
comprised of members whose names remain unknown or, at best, unproven to this day,
181 years later. Hard evidence, tales handed down some probable and possible and
even folklore; it has the potpourri of an Irish yarn spun off from a midnight jaunting
car but it's a cold, terrifyingly real tale. Of deceit, hatred and death.
Where blank spots and unanswered theories exist in the history and there are plenty
of both—I have taken the liberty to fill the blank spots with surmising and relate
only the most practical of theories. This was done in order to keep what is an interesting
tale out from under the weight of historical browbeating and a complex of issues
that add little to the end result. And, on a whimsical note, having a large amount
of Irish flowing in my veins, I surrendered to the temptation of opening each chapter
with a fitting Irish parable or a stanza from one of Ireland's many bards.
Setting the Scene
"You're welcome, Mick, to foreign lands, Where'er the Celt may roam, Your caubeen,
pipe and blackthorn Shall find a cozy home."
—Rev. James Keegan, You're Welcome, Mick McQuaid
What became known, as "the Donnelly Massacre" was the culmination of a 30-odd years’
feud between one Irish immigrant family and their Irish immigrant neighbors. It reeks
of obsessive pride and prejudice. It is a landmark example of an ancient and bitter
religious opposition in one country spreading thousands of miles across an ocean
to affect human lives in another.
According to an article that appeared in the Toronto Globe the day immediately following
the tragedy, "The Donnelly family, to a marked degree, bore quarrelsome characteristics
when they were not fighting among their neighbors, they constantly fought among themselves."
It is a description that supports that of Johannah Donnelly, matron of the sparring
Gaelic clan that appears in Thomas P. Kelley's Vengeance of the Black Donnellys.
In the book, Kelley quotes Johannah as saying, "From the time they could toddle,
I taught my seven sons to be foin fist-and-club fighters. Sure, an' 'tis I who taught
them how to gouge, bite off an ear and crack in a head with a club; showed them the
best way to send a fast punch to the chin."
A local axiom at the time taught, "The farther one lives down Roman Line Road, the
tougher one is. And the Donnellys live at the end of the road."
But, many of the citizens with whom they quarreled in and around Lucan, Ontario,
were neither timid nor lily white. Equally headstrong, equally superstitious, equally
prejudiced, yes, and equally Irish, they also clubbed and gouged and bit and cracked
and kicked. Unfortunately for the Donnellys, they were a mite tougher and unrelenting
and, therefore, in being so, disposed their own hides to the harder lesson forthcoming.
The Donnellys were Ireland born. Considering the climate of the Emerald Isle in the
latter half of the Eighteenth Century and the fact that nearly all of Lucan's citizens
were immigrants from the same county in Ireland—the fate of the Donnellys, in retrospect,
seemed pre-destined. The "ould sod" they left behind had been torn by a religious
animosity that existed since that Protestant Protector, William of Orange, himself,
crossed into Roman Catholic Ireland in the late 1100s. After four decades of religious
civil war, the situation worsened when, in 1697, Oliver Cromwell's re-design of Ireland
land rights left English Protestants the major landlords and the Catholics mere serfs
in their own beloved Erin.
"This awful state of affairs was at its worst in (County) Tipperary, where James
and Johannah Donnelly came from," reads The Official Donnelly Home Page, which is
dedicated to the family's colorful, albeit bloody, saga. "The Roman Catholics' poverty
Rebel elements fought back, very much as the Irish Republican Army does in Protestant-owned
Northern Ireland today, often with violence. Then, a society called the Whiteboys,
its members known only to each other, exacted revenge, sometimes sanguinely, on the
anti-papist landlords. But, the revenge only began there, for the all-Catholic Whiteboys
judged as the greater devil those of their own religion who patronized the Protestant
British who traded commerce with them, bought from them, sold to them, drank with
them. These very-much-Catholic citizens, while yearning for a free Ireland, merely
chose to abide and live peaceably. But, in the eyes of many of their own faith, they
were reputed as cowards and traitors to both their country and God. Pinned with the
name Blackfeet, they found themselves outcasts in their own thatched villages; they
were forced to escape Ireland in order to avoid chastisement.
The Donnellys, although Mass-attending Roman Catholics, were Blackfeet. Nowhere in
Ireland were Whiteboy families more influential than in Tipperary. When Great Britain
zealously began hunting them down and hanging them, however, they found it necessary
to flee Ireland to other parts of the globe. In doing so, they clung to their intolerance
and, if meeting a known Blackfoot in their new land, caused the Blackfoot misery.
Cases of such predisposition existed in both America and Canada.
"With the massive Irish immigration ... in the early 1800s, most of the time the
Irish were easily assimilated into the mixing pot of (other) cultures, but not in
Biddulph Township in Ontario," continues the Official Donnelly Home Page. "In Biddulph,
with its heavily Irish population, there was a perfect balance of Whiteboys and ...
Keep in mind that most of the Roman Catholic population was not of Whiteboy partisanship
they were non-violent devotees of their faith; existing by the principle of live
and let live. But, albeit only a fraction of the population, the Whiteboy party became
the "squeaky wheel" that made the most racket in town. Feuding with known or even
suspected Blackfeet was most prominent.
Recognized Blackfeet such as the Donnellys were thereupon referred to in the new
country of Canada with the abbreviation "Black" plunked insultingly before their
surname ... the Black O'Fagins, the Black McGarritys, and the Black Donnellys. Throughout
the years following the feuds, these families, especially the volatile Donnellys,
were assumed to have earned the adjective because of their moods, but that supposition
is wrong. While indeed the Donnellys were earthy, coarse, rough-and-tumble as well
as dark of eye and hair the term was actually meant to scoff, not heed.
However, the popular vernacular is not altogether incorrect, for when things combusted—when
James Donnelly found himself with a brood of strapping, iron-fisted sons who fought
back they did indeed score the blackest reputation in Western Canada.
Before resuming with the history of the Donnellys in Ontario, let's very briefly
examine socio-political developments in Canada that led the Donnellys and others
of their heritage to choose the Dominion as their new home, once they left Ireland.
These elements must be understood so that the case history will be better realized
in context of time and place.
What was referred to at one time as Upper and Lower Canada were both under the domain
of Great Britain. The Territory of Canada was expansive, hard for Britain to manage,
and rebellions were common. Canadian peoples, largely comprised of British, French
and Indian, had long been at odds with themselves over land rights, customs, and
nationality. Despite a brief feeling of nationalism enjoyed against American invaders
during the War of 1812, there was otherwise little sense of crown-loyalty.
In 1838, Britain enacted the Province of Canada to unite the Upper and Lower districts
under Lord Durham, who oversaw the peaceful transition. He helped create an assembly
of legislators, representing both one-time singular populations to more fully meet
the needs of the new Province. The Province included Canada East (Quebec) and Canada
West (Ontario). This successful unification eventually evolved into a confederation
known as the Dominion of Canada under a national prime minister in 1867.
Under the initial Province, the Canada Land Company realized the need for people
to help farm and civilize the wilderness; commerce was necessary to sustain the growth
of both Ontario and Quebec as a new era of industry, trade and shipping were becoming
apparent. The territory begged for farms to produce Canadian foodstuff, roads to
move Canadian produce, and waterways to ship Canadian supplies. People from the United
Kingdom were summoned to settle the land as tenant farmers with an option to buy.
From across Ireland, Wales and Scotland came people who knew the toil of hard work
and who believed they could successfully create a garden in the wilderness. The Donnellys
were among these.
