The Black Donnellys is the common nickname of the Donnelly family who emigrated from County Tipperary, Ireland, to Canada in about 1845–1846, and who participated in a notorious feud in Biddulph Township in Middlesex County, Ontario, which culminated in a massacre in which five family members were killed.
The Donnelly family
- James Donnelly – patriarch (1816–1880)
- Johannah Donnelly – (née Magee, or MacGee) his wife, and mother of all the children (1823–1880)
- James Donnelly Jr. – son, (1842–1877)
- William Donnelly – son, born with a clubfoot (1845–1897)
- John Donnelly – son, the first child born in Canada (1847–1880)
- Patrick Donnelly – son (1849–1929)
- Michael Donnelly – son (1850–1879)
- Robert Donnelly – son (1853–1911)
- Thomas Donnelly – youngest son (1854–1880)
- Jenny (Jane) Donnelly – the last child, and the only daughter (1857–1917)
- Bridget Donnelly – Patriarch James’ niece from Ireland (1858–1880)
(Those marked 1880 were killed on February 4.)
The Biddulph feud preceded the emigration of the Donnelly family from Ireland and continued for some 17 years after their deaths. However, from about 1857, the Donnelly family was inextricably bound up with the feud.
The Biddulph feud had its origins in Ireland, and had begun almost two centuries before the elder James Donnelly’s birth.
It so happened through an accident of history, that Biddulph Township collected just the right concentration and distribution of Whiteboys, Blackfeet and Orangemen, to cause the Old Country feud to be rekindled.
Familiarity with the law
In the buildup towards the murder of the family, the Donnellys became well acquainted with local law enforcement. There are various accounts of assault, arson,trespassing, verbal assault, attempted murder, murder of Patrick Farrell, theft,robbery, assaulting a police officer, as well as various altercations with many residents of the Biddulph Township. The Donnellys were not found guilty of everything of which they were accused but through their actions they made many enemies within the township. This all sounds like the Donnellys were a constant source of strife and destruction in their community, but these types of crimes were common for the county in which they lived. It was not just the men of the family who would get into altercations with the law as Johannah was noted to swear at officers quite often, specifically constable Carroll.
The Biddulph Peace Society vigilantes
Evidence indicates that The Biddulph Peace Society or some of its individual members may have been responsible for some of the arson, property damage and physical violence cases in Biddulph.
The Peace Society’s role was to uphold their Code, something the Donnellys were never shy about ignoring. James Donnelly was liberal enough that at one point he even donated money to the building of an Anglican church, outraging the Biddulph Peace Society in the process.
The death of Patrick Farrell
In the spring of 1847, new Canadian immigrant James Donnelly ended up squatting on the southeastern quarter of Lot 18, Concession 6 (also known as the Roman Line), Biddulph Township, Canada West (which would become Ontario at Canadian Confederation in 1867). He did not have the money to actually purchase the land from its absentee landlord (who had originally bought the land from the Canada Company), apparently hoping no one would ever come by to claim it. It is unknown whether or not James Donnelly actually knew the piece of wilderness he had decided upon was owned by anyone. Squatting was a very common North American frontier practice and one often supported by the courts of the land in the establishment of common law property rights.
In 1856 or 1857, Patrick Farrell purchased land containing the quarter James Donnelly had squatted upon, and was surprised to discover Donnelly’s occupation once he arrived from Ireland to take possession of his land. The matter went to court in 1857, with Farrell wishing to evict Donnelly. The disputants eventually agreed to allow Donnelly to keep and reside on 25 acres (100,000 m2) of the land, which was somewhat less than what Donnelly had actually cleared over the ten years he had occupied it.
Farrell, in spite of his agreement in court, was bitter about having had to give up some of the area for which he had paid, and vocally lambasted the Donnellys in public for it. During a barn raising bee on Saturday, June 27, 1857, James Donnelly became engaged in a drunken brawl with Farrell. Farrell suffered a blow to the head from a handspike thrown by Donnelly. It is this incident that is generally considered to have drawn the Donnelly family into the feud. Pat Farrell died on June 29, and James Donnelly then became a wanted man. (Interestingly, Farrell’s young son was adopted by the Donnellys and was brought up by them until adulthood.) By the time police arrived to arrest James, however, he had seemingly disappeared and his wife Johannah refused to speak on the subject. It was later discovered he had been staying in the barn and working the fields while dressed in his wife’s clothing. Almost two years later, James turned himself in to Jim Hodgins, a sympathetic Justice of the Peace.
