The Donnellys

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On a cold winter night in February 1880, a family went to sleep in the home they had lived in for decades.

Outside, a drunk mob gathered holding an assortment of weapons including an axe, shovel, pitchfork, and clubs.

When they were assured those inside had gone quiet, they made their move.

Within an hour, the residents of the home were savagely beaten to death. The house in flames

 In a town full of crime, this family’ murders became infamous.

Yet the bloodshed of that night wouldn’t be the last

I’m Craig Baird, this is Canadian History Ehx and today I bring you the tale of The Donnellys!

Some have portrayed them as troublemakers, bent on causing problems for their peaceful neighbours, others characterized them as individuals who were given a bad rep and paid for it with their lives.

Regardless, the story of The Donnellys has become part of Canadian folklore.

Also known as The Black Donnellys their story begins in Ireland where James Donnelly was born on March 7, 1816.

As a young man, he worked as a coach driver for a local landowner. On the property next door to his employer, lived a young woman named Johanna Magee.

The two began to talk and socialize.

Her father didn’t approve of the courtship and asked the owner of the property to confine Johannah to the second floor of the home.

But nothing was going to stop James.

Late one night in 1840, he put a ladder up against Johanna’s window, in the darkness the two climbed down and the two ran off together to be married in secret.

Johannah’s father, unnamed in my research, ran after her with the hopes of getting her back. Once he had found her, he threatened to have James prosecuted and he put Johannah under strict guard.

Without his bride, James traveled with his brother John to Canada to find land for themselves.

Unbeknownst to James, Johannah discovered that she was pregnant.

In 1841, a healthy son was born, and she named him after his father, making him James Jr.

Meanwhile, James and his brother arrived in Canada in 1842 with a group of Catholic settlers, to make a living he drove stagecoaches around the City of London, Ontario.

Across the pond, in Ireland, Johannah’s father relented.

He didn’t want his grandson growing up without a father and allowed his daughter and grandson to travel to Canada.

Her arrival caught James Sr. by surprise, as he was not expecting to see his wife so soon, or possibly ever again, but the couple quickly settled into married life.

While in their new country, in 1844, William was born. The couple’s second son was a sickly child with a clubfoot but was described as having bright eyes.

A year later, with a wife and two sons, James Sr. laid claim to a piece of property to set up a homestead surrounded by lush greens, a grove of trees and a small creek.

They named it Greenland and over the next seven years, the Donnelly family grew.

John was the first child born on the family’s new property in 1847.

He was followed by Patrick in 1849, Michael in 1851 and Robert in 1853. Then Thomas came along in 1854.

Meanwhile The Donnellys built up their property, planted crops, constructed farm buildings and a home for their growing brood.

According to early accounts, James Sr. was helpful to his neighbours. He assisted in logging bees as folks cleared space in forests for the planting of crops and harvested timber to build homes.

The family also attended church each Sunday and enjoyed annual Catholic picnics.

Those years were likely some of the happiest for the family, but that was about to change.

The Donnellys worked hard to establish a life for themselves on their homestead but there was one major problem.

The land they were occupying was not actually theirs.

They were squatters.

This may sound worse than it is.

While many people who immigrated to Canada used colony companies, or purchased homesteads, many simply squatted on land.

This is based on philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Published in 1690 he proposed that although persons belong to God, they own the fruits of their labor.  When a person works, that labor enters into the object. Thus, the object becomes the property of that person.

In the case of The Donnellys there’s an added level of complications.

Although James Sr. had laid title to his land, called Lot 21, he transferred the rights to his friend, John Grace.

I don’t know the circumstances of this transfer, but it had long lasting consequences.

While he had the deed to the land, John Grace never registered it.

He likely was going to trade it. It is also possible he and James Sr. had some sort of an understanding.

Whatever the circumstances, those details are lost to history.

Important to our story is that in 1855, John Grace sold the title to the property to another man, Michael Maher.

In the meantime, The Donnelly patriarch stated that there was no chance he was going to move from the property, and for the most part, the community seemed to be fine with that.

Except for Patrick Farrell.

Farrell was born in Ireland and arrived in the area around the same time as James Donnelly, with whom he may have been a distant relative.

In 1850, Patrick Farrell moved to the property across the road from The Donnellys.

The two men never got along.