During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, most immigrants settled in southern
Ontario where rich soil promised good agriculture and whose position along lakes
Huron, Erie and Ontario demanded new ports of commerce. By 1851, the population had
increased to nearly one million people in this sector—farmers who grew corn, apples,
tobacco, wheat and hay; contractors and carpenters who built wharves where muddy
banks had been, tradesmen and entrepreneurs who built towns seaside and inland. Cities
grew. Toronto, a crossroads hamlet, boomed. Forest City renamed itself London after
evolving from a lumber camp into a metropolis resembling a miniature version of that
great English capital across the sea.
At a geometric angle north of London and east of Toronto, the village of Lucan rose
up a couple stories high under slat board, peg, mortar and brick; a little town but
important in that the rail lines ran through it to ship the local farmers' wares
across Canada and, in turn, provide the farming community with seed and supplies.
Lucan, and its surrounding countryside, was almost exclusively Irish. The influx
had come almost exclusively from Tipperary.
James Donnelly brought his wife here in 1844 and, Blackfoot or not, he was determined
James Donnelly, Himself
"Have sense, patience and self-restraint, and no mischief will come."
—Ancient Irish proverb
James and Johanna Donnelly migrated to Ontario in, most scholars believe, the year1844.
They brought with them their three-year-old son, James, Jr., and a few meager belongings,
not much more than the ragamuffin clothes they wore on their backs. They settled
first in Forest City, where Squire Donnelly worked for a time as a tradesman and
where Johannah gave birth to another son, William, in 1847.
"James Donnelly was born on March 7, 1816 ... Although he was small and stocky, being
only five feet five inches at manhood...he was described...as 'good looking and gave
the initial impression of pleasant amiability," writes Ray Fazakas in The Donnelly
Album. "On the one hand he was known as sober, industrious, hard-working, kind and
considerate (but was also known as being) rollicking, drinking, quarrelsome."
The couple was discontent; they weren't city folk; they wanted to farm; that's the
life they knew in Ireland. However, most of the acreage was being fast possessed
by the wealthier Celts, they who could afford it. Donnelly, afraid to let his dreams
suffer because of a mere thing called poverty, did what many of his caste were doing.
He packed up once again, moved his family to the wilderness of Wellington County,
Biddulph Township (where the finest soil was said to be had), and simply squatted
on someone else's property, law be damned.
"Squatting" was a common practice among the poor; often the perpetrators went unnoticed
for sometimes decades since many of the landowners lived out of the precinct, intending
said land as a tangible investment. The land John Donnelly staked out for himself
was 100 acres of unsupervised Government Lot #18, a property owned by one wealthy
but absentee John Grace. The squire was apparently a good judge of commercially potential
farmland albeit someone else's—for the ground was not only verdant and fertile but
bordered the main highway, Roman Line Road, which led directly into nearby Lucan
some four miles south.
Along the road which was named in honor of the many Irish Roman Catholics living
in Lucan Donnelly raised a fence and a shingle, which read, "James Donnelly, Esquire,"
as if to advertise his own merit of cunning. Just inside the gate, up a footpath,
he built a crude log cabin for him and his family, and immediately went to work.
A sharp trader with a gift of gab, big James Donnelly talked the merchants in town
into loaning him the necessary implements so that he could clear the land and plant
the rows of corn he envisioned in his imaginative Irish brain. Darkness and inclement
weather didn't stall him; he worked throughout, determined to turn the bare fields
into Donnelly heaven in the new world. And in the meantime, his wife bore him a third
Biddulph Township was, according to Thomas P. Kelley's Vengeance of the Black Donnellys,
"a flat, fertile district...bordered on the east by Perth County, on the west and
north by Huron County." The nearest "big town" was London (formerly Forest City),
seventeen miles distant, but the common meeting place of the township was dusty Lucan.
Here on particular days the farmers held market to pitch their produce to both local
and commercial buyers, the latter loading it onto rail cars destined for remote lumbering
and milling villages in the province. Often, the smartest farmers gathered in one
of the nigh-dozen saloons in town to barter equipment for seed or vice versa, or
to share farmhands and, simply, advice. Certain evenings, the backrooms of the Western
Bar, the Dublin House, McRobert's Old Dominion, and others bristled with gab and
braggadocio. As in Ireland, these establishments were either Catholic- or Protestant-owned,
drawing their own kind over their threshold.
Of the approximately 500 Lucan-area residents, most were Catholics who wanted to
put the memories of dissent behind them, but some townsmen couldn't let go of their
native prejudices. While the long sea voyage had cooled tempers, the remnants of
the Whiteboys still whispered, still noticed men like James Donnelly who, true as
it be, went to Mass on Sundays as Catholics, but then patronized both factions. In
response, Donnelly argued that this was Ontario, not Tipperary, and those who couldn't
adjust could skip to hell in a bread maid's basket!
In the years to come, his attitude would prove fatal to himself, but in the early
days of Lucan, any hostilities were kept compact, muttered Saturday nights under
kerosene lantern by Whiteboys with a pint of redeye in their fist, or on Sunday mornings
outside St. Patrick's steepled church after the Solemnity, with a hangover needling
their temperament. James Donnelly didn't care and continued to let them growl. He
was his own man and would die first before giving in.
"On nearly every Saturday night Donnelly rode into Lucan for a drop of the spirits
at one of its bars, and there were the occasional fist fights with one of its citizens,"
Kelley claims. "At the bars, (he) usually had to drink alone...the object of hostile
gazes. Those around him had not forgotten how he had obtained his land."
"The village of Lucan had the misfortune of growing up with the Donnellys," says
author Fazakas. "Whether its bad reputation in the nineteenth century was attributable
to the family or the way around can long be argued...From the beginning, a faint
aura of disrepute clung to the village." Feuding was an everyday occurrence, not
always involving raucous James D.
Despite the animosity against him, James Donnelly did have friends in town and, in
all, things went well for a few years. Squire Donnelly proved his labor and turned
his land into one of the more prosperous farms along Roman Line Road; he inadvertently
generated a degree of jealousy in several Whiteboys who were sure the indolent would
fall flat on his face. The Donnellys grew, both in industry and numbers.
"During the eight years following his arrival in the Lucan district, Jim Donnelly
whipped the wilderness to a standstill," Kelley continues, "and created a rich, self-sufficient
farm. Johannah, on her part, presented him with four more sons named, in order of
birth, Patrick, Michael, Robert and Thomas ... The mother was as protective of the
children as a she-wolf with cubs."
The clan needed a new home; the log cabin was crammed with cribs and children. When
James began to lay a foundation for a new place beside the initial log hut, his friends
turned out to help him "raise a fine roof," to use an Irish expression. The result
was a roomier, two-story shingle-sided frame with three bedrooms down and one up,
a large parlor and larger kitchen. No palace be it, but it was, to the old man, Donnelly's
Then, in 1855, a tragedy occurred that would be the beginning of the Donnelly name-tarnishing
in Biddulph. James Donnelly, his Irish dander up, killed a man.
The incident started when a Patrick Farrell rented the same one hundred acres of
land from its owner, the owner not realizing that someone had trespassed on his property
and had been living there the last decade. When Farrell arrived in Lucan, he was
amazed to find smoke curling from a house that shouldn't have been there on a farm
that shouldn't have been there occupied by a family that shouldn’t have been there!
Farrell attempted to oust the squatter through mediation of the local constabulary,
but the law was too slow in reacting. (And it was said Donnelly had pals on the force.)
This led to confrontations one-on-one until a fistfight erupted, ending, it appears,
in no more than a pair of bloody Gaelic nostrils. Farrell was a husky former blacksmith
with shoulders like an ox, but brawn Squire Donnelly was, no doubt, a match.
