Canadian Folklore: "Black" Donnellys
Updated: Dec 26, 2022
In today's post, we will be taking a look at a part of Canadian history, the Donnelly family. This is a part of history that I didn't know about but found rather interesting once I started researching it. I will try and include as much information as I can without making this post too boring but in all honesty, the whole story of the Donnelly family is really interesting regardless of how much you read.
The Donnellys were 'Blackfeet', a term that followed them over from Ireland to Canada. Blackfeet were Catholic Irish who chose not to fight the English or Protestants and to live in peace instead. This may be where the "Black" in the Black Donnelly name actually comes from. For 'Whiteboys' - the Catholics who refused to live peacefully with the English occupation- Blackfeet were traitors even more hated than protestants.
The Donnellys may have left Ireland behind them, but some historians argue they couldn't leave behind the conflicts of the old country. For the people of Biddulph Township (where the Donnellys settled), with its large Irish settler population, the politics of their homeland hovered in the background of all their conflicts. Fighting and feuding among the settlers was inevitable. Biddulph's population wasn't largely Irish, but it also supposedly had "a perfect balance of Whiteboys and …. Blackfeet"
So now that we have a little insight into why the Donnellys were called the "Black" Donnellys, let's dive into who the Donnellys were.
*This post does not contain pictures*
The "Black" Donnellys were an Irish Catholic immigrant family who settled in Biddulph Township, Upper Canada (now Ontario), in the 1840s.
James (Jim) (1816-1880) and Johannah (or Judith/Judy as she was known) (1823-1880) married in Ireland in 1840. Not long after their union, their eldest son James Jr. (1842-1877) was born. The exact time of their arrival in Canada is not known but it is estimated that they arrived sometime between 1842 and 1845. After their arrival in Canada, they welcomed seven more children; William Donnelly (1845-1897), John Donnelly (1847-1880), Patrick Donnelly (1849-1914), Michael Donnelly (1850-1879), Robert Donnelly (1853-1911), Thomas Donnelly (1854-1880) and Jennie "Jane" Donnelly (1857-1917).
With no money but a strong work ethic, they settled in Biddulph Township, Ontario. In 1847, James and Johannah began carving a homestead out of the wilderness beside the Roman Line in Biddulph Township. With no title to their land, these squatters began clearing the trees, building a farm, and establishing a life for themselves. The Donnellys farmed here for the next ten years, with Johannah giving birth to 7 children in that time. The work was back-breaking, but rewarding as the family began to prosper. Their success was not to last, however, as other claimants to the land eventually came to face them and the beginning of their troubles started.
The property the Donnellys settled on originally belonged to the Canada Company, which sold it to John Grace. It is thought that the Donnellys may have had some sort of arrangement with the original owner John Grace.
This is where it gets a little confusing. There are records that show Patrick Farrell purchased the land, but some say all the land, while others say the northern half of the land. There are also records saying that John Grace sold the southern half of the land (where the Donnellys were living) to another man. Eventually, it's thought he sold the land to the Donnellys for £50.
Neither Patrick Farrell nor James Donnelly was happy with this. According to Farrell, James Donnelly began making all sorts of attacks against him, including killing livestock, lighting his barn on fire, and even taking a shot at him.
In 1857, at a barn raising bee, tensions came to a head. Farrell and James Donnelly, like the rest of the men there, had been drinking all day. Some words were exchanged and soon the men were throwing punches. Farrell was big, much taller, and heavier than Donnelly, but Donnelly was as tough as cured leather. Their drunken brawl came to an end quickly, with James Donnelly driving a hand-spike through Farrell's head, killing him instantly.
As the police were after him, James fled into the wilderness. he didn't flee far though, neighbours soon began to notice a strange woman in a bonnet farming the Donnelly fields. It was James, disguising himself so he could continue working the farm.
There are two different accounts (that I found) on when James Donnelly turned himself in. One was he spent one winter on the run and then turned himself in during 1858, the year that his daughter was born. The other account was it was two years before he turned himself in. I believe the first account as it showed up the most when researching.
James Donnelly was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to seven years in the Kingston Penitentiary. Johannah manages to keep the farm going while her husband is in prison.
