THE BLACK DONNELLYS: CANADA'S TRAGIC ROUSTABOUTS
"We may call and call him, wildly rending
This death-hush with moans of human pain..."
Mary Fitzpatrick, In Memory of the Same
There is an ancient Irish legend that tells of the Ban-Sidhe, a female spirit of death whose wail, heard spontaneously in the still of the night, warns of impending doom. According to Lady Wilde, scholar of Irish traditions and legends, and the mother of famed English writer Oscar Wilde, "There is no harm of fear of evil in (the Ban-Sidhe's) presence, unless she is seen in the act of crying, but this is a fatal sign, and the mournful wail is a sure and certain prophecy that the angel of death is waiting..."
An old hagawitch who called herself Grandma Bell, a soothsayer who lived outside of Lucan and who claimed to see the future by reading tea leaves, later told the county newspapers that she had presaged the end of the Donnelly clan three months before it happened. She had tried to warn Squire Donnelly of the cry of the Banshee meant for him and his family, but he laughed at her.
On a lark, three of the Donnelly boys and their father visited her log cabin one November evening in 1879, wishing to have their fortunes told. Of course, it was all done on the spur of the moment, drunk as they were, but her reading was, she stressed, done in earnest.
"There was blood on the moon that night (when) I heard their horses pull up before my house," she told a reporter from the London Free Press. "I knew Mr. Donnelly and had spoken to him several times in the past." With him were Mike, John and Tom; she liked the first two, but distrusted Tom ("He just stared at me and his eyes were cold"). As was her custom, she boiled tea for them, then foretold their fate based on the position of the leaves left in their cups. She was shocked at what she saw; each of their cups agreed. "I see death, Mr. Donnelly! Death for you, death for your wife and sons here I see death for all of you soon and terrible!"
They only shouted and laughed. "Mr. Donnelly threw a coin on the table and said my words were the funniest he had ever heard," she continued. "Then they all went out and got on their horses. I could still hear them laughing as they rode up the road. The next I heard of them was when a neighbor ran over to tell me they were all dead...all murdered!"
With the advent of a new year, 1880, a final plan was afoot to rid the township of the Donnellys in the name of self defense; once and for all. Scholars generally agree that all that the antagonists had to do was wait for an opportunity. They were certain that the Black Donnellys would go on a rampage after Michael was stabbed to death, but surprisingly they hadn't probably because the killer remained unidentified and had apparently fled for parts unknown, leaving the angry and insulted clan without a definite target. Since Squire Donnelly and his brood refused to cause trouble, the "inner committee," as researcher Earl Ryder calls them, created trouble.
Ryder claims that one of the families with whom the Donnellys had remained on friendly terms were his ancestors, the Ryder family of neighboring burgh Granton. (Recall the aid given to James Donnelly by Sheriff Ryder after the Farrell killing at the logging bee, and the suspected reprisal of the Whiteboys visited upon him afterwards.) According to Ryder, the inner committee, in an effort to cause bad blood, burned Patrick Ryder's barn and blamed the deed on the Donnellys. "Witnesses" came forward naming certain Donnelly boys as the arsons, and screamed for retribution.
But, before a lynch mob could manifest, the plot failed. The Donnelly boys had an irrefutable alibi: They had been at a dance and visible to more than a hundred witnesses who vouched for their presence. "The (real) arsonists were not successful in proving the Donnellys...had a hand in the burning," Earl Ryder asserts. More so, James Donnelly, pushed to boiling point, "had a counter charge arranged to put against them in court." The charge was to be formally written up the next day, on February 4. This, claims Ryder, is most likely the reason why the killers decided to make their move when they did, in the pre-dawn hours of that day.
Around 10 p.m. February 3, 1880, twelve hours before James Donnelly was to appear in the Granton courthouse to present his official counter-charges, the Donnelly house settled down for the night. Each person tended to his or her respective evening chore. Johannah washed the supper dishes, accompanied by her husband's niece, a pretty lass of 22 years named Bridget, who was visiting from Ireland. Outside, at the pens, careful not to slip on the ice that had formed in the spillage of water from the gutter, Tom Donnelly fed the livestock. The squire, in the barn, lay a blanket across each of his nags to protect them from the onslaught of wintry winds that had frozen every corner of Wellington County like a tundra. At his side was little Johnny O'Connor, a neighbor boy. A snowstorm was expected after midnight, and because the family would be busy in Granton in the morning, Squire Donnelly had borrowed the services of Johnny to feed the pigs and shovel a footpath through the property come morning. The boy was staying overnight at the Donnelly farm.