Both men, sensing a stalemate, faced off in court. Donnelly argued that the land
was his through toil; he had scraped his fingers to the bone caring for and nurturing
it for, oh, so many years. Farrell denied any law but the written one: Thou shalt
not steal (especially what was his). The judge was a man of temperance; his verdict
was a balance: Donnelly, he said, could keep the northern fifty acres; Farrell could
keep the southern fifty. But, while His Honor compromised, the defendants did not.
Over the coming months, both stubborn hotheads continued to growl at each other over
the picket line ... until June 25, 1857.
On that day, the township turned out at Billy Maloney's lumbering bee. While the
men axed and cleared the forestland for grove, the women baked and cooked and prepared
a hearty meal to take place at day's end. All day long, beer flowed, and so did jibes
and taunts between the rival neighbors. Late into the afternoon, after consumption
of brew kindled the furnaces in each, the words had heated blue fire. Before onlookers
could separate them, Donnelly and Farrell were entwined on the ground, a whirly-ball
of fists, feet, grunts and dust. Somehow, Donnelly broke free and, in a rage, reached
for the first object at hand, which turned out to be a handspike used for climbing
trees. Farrell was upon him, toting an iron bar, posed as to swing. In reflex, the
other let him have it first, and Farrell crumpled at the knees, the iron still in
his fists, his temple gushing blood.
Donnelly bolted into the woods, a murderer. The Whiteboy party reveled that the squire
had at last earned the nickname "Black" as to wider comprehension. Constables rushed
to the Donnelly home, but he was nowhere; they scoured the forest, checked every
alley and back room in Lucan, every corncrib and barn up and down Roman Line Road.
James Donnelly, himself, has vanished.
Explains the Internet's Official Donnelly Home Page, "For the next eleven months,
nobody knew where James had disappeared. But, Johannah knew, as did their older children,
James, Jr., now 15, William, aged 12, and 10-year-old John, They all knew, but they
weren't talking, especially to the officers of the law who showed up regularly at
their doorstep. And all that time, the head of the Donnelly household had been hiding
right under their noses in his own backfields...(When) the icy breath of winter blew
across the land ... he sheltered himself in stables and in the homes of friends who
risked their own freedom to help a fugitive." However, one Canadian winter virtually
spent outdoors had been enough for even the sturdy Irishman. He turned himself into
the police in May the following year.
Many strange and almost incredulous stories revolve around those lost months of Mr.
Donnelly. Considering the anything-goes state of affairs in the township at the time,
each probably has its ratio of truth. Neighbors later confessed to seeing a "strange
woman" in a sun bonnet helping Johannah work the fields while her husband was on
the lam; "she," they alleged, must have been none other than the escapee himself,
in masquerade. Another tale professes the law knew all along where Donnelly was;
Wellington County Sheriff Ryder, who had known Donnelly in Tipperary and had also
been accused of being a Blackfoot, helped succor him those many months.
Wherever and however he chose to conceal himself, James Donnelly, husband and father,
did indeed remain near home. During that time, Johannah conceived a ninth child,
a beautiful daughter named Jennie.
Donnelly's trial was set for September 1858. Because the murder had taken place in
Stephen Township, Donnelly was tried within its jurisdiction, at Goderich. Biddulph
neighbors travelled to witness the proceedings at the Huron County Courthouse. Many
locals turned out, too, for although a county away, they had heard of the feisty
squatter and his feud with the luckless Farrell. The decision of the court passed
quickly: Guilty, hands down! The convicted Donnelly was rushed to the city gaol,
sentenced to hang two weeks later.
Fate and Johannah intervened. A woman of fuss and action, she oiled well the gears
of clemency, petitioning nearly the entire town of Lucan and most of Goderich as
well, county borders, familiarity with herself and her husband's character notwithstanding.
Due to her, a turnabout occurred. Suddenly, her husband's death penalty was exchanged
for a seven-year sentence. Placed in Kingston Penitentiary to serve it, he at least
knew that Hell, at least this time around, couldn't keep him.
He was released in 1865. And, as the citizens of Lucan predicted, that's when things
really got hot.
"For the great Gaels of Ireland Are the men that God made mad, For all their wars are
merry, And all their songs are sad."
Even before the Farrell murder and their father's eventual incarceration, the Donnelly
boys were beginning to earn a reputation as mischief makers. During his short life
in Biddulph Township, Farrell often vocally accused the Donnelly teens for acts of
vandalism and destruction. He even blamed the lads or their father for taking a pot
shot at him one night while he was working in his barn. "The bullet whizzed by me
ear! It was either one o'them rascals of his or it was the ould man hisself!" he
told a barroom-full of listeners. "Either way, it was one'o'them Black Donnellys
as shor' as there's a Lucifer!"
What was to come was a series of brawls, fisticuffs, antagonisms, ruptures and bad
blood that was to make the famous Hatfield-and-McCoy feud in America's mountain country
look like a child's game of pop-gun.
"With their father in jail, the boys were frequently the butt of cruel remarks with
regard to the cause of his absence, but as they grew older they were able to avenge
all insults with their fists," attests Thomas P. Kelley in Vengeance of the Black
Donnellys. "The Donnellys were not gunfighters, had a strange aversion to firearms
and regarded them as 'weapons of the weak, fit only for cowards,' but without exception
the entire seven Donnelly boys, as well as their father, were veritable terrors,
wild men in fist and club battles."
In defense of the brood, many of the criminal acts attributed to them were never
proven, but the name "Black Donnelly" seemed rhythmical to the point that it was
the first to conger up in the minds of the Lucanites whenever foul play occurred.
That they were scrappers of the first order and had fuses of tolerance the length
of a snail's thumbnail there is no doubt, but, in just the same, the townsfolk never
afforded them the same acceptance they did other children along Roman Line Road.
Their "ould man" was a jailbird and convicted murderer, their mother was a leathery-faced
harridan who never let an evil eye pass. The boys themselves were raised knowledgeable
of the religious-based histrionics that had chased their "mum" and "pup" out of Tipperary,
and, no doubt, as small children, they early felt the scorn of the Whiteboy families
who continued to taunt anything named Donnelly. Doubtlessly, as well, their mother
had told them of the fate of Sheriff Ryder whom all of Biddulph Township knew had
abetted their father while in exile and therefore paid the price of his life for
According to Earl Ryder, a descendant of the Ryder family who wrote a marvelous study
of the Donnelly situation for the Official Donnelly Home Page, the sheriff was murdered
by persons unknown ("dyed in the wool Whiteboys," suggests he). "(The killers) must
have known, like everyone else, that the sheriff could have captured ... Donnelly
if he had made the effort," Ryder asserts. "Some time later, Ryder met with sudden
death. He either fell or was pushed under the wheels of a train."
In the case of the ensuing feud, historians largely agree that finger-pointing rampaged.
Whose fault it was seems almost secondary to the fact that somewhere along the way
something got out of hand. Between the time Squire Donnelly went to prison in 1858
and the inevitable tragedy that occurred in 1880, a violent feud climaxed with very
little let-up between the Donnellys and pretty much the rest of Biddulph Township.
