Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE BLACK DONNELLYS: CANADA'S TRAGIC ROUSTABOUTS

The Feud

"For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad."

G.K. Chesterton

Even before the Farrell murder and their father's eventual incarceration, the Donnelly boys were beginning to earn a reputation as mischief makers. During his short life in Biddulph Township, Farrell often vocally accused the Donnelly teens for acts of vandalism and destruction. He even blamed the lads or their father for taking a pot shot at him one night while he was working in his barn. "The bullet whizzed by me ear! It was either one o'them rascals of his or it was the ould man hisself!" he told a barroom-full of listeners. "Either way, it was one'o'them Black Donnellys as shor' as there's a Lucifer!"

What was to come was a series of brawls, fisticuffs, antagonisms, ruptures and bad blood that was to make the famous Hatfield-and-McCoy feud in America's mountain country look like a child's game of pop-gun.

"With their father in jail, the boys were frequently the butt of cruel remarks with regard to the cause of his absence, but as they grew older they were able to avenge all insults with their fists," attests Thomas P. Kelley in Vengeance of the Black Donnellys. "The Donnellys were not gunfighters, had a strange aversion to firearms and regarded them as 'weapons of the weak, fit only for cowards,' but without exception the entire seven Donnelly boys, as well as their father, were veritable terrors, wild men in fist and club battles."

In defense of the brood, many of the criminal acts attributed to them were never proven, but the name "Black Donnelly" seemed rhythmical to the point that it was the first to conger up in the minds of the Lucanites whenever foul play occurred. That they were scrappers of the first order and had fuses of tolerance the length of a snail's thumbnail there is no doubt, but, in just the same, the townsfolk never afforded them the same acceptance they did other children along Roman Line Road. Their "ould man" was a jailbird and convicted murderer, their mother was a leathery-faced harridan who never let an evil eye pass. The boys themselves were raised knowledgeable of the religious-based histrionics that had chased their "mum" and "pup" out of Tipperary, and, no doubt, as small children, they early felt the scorn of the Whiteboy families who continued to taunt anything named Donnelly. Doubtlessly, as well, their mother had told them of the fate of Sheriff Ryder whom all of Biddulph Township knew had abetted their father while in exile and therefore paid the price of his life for doing so.

According to Earl Ryder, a descendant of the Ryder family who wrote a marvellous study of the Donnelly situation for the Official Donnelly Home Page, the sheriff was murdered by persons unknown ("dyed in the wool Whiteboys," suggests he). "(The killers) must have known, like everyone else, that the sheriff could have captured...Donnelly if he had made the effort," Ryder asserts. "Some time later, Ryder met with sudden death. He either fell or was pushed under the wheels of a train."

In the case of the ensuing feud, historians largely agree that finger-pointing rampaged. Whose fault it was seems almost secondary to the fact that somewhere along the way something got out of hand. Between the time Squire Donnelly went to prison in 1858 and the inevitable tragedy that occurred in 1880, a violent feud climaxed with very little let-up between the Donnellys and pretty much the rest of Biddulph Township.

Whether as offenders or defenders, the Donnellys were no pacifists. Especially Johannah who, if legends about her are accurate, was a large part of the problem. Put simply, if someone threw a stick of dynamite Johannah's way, she would have gone back at them with a battleship, even if she had to steal one. With her collecting dust at Kingston Prison, she was bitter. True, he was spared the noose, but in her estimation he should not have been convicted in the first place. Farrell, she alleged, had baited him and her Jimmy fought back. Two hot tempers bubbling over, that's all. No one meant to kill...well, at least her Jimmy hadn't meant to. With this attitude, she almost certainly stuffed her offsprings' heads with the evils of injustice and the right to avenge the sacred name. Writer Kelley calls Johannah "big, brawny and grim-featured" and the author of a litany of specific if not cockeyed rules for her sons to live by. "Hit first and talk later," she advised them. "Never forgive your enemies. Always remember and never forget that, when in a rough-and-tumble fight, be shor' to git in the first blow either a hard smash to the jaw or a good swift kick to the crotch."

"Clubfoot Will" Donnelly (Toronto Globe)
"Clubfoot Will" Donnelly
(Toronto Globe)

Lucan's streets became the scene of altercations between the growing Donnelly clan and other boys their age who wanted to test the staying power of the tough, tough Donnellys. I repeat: The family loved to fight. Make no mistake of that. When their peers weren't available to rattle, they oft took to finding other means to exercise their fists. When a band of eleven gypsies rode into town to cause the Christian community some apprehension, the Donnellys alone sent the garlic-breathed pagans flying. And, according to legend, three Donnellys whipped, no-contest, enemy John Flannigan and seventeen hangers-on in a barroom brawl. Toughest of them was the second oldest, William, considered the leader of the brothers. William or Will born with a club foot, and having endured scorn of other children for this malformation, was a bundle of fight and cocky strut; and woe be it to anyone who looked at him oddly from any angle. As he grew, he found his handicap an advantage. Because of an old Irish superstition much believed by many in the folklore-believing community of Lucan that "Children, conceived by Satan, walk with deformed feet" many of the more traditional refused to take him on in fear that the Gates of Hell might gape mid-way through a confrontation to swallow them whole.