Patrick, the other son still unmarried, would have tended to those particular tasks, but he was off on business at Thorold, eighty miles away. He "escaped the slaughter he otherwise would have known," says author Thomas P. Kelley.
Before midnight, the family snacked on cored apples and went to bed. The Donnellys had to change their usual sleeping arrangements to accommodate their guests for the evening; the O'Connor boy shared a room with James Donnelly in the front of the house, off the parlor; Bridget stayed with Johannah in what was normally the parents' bedroom; and Tom Donnelly remained in his usual quarters off the kitchen.
The details of what happened next at the home of the Black Donnellys would have been completely unknown were it not for Johnny O'Connor who, at first intimation of danger, crept under his bed and survived. Sometime, in his estimation, about 1.00 a.m., February 4, he and the squire were awakened by an aggravated pounding at the front door. The squire rushed from his room to be greeted by barrel-shaped town constable James Carroll who had taken the liberty to enter the premises before being invited and now circled the parlor floor as if he owned the place. James, lighting a candle, and looking ever so quizzical, asked him what he wanted. The policeman answered, "We have another charge against you and Tommy." Sharp but indiscernible chatter exchanged between the two men for a few minutes, interrupted by the arrival of Johannah, Bridget and Tom who, one at a time, entered the unfolding stage show.
Peering out into the parlor from his position on the bed, the O'Connor lad couldn't see much of the candlelit room, but he listened. He couldn't decipher everything that was being said the dialogue was a cacophony of voices speaking at once, but he managed to pick up fragments. Carroll, in manoeuvring about the room, must have placed Tom in handcuffs because he heard James gasp, "Thomas, you are manacled?" to which Tom replied, indicating Carroll, "Yes, he thinks he's smart." O'Connor saw Tom sneering at the officer, demanding that Carroll better produce a warrant or else. "Read me the damned warrant!" Tom spat.
According to O'Connor, Carroll then made an odd gesture through the front window. That is when hell broke asunder. And Johnny O'Connor ducked under the bed.
"I think there were about twenty of them that ran into the house," the boy testified in court later. "I could see out into the front room; the bed was near the end of the room, opposite the door." From what he heard and the snatches of interplay he saw, he was able to fairly well piece together a scenario. The Donnellys ran into the kitchen ahead of their pursuers, but they must have met others at the back door, for none of them were able to make an escape. He heard their agonized screams. Tom must have broken free from the vigilantes, for O'Connor heard someone yell, "Stop that boy!" then saw Tom dart, terrified, through the front door into the yard. There, he was cornered and whipped O'Connor could hear Tom's pleas under the thrashings. Several men carried him back into the parlor and threw the bundle onto the wooden floor, a thud. One man slammed the front door and stood before it, armed with a spade.
"I could see Tom's feet...and heard him groaning, I could hear something rattle when they threw him down," the boy continued. The men were bending over him, doing something that O'Connor couldn't see, but whatever they were doing must have been tortuous, for Tom screamed in pain. "One fellow said, 'Hit that fellow on the head and break his skull open!' Someone then complied; the listening boy heard the terrible whacks one, two, three, four made with a spade upon Tom's head.
Tramping of feet resounded in the meantime as many men rushed the stairs to the upper floor; they were blustering about "that young girl (Bridget)" who had run up there to hide. It wasn't long before O'Connor heard them descending, slowly this time, their job obviously taken care of. "She won't talk now!" one man chuckled.
The child panicked when he saw the feet of several trespassers enter his room; they failed to look under the bed, busy spraying what his nostrils told him was coal oil across the furniture. A spark and the boy knew the bed over him was afire. Some more muttering, more shouting, somebody laughed, and he saw flickering of red in the parlor, also in flames. Silhouettes of the mob, in rank and file, some of them giving a victory whoop, filed from the house.