James was sentenced to be hanged on September 17, 1859. A petition for clemency started by his wife Johannah saw his sentence reduced to seven years in Kingston Penitentiary.
The Donnelly Stagecoach Line
The Donnelly Stagecoach Line is believed to have been started May 24, 1873 by William Donnelly and was a huge success. The line of stages, which ran between London, Lucan and Exeter, was operated by William and his brothers Michael, John, and Thomas, even rivaling the official mail stage that had been in business since 1838.
The Hawkshaw stage line soon felt the pressure of competition from the Donnellys. In October 1873, Hawkshaw sold his stage to Patrick Flanagan, a husky Irishman, who was determined to drive Donnellys out of business.
This set the stage for the feud between the Donnelly Stagecoach and the Flanagan & Crawly Stage — The Stagecoach Feud, as it came to be known. Stages were either smashed or burned, horses were savagely beaten or killed, and stables burned to the ground.
The violence that erupted as a result of the Stagecoach Feud was mostly blamed on the Donnellys and gave the family a bad reputation. From that time on, almost every crime committed was blamed on the family, but although they were charged with numerous crimes, “few convictions were secured against them”.
According to the witness testimony of Johnny O’Connor, a young farmhand who was present on the day of the murder, he was awakened between midnight and 2 a.m. by “the old man” referring to James Donnelly, the patriarch of the family, who he was sharing a bed with. James Carroll, constable for the town, was there to arrest James and Tom Donnelly, who was in handcuffs at the time. Tom began goading Carroll, questioning the warrant as well as his intelligence when a mob entered and bludgeoned Tom and James Donnelly with sticks and farm tools. Johnny, who was hiding beneath the bed he was sleeping in, was spared because the mob was oblivious to his presence. He witnessed Bridgett, James’ niece, flee for a bedroom upstairs and attempted to follow but was shut out so he quickly returned to his original hiding place. Tom attempted to escape out of the front door but was caught and beaten with sticks and a spade. Johnny crept out of his hiding spot to look at the carnage and was able to identify two of the people in the crowd as people he knew, at least from sight, from the community, Thomas Ryder and John Purtell, as well as the constable Carroll. Much of the crowd had blackened their faces to hide their identity from witnesses. They then turned their attention to Bridgett, but Johnny did not hear or see any of this murder. The mob then came downstairs and lit the house ablaze; including the bed Johnny was hiding under. Once the mob had fled, he attempted to extinguish the blaze but was unable. He passed the bodies of Johannah the wife of James and matriarch of the family as well as Tom, who was still breathing, as he fled the house to a neighbour of the Donnellys.
Since the bodies were burned along with the house, it was impossible for the coroner to determine the cause of death beyond that of the fire, but the constable who gathered up the remains of the Donnellys reported copious amounts of blood on the ground in front of the house, which corroborates with John O’Connor’s testimony of Tom being beaten mercilessly with a spade and other farm tools after escaping the house. Had the skulls still been at the scene of the crime they could have been used by the undertaker to determine any blunt force trauma to the head, but the bodies were not recovered until the middle of the following day, February 5, leaving the corpses open to looters who wanted mementoes of the night’s events and so stole the skulls from the bodies.
William Donnelly survived and was listed as the informant on the death certificates for all five, dated April 1 and 2, 1880, with the cause of death listed as “supposed to be murdered.”
There were two trials in London, Ontario, at the courthouse on Ridout Street. The first one in October 1880 ended in a hung jury.
The second trial occurred in January 1881. During preparations, the prosecution, led by Aemilius Irving and Charles Hutchinson, displayed evidence of involvement in the massacre by the Biddulph Peace Society, up to and including the parish priest, Father John Connolly.
