As a child growing up, at times I heard the expression, “the Black Donnellys.” Myths had grown up around this family until they sounded like the most treacherous bunch in Canadian history. As an adult I got a chance to explore this tale of tragedy and will share the details in response to yesterday’s WordPress daily prompt: mythical. (Better late than never. My internet was down by the time I got done writing this.)
Warning: this is one l-o-n-g account.
The Scales of Justice Didn’t Always Balance
In the latter 1800s law and order had broken down in Biddulph, a township in southwestern Ontario just north of London, Lucan being the main town. Settled largely by Irish Catholics like the Donnellys, the area had become known for feuds and unsolvable crimes. Justice, administered haphazardly at best, was sometimes more of a farce as some people were convicted on flimsy evidence while others were acquitted in spite of obvious guilt.
James Donnelly had brought his family from Tipperary, Ireland, and after some years in London, moved into Biddulph as a squatter in 1847, when the area was mostly wilderness. Claiming a parcel land belonging to the Canada Company, he made this his farm for some years. Robust and hot-headed, he wasn’t one to avoid a quarrel and held his own in quite a few.
After some years the Company ignored Donnelly’s claim to the land and sold fifty acres to another farmer named Farrell. Bitter feelings between these two men led some years later to an argument at a work bee, which led to violence. In the struggle Donnelly killed Ferrell. Though some witnesses testified that he acted in self-defense, he was convicted of willful murder and sentenced to be hung.
James Donnelly had been a well regarded man in the community; now his neighbours took up his cause, pleading on his behalf to have this sentence commuted. In the end he was sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary. His wife Judith, a capable woman with a strong, almost masculine nature, ran the farm during these years, supporting their family of six sons and a daughter. Thus James’ sons grew up without a father to guide them.
Details get confused here, but it seems when Donnelly returned from prison he carried on farming, claiming more land and farming it as a squatter. A few years later he lost his squatter’s rights claim and was evicted from this land, which was later sold to a James Carswell who proceeded to build and farm the land. One night after Carswell had harvested and stored his crop his barn was torched. Local speculation laid this crime at the feet of the Donnellys.
The Donnelly sons participated in their share of the feuds and fisticuffs in the area. Michael was killed in a brawl in 1879 and James died of consumption the same year. (It didn’t help that he’d had an altercation with a law officer and caught a bullet while fleeing capture.) Robert was sent to jail for attempting to shoot a Constable, but was released early when it was discovered he’d been framed. Will received nine months for wounding another Constable during a scuffle. John, Tom and James, were all brought up before the courts for larceny, assault, and attempted arson, but not convicted.
They weren’t layabouts; several of the brothers ran a stagecoach business while others farmed. But obviously they weren’t the most law-abiding bunch, which made it easy for popular opinion to hold them responsible for various violent incidents in the township. Barn burnings, theft and/or maiming of animals — these crimes were often laid at their door. Their reputation for violence and crime grew to mythical proportions and they became known as “The Black Donnellys.”
One son, Patrick, kept his hands clean, joined a carriage-making firm, and became a respectable citizen. Apparently he tried at times to persuade his brothers to leave all this animosity behind and relocate elsewhere as he had done. Their sister Jennie, youngest in the family, married James Curry and moved to St Thomas. At the time of the tragedy she was 22 and already had three children.
Setting the Stage for Murder
Father Girard, the Catholic priest in the community, worked hard to soothe fiery passions and end the various feuds going on among his people. Finally he abandoned his post and a new priest, Father Connolly, was appointed. Because of all the crime and the authorities inability to deal with it, Connolly encouraged the formation of a Vigilance Committee to combat this. Many in his church signed the Agreement to keep peace, to search for stolen goods, and to aid each other in preserving the best interests of the neighborhood in a lawful manner. Some, members of the congregation, including the Donnellys, did not sign.
Father Connolly had visited the Donnelly home as part of his parish rounds and wasn’t impressed by the reception he received. First off the dogs snarled viciously at the wolf-skin coat he was wearing. Then Mrs Donnelly hadn’t realized who he was, hadn’t given him the proper greeting due a pastor, and his nose was put out of joint. Likely by this time he’d also heard his other parishioners’ complaints and accusations about the family. So there was some static between the Donnellys and the priest from the get-go. How much his feelings influenced the Committee is hard to say, but Father Connolly did fear retribution after the tragedy until Will Donnelly set his fears at rest.
One of the Vigilance Committee’s first steps was to petition the County Judge, requesting that he appoint Committee member James Carroll as a Constable in the district. Carroll had already quarreled with the Donnelly boys and declared that he was going to drive them from the township. Now invested with legal authority, he promptly arrested Tom Donnelly on a old charge he’d already been acquitted of. Next John was arrested and tried for perjury, the accusation supported by the testimony of several Committee men. The Crown Attorney in London advised dismissal of the case for lack of evidence but the Committee ignored his advice and sent John for trial. Thus began the attempts to harass the Donnelly family.
Like an electrical charge in a thunder-head, tensions were building up in the community. Crimes occurred, nobody knew who had done the deeds, but folks pointed fingers at “the Black Donnellys.” It had to be them again. Finally some of the committee got together secretly and decided that something drastic must be done — for the sake of the community.