Rolling out from under the blazing mattress and through the stench-smoke of sizzling timber, O'Connor darted across the parlor, still ducking under the windows lest the monsters outside see his shadow in the fire light. He recalled, "I looked and saw Tom lying in the room, and the old woman (Johannah) near the kitchen door; I tramped on her as I went out (but) saw none of the others." He thought Mrs. Donnelly was still breathing, but he was too frightened to see what condition she was in.
In a paroxysm of panic, still unsure if the killers had left the property, O'Connor darted across the open yard through the snow and didn't stop until a neighbor down the road answered his frenzied knocking.
The murdering was not yet over.
Four miles away near the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks, on a dark, flat crossroads called Whalen's Corner, a half-dozen cutters carrying the destructive ones now glided onto the snowy grounds of Clubfoot Will's house. "Considered to be the smartest of the brothers, it was his blood the (vigilantes) wanted most of all," writes Earl Ryder. A dozen of the killers approached the stoop, aimed their carbines flush at the door only a few feet in front of them, and paused. Waiting for the signal to open fire.
Inside the small frame home, William and his wife Nora were asleep. Their evening guest, brother John Donnelly, slept in a bed down the hall. Having left his wife at his own home for the evening, John had ventured to Will's alone in the inclement weather to borrow the family cutter for the ride to Granton the next morning. Sometime right before 2:30 a.m., a man's voice out front yelled "Fire! Fire! Open the door, Will" and John, semi-conscious, heard the cries. He scrambled from under his quilt, threw on a robe and proceeded towards the front door. William was sitting up in his bed by this time and saw his brother pass his bedroom door on the way to the parlor.
"What in the blue beyond is goin' on out there?" John murmured as he reached for the door latch. He threw open the door, braced for the morning cold and stared into the half-score of gun barrels. He probably realized the ambush immediately, but had no time to react. The weapons flashed and roared, and John felt his body rip apart with the fusillade. He tumbled backwards into the room just as William careened around the corner from his bedroom.
"May the Lord have mercy on my soul!" John screamed. William shrank from the open doorway and, reaching over his brother's fallen form, slammed the door shut, engaging the bolt as he did. Even in the sorry light of the moon, William could tell that his brother had been transformed into a pincushion. His nightshirt was dark with blood, kneecaps to neck Blood trickled from his mouth and nostrils.
Nora had found some holy candles and a rosary, and placed them on John's chest, wrapping his hands around them. His breathing came sparse, and rattled. He needed a doctor, but there was no way now that they could fetch one. Her husband, peeking out the window through the sash, consistently motioned her to keep her head and figure down lest the shooters open fire willy-nilly. He heard occasional movement and talking below the window. At one point he heard a laughter, followed by a voice he recognized instantly as that of Nora's brother, John. "I guess that takes care of my brother-in-law!" Kennedy mocked. Only then did William realize the hunters had mistaken John for him.
It seemed like hours before he heard the soft scrape of the cutters' blades whooshing from the snow piles in his yard, the vigilantes' hoozahs petering away into the distance. They thought they had killed Clubfoot Will. And. in a way, they did. For when he saw his brother gasp his final breath on the floor of his parlor, much of what was William Donnelly expired along with him.
When the sun rose over Biddulph Township, and he realized what had happened to other members of his family his mother, his father, Tommy and cousin Bridge what fight may have eventually rejuvenated drowned in the agony of tears. He sensed all hope die. He realized that the Black Donnellys were, as had long been the dream of so many, defeated. The fight was gone.
"It had been a cataclysm of slaughter that belonged to the Dark Ages," Thomas P. Kelley estimates quite fairly in his Vengeance of the Black Donnellys. "The sharp knives of the mob had castrated Tom Donnelly before his head was chopped off, as was the head of his father, whose eyes were gouged out. The kitchen of the house literally swam in blood...The (four) bodies were so hideously burned and slashed that they were buried in one casket...One story has it that old Johannah Donnelly was scalped, while mob members heated an iron poker till it was cherry-red, then thrust it ..." Kelley leaves the rest to one's worst imagination.
Of the murder at Whalen's Corner, the same author quotes Lucan coroner Dr. Flock who examined John Donnelly's body. Said Flock, "He had so many shots in his body that he would have had to be cut to mincemeat to get them all out."
If the Donnellys had been the terrors of the town they were supposed to be, even at their very worst that worst had never come within the shadow of the depravity performed upon them by the howling mob. This was on another plateau. Much beneath the surface of human. Not even animal.