James Donnelly returned home from prison in 1865 and he found his boys had grown into men. In the years that James was imprisoned Johannah raised her boys to be fighters. She taught them to fight and fight dirty. While James was away in prison, his sons became known throughout the township as fighters, thieves, and vandals. Once local farmer tried to press charges against the Donnellys for the theft of his tools. His reward was having his house lit on fire, his barn burned down, his cattle poisoned and the throats of his horses slit. Arson and violence were everywhere in Biddulph at the time and the Donnellys were by no means responsible for all of it. This was a violent place. However, the Donnellys established themselves as the toughest family in the area. The fighting and lawlessness only grew in the years after James Sr. returned home. When not farming, the Donnelly boys were often out drinking, fighting, and generally causing mayhem.
Accusations and criminal charges followed the boys throughout the years after their fathers return. In 1869, William Donnelly was charged with larceny, but was acquitted. Shortly after, William and James Jr. were charged with robbing the post office in nearby Granton. Again they were acquitted. Despite what some may have claimed, the Donnellys were not the only ones causing trouble in the area. In 1870, the Donnellys barn burned down, it was suspected to be arson by one of their enemies.
By the early 1870s, however, the Donnelly boys began to establish themselves in careers. James Jr. moves to Michigan. Patrick trains in wagon/carriage making and marries Mary Ryan. John manages a saloon in Lucan; he elopes but the marriage only lasts a few months. Robert, Michael, and Thomas farm on another property in Biddulph.
In 1873, William Donnelly decides to open his own stage line. His brothers Michael, Robert, and Thomas drives stages with him. William asks Margaret Thompson to marry him the same year but her father sends her away so the marriage cannot take place. A battle for the Roman line soon erupted between Patrick Flanagan and the Donnellys. It was an extremely violent period, with arsons, fist fights, and attacks on each other's animals.
Late one night, a few years after the stagecoach line was sold to Patrick Flanagan (couldn't find a specific year but seems to be 1874-1876); someone snuck into Flanagan's barn. They sawed up his stage, completely breaking it apart, and they attacked his horses. When Flanagan went to the barn the next morning he found his stage in pieces and his horses mutilated.
It wasn't long before a lynch mob with Flanagan at the head showed up at the Donnelly barn. They were ready to take revenge on William Donnelly and anyone else they found with him. They however got more than they bargained for. James Sr. with the rest of his boys behind him burst from the barn armed with clubs. The Donnellys were outnumbered 3 to 1 but it didn't matter. The Donnellys beat the would-be lynchers mercilessly. The Donnellys emerged victorious, their foes broken and bloody on the ground before them.
In 1875 William Donnelly married Nora Kennedy. This angered members of the Kennedy family such as Nora's brothers.
In 1876 William Donnelly was convicted of assault as well as John Donnelly. William is discharged from prison due to illness.
In 1877 Michael Donnellys home is burned down. James Jr. dies of some sort of illness, however, it is suggested he might have been shot.
In 1878 stages closed due to the creation of the railway. Constable Samuel Everett claims Robert Donnelly fired a shot at him and Robert is sentenced to two years in Kingston Penitentiary.
In 1879 Michael Donnelly dies after being stabbed in a squabble with William Lewis.
Robert Donnelly returns from prison in early 1880.
On January 15 1880 the barns of Patrick Ryder are burned down, and James Sr. & Johannah are blamed for the fire as three of their boys are at a wedding. The trial begins at the end of January and is scheduled to reconvene on February 4th.
The "Black" Donnelly story comes to a brutal end in the early hours of February 4th, 1880 when a group of vigilantes, members of the "Biddulph Peace Society", fell upon the Donnelly family homestead. Johnny O'Conner, a young farmhand who was sleeping at the Donnelly house that night later testified in court about what happened.
Johnny awoke to James Sr. getting dressed. James Carroll, the town constable and head of the "Peace Society" was in the kitchen. They soon learned that Tom Donnelly was out front, handcuffed and surrounded by a group of men.
Demanding to see a warrant, Tom told his father that Carroll "thinks he's smart". Seconds later, all hell broke loose on the farm. Twenty men barged into the kitchen, bringing clubs and spades with them. They laid into James Sr. Johannah, and Tom, beating them bloody. Tom being strong and quick barreled past his attackers and ran outside, despite his handcuffs. Several men chased after him.
Minutes later, after beating him outside, the men returned and threw Tom to the floor of the kitchen. Johnny vividly remembered someone saying, as Tom lay bleeding on the floor, "hit that fellow on the head and break his skull open." Taking a spade in hand, a member of the "Peace Society" obliged. Several men then ran upstairs, kicking open the door and murdering the Donnellys visiting niece Brigitte. She was only 21 and visiting the family from Ireland. The mob then spread coal oil and set the cabin on fire. Johnny was hiding under a bed and the mob never seemed to notice him from what I can understand from researching.