Some say it was because of the abrasiveness of Patrick Farrell, some say it went back to a family feud in Ireland, the origin of which we will never know.

What we do know is that Patrick Farrell was also related to Michael Maher, and it is likely he saw an opportunity to rid himself of his nemesis across the road.

James Donnelly Sr.

possibly with some encouragement from Patrick Farrell, Maher pursued legal action to eject the Donnellys from the property.

In the end, the court decided that since the Donnellys had improved the land, they were entitled to at least half of it.

The Donnelly family purchased the northern half of the property and gave up the southern portion.

While this compromise seemed adequate, James Sr. was not happy about it, and it only fueled the growing feud with Patrick Farrell.

The first shots were fired in December 1855, when James Sr. grabbed his rifle, took aim at Patrick Farrell, and pulled the trigger.

The shot missed his intended target even though James Sr. was known to be a crack shot, so it is likely there was no intention to kill Patrick Farrell, simply to scare him.

Warning shot or not, Patrick Farrell had a charge of felonious shooting brought against James Sr.

On Dec. 29, 1855, James Sr. was given an order to keep the peace and be on good behaviour towards Patrick Farrell for one year.

James Sr. kept that peace during that time and then added another six months.

Until the end of June 1857, when James Sr. became a wanted man, and Patrick Farrell lay dead.

On June 25, 1857, both Patrick Farrell and James Sr. showed up to a logging bee in the area.

According to the London Free Press, at some point during that day, Patrick Farrell attacked James Sr. with his fists.

 The foreman of the logging bee later testified that Patrick Farrell was drunk.

James Sr. defended himself and knocked Patrick Farrell down. At this point, Patrick Farrell picked up a logging handspike as James Sr. walked away.

James Sr. defended himself with a hand spike in hand and it was at that point, James Sr. struck Patrick Farrell and killed him.

It took two days for the coroner to arrive to inspect the body of Patrick Farrell. By then, the hot summer sun was already decomposing Patrick Farrell’s body, and he was barely recognizable.

An inquest was held that same day in the Exchange Hotel where only two witnesses were called, the logging bee foreman and Michael Carroll, a friend of James Sr.

A warrant for the arrest of James Sr. was issued but when constables arrived at the Donnelly home, they were told he was gone.

A $400 reward was put in place for his capture.

For the rest of the summer and into the autumn, James Sr. hid out in the surrounding woods.

To keep him fed, his wife and sons stole provisions and brought them to him.

James Sr. hid through the winter, which the cold made more difficult.

Various people in the community were alleged to have helped hide James Sr. during that winter.

Many saw Patrick Farrell as a troublemaker and sympathy grew for James Sr.

Then, on May 7, 1858, James Sr. gave himself up to Sheriff John McDonald.

He was brought in by Mitchell Haskell, but Haskell did not get the reward.

Based on their belief that James Sr. had worked with Haskell, the municipal county council refused to give him a reward or repay any of his travel expenses. Needing a lawyer, John Wilson out of London, Ontario stepped up to the plate.

John Wilson was well-known to locals because in 1833, while still a law student, he successfully defended himself for murder after taking part in the last fatal duel ever fought in Canada West.

Despite the fame and skill of his lawyer, the jury came back with a guilty verdict.

Judge Sir John Beverley Robinson then put on the black cap and said,

“That you, James Donnelly, be sentenced to be taken to the jail from whence you came, thence on the 17th of September next to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until dead.”

Despite the death sentence, James Sr. would never swing from the gallows.

His wife Johannah, along with others in the community, petitioned for the sentence to be commuted.

On July 26, 1858, the Executive Council of Canada considered the matter, and the possibility of self-defence as a motive.

Attorney General John A. Macdonald approved the request and instead of being executed, James Sr. spent seven years in the Kingston Penitentiary.

While James Sr. was in prison, the family did their best to keep going without the head of the household and breadwinner.

In October, Jennie, the family’s only daughter, was born.

If you’re keeping track, that is seven boys, one daughter in ten years and by now an economic depression was hitting much of Canada so money was tight.

The family ate simple foods, mostly consisting of potatoes and whatever else they could grow on the homestead.

Throughout this time, Johannah — Described as having an iron will, was able to stave off foreclosure proceedings on the property.

She worked hard to bring in money, mostly by selling food grown on the farm, and kept the family happy and, for the most part, healthy, during those tough years.