The most damning evidence was to come from two brothers, Jim and Bill Feeheley, Whiteboys known to have been involved in the crime. Since the massacre, they had been showing signs of remorse, and had confessed to the authorities. They had apparently been paid off by a nervous Biddulph Peace Society to leave the area forever. This they did, emigrating to Michigan. The prosecution successfully had them extradited back to Biddulph to stand trial, but then the prosecution had second thoughts.
The prosecutor, according to Orlo Miller, eventually decided that the potential damage and death toll from a successful conviction was too great. The introduction of Father John Connolly as a suspect was a dangerous proposition as much of the audience was strongly polarized along religious lines, and the matter was dropped.
The Donnelly myth today
Today the Donnellys are widely known in Canadian folklore, and the story of their murder is told throughout Canadian and American farming communities. However, despite the popularity of the Donnelly story throughout North America, the inhabitants of Lucan and Biddulph Township have tried to suppress the subject. Up until recently, even among those who were born and raised in the Lucan area, many had never heard the story of the Donnelly massacre until they were adults. Oral accounts of the murders were purportedly suppressed locally due to the number of residents who had ancestors who were directly involved in the circumstances.
In recent years, several newcomers to the area have started businesses centred on the Donnelly story, creating tourism venues for visitors fascinated by the events surrounding their deaths, much to the dismay of older inhabitants. One of the more well known of these myths is that of the Midnight Lady who supposedly rides up and down the Roman Line every February 4. Another is that the ghosts of the murdered family members can be seen floating in the fields near the murder site and that horses will not ride past the former Donnelly homestead after midnight.
Ray Fazakas best illustrates the situation in his book, when he states that despite the fact that the Donnelly’s have been removed from Biddulph, they have managed to remain alive thanks to Canadian folklore.
The Lucan Area Heritage & Donnelly Museum
While for many years the story of the Donnelly massacre was suppressed in the town of Lucan, in 1995 the Lucan and Area Heritage Society formed to celebrate the heritage of the Lucan area by gathering local, historical artifacts. Over the next few years, interest in the area’s heritage increased within the community, and so the collection continued to grow. In 1999, the museum acquired an 1850’s log cabin with a very similar floor plan to that of the Donnelly homestead, making it a dramatic setting for visitors to hear the retelling of the Donnelly story, and visualize the tragic events that occurred in the early morning hours of February 4, 1880.
The Lucan Area Heritage Society, District Lion’s Club, and Township of Lucan Biddulph raised over $600,000 for the construction of a new museum building after the University of Western Ontario identified the need for a new museum to spur economic growth in the community. This building reached completion in 2008, and opened to the public in 2009. The new Lucan Area Heritage & Donnelly Museum now highlights the Ray Fazakas Donnelly Collection, rotating exhibits, the “Donnelly Log Cabin”, and the Hearn barn, which displays a variety of artifacts relating to agriculture in Biddulph in the past 150 years.
Now that the story of the Black Donnellys is being retold in the town where it all began, the Lucan Area Heritage & Donnelly Museum has visitors from all over the country come to learn about the area’s history, and the events that occurred on February 4, 1880.
Stompin’ Tom Connors wrote two songs in reference to the Donnelly family: “The Black Donnellys’ Massacre” and “Jenny Donnelly”, the latter of which was covered by Chantal Vitalis.
The Donnellys are one of the subjects of Steve Earle’s song “Justice in Ontario”, (the other subject being a 1979 motorcycle gang murder in Port Hope, Ontario).
In 2005, Chris Doty wrote The Donnelly Trials, a play he based on the court script where twelve members of the audience become the jury deciding the fate of the defendants with the script providing two separate endings for either a “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” verdict. The play was performed in the same courtroom in which the actual trial took place.
In 2007, an NBC television series entitled The Black Donnellys followed the lives of four Irish brothers and their entrance into organized crime in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. The title is a homage to the infamous family, though the show is otherwise not related to the historical Donnellys.
In the 1980s, the London, Ontario punk band The Black Donnellys formed, taking their name from this infamous feud.