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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.


The door was unlocked and Carroll entered the cabin where he quickly snapped handcuffs on Tom Donnelly. Tom woke and Carroll told him to dress as he was now under arrest. Johannah awoke to the commotion and after entering the kitchen, went to fetch a visiting cousin from Ireland, Bridgette, to get the kitchen stove lit as it was very cold. Johannah went to help her son get dressed.

The constable then went and roused James Sr. who was sleeping near young Johnny O'Connor. Upon hearing the constable threatening more charges, he threw back the bedclothes and effectively hid young Johnny.

As James was hunting for his longcoat, Johnny, who had been using it as a makeshift pillow, handed it to him saying "Here it is." Johnny even claimed to look Constable Carroll right in the eyes.

The constable was drunk, the room was dark and to Johnny's benefit, Constable Carroll missed seeing him altogether.

Carroll kept inquiring where Jack (John) Donnelly was. James kept telling him he was out.

James went to the kitchen and asked Carroll to read the charges. It was then that Carroll let out a yell and through the back door came twenty to twenty-five men swinging clubs and looking for blood.

James was hit first, his head was split open and he collapsed by the stove.

Bridgette fled upstairs and pulled the door closed behind her.

Johnny O'Connor quickly moved out of the bed and hid underneath it seeking refuge from the vigilantes behind a dirty clothes hamper.

Although handcuffed, Tom managed to break free. He sprinted to the front door breaking the top hinges off in his effort to escape. He made it out about ten feet before some of the vigilantes waiting outside repeatedly stabbed him in the back with a pitchfork then clubbed him over the head with a shovel. His body was tossed back into the house just at the front door. Johnny O'Connor saw somebody removing the handcuffs from Tom at this point.

Johannah was ruthlessly beaten to the floor just beside the door to the kitchen from the living room. She was not beheaded nor violated with a poker as some have said.

The Donnelly's small dog was clubbed and beheaded and the head kicked near the stove.

Johnny O'Connor heard someone ask "Where's the girl?" A group of men went upstairs and in a very short time came down. Bridgette, the visiting cousin was dead. Some reports claim she was gang raped or that after she was killed, she was dragged downstairs. These, apparently are not true.


The New Donnelly Headstone

The men started to splash coal oil throughout the home. Tom Donnelly at this point apparently moaned and moved a bit. His scalp was soon laid open with an axe like move of a shovel. Again, he was not beheaded or castrated as some believe although it is possible that his facial bones were crushed by the men.

Their work apparently done, the fire was set on beds soaked with coal oil. Under one of the burning beds, little Johnny O'Connor still hid and watched the men leave through the back door.

He hid as long as he could then got out from under the bed and vainly tried to staunch the flames. He said later that he believed that Tom and Johannah were still breathing at this time. When his fire-fighting efforts proved futile, he knew he had to run outside. The front door, he realized, would probably lead to a clubbing then death so he tried the kitchen door. Johannah's body blocked the door and in trying to get past her, he stepped on her and she groaned.

Adrenaline pumping, he managed to force the door and leaving it ajar, he thought about running to nearby John Whalen's house. Unfortunately, the vigilantes were in sight of the home discussing their plan to go into the hamlet of Whalen and murder William Donnelly.

He instead ran to Ann and Pat Whalen's home nearby and told them of the carnage. The couple gave Johnny some shoes and clothes to wear as he was still in his night clothes and rushed over to their son John's home. There was John, outside watching the fire and standing beside him was one of the Feeheley brothers.

The four adults went to the homestead which by now was a blazing inferno. Peering as best he could in through the front door hanging by its one good hinge, they could see one body just inside the door. Pat Whelan was almost hit with glass and other shrapnel as he knelt to peer into James' bedroom just in time for the senior Donnelly's muzzle-loading shotgun to explode.

They went to the back door left ajar by Johnny and saw all the other bodies (save Bridgette's) that were in various areas of the kitchen.

The vigilantes moved down the road towards Whalen and William's rented barn. The idea was to burn the barn and beat up Will's stallion. When he came out to investigate, they would club him to death.

They got to the barn and started whipping the poor animal (who, incidentally, survived,) and set the barn on fire. Nobody came from the house.

The group then moved up to the house and rapped on the door calling out "Will, open up! there's a fire!" John Connelly was staying in the home to take his kin to the court. He, instead of William opened the door and received a rifle blast that went through his lower abdomen and lodged in the kitchen wall. He fell back telling Will he'd been shot. John collapsed in Norah's (William's wife) arms and expired.

