The Vigilante Massacre

The blackest crime ever committed in Canada was what they called it. And in 70 violent years there’s been no match for what the masked marauders did to the troublesome Donnelly family


The Vigilante Massacre

The blackest crime ever committed in Canada was what they called it. And in 70 violent years there’s been no match for what the masked marauders did to the troublesome Donnelly family


The Vigilante Massacre


The blackest crime ever committed in Canada was what they called it. And in 70 violent years there’s been no match for what the masked marauders did to the troublesome Donnelly family


JUST AFTER midnight on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 1880, about 20 men in disguise—some masked, some in women’s clothing and some with blackened faces—gathered in the snow around the front door of James Donnelly's story-and-a-half log house in Biddulph Township, on the outskirts of a hamlet called Lucan, 18 miles northwest of London, Ont.

They were armed with shotguns, rifles, axes, shovels, spades and hatchets. The ringleader knocked at the door. Inside the farmhouse at the time were James Donnelly; his wife, Judith, 60; his son, Thomas, 21; his niece, Bridget, 25; and a hired boy, Johnny O’Connor, 11.

Thomas opened the door. He was told by the ringleader that he was under arrest and was at once handcuffed. Someone shouted, “Hit him on the head with a spade!” and one of the visitors immediately obliged, assisted by another who buried a pickaxe in Thomas’ skull. A third beheaded him with the sharp edge of his shovel.

The men then pushed into the house, where James Donnelly was likewise told he was under arrest and handcuffed. The old man started to say something about a search warrant, but before he could finish te was bludgeoned to death. While one group killed James another dealt with his wife, who was murdered with shovels, spades and hatchets. Screaming bloody murder, Bridget tried to get upstairs, but she was quickly caught and, as a Press dispatch of the time reported, “she was

yanked back downstairs and had her brains bashed out.”

The intruders missed young Johnny O’Connor completely. He had been sleeping with the old man in the front bedroom downstairs and, at the first sound of trouble, slid out of bed and hid himself under it behind a clothesbasket, from which point he was able to see the gory proceedings. Half-mad with terror, the youngster cowered in his hiding place, not daring to move.

“Pour the oil on the beds!” he heard someone order; and another, “Throw Tom’s body and his head back in the house!”

Young Johnny heard a big thud, and then a series of lesser ones.

The crackling of fire and the smell of smoke became apparent to the horror-stricken lad, but he

lay there motionless until the heat made one form of self-preservation more attractive than another. He broke a window with his elbow and, tearing the shards of glass loose from their frame, he scuttled out of the deathtrap with only his pants on and ran blindly through the snow in bare feet to the farmhouse of the nearest neighbor, Patrick Whalen.

Speechless at first from cold and fright Johnny was finally able to say faintly,“They have m irdered the Donnellys!”

Whalen and his sons dressed quickly but, by the time they reached the burning cabin, it was impossible to do anything. The snow around the cabin had been melted and, although there were many footprints still visible, none was later identified.

There was no sign of life. In all that wintry countryside, peppered with farmhouses close by, each with its own watchdog, not one dog barked.

But the night of sudden death was not yet ended. Another of James Donnelly’s sons, William, had a farm three miles away, on the ninth concession. The 20 disguised men paid another call.

Yet another Donnelly son, John, 24, was spending the night with William and it was he who answered the fateful knock. John was promptly riddled with lead at point-blank range by two men. About 15 others stood 50 yards away. They all departed, exuberantly firing in all directions.

The Toronto Globe began its report of the massacre: “Lucan awoke this morning to shock

the country with intelligence of the blackest crime ever committed in the Dominion.” Whether this is a fair statement or not it is certain that the Donnelly slayings are the nearest thing in Canadian criminal history to the vigilante lynchings in the southern United States.