Whether as offenders or defenders, the Donnellys were no pacifists. Especially Johannah
who, if legends about her are accurate, was a large part of the problem. Put simply,
if someone threw a stick of dynamite Johannah's way, she would have gone back at
them with a battleship, even if she had to steal one. With her collecting dust at
Kingston Prison, she was bitter. True, he was spared the noose, but in her estimation
he should not have been convicted in the first place. Farrell, she alleged, had baited
him and her Jimmy fought back. Two hot tempers bubbling over, that's all. No one
meant to kill...well, at least her Jimmy hadn't meant to. With this attitude, she
almost certainly stuffed her offsprings' heads with the evils of injustice and the
right to avenge the sacred name. Writer Kelley calls Johannah "big, brawny and grim-featured"
and the author of a litany of specific if not cockeyed rules for her sons to live
by. "Hit first and talk later," she advised them. "Never forgive your enemies. Always
remember and never forget that, when in a rough-and-tumble fight, be shor' to git
in the first blow either a hard smash to the jaw or a good swift kick to the crotch."
Lucan's streets became the scene of altercations between the growing Donnelly clan
and other boys their age who wanted to test the staying power of the tough, tough
Donnellys. I repeat: The family loved to fight. Make no mistake of that. When their
peers weren't available to rattle, they oft took to finding other means to exercise
their fists. When a band of eleven gypsies rode into town to cause the Christian
community some apprehension, the Donnellys alone sent the garlic-breathed pagans
flying. And, according to legend, three Donnellys whipped, no-contest, enemy John
Flannigan and seventeen hangers-on in a barroom brawl. Toughest of them was the second
oldest, William, considered the leader of the brothers. William or Will—born with
a club foot, and having endured scorn of other children for this malformation, was
a bundle of fight and cocky strut; and woe be it to anyone who looked at him oddly
from any angle. As he grew, he found his handicap an advantage. Because of an old
Irish superstition much believed by many in the folklore-believing community of Lucan
that "Children, conceived by Satan, walk with deformed feet"—many of the more traditional
refused to take him on in fear that the Gates of Hell might gape mid-way through
a confrontation to swallow them whole.
Early Lucan suffered a series of fires, many of them blamed on the Donnelly lads.
Victims of these blazes, reeking of arson, were, according to Ray Fazakas in The
Donnelly Album, "William Morgan's hewed-log inn in 1864, Madill's Hotel in 1865 (and)
Leonard Hodgins' tavern in 1866." But, adds the author, "It was, of course, in the
taverns where the Donnelly boys were usually to be found."
Fistfights, fires and intemperance were not the only iniquities attributed to the
Donnelly marauders. Beginning in the 1860s and lasting for some time, a number of
petty thefts were blamed on the boys. When harnesses, milk cans, plows, yolks and
other items started to disappear from Lucan area farms in droves, the Donnelly sons
were old enough to have, en masse, taken them. At least, the town said so.
No formal charges were brought against them by wary neighbors, until Bob McLean had
had enough; tired of replacing tools in his shed at extreme cost to his pocket book,
he flew enraged at last to the constabulary to press charges against the Donnellys.
Nothing came of it. But a week later, McLean's barn burned to the ground. Then his
house was set afire. Then his cattle were poisoned. Then three of his horses were
discovered dead, their throats slit.
"The Black Donnellys," says author Kelley, "were growing up." And just when the apple
seemed rotted enough, the serpent came yonder to poison it more. Squire Donnelly
was released from prison.
Those who knew him well before he was imprisoned attest that he walked out a changed
man. He had never been a loveable rogue, but where a soft touch might have existed
now lurked a hardness. Meanness. The town sensed it and shuddered, for there were
rumors that he might take vengeance on several men who had fingered him in court
as the one who shoved that spike in Johnny Farrell's brain. Among these witnesses
were two central figures who had had a good view of the fight and the culminating
murder; there names were Liam Haskett and Joseph Ryan.
"Around midnight on the very day James Donnelly returned to his family, several masked
riders rode up to Haskett's barn, yelling like wild Indians, and threw burning faggots
into the hayloft before riding away, while the terrorized Haskett remained within
the house," Kelley tells us. "When the vandals rode off, Haskett was able to save
his horses, but the barn burned to the ground. (Then) Ryan, long a victim of Donnelly
perpetrations, was finally beaten to a pulp one night by Tom Donnelly who robbed
him of eighty dollars."
When the latest victim sought redress, a constable supposedly answered, "We can't
really do a thing for ya', Ryan lad, fer when ya got the Black Donnellys on your
ass, all of Biddulph Township can't help ya'."
The police, it seems, were not shrugging their duty nonchalantly, but spoke with
first-hand knowledge, for even several constables had endured the Donnelly wrath
presumably those involved in the arrest of James Donnelly. A reported seven men in
uniform were, at various times, cornered on dark roads and dim street corners, pummeled
by men who came so quickly from the shadows that the victim had no chance to identify
them. One officer was beaten so badly that he lost his sight.
On several occasions, the Donnelly's own priest tried to intervene, but to no avail.
Reverend Father Connolly, kind-hearted pastor of St. Patrick's Church and spiritual
head of Lucan's Catholic community, often visited the Donnellys to and from his parish
calls on buggy. If one man understood the family, it was Father Connolly, for he
knew of its travails with the Whiteboys and the prejudice they faced at the outset.
In certain ways, he admired James Donnelly's gumption and perceived underneath him
a much better man than what surfaced. He recalled the time that the squire was one
of the few Roman Catholics in Lucan to donate money to the building of St. James,
the town's Anglican church, and while the act raised the hairs of the hard-set Whiteboys,
the priest saw it as a true example of Christian togetherness, one from which many
of his own congregation would follow.
When the priest called, the family treated the holy man cordially, but if he maneuvered
conversation toward the mending of their ways, Big Jim Donnelly always reminded him,
in a not too disguised manner, to butt out.
"Ah, Jimmy D, it's a sinful road you're travelin'," the priest would say, "ya' can't
go on this way, God knows it's a blight on the foin name o' Donnelly and a mark o'
Cain on the Irish race. I see ya' every Soonday at Mass you n' your boys takin' the
Host, then out ya' go into the world with larceny in your heart, Jimmy, evil booblin'
in your veins. Foightin' and pillagin', it's no good, Jimmy Donnelly. I'm fearin'
for where it'll lead."
To which Squire Donnelly would reply: "Father, when I have the wherewithal ta step
into your poolpit box at St. Pat's and preach the gran' lessons of Ecclesiastes 'n
Deuteronomy, then that's the day ya' can tell me how ta run me family. In the meantime,
please shut your gob on this subject...Now, would ya; be joinin' us in a coop o'
Donnelly may or may not have known just how difficult it had been for Father Connolly
to keep the peace on his behalf. Several times the priest had gotten wind of vigilante
movements against the Donnelly clan and had thwarted them. In fact, he had been one
of the designers of a peace committee comprised of townsmen from Lucan and surrounding
areas. The committee, which met at local Cedar Swamp school house, focused on community
tolerance with, of course, the Donnelly foibles being its main issue. But, the priest
was worried; he knew that several of the members had been meeting apart from the
general sessions an inner council, if you may—and had been talking hanging talk.
That is why he was glad to see the Donnelly mob, one by one, marry fine women and
move out of the Donnelly cluster. He hoped that with a wife and children, the boys
would lose interest in fighting. In the first half of the 1870s, one wedding ceremony
seemed to follow the other. John Donnelly wed Fanny Drunan in 1871 and took up farming
on land of his own several miles out of town; he was followed by Patrick, Michael
and Robert who married, respectively, domestic lasses named Mary Ryan, Ellen Hynes
and Annie Currie.