Norah's brother was one of the vigilantes. He hated William Donnelly for marrying his sister. Will, after John had been shot heard Norah's brother, Jack Kennedy saying "Brother-in-law rests easy now!"

With their full night's work done, the vigilantes made for home.

In the morning, Johnny O'Connor and William Donnelley went to London to tell the magistrates the tale.

Constable Carroll and five other men were brought to justice for the murders. The first jury was "hung" and could not come to a clear decision. The second, eleven months after the massacre, found James Carroll not guilty. He and the other five men were released. For a solid fortnight, there was celebrations in Lucan.


The fate of the Donnellys still echoes today. We were even told by a modern source that  "The Donnelly's got what was coming to them!"

Mr. J. Robert Salts now owns the original property and runs tours of the area in which the Donnellys met their end.

Strange phenomena does occur. The first notable occurrence was a feeling of heaviness felt by Linda Salts, J. Robert's wife. Although Mr. Salts is a trance clairvoyant, they figured the best "cure" for this was to have a Catholic priest come in and put the spirits at peace. The priest arrived and although exorcism is not really done without approval from Rome, he blessed the house and gave last rights to those whose spirits may have lingered.


Inside of the Donnelly Barn

During the ceremony, the feeling of heaviness mixed with a sadness was felt bringing tears to Mr. Salts eyes but then, the heaviness lifted and the depression dissipated. Even the priest seemed relieved after the service.

That has not kept the phenomena completely at bay though...

In my youth, I was probably the last Toronto kid to even HEAR of the "Black Donnellys" and was told a fanciful tale of the original obelisk tombstone revolving on the anniversary night of the murders. This is complete bupkiss but it made a good spooky story at Junior High.

There is also a tale of a ghostly lady on horseback riding up the Roman Line towards the homestead on the anniversary but again, unsubstantiated.

Real events happening to the Salts include objects that go missing only to turn up in an odd or obvious spot, footsteps are heard periodically in the home, a man occasionally watches visitors from the barn and many other incidents. A visit and the purchase of Mr. Salts book, "You Are Never Alone - Our Life on the Donnelly Homestead" is definitely recommended. The book is available on the site.

One must remember that the homestead is now the Salts' home and they live in relative peace. If you wish to go and visit, PLEASE contact them first! It is not a historic site by government standards nor is it a park. It is someone's house. How would you feel if someone came to your home at 3am demanding to see the ghosts or hordes of tourists popped by unexpectedly because some historic event happened in your backyard?

To contact the Salts, please visit their website at http://www.quadro.net/~donnelly and send them an e-mail WELL in advance to your arrival.

Also, The Official Donnelly Home Page now has an excellent site dealing with the ghostly occurances at the homestead. It can be reached at the following URL... http://www.donnellys.com/Ghosts.html and also on this amazing site is a sort-of rebuttal to the legend from one of "Grouchy" Ryder's descendants which is well worth reading. It can be found at http://www.donnellys.com/Ryder.html.

PLEASE REMEMBER to be courteous is planning a trip to Lucan and visiting the Salt's. This is their home and PLEASE contact them ahead of your visit. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is the e-mail address.


Donnelly Rebuttal

Although the facts as stated in the initial report were based on Mr. Robert Salt's book as well as a few other sources, the background and information about the Donnellys is still hotly debated.

Below is an e-mail sent to us by Sean B. that looks at the other side of the Donnelly family proving that there are still divisions in the way people view this family and the tragic events around their deaths. It is reprinted with his permission with only his full name, e-mail address omitted and a few spelling corrections...

Please check the "facts" that you have on you site about the "Black" Donnellys

Sorry folks but in my opinion you make The "Black" Donnellys out to be normal, God fearing, settlers that were wrongly mistreated by their neighbours and "friends". Granter the murder was horrible but The "Black" Donnellys were a bad lot and deserved the reputation of "thieves" and "bullies".

This following quote is an example of one of your errors:
"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."

The land was NOT abandoned and James Donnelly SQUATTED on the property. The "agreement" reached was a court settlement that stated that James could have the front half of the property and the Patrick Farrell could have the back half. This made James very angry and caused the "fight" that happened at the logging bee...

Truth be told the fight was supposedly a fair one and If James hadn't killed Patrick, Patrick probably would have killed him.

You also forgot to mention that James went "on the lam" and even went so far as to wear womens clothing to work his fields before finally surrendering....

This type of misinformation seriously puts in jeopardy the creditability of your other reports.

Sean B.