Murder at the Threshing Bee

JAMES DONNELLY was 70 when he died at the hands of the night-riders. He worked a 100-acre farm in the County of Middlesex. Biddulph Township was thickly settled in 1880 and its farmhouses were all well within whistling distance of their nearest neighbors. It was on this farm that James Donnelly brought up his high-spirited brood of seven sons and one daughter. James was described by the Press of the day as “a rollicking, drinking, quarrelsome Irishman, always ready to engage in any dispute that might give him scope for his fighting prowess.” From contemporary reports it is clear that the other members of the family followed their father’s example; they appeared to be willing to fight anyone at the drop of a hat, and people always seemed to be dropping hats wherever the Donnellys went.

The story of the activities of the Donnellys in Biddulph Township during the 10 years before the massacre is one of violence on their part, hatred on the part of their long-suffering neighbors. The fact was that James Donnelly would have come a bad last in any popularity contest held in Biddulph Township and his sons, William, John, Robert and Thomas, would not have finished much better.

James Donnelly, with his wife and their two eldest sons, arrived from Ireland in 1847. He selected the best 100 acres he could find in Biddulph Township and settled on them as a squatter, holding no title to the land. But the Canadian Company, a concern which dealt with land grants at the time, deeded title to Donnelly’s land to a man called Farrell, and Farrell took possession of the land that Donnelly had cleared and cultivated. This action did nothing to endear Farrell to Donnelly, or Donnelly to him.

In 1857, at a threshing bee, Donnelly and Farrell got into a fight. Nobody interfered as it was thought they were both so drunk it was not possible they could do each other any harm. However, Donnelly got hold of an iron spike and opened up Farrell’s skull with it. That was the end of Farrell and the Donnellys moved back at once to the old homestead; no one else ever tried to evict them.

James Donnelly left the vicinity for a year or two, but eventually gave himself up and was tried for murder at the Huron Assizes. A jury brought in a verdict of guilty and Donnelly was sentenced to be hanged. This was

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commuted to seven years, which the father served in Portsmouth Penitentiary. Son Robert (with whom we are not otherwise concerned in this narrative) was most fortunate, at the time of the 1880 massacre, to be serving a two-year stretch at Portsmouth Penitentiary for the trifling offense of shooting at the chief constable of Lucan. He missed by a scant inch.

By the time James Donnelly rejoined his family his sons were reaching manhood and, according to a contemporary report, “it was admitted on all sides that a finer-looking family did not live in Biddulph. They were all well-built muscular men, with curly hair and well-cut features.”

At this time son William was the only other member of the family with a record. He, too, shot at a police officer but. as this happened at an Irish wedding in Fitzhenry’s Hotel in Lucan, a benign view was taken and William served a paltry nine months, which he allowed at the time he “could do on his

But these were merely the offenses for which the Donnellys had been convicted. They were caught at many others, but were never convicted and. indeed, as time went on, they were not prosecuted as often as they might have

Perhaps one of the reasons was that any informant who laid charges against a Donnelly became enmeshed in most unfortunate circumstances. One who was bold enough to say that James Donnelly had robbed him of $80 had his barn burned down. Another, who tangled with son William in a squabble about a stagecoach franchise, woke up one morning to find that a mysterious fire had destroyed his stable, his barn and all his coaches. A third, who had the effrontery to lay an assault charge against son John, entered his barn one morning to find his horses in panic; investigation revealed that their tongues had been cut out.

If you offended a Donnelly in any way it was a good bet you would find your barn burned down by morning. There were more barns burned in Biddulph Township from 1875 to 1880 than there were barns; as fast as they could be built the Donnellys would

burn them down. Or so it was alleged by the anti-Donnelly faction. But let’s be fair. Once the Donnellys’ barn was burned to the ground. The Donnellys surely were not responsible for that.

At the time of the massacre son John was awaiting trial for perjury; son Thomas had been committed on a charge of robbery; father James and his wife were jointly charged with arson. The trial of the parents was to have opened on the morning of Feb. 4, 1880, the very day of the murders.