All flowed quietly for awhile, but the Donnelly's had a knack for irritating neighbors,
even when in love. When "Clubfoot Will" met and won the heart of Hanora (Nora) Kennedy,
her parents, brothers and sisters more or less told her that if she continued to
"kiss the divil," well ... consider herself no longer a Kennedy. She not only continued
to see him, but married him in January of 1875. Their wedding was a blissful one,
attended by much of Lucan except for a conspicuous absence of the entire Kennedy
tribe. Unfortunately, Nora's brother John was part of the "inner council" whose animosity
toward the Donnellys worried the parish priest and whose hatred led to the bloody
ultimatum to come five years later.
Tommy Donnelly also irked the wrong family with his choice of girl. Evidently, he
and curvaceous Christiana McIntyre had fallen head over heels for each other and
conducted a series of secreted rendezvous on the outskirts of Lucan until Papa Murray
found out and sent his daughter packing to a school out of town and far from the
rowdy boy. The McIntyres, too, were staunch members of the anti-Donnelly faction
and failed to see that the brief love affair was two-sided. A Donnelly had done the
unthinkable touched a McIntyre!
The one Donnelly who escaped the indignation of the Lucanites was daughter Jennie
most likely, because she wasn't indignant. Unlike the rest of her family, she walked
through life with a smile and a pleasant hello to all. She no doubt heard the hatred
for many of the Lucan families spewing forth at the Donnelly dinner table, but she
obviously took whatever she heard with a grain of salt. She seemed to be her own
woman, tending to her own intuitions. People loved Jennie and went out of their way
to greet her when she came to town to shop; she was a colleen, a true Tipperary pixie,
dressed gaily in lace and ribbons, the perfection of sunlight. A swish in her walk,
a giggle in her voice, emeralds radiating her eyes her footfall brought such illumination
in stark contrast to the Donnelley umbrage that rumors prevailed she was adopted.
Jennie, nevertheless, paid a price, for she found whatever boy had become interested
in her slowly, methodically shying away; their curious looks soon dwindled and soon
they kept their distance and their gaze off her as if she were Medusa. Mothers may
have wished that their sons could bring home a girl like Jennie without the Donnelly
connection. When she married at nineteen, it was to a boy from St. Thomas, where
the couple lived a long and blessed life, far from Lucan.
Much of Lucan had been settled by adventuresome couples in their early twenties at
about the same time James and Johannah Donnelly, also young at the time, made their
home there in the 1840s. By the '70s, the citizens' children had grown to matrimonial
age and weddings were a common occurrence throughout Middlesex County in the spring
months at that time. As the guest lists for these receptions often included both
the Whiteboy and Blackfeet factions, it is a small miracle that they began and ended
without incident. More so, since the Donnellys were present at many of them, seated
alongside the families with whom they battled on the streets of Lucan or who blamed
them many times over for acts of vandalism and theft.
One wedding reception in 1876 produced such a dangerous blend of personalities and
a bad straw, as well. Things went smooth at first; the handshakes, the greeting of
the bride, the toasts, the catering. An aroma of baked chicken, buttered biscuits
and apple pie spiced the night air, dancers twirled under lantern light to the rhythm
of a fiddling band strumming and singing the songs from Ireland:
"Step we gaily on we go Heel for heel and toe for toe, Arm and arm and on we go all
to Mari's wedding..."
The groom looked handsome in high collar and Sunday coat, and the bride's silken
beige gown caught the sheen of the hundred candles illuminating the yard.
No one knows what precisely triggered it, but a scuffle commenced between a couple
of the Donnellys and three others. Some words, a push here, a shove there, a slap,
a punch, then another, a flip, spilled cider, a woman observer's scream, than something
close to the apocalypse erupted. Irish ham fists everywhere and the wedding feast
became a boxing ring. But, the band kept on singing:
"Through the hillways up 'n down, Myrtle green and bracken brown Up again, oh 'round
and 'round, all for sake of Mari..."
By the time it ended, there were three unconscious Lucanites on the ground and the
Donnellys, triumphant, over them, flexing their muscles. Though at the time it seemed
like a merry Irish brawl, a joke, in fact, to the winners, the incident was the beginning
of the end for the Donnellys. It had been just one fight too many in which they were
They had humiliated three of the leading Whiteboys.
The feud had reached the ears of the local press, who were beginning to print updates
in their newspapers for all of Canada to see. While not always mentioning the Donnellys
or any other family by name, the articles gave details of the infamous, ongoing scraping.
Reads the London (Ontario) Free Press of May 23, 1877: "During the last week or two,
several thousand dollars' worth of property has been destroyed by fire, the origin
(being) traced to incendiaries...Some 15 horses...have perished, either by burning
alive or otherwise. The latest outrage (has) caused a great deal of indignation in
the neighborhood and threats to lynch the miscreants ... are freely indulged in."
The gazette didn't exaggerate. Father Connelly was having a Hades of a time keeping
the angering Biddulphers from boiling over. Those who detested the Donnellys and
that number now exceeded the smallish Whiteboy party had little satisfaction when
a couple of the mad-hatters received light-term jail sentences for assorted acts
of havoc or even when one of the wildest, James, Jr., died from pneumonia in May,
1877; the surviving brothers, in their grief, paid tribute to him by attacking anyone
whom they knew had been an outspoken opponent of his in life.
As if they had given up trying to justify their actions and protect their name, the
Donnellys now relished their own reputation; they wallowed in it. Clearly, the situation
had become one of the Donnellys against the world. Squire Donnelly, growing older
with Johannah at home, let his boys rampage and fuss all they wanted. And if he heard
of anyone averring to "stop the Black Donnellys dead in their tracks," the Black
Donnellys saddled up to torch his barn and beat him into submission. Thomas P. Kelley
attests that every one of the brothers, with the exception of Patrick, "stood before
a judge at one time or other ... (in one year alone facing) thirteen different criminal
charges (including) arson, highway robbery, poisoning, brawling, drunkenness and
Now and again came periods of silence. The town grew uneasy during these periods,
for they were always followed by blasts like the storm that cometh after the calm.
However, after the older Donnelly boys married and were forced to find means of full-time
employment, these stretches of quietude lengthened and seemed to become more frequent
with time; the town was even beginning to believe that perhaps the Donnelly wild
boys had grown up. Then came an incident just before Christmas in 1879, not in Lucan,
not even ignited by the Donnellys, but a powder keg just the same.
Michael Donnelly, then 29 years old, had acquired a job with the Canada Southern
Railway; he resided in St. Thomas with his wife Ellen and two children whom he adored.
Christmas coming, he looked forward to the holiday and the chance to spend it with
the family 'round the Christmas tree. Because he wanted to fill the underside of
that tree with toys and presents, he opted to take a short assignment out of town
to Waterford, for extra money.
After work on December 9, 1879, before returning to Slaight's Boarding House where
he lodged, he stopped for a drink in a Waterford saloon. Tired and not in the best
of moods, Michael was easy prey for an altercation. "Sensing (this), a fellow worker
... instigated a bitter fight," pens Earl Ryder in his report on The Official Donnelly
Home Page. "The instigator at that time had a knife concealed on his person with
the blade extended. When the fight started, he at once drew the knife and caused
a wound which was serious enough to cause death within a couple of minutes."
Ryder, who has studied the case for years, believes that the attacker and killer
was a member of the vigilante committee out of Lucan that secret part of Father Connolly's
peace committee that was, unknown to the priest, working on its own for violent response.
There are other scholars, too, who suggest that that small, clandestine membership
sought to incite the feud into something bloody so that the Donnellys would be forced
into a showdown. If that is true, Michael was a pawn.
The Donnellys were heartbroken and, although it is not recorded, most assuredly suspected
a plot. They were not ignorant of the loathing towards them nor of the ability of
some of the townsmen to kill if it came to that.
