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Donnelly's legend lives on in Thorold

In this edition of Remember This, February 4, 2019 marks 139th anniversary of Canada’s most famous family murders

The most famous and grisly murders in Canadian history had a distinct Thorold connection.

Because Patrick Donnelly was living in Thorold instead of Lucan in 1880, he escaped the gruesome fate that his family did not.

Feb. 4 marks the 139th anniversary of the night the 'Black Donnellys' were slaughtered in their beds by Lucan townspeople—with clubs, axes, pitchforks, shovels and guns.

In Tipperary, Ireland, Roman Catholic James Donnelly stole away his Protestant bride, Johannah, with a ladder. Her father threatened to prosecute, so he fled to Canada in 1842, along with his brother and a few Catholic countrymen, including two brothers named Ryder, who became Donnelly’s nemesis.

They settled in Biddulph, near London, Ontario and Lucan, along what became known as “The Roman Line,” to distinguish it from the Protestant Line. In two years, James sent for Johannah, and she brought their son James Jr. She later gave birth to William, John, Patrick, Michael, Robert, Thomas and Jenny.

Feuds from Ireland were transplanted to Biddulph when another group of Catholics moved there and during one dispute, James Donnelly killed Patrick Parrell with a hand spike at a logging bee in 1857.

A warrant went out for his arrest. Donnelly hid for months in the thick woods of his farm while his family took him provisions. He surrendered to the sheriff in 1858 and was sentenced to Kingston Penitentiary.

Johannah, who had “a will of iron and a physique to match,” smoked a clay pipe. Her boys were “strong, healthy, hardworking lads,” also said to be gentlemen until someone crossed them, at which point they wreaked vengeance, and became labelled “terrors of the township” by enemy newspapers.

Barn burnings and barroom brawls were commonplace in the small town, where liquor was sold at 15 places and even lawmen feared to tread. Lucan became known as “the wildest town in Canada.”

The Donnelly’s friends were fiercely loyal to the family while their enemies blamed every violent act on them, and soon the town became divided into pro- and anti-Donnelly camps.

Patrick Crinnon, the priest at St. Patrick’s Church from 1857 to 1859, prophesied that he was “afraid the hand of God would fall on Biddulph.”

A neighbour of the Donnellys said, “There were so many fires in Lucan, we took no notice of them.”

After seven years in jail, James Donnelly returned to find that his hard-working family had prospered. In 1872, his son Will began his own stagecoach line between Lucan and London, becoming fierce rivals with the Hawkshaw family, who were well-established in the business. Horses on both sides began to die mysteriously, stages were robbed, and residents reported recalling the rifle shots and fights that often accompanied the stagecoach arrival. Both parties constantly attended trials and in the first three months of 1876, there were 33 charges against the Donnellys, including assaults, shootings, arsons, thefts, threatening lives and perjury. Bob, John, James Jr., Will, and Tom all served time in jail.

The London, Huron & Bruce Railway ended the Donnellys’ and many other stagecoach businesses in 1878, when the London-Goderich mail stage made its last run.

Meanwhile, Patrick had become a successful wagon maker in Thorold and St. Catharines. He owned two hotels, one at the corner of Front and Clairmont Streets, where Donnelly’s Pub still stands today.

That same year, James Carroll, who was related to many of the Donnellys’ enemies, moved to the Roman Line, and was soon determined to rid the town of the family after frequently fighting with them.

A year later, Father John Connolly arrived from Quebec in the troubled parish of St. Patrick’s Church.

After visiting each family in Lucan and hearing how “evil” the Donnellys were, he began to make allusions to the family during sermons, never mentioning any other parishioners as sinners.

During confessions, he learned of a secret faction in the parish comprised of men bound by an oath to protect themselves from lawlessness. Connolly announced he was running a “property protective association,” and 78 people signed an open book in church pledging to “aid our priest.”

A “Vigilance Committee” began meeting in the old schoolhouse, with a mandate to rid the town of the Donnellys. They sent a petition to the county judge, requesting that Carroll be made constable, which enabled him to serve the family with warrant after warrant.

Mike Donnelly died in 1879 from a knife wound in a barroom brawl. When the Donnellys’ neighbour, Pat Ryder, found his barn burned, James Sr. and Johannah were both accused without any proof and went to court, where it was adjourned three times for lack of evidence. While at court, they’d arranged for 15-year-old Johnny O’Connor to watch their livestock. This teen became the sole surviving eye-witness to the horrifying events that happened at their homestead on Feb. 4, 1880.

Led by Carroll, about 35 men approached the Donnelly farm around 1 a.m., after drinking several quarts of whiskey. Some wore disguises, and all carried weapons—either axes, guns, pitchforks, shovels or wooden clubs. Doors were never locked then, so they waited while Carroll tip-toed into the kitchen, where Tom was asleep. Slapping handcuffs on his wrist, he said, “You’re under arrest,” which woke up Johannah. She yelled to her 21-year-old niece, Bridget, who was visiting from Ireland, to light a fire.