At the same time, she and others in the community worked to have the sentence of James Sr. shortened.

Their efforts were unsuccessful.

While he was in prison, James Sr. gave away part of his property so that a one-room school house could be built.

Despite the school literally sitting next to their property, the Donnelly children were unable to attend. According to William Donnelly, his mother, due to a lack of funds, rarely had proper clothes for them to wear to school.

Most of the children were schooled at home by Johannah herself.

Finally, in 1864, James Sr. was released from prison.

Upon his return, he saw that his children had grown up without him.

James Jr. was now 23, while William was 20 and the were moving into their early teen years, while Jenny was a seven-year-old child he had never met.

William, who had been sickly and was mocked as the “club foot cripple” by some in the community, had become the leader of the family.

He was described as very intelligent, with a personality that was called cool, determined, and far-seeing.

Perhaps due to growing prejudice against the family and the efforts of their enemies to discredit them and tarnish their reputation, a trend emerged in the towns of Biddulph and Lucan.

If something bad happened, the Donnellys were at fault.

It was said that if a farmer’s wife left a fresh pie on the doorstep to cool and the dog ate it, the Donnellys would catch the blame.

The same year James Sr. was released, 1864, William was charged with larceny of wood.

Johannah was also charged with having stolen goods in her possession.

Both charges were thrown out due to a lack of evidence.

As I proceed with this story, you’ll soon see this become a common trend.

Problems went far beyond whatever thefts the Donnellys may or may not have participated in.

The area itself had received a reputation as lawless.

From 1864 to 1866, an inn, hotel and tavern all burned to the ground.

Farmers were reportedly afraid to bring grain to market out of the fear of being robbed.

The attorney general, John A. Macdonald, was told in 1859 that crime was so bad, Justices of the Peace were not safe, and it was only safe to be in the area during daylight.

In 1871, William Donnelly began working for the McPhee and Keefe Stage Coach Line.

Two years later, that company went under, so William Donnelly started his own.

The Donnelly Stagecoach Line was formed on May 24, 1873.

Running from London to Lucan to Exeter, it quickly became financially successful, and William hired his brothers Michael, John, and Thomas on as drivers.

With their growing success, their competitor, Hawkshaw Stage Line, was sold to Patrick Flanagan in October of 1873.

The two companies became bitter rivals, and led to what is known as The Stagecoach Feud.

By 1875, the area was divided into those who travelled with the Donnellys and those who travelled with Flanagan.

It was a serious affair.

Once, a store owner in London sent a parcel to a confectionery in Biddulph to a store owned by John Flanagan.

He used the Donnelly line to send the parcel.

When William Donnelly arrived at the store, John Flanagan, who was related to Patrick, stomped on his own parcel and refused to pay.

William sued him for what he was owed, while John Flanagan charged William with assault for grabbing him by the collar.

Nothing came from either case, but the two sides were essentially at war with each other.

As the Stagecoach Feud escalated, James Jr. arrived home after spending five years away at lumber camps in Michigan. The money he saved, he put most of it into the Donnelly Stagecoach Line.

Almost as soon as he arrived in town, James Jr. was in trouble with the law.

In the spring of 1875, a fruit vendor named Thomas Gibbs stopped at Levett’s Hotel in Lucan with his son John.

He put his horses and cart in the stable and retired for the night.

Around 6 a.m., James Jr. arrived at the stable to take one of the horses the Donnelly’s kept there to St. Patrick’s Church for Mass.

Upon seeing Thomas Gibbs’ wagonload of fruit, James Jr filled his pockets with oranges and lemons.

Gibbs discovered him and confronted him, and Junior. responded by putting steel knuckles on his hand and then… broke Thomas Gibbs’ jaw.

James Jr. was charged with theft and assault.

His brother William paid $27.50 to Thomas Gibbs to get the theft charge dropped, which he considered a smudge on the family’s honour.

In the end James Jr. was convicted of assault.

As this was going on the Stagecoach Feud escalated.

On July 2, 1875, William Brooks, a driver for Flanagan, was taking the usual route from Exeter to London.

He had just passed Lucan, when the Donnelly’s stagecoach appeared on the road behind him, travelling at a faster speed.

The Donnelly’s attempted to pass William Brooks but he refused to move from the centre of the road.