The Priest Feared Arrest

Among the residents of Biddulph Township who took a poor view of the Donnellys’ long record of trouble and violence was the parish priest, Father Connolly, an elderly, kindly man “with a pleasing, open countenance and of medium stature.” For some years he had made attempts to reform the Donnellys, then he denounced them from his pulpit and advised his parishioners to form a committee to protect themselves.

This suggestion was so well received that the priest was induced to organize the committee himself. About Dec., 1879, the first meeting of a Vigilance Committee was called and about 100 citizens signed an agreement “for their own mutual protection and assistance in bringing to justice the perpetrators of the deeds which were being perpetrated by unknown par-

Somebody got the idea it would be a good thing to appoint a subcommittee, which might move a little faster than a larger and more unwieldy body. Then, too, such a subcommittee would not be unduly hampered by the priest’s alltoo-Christ an outlook. It was never admitted that the subcommittee had a chairman, but unquestionably its guiding light was James Carroll, who had been appointed county constable on a petition signed by members of the Vigilance Committee.

Two days after the massacre Father Connolly preached the sermon at the mass funeral, held in his own church in Lucan. He had stated in interviews that he was mortally afraid of son William and believed that William would do all in his power to have him arrested for murder. He feared that the fact that he had organized the Vigilance Committee made him just as liable to prosecution as any of the actual murderers.

Father Connolly was never arrested for murder or anything else, but on the strength of what William Donnelly, his wife and Johnny O’Connor said they saw and heard, 12 men were arrested and charged with the multiple murders.

Only one was formally charged before Mr. Justice Armour and a jury on Oct. 4, 1880: James Carroll, with the murder of Judith Donnelly. The other 11 had been in custody since early February and it was tacitly agreed by all concerned that the Carroll trial would be a test case.

Johnny O’Connor testified that he both saw and heard Carroll place

Thomas Donnelly and the father James under arrest. William Donnelly and his wife both identified Carroll as one of the visitors who supervised the sudden death of John.

Carroll produced what seemed to be an ironclad alibi. He wasn’t there, he said, and he produced a vast number of witnesses who testified that he spent the night at the home of one of his coaccused. The other co-accused were present and, one by one, they stepped firmly into the witness box to testify that it couldn't have been Carroll that Johnny and the Donnellys saw. Of course, an alibi for Carroll was an alibi for every co-accused, but there it was— these men were giving their evidence on

While William Donnelly and his wife would probably think nothing of perjury to hang their archenemy, the county constable, it seemed that Johnny O’Connor (who was 11 then) was telling the truth as well as he knew how and his story was not shaken by clever crossexamination. But the jury didn’t seem to be much impressed for they brought in a finding that seven of them were for acquittal, four for conviction, one undecided.

The judge discharged the jury and released all the prisoners on bail.

The second trial began on January 24, 1881. Mr. Justice Cameron and Mr. Justice Osier had been appointed as a “special commission” to sit with a jury on the second trial, a procedure unknown today. Again, there was the single trial of Carroll on the charge of murdering Judith Donnelly, with the other 11 prisoners awaiting their turns.

This time the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty and Carroll and all his co-accused went free.

The Heroes at the Bar

In Lucan on the evening of the acquittal, Feb. 3, 1881, one day short of the first anniversary of the “blackest crime ever committed in the Dominion,” revelry ran high at Fitzhenry’s Hotel. James Carroll and his vigilantes were the toast of the town. A number of the jurymen were present and, in their way, they were heroes too.

Then in walked William Donnelly. The noisy bar was shocked into silence. Son William was drunk. He glared around the celebrating drinkers.

“I’d like to buy every one of you murderers a drink,” he said thickly. “Set ’em up, bartender!”

No one moved, and the bartender went on wiping errant suds off the mahogany bar.

William glared around again, but no one seemed to be looking at him.

As suddenly as he had arrived son William shouldered his way out of the bar. Then the party got going again, and lasted for as many hours as it took to drink ironical toasts to all the Donnellys collectively, and each one, living and dead, individually, with appropriate speeches to accompany

As any Irishman knows, that takes a good deal of time. if