The Black Donnellys and
The Biddulph Horror
Violence and Vengeance on Canada’s Frontier
The Black Donnelly story is both gripping and tragic. In one night, a simmering feud boiled over, devastating a family and making Canadian history.
In the years since the Black Donnelly massacre, their story has become a Canadian legend. It is known across the country and has inspired books, plays, and a television show.
Why do we remain so interested in the Donnellys? Is it their violent lives and their violent end? Is it their stubborn nature, unwilling to give up their land or step back from a fight? Or is it that this is a story repeated throughout our country’s history; a story of people arriving here in search of a new life only to find that the conflicts of the old world have followed them here.
Whatever your answer, we can say that the Black Donnelly story is a truly Canadian story and one that continues to fascinate us to this day.
The Black Donnellys and A New Land
In the mid-19th century, life in South-Western Ontario could be fierce. Carving a life out of the Ontario wilderness was a challenge for only the strongest of pioneers.
Leaving Europe in search of opportunity in Canada, thousands of settlers arrived in Ontario looking for a place to call their own. While this was a new world for these settlers, many of the conflicts from the old world remained.
The Black Donnellys, in many respects, were typical of the country’s new arrivals. Poor and searching for new opportunities, James and Johannah Donnelly arrived in Canada with their young son, James Jr., sometime between 1842 and 1846. They soon had a second son, named Will. With no money but a strong work ethic, they soon moved to Biddulph Township, just north of London, Ontario.
In 1847, James and Johannah began carving a homestead out of the wilderness beside the Roman Line in Biddulph Township, near the town of Lucan. 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 five more sons and the family’s only daughter, Jenny. 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 property eventually came to face them.
Patrick Farrell purchased the Donnelly’s land from the absentee landlord in 1856-57. When he arrived in Canada from Ireland, he was surprised to find the Donnelly’s living there and farming.
Farrell confronted James Donnelly Sr., telling him to get off his land. James, despite being much smaller than Farrell, beat the tar out of him while his family cheered on.
Realizing fists wouldn’t work, Farrell took the Donnellys to court, where the judge made a compromise between the two. While the land belonged to Farrell, it was James and Johannah who had put the work into making it a farm. The judge therefore ordered that the Donnellys could keep part of land they had cleared and that Farrell could have the rest.
Neither side was happy with this verdict. Farrell viewed this land as his and he felt jilted in the compromise. James Donnelly wasn’t happy, either. He showed his anger, Farrell claimed, by making all sorts of attacks on him, including killing livestock, lighting his barn on fire and even taking a shot at him. Donnelly was charged for this attack but never convicted.
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 James, but James was tough as cured leather. Their drunken brawl came to an end quickly, with James driving a hand-spike through Farrell’s head, killing him instantly.
With the police after him, James fled into the wilderness. He didn’t flee far though, as 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. Eventually, after spending a winter in the woods, James turned himself in. The judge sentenced him to death, but the sentence was commuted to seven years in the Kingston Penitentiary.
Patrick Farrell’s death was just the beginning of the Black Donnelly story, as it pulled them into a bitter feud with many of their neighbours.
When James Donnelly returned home from prison in the mid-1860s, he found his boys had grown into men.
Jim’s boys took after their father; they were tough as nails and never afraid to throw a punch. But it wasn’t just James that influenced them; no son of Johannah’s would be a shrinking violet, either.
In the years following Jim’s imprisonment, Johannah raised her boys to be fighters. She taught them to fight and she taught them to fight dirty. The Donnelly boys would fight to win, going for the groin or the eyes if it would help.
Johanna taught them “hit first, talk later,” and the boys took the lesson to heart. While James was away in prison, his sons became known throughout the township as fighters.
“The farther one lives down Roman Line Road, the tougher one is,” a local saying went, “and the Donnellys live at the end of the road.”
They also gained a reputation as thieves and vandals. Tools and supplies went missing from neighboring farms on a regular basis. Worse, rivals’ barns were lit on fire, cattle poisoned, and horses mutilated. Few were willing to confront the Donnellys about these crimes, but many suspected their hands at work. Nate Hendley, in his book on the Donnellys, notes that “Lucanites learned the hard way that it was unwise to turn to the authorities for help.”
One local farmer, named Bob McLean, 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. There’s little doubt, however, that the Donnellys established themselves as the toughest family on the Roman Line.
When James Donnelly, Sr., finally returned home in 1865, he found the hardest gang in the county waiting for him. His own family.
The Black Donnelly Feud
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, with its large Irish settler population, the politics of their homeland hovered in the background of all their conflicts.
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.
Fighting and feuding among the settlers was virtually inevitable. Biddulph’s population wasn’t just largely Irish, according to the Official Black Donnelly website, it also had “a perfect balance of Whiteboys and …Blackfeet.”
The Black Donnellys were much more interested in money than politics, and counted Catholics among their friends and business partners. Nonetheless, Farrell’s murder appears to have pulled the Donnellys firmly into the local chapter of this ancient feud.
This religious feud was the backdrop for all of the Black Donnelly’s bad relations with their neighbours. Disputes over land, and later stagecoach lines, were direct causes for conflict, but the religious disputes served to give local tensions an extra twist.