Early Lucan suffered a series of fires, many of them blamed on the Donnelly lads. Victims of these blazes, reeking of arson, were, according to Ray Fazakas in The Donnelly Album, "William Morgan's hewed-log inn in 1864, Madill's Hotel in 1865 (and) Leonard Hodgins' tavern in 1866." But, adds the author, "It was, of course, in the taverns where the Donnelly boys were usually to be found."

Fistfights, fires and intemperance were not the only iniquities attributed to the Donnelly marauders. Beginning in the 1860s and lasting for some time, a number of petty thefts were blamed on the boys. When harnesses, milk cans, plows, yolks and other items started to disappear from Lucan area farms in droves, the Donnelly sons were old enough to have, en masse, taken them. At least, the town said so.

No formal charges were brought against them by wary neighbors, until Bob McLean had had enough; tired of replacing tools in his shed at extreme cost to his pocket book, he flew enraged at last to the constabulary to press charges against the Donnellys. Nothing came of it. But a week later, McLean's barn burned to the ground. Then his house was set afire. Then his cattle were poisoned. Then three of his horses were discovered dead, their throats slit.

"The Black Donnellys," says author Kelley, "were growing up." And just when the apple seemed rotted enough, the serpent came yonder to poison it more. Squire Donnelly was released from prison.

Those who knew him well before he was imprisoned attest that he walked out a changed man. He had never been a loveable rogue, but where a soft touch might have existed now lurked a hardness. Meanness. The town sensed it and shuddered, for there were rumors that he might take vengeance on several men who had fingered him in court as the one who shoved that spike in Johnny Farrell's brain. Among these witnesses were two central figures who had had a good view of the fight and the culminating murder; there names were Liam Haskett and Joseph Ryan.

"Around midnight on the very day James Donnelly returned to his family, several masked riders rode up to Haskett's barn, yelling like wild Indians, and threw burning faggots into the hayloft before riding away, while the terrorized Haskett remained within the house," Kelley tells us. "When the vandals rode off, Haskett was able to save his horses, but the barn burned to the ground. (Then) Ryan, long a victim of Donnelly perpetrations, was finally beaten to a pulp one night by Tom Donnelly who robbed him of eighty dollars."

When the latest victim sought redress, a constable supposedly answered, "We can't really do a thing for ya', Ryan lad, fer when ya got the Black Donnellys on your ass, all of Biddulph Township can't help ya'."

The police, it seems, were not shrugging their duty nonchalantly, but spoke with first-hand knowledge, for even several constables had endured the Donnelly wrath presumably those involved in the arrest of James Donnelly. A reported seven men in uniform were, at various times, cornered on dark roads and dim street corners, pummelled by men who came so quickly from the shadows that the victim had no chance to identify them. One officer was beaten so badly that he lost his sight.

Fr John Connolly (Toronto Globe)
Fr John Connolly
(Toronto Globe)

On several occasions, the Donnelly's own priest tried to intervene, but to no avail. Reverend Father Connolly, kind-hearted pastor of St. Patrick's Church and spiritual head of Lucan's Catholic community, often visited the Donnellys to and from his parish calls on buggy. If one man understood the family, it was Father Connolly, for he knew of its travails with the Whiteboys and the prejudice they faced at the outset. In certain ways, he admired James Donnelly's gumption and perceived underneath him a much better man than what surfaced. He recalled the time that the squire was one of the few Roman Catholics in Lucan to donate money to the building of St. James, the town's Anglican church, and while the act raised the hairs of the hard-set Whiteboys, the priest saw it as a true example of Christian togetherness, one from which many of his own congregation would follow.

When the priest called, the family treated the holy man cordially, but if he manoeuvred conversation toward the mending of their ways, Big Jim Donnelly always reminded him, in a not too disguised manner, to butt out.

"Ah, Jimmy D, it's a sinful road you're travelin'," the priest would say, "ya' can't go on this way, God knows it's a blight on the foin name o' Donnelly and a mark o' Cain on the Irish race. I see ya' every Soonday at Mass you n' your boys takin' the Host, then out ya' go into the world with larceny in your heart, Jimmy, evil booblin' in your veins. Foightin' and pillagin', it's no good, Jimmy Donnelly. I'm fearin' for where it'll lead."

