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The 'Black' Donnelly's Homestead

A horrible event on February 4th, 1880, in Biddulph near Lucan, Ontario has left not only the scars on the earth to tell the sorry tale but also the emotional scars of the people involved.

In 1842, James Donnelly, his wife Johannah and a baby named James Jr. arrived in Upper Canada to make a news start away from the trials and turmoil of their native Ireland. Settling in London, they soon had another child, William, who had a "shriveled foot" and a malformed leg that was several inches shorter than the other.

After a time, James' plan of owning land of their own took shape when he erected a shanty on land that had been abandoned by the previous tenant. The lease was taken up by a John Grace of London Township and an agreement was reached. Donnelly probably had to pay some rent to Grace as well as clear the required four acres of land as per The Canada Company who administered the lease that Mr. Grace held.

Over the next few years, Johannah and James would be blessed with five more sons and in 1856 a girl named Jane (known as Jennie her whole life,) joined the clan. In this time frame, this is a minor miracle. In a time when most women passed on at childbirth, Johannah seems to have thrived.

The beginning of the end happened in 1857 when a fierce fight between James and a distant cousin named Patrick Farrell over the land James had cleared broke out, weapons of all sorts were used and the final blow was delivered to Patrick Farrell by James using an old handspike.

James, the next day, went to several local farmers to apologize for the incident and soon the warrant for the arrest of James Donnelly was written. From July 1857 to May 1858, James hid in the bush evading his captors. Finally, a bronchial cough and the urging of some friends persuaded James to turn himself in.

Found guilty of murder by a jury, James was sentenced to be hanged in September of 1858.

Johannah pleaded for mercy to no avail and finally resorted to a petition to reduce James' sentence. She was successful.

James was sent to Kingston Penitentiary for seven years. (This was the equivalent to a "life" sentence back in the 1850s.)

During this time, Johannah made ends meet by successfully mortgaging the property and through her own industry by preparing food for weddings and receptions. Some townsfolk even came to her with a moneymaking idea and she sent them to James for his approval. James approved. He approved more or less because this act would give his children something he didn't have, an education.

So, with his mark notarized and ten shillings in James' pocket, in the year 1860 SS #3 (or as it was commonly known, The Donnelly Schoolhouse,) went up near the homestead. It lasted until 1878 when the original log structure burned down. A brick schoolhouse with poured cement foundation replaced it. This building now only has it's foundations to let people know it existed. Many people have mistaken these ruins as the homestead itself but the real site now has a sign to let people know where the actual homestead site is.


Inside of The Donnelly Barn

All the time James rotted in Kingston Pen, the remaining Donnelly clan was subject to abuse and ridicule which made the boys especially hard. Needless to say, they became scrappers and drinkers and earned reputations as ne'er do wells.

James was released with his hacking cough and terrible arthritis in 1865. He regained his health over the next five years and when he was finally fit enough, he decided to build a new home to replace the small shanty.

By 1871, a new home was ready for the Donnelly Clan.

In 1879, a new priest, Father John Connolly arrived in his new parish in Biddulph with orders from Bishop Walsh to investigate some criminal activity in the area and bring it to an end.

The priest traveled the roads and soon the reputation of the Donnelly's came into play. A murdering father, a possibly "loose" mother and a band of boys who fought and God knows what else! The picture the good townsfolk painted would seem to be the kind of family responsible for barn burnings, animal mutilations, beatings, thievery and fights.

From his pulpit, the father preached sermons about the wicked ways of "those" people and infuriated the crowds. Soon, the "Property Protection Association" was formed by the men of the parish. They would go from farm to farm looking for stolen items in order to determine who the criminals were.

In a twist of irony, James Donnelly wanted to join the association but was warned off by his sons who said that the other members would probably "plant" stolen goods at the homestead's barn and then incriminate them in front of the local police.

An inner committee of the Society planned and discussed ways to deal with those evil Donnelly's. Finally, opportunity knocked on January 15th, 1880.

A Mr. Patrick Ryder's barn burned down and the committee pressed him to charge the Donnelly boys with arson. Unfortunately, this couldn't stick as the boys could account for the time that the fire happened. Undaunted, Ryder did the next best thing and laid the blame on James Sr. and Johannah.

The court seesawed as no substantial evidence could be provided that indeed James and Johannah were the culprits and with a court date of February 4th fast approaching, the committee could see that instead of the Donnelly's getting their just reward, the committee could indeed be in a position to pay the Donnellys monetary compensation for the "wrongful" accusations!

At Cedar Swamp School, the committee met and discussed what they would do. The plan was easy..

On the night of the third, the committee would go to the homestead, drag out the Donnellys, tie them to trees and force confessions from them. Then they would have their evidence!

To ensure the clan was where it should be, the vigilantes approached a couple of brothers, James and William Feeheley who were friends of the Donnellys. The deal was simplistic, they spy on the family to guarantee the whereabouts of the clan on the third and the committee would gladly pay off the $500 mortgage on their father's farm. If they did not comply, their father would lose his farm.

The fateful day arrived and Tom Donnelly and his father, James Sr. went in to Lucan to pick up supplies. While there, they picked up young thirteen year old Johnny O'Connor who's parents were friends of the Donnellys. Johnny's job was to watch the barn while the clan went to the court date the next day.

Around midnight, a group of about thirty-five men emerged from Cedar Swamp School and set forth under the guidance of twenty-eight year old Constable James Carroll. They met up with the Feeheley brothers and confirmed the Donnellys whereabouts.

The group surrounded the log home at around 1:00am and Constable Carroll informed the men to stay outside until he called on them.