Without warning, the left front wheel of William Brooks’ stagecoach suddenly flew off the axle and rolled away.

The stagecoach fell to the ground.

William Brooks and a passenger traveling up front with him were thrown from the stagecoach into the path of the speeding Donnelly stagecoach.

The passenger was able to avoid the hooves of the horses as he fell to the ground.

William Brooks fell into the harness and reins of the horses pulling his broken stagecoach.

The terrified horses ran for a third of a kilometre before they finally stopped.

Along the way, William Brooks’ body was dragged, and his head repeatedly hit the road.

When the horses stopped, the remaining passengers jumped out of the vehicle, but by then William Brooks was near death, a few hours later he was gone.

A coroner’s report ruled that the death was accidental, but rumours swirled around town that the Donnelly’s had sabotaged the stagecoach and somehow were responsible for the fatal accident.

With that incident in mind less than two months later, on Aug. 31, 1875, Thomas Donnelley was driving the family’s’ stagecoach as it left London with ten passengers.

Along the journey back to Lucan, the Flanagan stagecoach, loaded with eight passengers, began to overtake the Donnelly stagecoach, and passed it.

Soon after, two passengers in the Donnelly stagecoach asked if they could stop for water.

Thomas agreed and he spurred on the horses towards a local hitching post along the way.

Meanwhile, Robert McLean, the driver of the Flanagan stagecoach, kept his horses at a slower pace and refused to move from the centre of the road.

Thomas took his stagecoach to the right to make a dash ahead of Robert McLean.

To do so, Thomas had to squeeze between the Flanagan stagecoach and a pump beside the driveway near the hitching post as he attempted this Robert McLean pulled his horses to the right and blocked Thomas.

Thomas swerved, and his wheels went up the stone pile next to the pump. The stagecoach tilted and the hind wheel of the Flanagan stagecoach caught the front wheel of the Donnelly stagecoach.

Both stagecoaches flipped, sending passengers and luggage onto the road.

After the crash, Thomas yelled at Robert McLean, asking him why he swerved. Robert McLean reportedly stated he would do it again if he had the chance.

While no one was killed, several of the passengers on the Donnelly stagecoach were injured. Two passengers, Louisa and Martha Lindsay, sued the Donnellys and damages were paid.

The Donnellys had to repair their stagecoach, while the Flanagan stagecoach continued to run.

About two weeks later, on Sept. 17, the Flanagan stagecoach’s axle broke while crossing a bridge, sending its passengers and driver into the stream.

Somehow some speculated that the Donnellys were behind the accident.

Two weeks after that on Sept. 30, the Flanagan stable burned to the ground.

While no equipment or horses were lost in the fire, 1,500 bushels of grain and $4,000 in valuables were destroyed.

Patrick Flanagan immediately blamed the Donnellys for the fire, but stated he didn’t know which of the family members had started it.

A few days later on Oct. 4, at another set of stables Patrick Flanagan owned, he locked up his horses and stagecoach and went to his room at the Queen’s Hotel in Lucan.

That night, the stable burned to the ground. Thankfully, all eight horses were saved.

As the Stagecoach feud surged William Donnelly married Norah Kennedy in the autumn of 1875.

All six of William’s brothers stood beside him at the altar during the happy occasion and the priest stated he had never seen such a fine group of young men.

That opinion was not shared by Norah’s siblings, who hated William and his siblings.

Norah’s brother John stated that the Donnellys were nothing more than thieves and robbers.

Her parents also hated William’s parents, but they accepted William into their family and seemed to be very fond of him.

The wedding was a respite but there was trouble brewing on the horizon for both the Flanagan and Donnelly stagecoach lines and it had nothing to do with the feud.

In early 1876, the London, Huron and Bruce Railroad began operations.

With the arrival of the train, more passengers chose to ride the rails than take a stagecoach.

It was faster, and, considering the past few years in the Lucan and Biddulph area, safer.

This is when Hugh McKinnon enters the story.

He was a large man who won many championships at the Highland Games, he was formerly a member of the Hamilton Police Force before he was expelled due to a charge of aggravated assault related during an arrest.

No longer with the police force, he became a private investigator.

One day, while talking with Sandy Reid, a Lucan citizen, he was told about the Donnellys.

He offered his services to Patrick Flanagan and was hired in an attempt to scare off the Donnellys and get them to leave the community.