To which Squire Donnelly would reply: "Father, when I have the wherewithal ta step into your poolpit box at St. Pat's and preach the gran' lessons of Ecclesiastes 'n Deuteronomy, then that's the day ya' can tell me how ta run me family. In the meantime, please shut your gob on this subject...Now, would ya; be joinin' us in a coop o' tea?"

Donnelly may or may not have known just how difficult it had been for Father Connolly to keep the peace on his behalf. Several times the priest had gotten wind of vigilante movements against the Donnelly clan and had thwarted them. In fact, he had been one of the designers of a peace committee comprised of townsmen from Lucan and surrounding areas. The committee, which met at local Cedar Swamp school house, focused on community tolerance with, of course, the Donnelly foibles being its main issue. But, the priest was worried; he knew that several of the members had been meeting apart from the general sessions an inner council, if you may and had been talking hanging talk.

Michael Donnelly with one of his children shortly before his death in 1879. (Fazakas)
Michael Donnelly with one of
his children shortly before his
death in 1879. (Fazakas)

That is why he was glad to see the Donnelly mob, one by one, marry fine women and move out of the Donnelly cluster. He hoped, that with a wife and children, the boys would lose interest in fighting. In the first half of the 1870s, one wedding ceremony seemed to follow the other. John Donnelly wed Fanny Drunan in 1871 and took up farming on land of his own several miles out of town; he was followed by Patrick, Michael and Robert who married, respectively, domestic lasses named Mary Ryan, Ellen Hynes and Annie Currie.

All flowed quietly for awhile, but the Donnelly's had a knack for irritating neighbors, even when in love. When "Clubfoot Will" met and won the heart of Hanora (Nora) Kennedy, her parents, brothers and sisters more or less told her that if she continued to "kiss the divil," well...consider herself no longer a Kennedy. She not only continued to see him, but married him in January of 1875. Their wedding was a blissful one, attended by much of Lucan except for a conspicuous absence of the entire Kennedy tribe. Unfortunately, Nora's brother John was part of the "inner council" whose animosity toward the Donnellys worried the parish priest and whose hatred led to the bloody ultimatum to come five years later.

Tommy Donnelly also irked the wrong family with his choice of girl. Evidently, he and curvaceous Christiana McIntyre had fallen head over heels for each other and conducted a series of secreted rendezvous on the outskirts of Lucan until Papa Murray found out and sent his daughter packing to a school out of town and far from the rowdy boy. The McIntyres, too, were staunch members of the anti-Donnelly faction and failed to see that the brief love affair was two-sided. A Donnelly had done the unthinkable touched a McIntyre!

The one Donnelly who escaped the indignation of the Lucanites was daughter Jennie most likely, because she wasn't indignant. Unlike the rest of her family, she walked through life with a smile and a pleasant hello to all. She no doubt heard the hatred for many of the Lucan families spewing forth at the Donnelly dinner table, but she obviously took whatever she heard with a grain of salt. She seemed to be her own woman, tending to her own intuitions. People loved Jennie and went out of their way to greet her when she came to town to shop; she was a colleen, a true Tipperary pixie, dressed gaily in lace and ribbons, the perfection of sunlight. A swish in her walk, a giggle in her voice, emeralds radiating her eyes her footfall brought such illumination in stark contrast to the Donnelley umbrage that rumors prevailed she was adopted.

Jennie, nevertheless, paid a price, for she found whatever boy had become interested in her slowly, methodically shying away; their curious looks soon dwindled and soon they kept their distance and their gaze off her as if she were Medusa. Mothers may have wished that their sons could bring home a girl like Jennie without the Donnelly connection. When she married at nineteen, it was to a boy from St. Thomas, where the couple lived a long and blessed life, far from Lucan.

Much of Lucan had been settled by adventuresome couples in their early twenties at about the same time James and Johannah Donnelly, also young at the time, made their home there in the 1840s. By the '70s, the citizens' children had grown to matrimonial age and weddings were a common occurrence throughout Middlesex County in the spring months at that time. As the guest lists for these receptions often included both the Whiteboy and Blackfeet factions, it is a small miracle that they began and ended without incident. More so, since the Donnellys were present at many of them, seated alongside the families with whom they battled on the streets of Lucan or who blamed them many times over for acts of vandalism and theft.

One wedding reception in 1876 produced such a dangerous blend of personalities and a bad straw, as well. Things went smooth at first; the handshakes, the greeting of the bride, the toasts, the catering. An aroma of baked chicken, buttered biscuits and apple pie spiced the night air, dancers twirled under lantern light to the rhythm of a fiddling band strumming and singing the songs from Ireland:

"Step we gaily on we go
Heel for heel and toe for toe,
Arm and arm and on we go all to Mari's wedding..."

