Murder in Ontario – The Donnelly Family Massacre – Part I: Welcome to Biddulph Township

June 29, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Brian Lockhart

It was a freezing cold winter night on February 4, 1880, when a group of men with torches to light the way – armed with pitchforks, clubs, and guns – walked in the dark down the Roman Line in Biddulph Township, Ont. to seek vengeance against an unsuspecting local farm family.

The result was the murder of an entire household by a drunken mob of Biddulph residents who took revenge on the family for perceived grievances in the Township and the Town of Lucan over 30 years.

Lucan is a non-descript town surrounded by farms in the Township of Biddulph, around 25 kilometres north of London.

The mob beat four people to death with clubs and shovels, including an innocent 21-year-old female cousin who was just visiting from Ireland, then burned their house to the ground.

They then made their way to another family member’s home on another farm, one Line to the east, with the intent to kill a man they considered to be the leader of the family.

They were fewer in numbers by the time they arrived at the second farm, likely because of the cold weather and the fact that many of the mob had probably sobered up enough to realize what a horror they had just committed and wanted no part in a second round of killing.

When they pounded on the door of the log cabin in the middle of the night, the brother of the intended target, who was staying there for the night, opened the door to see what the commotion was and was promptly shot dead in the doorway.

It was 1842, when James and Johanna Donnelly, along with their first child James Jr., immigrated to Canada from Tipperary, Ireland as pioneers and homesteaders. They settled in Biddulph Township near the Town of Lucan on a concession known as the Roman Line.

Over the next 12 years, they had seven more children – William, John, Patrick, Michael, Robert, Thomas, and a daughter Jennie.

In 1857, James Sr. had his first run-in with the law. During a logging bee, he got into a fight with a neighbour named Patrick Farrell. There are various accounts of what happened, but Patrick Farrell was killed after either being hit with a handspike or beaten over the head with a metal rod by James.

James went into hiding but turned himself in two years later. He was sentenced to be hanged.

A petition for clemency, started by Johannah, based on a motion of self-defence, resulted in his sentence being reduced to seven years – served in Kingston Penitentiary.

When James finally returned home, he found that most of his sons were now grown men. The Donnelly sons were reportedly strapping farm boys and used to hard work.

The Donnelly clan were known to be troublemakers, there’s no doubt about that. But to be fair, the entire population of Biddulph Township and the Town of Lucan were also known to settle their differences violently, and crime was rampant. It was well-known as a lawless town.

There was little in the way of law enforcement, and those charged with upholding the law were often part of the criminal element themselves.

The Donnellys, however, gained a reputation, whether real or imagined, as the ones behind most of the trouble in the area.

As the sons became young adults, they all started working on their own ways of earning a living.

While James’ son Patrick moved away, John began managing a saloon in Lucan. Robert, Michael and Thomas all tried farming, while William stayed working on his parent’s farm.

The real trouble started when William decided to open his own stagecoach line. Michael, Robert, and Thomas also drove stages to earn a living.

There were several competing stagecoach lines operating in the area and that led to some nefarious attempts to put the other guy out of business.

Over the course of several years, there were shootings, beatings, and robberies. Barns and stagecoaches were burned, including those owned by the Donnellys.

During this time, the Donnellys were blamed for just about everything bad that happened in the area, whether they were involved or not.

In 1876, three Constables attempted to arrest several of the Donnellys on various charges. Most of the charges were later dropped.

In 1877, the number of violent incidents in Lucan increased, including barn burnings, stagecoach burnings and sabotage. The Donnelly’s stables and stages were burned as was Michael Donnelly’s home.

In 1879, a new priest arrived at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Biddulph. The priest, Father John Connolly, had already heard of the Donnelly’s and formed a negative opinion of them before he even met them.

In an interesting display of James Donnelly Sr.’s true character, he made a bold statement in church one Sunday morning. When Father Connolly preached a sermon against Protestants, James stood up in the church and denounced the priest for his hatred and said his family would, from then on, be going to a different church.

The Donnelly’s weren’t hated by everyone. They had plenty of friends, many of whom were Irish Protestants. While many residents at the time were divided on religious grounds, the Donnellys did not choose their friends based on religious affiliation.

Father Connolly created what he called the Peace Society in an attempt to get local citizens to behave themselves.

Some of that group created their own splinter group that became known as the Vigilance Committee. They weren’t so forgiving.

At this same time, James Carroll, a key figure in the events, was appointed as constable in the Township.

In August of 1879, the Vigilance Committee began meeting in the Cedar Swamp Schoolhouse in Biddulph.

There were many feuds associated with the reason behind the death of the Donnellys. However, what was considered to be the “final straw” was the accusation against the Donnellys of the burning down of Patrick Ryder’s barn.

In February, the Vigilance Committee decided they had enough of the Donnellys, and it was time to take the law into their own hands.

Some of the group suggested the Donnellys be jailed, while others thought a good beating was in order.

Earlier in the day, the group had sent a spy to the Donnelly farm, in the guise of a friendly visit, to see who and how many people would be at the farm that night.

By the time the group met late on the night of February 3, 1880, their intentions had become much darker.

The drinks started flowing, and by the early morning hours, the group was drunk and emboldened.

They lit their torches, armed themselves, and began the walk down the Roman Line to the Donnelly homestead.

Next Week – the massacre.

Editor’s note: This article is Part I in a three-part series exploring the Donnelly Family Massacre. Part II will be published on July 6, and Part III on July 13.

Readers Comments (0)

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.