Another one of those long periods of silence fell over Wellington County. One faction
would strike again whether the Donnellys to avenge, or the vigilantes to push the
vengeance out into the open.
"We may call and call him, wildly rending This death-hush with moans of human pain..."
—Mary Fitzpatrick, In Memory of the Same
There is an ancient Irish legend that tells of the Ban-Sidhe, a female spirit of
death whose wail, heard spontaneously in the still of the night, warns of impending
doom. According to Lady Wilde, scholar of Irish traditions and legends, and the mother
of famed English writer Oscar Wilde, "There is no harm of fear of evil in (the Ban-Sidhe's)
presence, unless she is seen in the act of crying, but this is a fatal sign, and
the mournful wail is a sure and certain prophecy that the angel of death is waiting..."
An old hagawitch who called herself Grandma Bell, a soothsayer who lived outside
of Lucan and who claimed to see the future by reading tea leaves, later told the
county newspapers that she had presaged the end of the Donnelly clan three months
before it happened. She had tried to warn Squire Donnelly of the cry of the Banshee
meant for him and his family, but he laughed at her.
On a lark, three of the Donnelly boys and their father visited her log cabin one
November evening in 1879, wishing to have their fortunes told. Of course, it was
all done on the spur of the moment, drunk as they were, but her reading was, she
stressed, done in earnest.
"There was blood on the moon that night (when) I heard their horses pull up before
my house," she told a reporter from the London Free Press. "I knew Mr. Donnelly and
had spoken to him several times in the past." With him were Mike, John and Tom; she
liked the first two, but distrusted Tom ("He just stared at me and his eyes were
cold"). As was her custom, she boiled tea for them, then foretold their fate based
on the position of the leaves left in their cups. She was shocked at what she saw;
each of their cups agreed. "I see death, Mr. Donnelly! Death for you, death for your
wife and sons here I see death for all of you soon and terrible!"
They only shouted and laughed. "Mr. Donnelly threw a coin on the table and said my
words were the funniest he had ever heard," she continued. "Then they all went out
and got on their horses. I could still hear them laughing as they rode up the road.
The next I heard of them was when a neighbor ran over to tell me they were all dead...all
With the advent of a new year, 1880, a final plan was afoot to rid the township of
the Donnellys in the name of self defense; once and for all. Scholars generally agree
that all that the antagonists had to do was wait for an opportunity. They were certain
that the Black Donnellys would go on a rampage after Michael was stabbed to death,
but surprisingly they hadn't probably because the killer remained unidentified and
had apparently fled for parts unknown, leaving the angry and insulted clan without
a definite target. Since Squire Donnelly and his brood refused to cause trouble,
the "inner committee," as researcher Earl Ryder calls them, created trouble.
Ryder claims that one of the families with whom the Donnellys had remained on friendly
terms were his ancestors, the Ryder family of neighboring burgh Granton. (Recall
the aid given to James Donnelly by Sheriff Ryder after the Farrell killing at the
logging bee, and the suspected reprisal of the Whiteboys visited upon him afterwards.)
According to Ryder, the inner committee, in an effort to cause bad blood, burned
Patrick Ryder's barn and blamed the deed on the Donnellys. "Witnesses" came forward
naming certain Donnelly boys as the arsons, and screamed for retribution.
But, before a lynch mob could manifest, the plot failed. The Donnelly boys had an
irrefutable alibi: They had been at a dance and visible to more than a hundred witnesses
who vouched for their presence. "The (real) arsonists were not successful in proving
the Donnellys ... had a hand in the burning," Earl Ryder asserts. More so, James
Donnelly, pushed to boiling point, "had a counter charge arranged to put against
them in court." The charge was to be formally written up the next day, on February
4. This, claims Ryder, is most likely the reason why the killers decided to make
their move when they did, in the pre-dawn hours of that day.
Around 10 p.m. February 3, 1880, twelve hours before James Donnelly was to appear
in the Granton courthouse to present his official counter-charges, the Donnelly house
settled down for the night. Each person tended to his or her respective evening chore.
Johannah washed the supper dishes, accompanied by her husband's niece, a pretty lass
of 22 years named Bridget, who was visiting from Ireland. Outside, at the pens, careful
not to slip on the ice that had formed in the spillage of water from the gutter,
Tom Donnelly fed the livestock. The squire, in the barn, lay a blanket across each
of his nags to protect them from the onslaught of wintry winds that had frozen every
corner of Wellington County like a tundra. At his side was little Johnny O'Connor,
a neighbor boy. A snowstorm was expected after midnight, and because the family would
be busy in Granton in the morning, Squire Donnelly had borrowed the services of Johnny
to feed the pigs and shovel a footpath through the property come morning. The boy
was staying overnight at the Donnelly farm.
Patrick, the other son still unmarried, would have tended to those particular tasks,
but he was off on business at Thorold, eighty miles away. He "escaped the slaughter
he otherwise would have known," says author Thomas P. Kelley.
Before midnight, the family snacked on cored apples and went to bed. The Donnellys
had to change their usual sleeping arrangements to accommodate their guests for the
evening; the O'Connor boy shared a room with James Donnelly in the front of the house,
off the parlor; Bridget stayed with Johannah in what was normally the parents' bedroom;
and Tom Donnelly remained in his usual quarters off the kitchen.
The details of what happened next at the home of the Black Donnellys would have been
completely unknown were it not for Johnny O'Connor who, at first intimation of danger,
crept under his bed and survived. Sometime, in his estimation, about 1.00 a.m., February
4, he and the squire were awakened by an aggravated pounding at the front door. The
squire rushed from his room to be greeted by barrel-shaped town constable James Carroll
who had taken the liberty to enter the premises before being invited and now circled
the parlor floor as if he owned the place. James, lighting a candle, and looking
ever so quizzical, asked him what he wanted. The policeman answered, "We have another
charge against you and Tommy." Sharp but indiscernible chatter exchanged between
the two men for a few minutes, interrupted by the arrival of Johannah, Bridget and
Tom who, one at a time, entered the unfolding stage show.
Peering out into the parlor from his position on the bed, the O'Connor lad couldn't
see much of the candlelit room, but he listened. He couldn't decipher everything
that was being said the dialogue was a cacophony of voices speaking at once, but
he managed to pick up fragments. Carroll, in maneuvering about the room, must have
placed Tom in handcuffs because he heard James gasp, "Thomas, you are manacled?"
to which Tom replied, indicating Carroll, "Yes, he thinks he's smart." O'Connor saw
Tom sneering at the officer, demanding that Carroll better produce a warrant or else.
"Read me the damned warrant!" Tom spat.
According to O'Connor, Carroll then made an odd gesture through the front window.
That is when hell broke asunder. And Johnny O'Connor ducked under the bed.
"I think there were about twenty of them that ran into the house," the boy testified
in court later. "I could see out into the front room; the bed was near the end of
the room, opposite the door." From what he heard and the snatches of interplay he
saw, he was able to fairly well piece together a scenario. The Donnellys ran into
the kitchen ahead of their pursuers, but they must have met others at the back door,
for none of them were able to make an escape. He heard their agonized screams. Tom
must have broken free from the vigilantes, for O'Connor heard someone yell, "Stop
that boy!" then saw Tom dart, terrified, through the front door into the yard. There,
he was cornered and whipped—O'Connor could hear Tom's pleas under the thrashings.
Several men carried him back into the parlor and threw the bundle onto the wooden
floor, a thud. One man slammed the front door and stood before it, armed with a spade.