Hugh McKinnon arrived in the community in early-1876 believing he was undercover and anonymous… just another stranger in the community.

What he didn’t know was that a friend of the Donnellys, Thomas Johnston, who was in the London Police Force, had alerted them to the fact Hugh McKinnon had arrived to deal with them.

According to some sources, William then hatched a plan.

While Hugh McKinnon was in a local barroom, a man began to yell about the Donnellys.

He saw this as his chance and immediately yelled at the man to shut up or he would deal with him.

Then he slapped him in the face.

After this brief altercation, William and his brothers sitting at a nearby table invited him over to sit with them.

The Donnellys then spread a rumour that a stranger, Hugh McKinnon, was in town to beat up Thomas Donnelly.

It spread, and bets were taken on whether Hugh or Thomas could best each other in a fight.

Most of the locals bet on Thomas, knowing his large frame and strength.

Meanwhile, the Donnellys covered all the bets.

Thomas then lost the fight, and the Donnellys were able to pick up a few dollars.

Despite his efforts, Hugh McKinnon was unsuccessful in digging up dirt, or driving the Donnellys out of town.

He left the area in 1877, never to return.

Meanwhile The Stagecoach Feud continued, when another one of Flanagan’s stagecoaches was destroyed by a fire in 1876. Patrick Flanagan sold his stagecoach business to Richard Bryant.

Soon after buying the business, Richard Byrant suffered an accident when his stagecoach had its axle broken during a trip to London.

He was thrown from the stagecoach and his leg was broken in the fall.

While he was recovering, someone smashed his stagecoach to pieces in the middle of the night.

Rather than give in, Richard Byrant bought new stagecoaches and hired three drivers.

A man named Carling, a farmer named Peter McKellar and Rhody Kennedy, Norah Kennedy’s brother and William Donnelly’ brother-in-law.

Carling soon quit after he was beaten up by Robert Donnelly in what he called an unprovoked attack.

Through the 1870s, every single member of the Donnelly family, except James Sr. and Jennie, appeared in court as a defendant at one point or another.

On Feb. 24, 1876, during the wedding of Thomas Ryder and Hanora MacKay at the St. Patrick’s Church, Constable John Coursey showed up to arrest James Jr. for punching Rhody Kennedy.

William stepped between the constable and his brother and put his hand on his pistol, threatening to shoot any man who took his brother.

The constable retreated and went to get some help by recruiting some citizens of the town.

This posse then burst into Fitzhenry’s, a tavern in town, to arrest both William and James Jr.

A crowd surrounded the constable and his small posse to protect the Donnellys and before long, there was pushing and shoving… A near riot ensued.

William then appeared with a pistol and shot a bullet into the ceiling.

In the altercation that followed, another shot was fired over the constable’s head before the Donnelly brothers were able to escape.

A group of townspeople were organized to search for the brothers and several people came forward to pursue old charges against them, whether they had evidence or not.

In the first three months of 1876, the Donnelly brothers were charged with 33 different crimes.

The charges ranged from using profanity to arson and assault.

Eventually, due to a lack of evidence, as was so often the case, most of the charges against the Donnellys were dropped.

However, William, James and John Donnelly were convicted of assaulting the constable.

John was given three months, while James Jr. and William were given nine months each.

Soon after he was sent to prison, William fell ill, and his sentence was commuted to only one month due to poor health.

But violence continued to plague the area.

In 1877, the stables and stages of the Donnellys were burned, as was Michael Donnelly’s home.

After James Jr. ‘s sentence was complete, tragedy struck the family.

Two figures were seen lurking near the Queen’s Hotel on May 14, 1877.

Fires had destroyed the Stanley Hardware building and the McLean Central Hotel the week before, A local group had previously formed to watch for fires and arsonists in Lucan and upon seeing the two figures, they opened fire on them.

The two men fled and disappeared into the darkness.

The next day, James Jr., the oldest of the Donnelly children, died in his bed at the Donnelly homestead.

While the local doctor, Dr. Sutton, certified the death was caused by pulmonary consumption, the Donnellys’ enemies spread a rumour that he had died from a gunshot wound he received the previous night.

Less than a year later in 1878, the Stagecoach Feud finally came to an end when both stagecoach companies went out of business because of competition from the railroad that had been built a few years earlier.

With the feud over you would think things would be peaceful, so let me disabuse of that notion.