Johnny fled out the back door, barely escaping the fire as an unexpected survivor and witness to the gruesome attack.
After killing Brigitte, Tom, Johannah, and James Sr., the mob travels to William's house. The mob separated and surrounded the house. They began shouting "fire" hoping to awaken William. William, Nora (his wife), John Donnelly, and a family friend were all asleep inside. Instead of awakening William John awoke and opened the door to see what was happening. He was mistaken for William and as he opened the door, two shots rang out, ripping through his chest and pelvis. He collapsed in a bloody heap on William's kitchen floor. Nora and William hid inside and watched John die. Thinking they had murdered William, the mob left.
Later on, in the morning of February 4th, 1880 people came to view the burned Donnelly home and the remains of the murdered victims. The police arrived and put what remained of the bodies into one casket. James Carroll (who was the constable) and 12 others are arrested in connection to The Donnelly Massacre. A funeral is held for the murdered Donnellys and it is clear that the community is split on whether the deaths should be celebrated or mourned.
Despite Johnny's eyewitness account, the courts never convicted any of the vigilantes. The trial was too closely tied to the county's politics. The town constable, James Carroll, and Father John Connelly, an important Catholic figure in the community, were both directly implicated in the massacre. A successful prosecution could have led to riots and even deeper violence in Biddulph. Due to this, no one was ever punished for the Donnelly murders.
William goes to Ohio to work in the coal mines. Patrick remains in the wagon-making business. Robert and Jennie are in Glencoe. Robert owns a hauling business and Jennie is married to James Currie, a constable.
William returns home and joins Jennie and Robert in Glencoe. William decides to become a constable, like his brother-in-law. Robert is charged with assault after he catches someone stealing his geese. He is embroiled in other fights, etc. as well.
The Salvation Army comes to Glencoe. Robert Donnelly does not like their methods of worship and behaviour. The barracks of the Salvation Army are burned and Robert is implicated.
Robert continues to harass the Salvation Army making William's position as constable very difficult.
William resigns as constable and moves to Appin to open a hotel.
A large monument to commemorate the Donnellys is raised in St. Patrick's cemetery.
Father John Connolly, the man that inspired much hatred towards the Donnellys, leaves Biddulph.
William Donnelly dies of natural causes. Before his death, he points out that many of the members of the "Peace Society" have suffered terrible deaths.
Robert Donnelly is admitted to London Psychiatric Hospital.
Robert Donnelly dies of natural causes.
Patrick Donnelly dies in Thorold of natural causes.
Jennie Donnelly, the last member of the immediate Donnelly family, is laid to rest in Wardsville.
The murders of the Donnelly family receive little attention, with many choosing not to discuss the events. Thomas Kelly publishes "The Black Donnellys" in 1954 which sparks interest in the Donnelly murders. However, it paints the Donnellys as violent murderers who deserved their fate.
Orlo Miller publishes "The Donnellys Must Die" in 1964 which is far more sympathetic to the Donnellys.
Due to these books about the Donnelly murders, unwanted attention arouse in the St. Patrick's cemetery where the Donnellys and many members of the "Peace Society" are buried. The large monument with the word "murdered" is replaced with a smaller tombstone.
Ray Fazakas publishes "The Donnelly Album" and William Davison Butt completes his Ph.D. dissertation entitled "The Donnellys: History Legend, Literature" in 1977. Both are far more factual, detailed accounts of the murders than prior books.
1980 to Present
Interest in the Donnelly murders remains high. J. Robert Salt moved into the Donnelly homestead and began to offer tours. (From my research I don't think he still offers tours now)
The Lucan Area Heritage & Donnelly Museum announces a new Donnelly Museum will be constructed. The History Channel airs a documentary on the Donnelly murders.
New Donnelly Museum opens in May 2009.
Today, the "Black" Donnellys are a mix of history and legend. Their exploits and their grisly deaths are the sorts of stories mothers use to frighten their children. Their story has bedded itself into the fabric of Lucan and the surrounding countryside. Though gone, the Donnellys are not forgotten.
Learn More & Works Cited
Heaven and Hell on Earth: The Massacre of the 'Black Donnellys.' Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History