"I could see Tom's feet...and heard him groaning, I could hear something rattle when
they threw him down," the boy continued. The men were bending over him, doing something
that O'Connor couldn't see, but whatever they were doing must have been tortuous,
for Tom screamed in pain. "One fellow said, 'Hit that fellow on the head and break
his skull open!' Someone then complied; the listening boy heard the terrible whacks
one, two, three, four made with a spade upon Tom's head.
Tramping of feet resounded in the meantime as many men rushed the stairs to the upper
floor; they were blustering about "that young girl (Bridget)" who had run up there
to hide. It wasn't long before O'Connor heard them descending, slowly this time,
their job obviously taken care of. "She won't talk now!" one man chuckled.
The child panicked when he saw the feet of several trespassers enter his room; they
failed to look under the bed, busy spraying what his nostrils told him was coal oil
across the furniture. A spark and the boy knew the bed over him was afire. Some more
muttering, more shouting, somebody laughed, and he saw flickering of red in the parlor,
also in flames. Silhouettes of the mob, in rank and file, some of them giving a victory
whoop, filed from the house.
Rolling out from under the blazing mattress and through the stench-smoke of sizzling
timber, O'Connor darted across the parlor, still ducking under the windows lest the
monsters outside see his shadow in the fire light. He recalled, "I looked and saw
Tom lying in the room, and the old woman (Johannah) near the kitchen door; I tramped
on her as I went out (but) saw none of the others." He thought Mrs. Donnelly was
still breathing, but he was too frightened to see what condition she was in.
In a paroxysm of panic, still unsure if the killers had left the property, O'Connor
darted across the open yard through the snow and didn't stop until a neighbor down
the road answered his frenzied knocking.
The murdering was not yet over.
Four miles away near the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks, on a dark, flat crossroads
called Whalen's Corner, a half-dozen cutters carrying the destructive ones now glided
onto the snowy grounds of Clubfoot Will's house. "Considered to be the smartest of
the brothers, it was his blood the (vigilantes) wanted most of all," writes Earl
Ryder. A dozen of the killers approached the stoop, aimed their carbines flush at
the door only a few feet in front of them, and paused. Waiting for the signal to
Inside the small frame home, William and his wife Nora were asleep. Their evening
guest, brother John Donnelly, slept in a bed down the hall. Having left his wife
at his own home for the evening, John had ventured to Will's alone in the inclement
weather to borrow the family cutter for the ride to Granton the next morning. Sometime
right before 2:30 a.m., a man's voice out front yelled "Fire! Fire! Open the door,
Will" and John, semi-conscious, heard the cries. He scrambled from under his quilt,
threw on a robe and proceeded towards the front door. William was sitting up in his
bed by this time and saw his brother pass his bedroom door on the way to the parlor.
"What in the blue beyond is goin' on out there?" John murmured as he reached for
the door latch. He threw open the door, braced for the morning cold—and stared into
the half-score of gun barrels. He probably realized the ambush immediately, but had
no time to react. The weapons flashed and roared, and John felt his body rip apart
with the fusillade. He tumbled backwards into the room just as William careened around
the corner from his bedroom.
"May the Lord have mercy on my soul!" John screamed. William shrank from the open
doorway and, reaching over his brother's fallen form, slammed the door shut, engaging
the bolt as he did. Even in the sorry light of the moon, William could tell that
his brother had been transformed into a pincushion. His nightshirt was dark with
blood, kneecaps to neck Blood trickled from his mouth and nostrils.
Nora had found some holy candles and a rosary, and placed them on John's chest, wrapping
his hands around them. His breathing came sparse, and rattled. He needed a doctor,
but there was no way now that they could fetch one. Her husband, peeking out the
window through the sash, consistently motioned her to keep her head and figure down
lest the shooters open fire willy-nilly. He heard occasional movement and talking
below the window. At one point he heard a laughter, followed by a voice he recognized
instantly as that of Nora's brother, John. "I guess that takes care of my brother-in-law!"
Kennedy mocked. Only then did William realize the hunters had mistaken John for him.
It seemed like hours before he heard the soft scrape of the cutters' blades whooshing
from the snow piles in his yard, the vigilantes' hoozahs petering away into the distance.
They thought they had killed Clubfoot Will. And. in a way, they did. For when he
saw his brother gasp his final breath on the floor of his parlor, much of what was
William Donnelly expired along with him.
When the sun rose over Biddulph Township, and he realized what had happened to other
members of his family his mother, his father, Tommy and cousin Bridge—what fight
may have eventually rejuvenated drowned in the agony of tears. He sensed all hope
die. He realized that the Black Donnellys were, as had long been the dream of so
many, defeated. The fight was gone.
"It had been a cataclysm of slaughter that belonged to the Dark Ages," Thomas P.
Kelley estimates quite fairly in his Vengeance of the Black Donnellys. "The sharp
knives of the mob had castrated Tom Donnelly before his head was chopped off, as
was the head of his father, whose eyes were gouged out. The kitchen of the house
literally swam in blood...The (four) bodies were so hideously burned and slashed
that they were buried in one casket...One story has it that old Johannah Donnelly
was scalped, while mob members heated an iron poker till it was cherry-red, then
thrust it ..." Kelley leaves the rest to one's worst imagination.
Of the murder at Whalen's Corner, the same author quotes Lucan coroner Dr. Flock
who examined John Donnelly's body. Said Flock, "He had so many shots in his body
that he would have had to be cut to mincemeat to get them all out."
If the Donnellys had been the terrors of the town they were supposed to be, even
at their very worst that worst had never come within the shadow of the depravity
performed upon them by the howling mob. This was on another plateau. Much beneath
the surface of human. Not even animal.
"Falling is easier than rising."
—Ancient Irish proverb
Days after the massacre, the local police received an anonymous letter that began:
"For some time past, a great deal has been said about the Donnelly family. They have
been blamed by the Biddulphers as perpetrators of many crimes throughout the township.
A vigilance committee was formed by a few pretended honest settlers as a means of
protection from these outrages. But, the question is, who needed protection? Well,
I think the Donnellys needed protection more than the vigilance committee did ..."
Such was the epilogue sentiment of many—in fact, of most guilt the generator. In
testimony to the guilt that thunder-stoned the township, the township packed the
pews of St. Patrick's Church for the Donnelly funeral. Gaping mouthed, sullen mourners
on the verge of tears broke down in entirety at the heart-wrenching sight of young
Jennie Donnelly come to bid her parents goodbye, her cheeks tear-stained. Appearing
from the foyer, she followed two coffins one bearing John Donnelly, the other bearing
what was left of the four others. Her surviving brothers braced her by the elbows
to keep her from collapsing. The town had truly appreciated the amiable Jennie, had
celebrated her wedding and now had slaughtered her family.
An organ boomed. Services began. In the front row of the church, William, Patrick,
Robert and, yes, surely Jennie, couldn't help wondering who in the congregation behind
them had, less than 48 hours ago, taken part in the carnage. God's sacramental house
was not the place to cast the evil eye, but one can imagine their dark brows as they
watched certain personages from the community shuffle past the closed coffins. William
had heard some of their voices in his front yard. He heard their laughter. And he
knew their faces well those who had sneered in his direction and spat in his path
many a day John Carroll, John Kennedy, Mike Slattery, John Purtell, Joe McIntyre,
Martin McLaughlin, and others. These, the ones who now, for the first time in their
lives, kept their heads down, their gobs shut, their eyes averted, and actually flushed
a vivid red under the gaze of the Black Donnellys.
Of the funeral, the Toronto Telegram wrote, "The melancholy cortege arrived at St.