On March 18, 1878, Constable Sam Everett was on his way home when someone fired a gun at him from a woodpile 50 feet away.

Everett had been hired recently as a constable but had previously worked as a police officer in Hamilton before he was fired for manufacturing his own liquor.

He was also a friend of Patrick Flanagan. Yes… that Flanagan.

Naturally, Everett immediately accused Robert Donnelly of shooting at him.

Despite Everett’s story changing whenever he told it, and despite Robert having an alibi by the time the trial came along, Robert was sentenced to two years in Kingston Penitentiary. 

But this was not the end of the trouble for the Donnellys as a new man was on the horizon to take up the role of nemesis.

James Carroll was born around Biddulph but left when he was a young man.

He returned in 1878 to live with his uncle.

Very quickly, James Carroll came to hate the Donnelly family.

He argued with them constantly about politics, religion and everything in between.

He soon committed to ridding the area of the Donnellys, whom he saw as an evil part of the congregation of St. Patrick’s Church.

Over the course of the year, the Donnellys and Carroll traded insults with each other but had not come to violence quite yet.

On Oct. 12, 1878, Thomas Donnelly and James Carroll met at an auction sale. James Carroll accused Thomas of uttering threats, which Thomas denied.

The two men nearly came to blows before they were separated.

The next day, John Donnelly confronted James Carroll about the altercation and accusations.

Carroll stated he was not afraid of any Donnelly and could beat any of them in a fight.

John ran at him, and Carroll pulled out a pistol.

The Donnelly matriarch, Johannah, was milking a cow nearby called James Carroll, a son of a bitch, and Carroll turned towards her with the gun.

Seeing his mother threatened with a gun, Thomas Donnelly ran towards James Carroll and grabbed a large stone along the way.

He threw the stone but missed him. He then grabbed two more stones and threw those but missed as well.

James Carroll quickly left the area and went to London where he laid an assault charge against Thomas.

Constables then descended on the Donnelly home where John and William were arrested but Thomas was gone.

Taken to Lucan, John then charged James Carroll with pointing a gun at his mother.

James Carroll was arrested, and he was taken to London where he laid a charge against Johannah for using abusive language.

All the charges were eventually dismissed.

A year later, in 1879, Father John Connolly arrived in Biddulph to serve at the St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church.

Almost as soon as he arrived, the Donnellys enemies turned him against the family as they shared only their misdeeds.

A few weeks later Father Connolly went to the Donnelly home and told Johannah that her boys were doing bad things and if they didn’t change their ways, he would straighten them out himself.

Johannah replied that there were worse people in the area than her sons.

Hoping to change the path of the conversation, she introduced her niece Bridget, who was visiting from Ireland.

Father Connolly talked with Bridget about Ireland, his home country, before going on the rest of his rounds.

In the community, Bridget’s arrival was greeted by the Donnellys’ enemies with mutterings and accusations that there was something indecent going on between James Sr. and his niece.

They began to call him Old Decency.

There was no evidence of anything going on and in letters home, Bridget appeared to be greatly enjoying her time in Canada.

Hoping to bring about some calm to the area, Father Connolly formed the Peace Society of Biddulph in June of 1879.

He asked that members of the St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church pledge their support and agree to have their homes searched for stolen property.

The Donnellys refused to sign the pledge.

The family had grown disenchanted with Father Connolly over the past few months since his arrival because he often preached hatred against Protestants in the area.

The Donnellys had many Protestant friends and at one point, James Sr. stood up in church and denounced Father Connolly for his hatred and said his family would find a new church.

Only two months after the Peace Society was formed, a new group emerged from it.

At a meeting in August 1879 at the schoolhouse built on the land donated by James Sr., their nemesis James Carroll, and several neighbours formed the Vigilance Society.

By this point, James Carroll had been appointed as constable on the promise of ridding the community of the Donnellys.

In less than six months, this committee would commit one of the most infamous crimes in Canadian history.

While the Vigilance committee began to quote unquote, clean up the area of crime, tragedy struck the Donnelly family once again.

Michael Donnelly had left the area, gotten married and was working for the Canada Southern Railway.

On Dec. 9, 1879, while working on the railway near Waterford, Ontario, a local trouble maker named William Lewis left his boarding house and went for a drink at Slaght’s Hotel.