The groom looked handsome in high collar and Sunday coat, and the bride's silken beige gown caught the sheen of the hundred candles illuminating the yard.

No one knows what precisely triggered it, but a scuffle commenced between a couple of the Donnellys and three others. Some words, a push here, a shove there, a slap, a punch, then another, a flip, spilled cider, a woman observer's scream, than something close to the apocalypse erupted. Irish ham fists everywhere and the wedding feast became a boxing ring. But, the band kept on singing:

"Through the hillways up 'n down,
Myrtle green and bracken brown
Up again, oh 'round and 'round, all for sake of Mari..."

By the time it ended, there were three unconscious Lucanites on the ground and the Donnellys, triumphant, over them, flexing their muscles. Though at the time it seemed like a merry Irish brawl, a joke, in fact, to the winners, the incident was the beginning of the end for the Donnellys. It had been just one fight too many in which they were involved.

They had humiliated three of the leading Whiteboys.

The feud had reached the ears of the local press, who were beginning to print updates in their newspapers for all of Canada to see. While not always mentioning the Donnellys or any other family by name, the articles gave details of the infamous, ongoing scraping. Reads the London (Ontario) Free Press of May 23, 1877: "During the last week or two, several thousand dollars' worth of property has been destroyed by fire, the origin (being) traced to incendiaries...Some 15 horses...have perished, either by burning alive or otherwise. The latest outrage (has) caused a great deal of indignation in the neighborhood and threats to lynch the miscreants...are freely indulged in."

The gazette didn't exaggerate. Father Connelly was having a Hades of a time keeping the angering Biddulphers from boiling over. Those who detested the Donnellys and that number now exceeded the smallish Whiteboy party had little satisfaction when a couple of the mad-hatters received light-term jail sentences for assorted acts of havoc or even when one of the wildest, James, Jr., died from pneumonia in May, 1877; the surviving brothers, in their grief, paid tribute to him by attacking anyone whom they knew had been an outspoken opponent of his in life.

As if they had given up trying to justify their actions and protect their name, the Donnellys now relished their own reputation; they wallowed in it. Clearly, the situation had become one of the Donnellys against the world. Squire Donnelly, growing older with Johannah at home, let his boys rampage and fuss all they wanted. And if he heard of anyone averring to "stop the Black Donnellys dead in their tracks," the Black Donnellys saddled up to torch his barn and beat him into submission. Thomas P. Kelley attests that every one of the brothers, with the exception of Patrick, "stood before a judge at one time or other...(in one year alone facing) thirteen different criminal charges (including) arson, highway robbery, poisoning, brawling, drunkenness and wanton destruction."

Now and again came periods of silence. The town grew uneasy during these periods, for they were always followed by blasts like the storm that cometh after the calm. However, after the older Donnelly boys married and were forced to find means of full-time employment, these stretches of quietude lengthened and seemed to become more frequent with time; the town was even beginning to believe that perhaps the Donnelly wild boys had grown up. Then came an incident just before Christmas in 1879, not in Lucan, not even ignited by the Donnellys, but a powder keg just the same.

Michael Donnelly, then 29 years old, had acquired a job with the Canada Southern Railway; he resided in St. Thomas with his wife Ellen and two children whom he adored. Christmas coming, he looked forward to the holiday and the chance to spend it with the family 'round the Christmas tree. Because he wanted to fill the underside of that tree with toys and presents, he opted to take a short assignment out of town to Waterford, for extra money.

After work on December 9, 1879, before returning to Slaight's Boarding House where he lodged, he stopped for a drink in a Waterford saloon. Tired and not in the best of moods, Michael was easy prey for an altercation. "Sensing (this), a fellow worker ...instigated a bitter fight," pens Earl Ryder in his report on The Official Donnelly Home Page. "The instigator at that time had a knife concealed on his person with the blade extended. When the fight started, he at once drew the knife and caused a wound which was serious enough to cause death within a couple of minutes."

Ryder, who has studied the case for years, believes that the attacker and killer was a member of the vigilante committee out of Lucan that secret part of Father Connolly's peace committee that was, unknown to the priest, working on its own for violent response. There are other scholars, too, who suggest that that small, clandestine membership sought to incite the feud into something bloody so that the Donnellys would be forced into a showdown. If that is true, Michael was a pawn.

The Donnellys were heartbroken and, although it is not recorded, most assuredly suspected a plot. They were not ignorant of the loathing towards them nor of the ability of some of the townsmen to kill if it came to that.

Another one of those long periods of silence fell over Wellington County. One faction would strike again whether the Donnellys to avenge, or the vigilantes to push the vengeance out into the open.

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