As the two women got dressed, Carroll let out a whoop and the men rushed into the kitchen, hollering drunkenly. With their clubs, they beat Johannah, James and Tom. Bridget flew upstairs in terror while Johnny O’Connor hid under the bed behind a large clothes basket. James’ skull was broken by repeated blows from James Maher. Tom threshed about with his tied hands and feet, ran out the front door, and was struck by Tom Ryder’s pitchfork, which was thrust into him repeatedly. And while many clubs contributed, it was Carroll’s club that ended Johannah’s life as she tried to pray on her knees.

They carried Tom’s bleeding body inside, and one of them struck him with heavy shovel blows to the head. Several men went upstairs and brought back Bridget’s limp body, dumping it on her uncle Tom’s.

They cracked the dog’s skull with a club, chopped off his head with an axe, and dumped coal oil from the lamps around the rooms and set fire to it. When the flames began to blaze, they left and Johnny fled for his life, barefoot through the snow to the Whalen farm, where he told them what had happened.

The mob then proceeded to Will Donnelly’s house, three miles away, with an aim to kill Will. But his brother John, who was sleeping over, opened the door when Jim Ryder yelled, “Fire! Open the door!”

A blaze of lead blasted into him, making more than 30 holes in his chest. Will peered through his bedroom window and saw, among others, his brother-in-law, John Kennedy, and Jim Carroll. John died while Will, his wife, Norah Kennedy and their house guest, Martin Hogan, stayed huddled in the house.

As word of the murders spread, Carroll was shocked to hear of the boy’s testimony, and Father Connolly wept at the funeral mass, swearing he “had no enmity against the family,” though others stated it was his preaching that had inspired the killings.

Carroll and several others named by the young eyewitness were locked up. Reporters from across the country flocked to Lucan, where the inquest was crowded with jurors, lawyers, reporters and spectators, many of whom were related to the murderers, and laughed at their relatives’ alleged wrongdoings.

Amazingly, a verdict was rendered that “The Donnellys were killed by some party or parties unknown.” The judge discharged them, and remanded the prisoners for trial at the next court. The Government of Ontario offered a $4,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Donnellys’ killers.

When the second trial opened in January, 1881, special admission tickets had been printed up. “In a rush for the doors, they nearly overcame the constables.” One jury member was reported to have said, “I wouldn’t go for conviction if I had seen them do the deed.” Others could not be persuaded to implicate their knowledge of the murders in court. The Crown gave up the prosecution and bail was set at $500 for each prisoner as they were practically carried out of the courtroom by cheering relatives and friends.

Some jurors said, “They would have found Carroll guilty had it not been they thought such a verdict would have ultimately resulted in the hanging of half a township.”

The Toronto Globe editorialized: “Stronger evidence has rarely been brought against any man who in the face of it escaped the gallows.”

The Feeheley brothers confessed to Patrick Donnelly that Johnny O’Connor was telling the truth, but they moved to Michigan, refusing to return to Canada to give evidence. No person ever paid a penalty for the murders of James, Johannah, John, Thomas and Bridget Donnelly.

After the funerals of his family, Patrick returned to Thorold and raised a large family. He died in 1914 and was buried in Old Lakeview Cemetery.

Upon his death, the Thorold Post wrote: “The mystery was never fully solved by the courts and no one was convicted, but one uncanny echo was a prophecy by Patrick that none of the alleged murderers would die in bed, which prophecy was realized to its awful fullness, each one coming to a violent end.”

On Christmas day in 1881, an accident on the train tracks took the lives of four members of the “Club.”

In 1893, Will wrote: “In thirteen years since the murders, 34 persons directly or indirectly concerned in that slaughter have met their just desserts… Several were killed by the train. More were found dead in a well. More dropped dead. More died suffering the agonies of a mad dog, and a few are in the asylum, while the majority of those living are homeless and not worth a dollar, though well off 13 years ago.”

James Carroll, the leader, was “blown to pieces” and died in a dynamite explosion during railway construction. Many other members of the mob died prematurely, and even Father Connolly—who probably heard more than one death-bed confession during his 14 remaining years in Biddulph—narrowly missed death himself when a train almost hit him.

Many visitors still flock to St. Patrick’s Cemetery to see the famous Donnelly tombstone, which said “Murdered” after each victim’s name up until 1969, when the priest replaced the stone, omitting the offensive word. Most of the family’s enemies are also buried there, including Carroll, and through the years, souvenir hunters have chipped all their grave stones by taking pieces of them.

It’s ironic that while the anti-Donnelly faction was successful in ridding the town of the family, they have become Canadian folk heroes instead.

  1. The Donnelly Album, Ray Fazaks, 1977

  2. The Donnellys Must Die, Orlo Miller, 1962

  3. The Black Donnellys, Thomas P. Kelly, 1954

Cathy Pelletier

About the Author: Cathy Pelletier

Cathy Pelletier is an award-winning newspaper journalist/editor who writes for
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