A Late Night Horror
On the night of Feb 3rd 1880, a group of at least a dozen men, some dressed as women, some with their faces blackened, approached the Donnelly home. James, in his mid-sixties, Judith, age 54, her niece Brigitte (a teen?), and Thomas, age 21, were home preparing for bed. John had gone to spend the night with his brother Will.
Armed with clubs shaped from firewood, axes or spades, the attackers bludgeoned the four family members. Tom was killed outside the house and his body dragged in. Brigitte ran to hide but was found and dispatched, so as not to bear tales. The unconscious parents were left for dead. Coal oil was poured on the beds and the place was torched.
A young lad named John O’Connor was also spending the night with the Donnellys in order to help on the farm the next day, since Mr. Donnelly had to appear in court to answer a charge of barn-burning. Young John was in bed already when the door opened and the men came in; he managed to crawl under the bed and stay hidden while the murders took place. He was able to clearly identify three of the assailants, one being Constable Carroll. After the men set the house on fire and left, John wriggled out of his hiding place and ran outside. He passed the bodies of James and Judith, hearing them still breathing as the fire spread. He headed for the nearest neighbors to get help.
“Open the Door, Will”
Around 2am that same night someone outside banged on Will Donnelly’s door, shouting “Fire, Fire! Open the door, Will.” But it was his brother John who opened the door to see what the shouting was about and got a shotgun blast in the chest and a bullet in his groin from another gun fired almost simultaneously. John fell backwards into the house, choking on his blood.,and lived only a few minutes longer.
Seven more shots were fired. The others in the house stayed low, frozen with fear. The assassins didn’t enter, seemingly convinced they’d hit their intended target. Will peeked through the blind and recognized three more members of the Committee among those gathered around his house, including his brother-in-law, John Kennedy. (There’d been bad feelings between the two ever since Will had married John’s sister Nora.) Investigators suspected the murderers didn’t enter the house so Will’s wife would be spared.
A friend staying with the Donnellys that night, told Will something to the effect of, “I’m going to forget about this and never say a word to anyone about it. If you’re smart you won’t either.”
Residents were shocked the next morning as news of the brutal murders was made public. Few had imagined that all the finger-pointing would have lead to such horror and locals who’d been opposed to the Donnellys now turned to supporters and called for prosecution of the assassins. People found the murders of the two innocent women especially revolting. Mrs Donnelly was known to be a kind-hearted person; to think of her and her niece suffering such a violent end really raised public outrage.
Fifteen people were arrested, evidence was gathered from their respective properties, and the case went to trial. However, various family members and employers gave alibis for the accused and finally all of them were acquitted in spite of eye-witness testimony. After the trial the lad John O’Connor was moved to a secret location for his safety.
“Vengeance Is Mine,” sayeth the Lord. “I will repay it.”
Four years later a reporter interviewed Will Donnelly and asked if he still had any hopes of seeing those responsible for the death of his family brought to justice. He replied, “You bet I have. There were too many in that conspiracy to keep it quiet always.” Unfortunately he never got this satisfaction.
Then he’d told the reporter about a number people who’d been involved in the murders and some of those family members who’d been involved in the cover-up, who had died in the four intervening years. Through accidents and various sudden illnesses, they had been called before the higher Court of Heaven. Will considered this the hand of God dispensing divine justice.
Knowing they were involved in the horrible crime, even in a lesser role of perjury, seemed to prove too much of a strain for folks who were basically honest and God-fearing. A father, after giving an alibi for his sons, was heard to say as he left the courthouse, “ One man damned his soul today…and had to do it.” He fell sick and died several days later. While he was ill the Vigilance Committee wouldn’t let anyone else visit him.
“And isn’t it strange that with all these deaths and accidents among them, there hasn’t been a death and hardly any sickness on our side,” Will said in conclusion.
So How Black Were the Donnellys?
Were they really the villains local myth made them out to be? And how much of the myth was simply “bad press”, as we say now — the cumulative tarring effect of local gossip. I trust the Court of Heaven has sorted all that out.
To outsiders they rubbed shoulders with, the Donnellys were considered intelligent, polite and well-spoken. They were never drunken — some were teetotallers — always fair in their dealings, paid their bills on time. “In every way conducting their business affairs as honest and true men.” Folks outside Biddulph township couldn’t fathom why the Donnellys had such a bad name in their own community.
A former Constable from London East, interviewed after the tragedy, doubted the Donnelly family had committed all the crimes attributed to them. “They were no doubt guilty of some of them, but many of the stories told about them by their enemy were untrue. Why, one time a telegram came to London saying the Donnelly boys were murdering everybody in Lucan, and assistance was wanted from the London police. Detectives Phair, Muprhy, and myself went out to the village and found a great commotion in the streets, but we found none of the Donnellys there except Mike, who was then living in Lucan.”
Apparently James Donnelly was discussing with his neighbor all the harassment his family was getting just the day before the tragedy. When the man urged him to move away and start fresh, James replied, “As soon is this trial about the barn-burning is over I intend to leave.”