Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE BLACK DONNELLYS: CANADA'S TRAGIC ROUSTABOUTS

James Donnelly, Himself

"Have sense, patience and self-restraint, and no mischief will come."

Ancient Irish proverb

James and Johanna Donnelly migrated to Ontario in, most scholars believe, the year 1844. They brought with them their three-year-old son, James, Jr., and a few meager belongings, not much more than the ragamuffin clothes they wore on their backs. They settled first in Forest City, where Squire Donnelly worked for a time as a tradesman and where Johannah gave birth to another son, William, in 1847.

"James Donnelly was born on March 7, 1816...Although he was small and stocky, being only five feet five inches at manhood...he was described...as 'good looking and gave the initial impression of pleasant amiability," writes Ray Fazakas in The Donnelly Album. "On the one hand he was known as sober, industrious, hard-working, kind and considerate (but was also known as being) rollicking, drinking, quarrelsome."

The couple was discontent; they weren't city folk; they wanted to farm; that's the life they knew in Ireland. However, most of the acreage was being fast possessed by the wealthier Celts, they who could afford it. Donnelly, afraid to let his dreams suffer because of a mere thing called poverty, did what many of his caste were doing. He packed up once again, moved his family to the wilderness of Wellington County, Biddulph Township (where the finest soil was said to be had), and simply squatted on someone else's property, law be damned.

Official warning issued by landowners against squatting (PAO)
Official warning issued by landowners
against squatting (PAO)

"Squatting" was a common practice among the poor; often the perpetrators went unnoticed for sometimes decades since many of the landowners lived out of the precinct, intending said land as a tangible investment. The land John Donnelly staked out for himself was 100 acres of unsupervised Government Lot #18, a property owned by one wealthy but absentee John Grace. The squire was apparently a good judge of commercially potential farmland albeit someone else's for the ground was not only verdant and fertile but bordered the main highway, Roman Line Road, which led directly into nearby Lucan some four miles south.

Along the road which was named in honor of the many Irish Roman Catholics living in Lucan Donnelly raised a fence and a shingle, which read, "James Donnelly, Esquire," as if to advertise his own merit of cunning. Just inside the gate, up a footpath, he built a crude log cabin for him and his family, and immediately went to work. A sharp trader with a gift of gab, big James Donnelly talked the merchants in town into loaning him the necessary implements so that he could clear the land and plant the rows of corn he envisioned in his imaginative Irish brain. Darkness and inclement weather didn't stall him; he worked throughout, determined to turn the bare fields into Donnelly heaven in the new world. And in the meantime, his wife bore him a third son, John.

Biddulph Township was, according to Thomas P. Kelley's Vengeance of the Black Donnellys, "a flat, fertile district...bordered on the east by Perth County, on the west and north by Huron County." The nearest "big town" was London (formerly Forest City), seventeen miles distant, but the common meeting place of the township was dusty Lucan. Here on particular days the farmers held market to pitch their produce to both local and commercial buyers, the latter loading it onto rail cars destined for remote lumbering and milling villages in the province. Often, the smartest farmers gathered in one of the nigh-dozen saloons in town to barter equipment for seed or vice versa, or to share farmhands and, simply, advice. Certain evenings, the backrooms of the Western Bar, the Dublin House, McRobert's Old Dominion, and others bristled with gab and braggadocio. As in Ireland, these establishments were either Catholic- or Protestant-owned, drawing their own kind over their threshold.

Lucan, shovelling out in winter (Stanley)
Lucan, shovelling out in winter (Stanley)

Of the approximately 500 Lucan-area residents, most were Catholics who wanted to put the memories of dissent behind them, but some townsmen couldn't let go of their native prejudices. While the long sea voyage had cooled tempers, the remnants of the Whiteboys still whispered, still noticed men like James Donnelly who, true as it be, went to Mass on Sundays as Catholics, but then patronized both factions. In response, Donnelly argued that this was Ontario, not Tipperary, and those who couldn't adjust could skip to hell in a bread maid's basket!

In the years to come, his attitude would prove fatal to himself, but in the early days of Lucan, any hostilities were kept compact, muttered Saturday nights under kerosene lantern by Whiteboys with a pint of redeye in their fist, or on Sunday mornings outside St. Patrick's steepled church after the Solemnity, with a hangover needling their temperament. James Donnelly didn't care and continued to let them growl. He was his own man and would die first before giving in.

"On nearly every Saturday night Donnelly rode into Lucan for a drop of the spirits at one of its bars, and there were the occasional fist fights with one of its citizens," Kelley claims. "At the bars, (he) usually had to drink alone...the object of hostile gazes. Those around him had not forgotten how he had obtained his land."

"The village of Lucan had the misfortune of growing up with the Donnellys," says author Fazakas. "Whether its bad reputation in the nineteenth century was attributable to the family or the way around can long be argued...From the beginning, a faint aura of disrepute clung to the village." Feuding was an everyday occurrence, not always involving raucous James D.

Despite the animosity against him, James Donnelly did have friends in town and, in all, things went well for a few years. Squire Donnelly proved his labor and turned his land into one of the more prosperous farms along Roman Line Road; he inadvertently generated a degree of jealousy in several Whiteboys who were sure the indolent would fall flat on his face. The Donnellys grew, both in industry and numbers.

"During the eight years following his arrival in the Lucan district, Jim Donnelly whipped the wilderness to a standstill," Kelley continues, "and created a rich, self-sufficient farm. Johannah, on her part, presented him with four more sons named, in order of birth, Patrick, Michael, Robert and Thomas...The mother was as protective of the children as a she-wolf with cubs."