The Stage, the Pub, and the Black Donnelly’s Vengeance
In later years, the family ran a successful stagecoach line, but again, came into conflict with their rivals. Barns burned, coaches were destroyed, and horses died. It was a bloody feud, with neither side innocent.
The Black Donnellys reputation for fighting and lawlessness only grew in the years after James Sr. returned home. It is suspected that one of the first things the family did when he got out of jail was ride over to a neighbouring farm and light the barn on fire. The farmer had testified against Jim at his trial.
When not farming, the Donnelly boys were often out drinking and fighting and generally causing mayhem.
Accusations and criminal charges followed the boys throughout the years after their father’s return. In 1869, William Donnelly was charged with larceny, but never convicted. Shortly after, he and James Jr. were charged for robbing the post office in nearby Granton. Again, they were acquitted.
Despite what some may have claimed, the Black Donnellys were not the only ones causing trouble in the area. In 1870, the family barn burned down, likely the result of arson by one of their enemies.
By the early 1870s, however, it started to look like the boys were settling down. Several got married and started ‘honest’ livings. In 1873, William Donnelly, the brains of the family, decided to enter the stagecoach business. He ran the stage with several of his brothers, working the routes between London, Exeter, and Lucan.
The stage was the best way to get around in the Lucan area at the time and business was good. Of course, with business comes competition, and the Donnellys were fierce competitors.
Within months, the pressure had become too much for the owner of the other stagecoach and he sold his business to Patrick Flanagan. Flanagan was a big Irishman and he had no fear of the Black Donnellys.
A battle for the Roman line soon erupted between Flanagan and the Donnellys. Called the Stagecoach Feud by the people at the time, it was an extremely violent period, with arsons, fist fights and attacks on each other’s animals.
The Stagecoach feud came to its worst one morning a couple years later. Late one night, someone snuck into Flanagan’s barn. They sawed up his stage, completed breaking it apart, and they attacked his horses. When Flanagan went to the barn the next morning, he found his stage in ruins and his horses mutilated.
It wasn’t long before a lynch mob, with Flanagan at the head, showed up at the Donnelly barn. They approached, ready to take revenge on Will and anyone else they found with him. When they approached, however, they got more than they bargained for.
James Sr., with the rest of the boys behind him, burst from the farm armed with clubs. They were still outnumbered 3 to 1, but that didn’t matter. The Black Donnellys laid into the would-be lynchers with a vengeance, beating them mercilessly. In short order, the Donnellys emerged victorious, their foes broken and bloody on the ground before them.
The Black Donnelly Massacre
The Black Donnelly story came 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.
Late in the night, there was a knock at the door. James answered and went to meet their visitors.
Johnny O’Connor, a young farmhand who was sleeping in the Donnelly house that night, later testified in court about what happened next.
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 in 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, barrelled past his attackers and ran outside, despite his handcuffs. Several men chased after.
Minutes later, after beating him outside, the men returned and threw Tom to the floor. 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 Donnelly’s visiting niece, Brigitte. She was only 21.
Covering the bed that Johnny was hidden under with coal oil, they lit the house on fire. After setting the farmhouse to the torch, the vigilantes moved on, not done with their grisly work.
Johnny fled into the night, an unexpected survivor – and witness – to the attack.
A short-time later, the mob arrived at the nearby house of the family’s second son, William. It was around 2:30am and Will, his wife, his brother Jon, and a family friend were all asleep in bed.
Hearing shouts of “fire” from outside, Jon Donnelly went to the door. As he opened it, two shots rang out, ripping through his chest and pelvis. He collapsed in a bloody heap.
Thinking they had murdered William, the mob left.
Jon died on the floor of William’s kitchen soon afterward. His cry, “Will, Will, I’m shot!” ringing out through the cold winter night.
The Aftermath of the Black Donnelly Story
Despite Johnny’s eye-witness account, the courts never convicted any of the vigilantes. The trial was too closely tied into the county’s politics.
Johnny’s testimony and the confession of two of the murderers were not enough, and the first trial ended in a hung jury. The second trial led to nothing as well.
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.
And so, no one was ever punished for the Donnelly murder.
History was not kind to the Donnelly family in the years to follow. The victors wrote the story and the family, blamed for all of the violence, became known as the ‘Black Donnellys.’
Today, the Black Donnellys are a mix of history and legend. Their exploits and their grisly deaths the sort of story mothers use to frighten their children. Their story has embedded itself into the fabric of Lucan and the surrounding countryside.
The story has inspired books, plays, a television show, and now a craft beer. It’s one hell of a story, and one that we hope you’ll share with your friends.
Remember the Donnellys and make sure to raise a pint of our Black Donnelly’s craft beer to the toughest family to ever walk the Roman Line!
To Learn More and Find the Works Cited, See:
- The Official Donnelly Home Page http://www.donnellys.com/
- Norman N. Feltes. This Side of Heaven: Determining the Donnelly Murders, 1880. (Toronto: University Of Toronto Press, 1999).
- “Heaven and Hell on Earth: The Massacre of the ‘Black Donnellys.’ Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History.
- Joseph Geringer. “The Black Donnellys: Canada’s Tragic Roustabouts.” Trutv
- Black Donnelly Wikipedia Page