Done work for the day Michael Donnelly, was at the hotel, and was talking with an old man when Michael claimed he could fight any dog, which then evolved into how he could fight any dog owner.

William Lewis became annoyed and stated that Michael was always shooting his mouth off.

Michael pushed Lewis and threatened to fight him.

The two men were separated, and Michael turned his back to Lewis, leaned on the bar and started talking to another man.

Lewis promptly slapped Michael across the back of the head and a fight ensued.

In the middle of the fight, Lewis grabbed a knife from his pants pocket and stabbed Michael in the groin, cutting into his femoral artery.

Michael stumbled to the bathroom room where he died almost instantly.

As the new year began, the barn of Patrick Ryder was burned to the ground.

By 1880 the list of The Donnellys’ enemies seemed endless, and Ryder was another person often at odds with them, so he quickly blamed them for the fire.

James Sr. responded that the Donnellys were blamed for everything in the community.

Ryder was also a member of the Vigilance Society, and it was at this moment the society decided to do something about the family.

The group hatched a plan.

On the night of Feb. 3, they would go to the Donnelly home, handcuff the men, then escort them out.

Each of the Donnellys would be hung from a tree until they confessed to their crimes.

When they realized they had no idea how to execute this plan, they changed it.

Their goal became to hurt the Donnellys and force confessions, through beatings.

I need to warn you that what came next was graphic and violent.

On Feb. 3, the Donnellys went about their day as usual.

Johnny O’Connor, a boy of 12, was picked up from town to help the Donnellys with some chores.

After they were completed, James Sr. asked him if he wanted to stay the night.

James Freeheley, a friend of the Donnellys, stopped by briefly.

This was not a social call.

He had been bullied into spying on the Donnellys for the Vigilance Society. 

After leaving, he told the Vigilance Society that he heard the voice of John Donnelly coming from a bedroom.

He was mistaken, this was the voice of Johnny O’Connor.

John had left to pick up a sleigh from Jim Keefe to head to the trial the next day regarding the barn fire charge brought against the family.

He chose to stay at his brother William’s home for the night.

Once the Donnelly family and Johnny O’Conner went to bed, the Vigilance Society got drunk to dull their nerves and fuel a frenzy.

Once they drank, likely too much, they walked to the Donnellys’ home and surrounded it.

James Carroll was the first man to walk into the house.

With handcuffs in hand, he cuffed Thomas Donnelly, age 26 while he slept. Then yelled that Thomas was under arrest.

This woke up Johannah and Bridget, and while James Carroll walked to the primary bedroom where he expected to find John Donnelly –James Sr. stopped him and asked what they were being charged with.

James Carroll stated they were being charged with another crime.

Thomas demanded to see the warrant.

There was none, so at this point James Carroll gave the signal for the rest of the awaiting men to storm into the house.

As soon as the men entered, they began to beat James Sr., Johannah, and Thomas.

Bridget ran upstairs to escape the violence, while Johnny O’Connor hid, he was able to see all the men of the Vigilance Society savagely beating his hosts.

James Sr. was beaten and kicked in the head several times.

He was the first to fall.

Johannah fought against the men before she too was beaten to the ground.

Thomas fought the men while handcuffed until he was able to break free and run to the front door.

Thomas Ryder was there waiting for him and shoved a pitchfork into Thomas Donnelly’s body several times.

Thomas Donnelly fell dead on the ground.

Thomas Donnelly’s body was then brought into the kitchen, the handcuffs removed, and his head was bashed with a shovel three or four times.

The bodies of James Sr. and Johannah were brought into the kitchen soon after too.

Realizing Bridget was hiding upstairs, the men went up and beat her to death.

They then killed the family dog.

Once this carnage was complete, they lit the house on fire and left thinking they had finally gotten rid of the Donnellys.

Unbeknownst to them Johnny O’Connor was able to escape from the house, they never knew he was even there.

He then ran to the home of Patrick Whalen, where he told him about the murders.

At 2 a.m. on Feb. 4, the Vigilance Society mob reached their next target…. The home of William Donnelly.

To get him to come out, they beat his prized horse, but the barn was too far from the house and William never heard it.

Jim Ryder walked up to the house and called for William, which finally woke him up.

When the door opened in front of Jim Ryder was not William, but John Donnelly.