Patrick's Church and the coffins were deposited in the aisle of the church. At 12
o'clock precisely, Mass was celebrated by the Rev. Father Connolly. (He) undertook
to address the congregation with which the church was crowded to suffocation. (At
one point) his reverence completely broke down, being overcome by the intensity of
his feelings ... Then with his handkerchief over his eyes, and staggering back against
the altar, he threw himself upon it and wept like a child."
For days following, the town stilled itself in whisper. Winter nonetheless, a heat
of intensity stifled the air and choked all loud talk. Ugly forms of cumuli scratched
the sky to splatter the town in shadow. Everything seemed out of joint. The stench
of the burned timbers at Donnelly house drifted into town, said some, to sting the
nostrils of, especially, the guilty. Sparse movement was habitual, and dreamlike.
What animation there was came from the county detectives who fell upon Lucan in great
numbers to investigate what happened the morning of February 4, 1880. They knocked
on doors, pulled doorbells, and interviewed, interviewed, interviewed. Compiling
testimony from the O'Connor boy and others (it is believed many pointed fingers at
their brethren), the authorities arrested six men whom they believed had engineered
the calamity. These half-dozen included James Carroll (the constable who came to
"arrest" the Donnelly men), John Kennedy (William Donnelly's perturbed brother-in-law),
and four others whose actions prior to the tragedy seemed suspicious. In the fall,
they were tried at the Middlesex County Courthouse, but the proceedings netted a
hung jury. A second trial in January, 1881, concluded hastily with a "Not Guilty!"
verdict for all defendants. By that time, the law's interest in justice seemed to
have greatly faded.
But, the vigilance committee wagged on. When their own were freed, they met them
at the Lucan train station with bugles and with drums, with banners and with speeches.
Then, in parade, the assembly marched back to the Central Hotel where a hot dinner
prevailed in their honor. Nothing was too good for these six men who they had crowned
"redeemers of the community".
But, justice was coming. The Banshee had been taking notes.
"A startling story had spread throughout he district like wildfire; one which brought
varied fears and emotions to its inhabitants," relates Donnelly biographer Thomas
P. Kelley. "It was a story that told of the Donnelly wake, (which had been held the
day after the murders) at the O'Connor farmhouse...Soon after midnight a lengthy
series of wails and sobs, drawn out and eerie, floated from a distant, snow-covered
field as stars twinkled above it ... (It) had been heard by most of those assembled
at the farmhouse for the wake."
If more clever, the guilty might have known the Banshee wailed for their souls. The
harbinger returned again and again after that time, even years later, to decree death
to many of the architects of the massacre. Perhaps, say the old timers, Johannah
Donnelly rode with her. Rumors persisted that Mrs. Donnelly, moments before she died
her bloody death, vowed to return from her grave to inflict violent death to each
of them. Folkloric in substance, but breath-taking in speculation.
"Oddly enough," says author Thomas P. Kelley, "a surprising number of the thirty
or so men suspected of having been members of the mob ... actually did know a tragic
demise; some of them almost inexplicable. One of those men, more than a decade after
the massacre, is said to have groaned as he writhed in his death agonies, after being
gored by a bull: 'It was her last words, the awful curse of Johannah Donnelly, that
brought this upon me!'" Mike Slattery's throat was slashed with a broken bottle in
Windsor, Ontario. John Purtell drowned. His corpse bore a look of horror.
Joe McIntyre, the sibling of Christiana McIntyre whom Tom Donnelly had courted before
her family squelched the affair, admitted to a minister years later that he had been
the one to chop off Tommy's head. "Life has been a living hell on earth for me,"
he sobbed, "and I have seen Johannah Donnelly a thousand times in my dreams. She
points an accusing finger at me and gives a terrible smile. She comes in the night
to haunt me, and I can't go on much longer." Two weeks after his confession, he hanged
himself in his barn.
Today, Biddulph Township remains a farming area. It bears tribute to the hard-working
Irish element that kept their noses clean, unprejudiced and out of the bloody business
of feuding. Irishmen were responsible for cultivating much of this wilderness, clearing
many of its forests, building many of its towns. Most of the Irish, Catholic or Protestant,
had no time for bigotry. The incident at Lucan is an exception.
Outside Lucan, Roman Line Road still cuts through the rural topography as it did
in 1880. Along it, a home that William Donnelly built on the site of his parent's
original house still exists and is cared for well by a private owner. The barn, which
Squire Donnelly constructed in 1877, and which survived the fire, stands sturdily
snubbing its roof beams at the century. Four miles away in the tiny cemetery behind
St. Patrick's Church both the cemetery and church have hardly changed—a headstone
marks where the Donnellys rest in peace.
Standing before the monument might recall to mind the verse by the late General Sir
William F. Butler:
Give me but six-feet three (one inch to spare) Of Irish ground, dig
it anywhere; And for the poor soul say an Irish prayer Above the spot.
The story of the Black Donnellys is a blend of fact and lore that had me, in researching
it, enjoying the task immensely. I was fortunate to come across not only two remarkable
books on the subjects, but also a handsome, well-done website devoted to the massacre
of the Donnellys of Lucan.
Kane, Patrick, etal. Rhyme With Reason.....Chicago: P.G. Smyth, 1911.
Fazakas, Ray; The Donnelly Album; Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1995.
Kelley, Thomas P. Vengeance of the Black Donnellys; Toronto: Modern Canadian Library,
The Official Donnelly Home Page (feature article, "The Truth About the Donnelly Massacre"
by Earl Ryder, copyright 1999).
Joseph Geringer, a Chicagoan, has worked full-time or on a freelance basis as writer
and editor for AT&T, the American Hospital Association, Macmillan and other corporations.
He currently manages his own corporate support and design business, specializing
in helping small business owners conduct a successful communications program. A history
enthusiast, his areas of concentration are the American Civil War and the Prohibition
Era. He is the author of several feature articles and dramatic works on the Lincoln
assassination, including a play about John Wilkes Booth entitled Drown the Stage
with Tears. As well, he wrote and produced Near To Me, a three-act play that faithfully
recreates three days in Chicago's Irish bungalow belt in 1928.
JUSTICE IN ONTARIO
(Real country rockin' number by Steve Earle)
All you who hail from Ontario Know the tale of the Donnellys-O Died at the hands of
a mob that night Every child and man by the oil torch light
Jim Donnelly was no angel sure But they burned his barn, broke down the door Well the
children cried while they killed old Jim Then they killed his wife, then they turned
on them No judge, no jury, no hangman, no justice in Ontario
Well, a hundred years or more have turned And you always hear how much we've learned When
a man lay dead in a Port Hope bar And the blood ran red on a hardwood floor
The big men ran through the nearest door Only one man knew what had happened for sure Well
one and all wore the outlaws' brand And the big bikes roared through the Great Northland When
you live on the edge of the law You know, justice in Ontario
The blue smoke still hung in the air No one spoke when the cops got there 'Till the
local constable made the call Send us Corporal Terry Hall
Well, they all sang a different tune When Corporal Hall walked in the room With his
picture book and a list of names One by one the witnesses came And they told him what
he wanted to know Justice in Ontario
The provincial cops searched far and wide And the outlaws ran but they could not hide And
they brought 'em in, every single one 'Cept the man who actually fired the gun
It was down in London, they were tried And the guilty man stood free outside When he
took the stand to pay his debt The judge was blind and the jury deaf In Kingston Town
they're locked up still When the sun goes down and the air is chill You could swear
you heard Jim Donnelly's ghost cry "Justice In Ontario"