The clan needed a new home; the log cabin was crammed with cribs and children. When James began to lay a foundation for a new place beside the initial log hut, his friends turned out to help him "raise a fine roof," to use an Irish expression. The result was a roomier, two-story shingle-sided frame with three bedrooms down and one up, a large parlor and larger kitchen. No palace be it, but it was, to the old man, Donnelly's castle.

St. Patrick's Holy Roman Catholic Church on Roman Line Road (Ray Fazakas)
St. Patrick's Holy Roman Catholic
Church on Roman Line Road
(Ray Fazakas)

Then, in 1855, a tragedy occurred that would be the beginning of the Donnelly name-tarnishing in Biddulph. James Donnelly, his Irish dander up, killed a man.

The incident started when a Patrick Farrell rented the same one hundred acres of land from its owner, the owner not realizing that someone had trespassed on his property and had been living there the last decade. When Farrell arrived in Lucan, he was amazed to find smoke curling from a house that shouldn't have been there on a farm that shouldn't have been there occupied by a family that shouldn't have been there! Farrell attempted to oust the squatter through mediation of the local constabulary, but the law was too slow in reacting. (And it was said Donnelly had pals on the force.) This led to confrontations one-on-one until a fistfight erupted, ending, it appears, in no more than a pair of bloody Gaelic nostrils. Farrell was a husky former blacksmith with shoulders like an ox, but brawn Squire Donnelly was, no doubt, a match.

Both men, sensing a stalemate, faced off in court. Donnelly argued that the land was his through toil; he had scraped his fingers to the bone caring for and nurturing it for, oh, so many years. Farrell denied any law but the written one: Thou shalt not steal (especially what was his). The judge was a man of temperance; his verdict was a balance: Donnelly, he said, could keep the northern fifty acres; Farrell could keep the southern fifty. But, while His Honor compromised, the defendants did not. Over the coming months, both stubborn hotheads continued to growl at each other over the picket line...until June 25, 1857.

On that day, the township turned out at Billy Maloney's lumbering bee. While the men axed and cleared the forestland for grove, the women baked and cooked and prepared a hearty meal to take place at day's end. All day long, beer flowed, and so did jibes and taunts between the rival neighbors. Late into the afternoon, after consumption of brew kindled the furnaces in each, the words had heated blue fire. Before onlookers could separate them, Donnelly and Farrell were entwined on the ground, a whirly-ball of fists, feet, grunts and dust. Somehow, Donnelly broke free and, in a rage, reached for the first object at hand, which turned out to be a handspike used for climbing trees. Farrell was upon him, toting an iron bar, posed as to swing. In reflex, the other let him have it first, and Farrell crumpled at the knees, the iron still in his fists, his temple gushing blood.

Donnelly bolted into the woods, a murderer. The Whiteboy party revelled that the squire had at last earned the nickname "Black" as to wider comprehension. Constables rushed to the Donnelly home, but he was nowhere; they scoured the forest, checked every alley and back room in Lucan, every corncrib and barn up and down Roman Line Road. James Donnelly, himself, has vanished.

Explains the Internet's Official Donnelly Home Page, "For the next eleven months, nobody knew where James had disappeared. But, Johannah knew, as did their older children, James, Jr., now 15, William, aged 12, and 10-year-old John, They all knew, but they weren't talking, especially to the officers of the law who showed up regularly at their doorstep. And all that time, the head of the Donnelly household had been hiding right under their noses in his own backfields...(When) the icy breath of winter blew across the land...he sheltered himself in stables and in the homes of friends who risked their own freedom to help a fugitive." However, one Canadian winter virtually spent outdoors had been enough for even the sturdy Irishman. He turned himself into the police in May the following year.

Many strange and almost incredulous stories revolve around those lost months of Mr. Donnelly. Considering the anything-goes state of affairs in the township at the time, each probably has its ratio of truth. Neighbors later confessed to seeing a "strange woman" in a sun bonnet helping Johannah work the fields while her husband was on the lam; "she," they alleged, must have been none other than the escapee himself, in masquerade. Another tale professes the law knew all along where Donnelly was; Wellington County Sheriff Ryder, who had known Donnelly in Tipperary and had also been accused of being a Blackfoot, helped succor him those many months.

Jennie Donnelly 1870's (Fazakas)
Jennie Donnelly 1870's
(Fazakas)

Wherever and however he chose to conceal himself, James Donnelly, husband and father, did indeed remain near home. During that time, Johannah conceived a ninth child, a beautiful daughter named Jennie.

Donnelly's trial was set for September 1858. Because the murder had taken place in Stephen Township, Donnelly was tried within its jurisdiction, at Goderich. Biddulph neighbors travelled to witness the proceedings at the Huron County Courthouse. Many locals turned out, too, for although a county away, they had heard of the feisty squatter and his feud with the luckless Farrell. The decision of the court passed quickly: Guilty, hands down! The convicted Donnelly was rushed to the city gaol, sentenced to hang two weeks later.

Fate and Johannah intervened. A woman of fuss and action, she oiled well the gears of clemency, petitioning nearly the entire town of Lucan and most of Goderich as well, county borders, familiarity with herself and her husband's character notwithstanding. Due to her, a turnabout occurred. Suddenly, her husband's death penalty was exchanged for a seven-year sentence. Placed in Kingston Penitentiary to serve it, he at least knew that Hell, at least this time around, couldn't keep him.

He was released in 1865. And, as the citizens of Lucan predicted, that's when things really got hot.

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