A hail of bullets greeted him, with over 30 shots hitting John in the chest, lung, collarbone, groin, and ribs.

He fell to the ground and then Jim Ryder shot him seven more times.

Within five minutes John was dead.

William hid in the bedroom with his wife Norah while the Vigilance Society walked around the property.

They waited for three hours for someone else to come out.

James Freeheley then said there had been enough bloodshed, and the Vigilance Society went home.

The next day, news spread.

People came to the burned-out Donnelly home where many picked up ghoulish souvenirs.

Two days later on Feb. 5, James Carroll and 12 other men in the Vigilance Society were arrested.

An inquest was held on Feb. 4, 11 and March 2 before it was ruled that the Donnellys were murdered by persons unknown.

This was despite two people being able to positively identify all the perpetrators.

Johnny O’Connor was able to identify the men who had committed the attack but since he was 12, his testimony was ignored.

Meanwhile, William was also able to identify everyone involved but this was also ignored.

A preliminary hearing was held from Feb. 12 to March 13, and six men, James Carroll, John Kennedy, Martin McLaughlin, Thomas Ryder, James Ryder, and John Purtell were committed for trial.

The first trial began on Oct. 4, with James Carroll tried for the murder of Johannah.

Most of the testimony heard was the same as was heard during the preliminary hearing and inquest.

When the verdict came down on Oct. 9, four members of the jury voted to convict, seven to acquit and one was undecided.

A second trial was ordered and held from Jan. 24, 1881, to Feb. 2, 1881. At the end of the trial, the jury found James Carroll not guilty of murder.

With that decision, the rest of the prisoners were granted bail, and none were tried for murders.

After the trial, both James and Michael Freeheley went to the surviving Donnellys and confessed to their actions the night of the murders.

With the confessions, a third trial was nearly ordered but by then James and Michael Freeheley fled to Michigan out of fear they would be attacked by the Vigilance Society in retribution for their confessions.

In September 1881, the two brothers were extradited to Canada and charged with the murder of Thomas Donnelly.

The Vigilance Society paid their bail, and the two men refused to testify against anyone.

As a result, a third trial was dismissed.

Despite the massacre, life went on for everyone, including the Donnelly family.

William Donnelly moved to Ohio to work in the coal mines in 1882.

He returned in 1883 and became a constable in the area.

He eventually opened a hotel in 1888 and passed away in 1897.

Patrick, who had moved to London prior to the massacre, continued to work in wagon making.

He died in 1914.

Robert continued to have trouble with the law and eventually developed a feud with The Salvation Army.

At one point, their barracks were burned, and Robert was blamed.

He was eventually admitted to the London Psychiatric Hospital in 1908 and died in 1911.

Jennie married Constable James Currie in 1883 and lived a quiet life until her death in 1916, she was the last of the Donnellys.

Father John Connolly continued to serve at the St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church before he left in 1895. He died in 1909.

Johnny O’Connor was reported to be still living in the 1940s, in either Toronto, Saskatchewan or California depending on the source.

James Carroll eventually left the area, moved to Kimberley, British Columbia in 1907. He spent the rest of his life there before he died in 1915.

But that is not the end of the story, as there is one more tale to tell.

After the murders, the Donnelly family erected a tombstone that was inscribed with the word murdered, and those killed in the attack on Feb. 4, 1880.

Over the years, the tombstone became an object of curiosity and vandalism.

In 1964, it was removed by the descendants of the Donnelly family and replaced with a new tombstone that didn’t say murdered.

The story of the Donnellys has only grown with time as it becomes part of Canadian folklore.

The inhabitants of the Lucan and Biddulph townships tried to suppress the story.

Until recently, many who lived in the area had not even heard of the Donnellys.

A possible reason for this was that residents had ancestors involved in the attack on that fateful night, and no one wanted to bring up the story.

Today though, new residents have begun to build a tourist industry around the Donnellys’ life and horrible deaths.

Also, some believe the Donnellys are not truly gone.

There are stories of a Midnight Lady who rides up and down the road near the Donnelly property every Feb. 4.

There are also tales of the ghosts of the murdered family that are seen floating in the fields near where they were murdered. Some say that horses refuse to ride past the former Donnelly homestead after midnight.

True or not, it is further evidence that the Donnellys refuse to be erased and forgotten.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Mysteries, The Donnelly Album, Biographi and Wikipedia.

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