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Donnelly History - Part One

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The Donnellys -- A Brief History


Irish emigrants leaving home with the priest's blessing, in 1851,
 from The Illustrated London News, May 10, 1851.
Credit: National Archives of Canada
Who Were The Donnellys Anyway?

James and Johannah Donnelly with their young son, James Jr., migrated to Canada from Tipperary, Ireland in the early 1840s. Some newspapers of the day report the family arriving in 1844, while various books on the subject have the year listed as being 1842 and 1845-46. Whatever the year, the Donnellys were just an ordinary family like everyone else emigrating to the New World with dreams of a better life tucked away in their simple luggage. They had been born into poverty, had known famine, and yes, even murder, so life in the Canadas had to be an improvement on what they had left behind.

Upon their arrival, James Sr., found work to feed his wife and child, and it was during their stay in the Forest City, (London), their second child, William, was born; a child with a deformed foot who would eventually be nicknamed, "Clubfoot Will".  But life in the city was not meant for a family who longed to till their own land and put down roots. The call of the Canadian wilderness beckoned, and it wasn't long before they were headed for Biddulph. Again, there are discrepancies in the dates as to when the family arrived in the township. Taking all facts into consideration, it is probably safe to conclude that the Donnellys came to the area around 1845-46.

This Land Is My Land

The one thing that drew many of Upper Canada's early settlers was land, and James Donnelly was no exception. He wanted it just as bad as his Irish brethren who had flocked to the land of milk and honey to stake a claim on some farmland that was owned by the Canada Land Company, and leased out with the option to buy. But James, being poor, could not afford even a stone, let alone an entire plot of land. So he did what many destitute pioneer families had to do... he became a squatter; someone who took over vacant land illegally and moved onto it. It was a practice quite common among many poor people who settled in Ontario.

The land that James chose was situated on Lot #18 on the sixth concession of the Roman Line that was named after all the Roman Catholics that settled the area. The 100 acres belonged to an absentee landlord, a Mr. John Grace, but James cared not, and after raising a crude, log shanty, moved in his family for what he hoped would be a long, happy tenure. But the skies over Biddulph would prove to be just as black as they were over Tipperary.


Although this is not the Donnelly log cabin, their log shanty may have
looked very similar to this one. Credit: National Archives of Canada.

With his wife at his side, James set about the arduous task of clearing his land, and in the fall of that same year, the couple was blessed with another son whom they called John. Over the next few years, four more children, Patrick, Michael, Robert, and Thomas, were born. The family, now numbering nine in all, live quite contentedly in their little shack on the Roman Line until 1855 when the absentee landlord, the rightful owner of the property, sold fifty acres of the Donnelly homestead to Michael Maher.

Understandably, this did not go over well with James Donnelly. He had worked his fingers to the bone clearing his property, and there was no way he was going to give it up now. It was his land; land that had broken his back, but not his spirit. Defiantly, James stood his ground, and dared anyone to take the southern fifty acres from him, and no one on the Roman Line challenged him. No one except Patrick Farrell.

He rented the land from Michael Maher, but when he ventured to lay claim to the property, he was undoubtedly met with a matching pair of fists. Stubborn as ever, James refused to dislodge himself from the land, so they went to court over it. This resulted in a trade-off where James could keep the northern fifty acres of his land, but he would have to give up the southern half. It was a transaction that would have deadly ramifications. On June 25th, 1857, Patrick Farrell would pay dearly for this land loss.

The Death Of Patrick Farrell

Back in Ontario's pioneer days, there was a custom known as "bees", a neighbourhood get-together where settlers would gather to help each other in whatever task required attention. Some of these bees were logging bees, quilting bees, and barn-raising bees, and it was one of these functions that brought James Donnelly and Patrick Farrell together in a fateful encounter.

The scene was William Maloney's logging bee, and as usual, the farmers in attendance were drinking as was the custom at most gatherings. This included the two men who, by now, detested the sight of each other. There are different accounts as to how the whole thing started and what ensued, so it may never be known who actually initiated the fight, but it resulted in one man laying dead with a hole in his left temple; a fatal blow that had been delivered with a handspike. Fate had reared her ugly head, ushering in an era of horror that would change Biddulph forever.

James Donnelly's Disappearance

In the eyes of the law and Biddulphers, James was now a murderer. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but when the constables set out to the homestead to bring him to justice, the Irishman was no where to be found. He had vanished into thin air.

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 ten-year-old John. They all knew, but they weren't talking, especially to the officers of the law who showed up regularly on their doorstep to make an arrest. And all that time, the head of the Donnelly household had been hiding right under their noses -- in his own back fields.

Every so often the neighbours caught glimpses of James disguised in his wife's clothing, and working at her side in one of their fields. If they knew secretly who the mysterious 'woman' was, nothing was ever said, and James continued this way until the icy breath of winter blew across the land. By then, it was much too cold to sleep outdoors, so he sheltered himself in stables, and in the homes of his friends who risked their own freedom to help a fugitive.

Close to the anniversary of Patrick Farrell's murder, May 1858, James turned himself in. It was mostly due to advice from his closest friends which included a certain Justice of the Peace, Jim Hodgins, and the misery of living life on the lam. Canadian winters were brutal, and the thought of enduring another in the backwoods of Biddulph must have played a big part in James' decision to hand himself over to the law.

A Date With The Hangman

The trial that followed was held in Goderich, and although James had obtained one of the best criminal lawyers in the province to defend him, the verdict was guilty, and the sentence... death by hanging. An execution date was set for September 17, 1858.

Johannah was devastated at the announcement of her husband's impending date with the hangman, but she wasn't about to stand by and watch her beloved James swing into eternity. In the weeks that followed, she put a petition for clemency in motion; a petition that called for a less severe sentence. Everywhere she went, she had people sign it, and in July of that year, Johannah's devotion to saving her spouse's life paid off.

James' death sentence was softened to a lighter penalty of seven years in prison. He walked out of the Goderich Gaol a free man... free from the hangman's noose, at least, and on August 6th, the doors of Kingston Penitentiary closed behind him. They would not open again until 1865.  


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More history of the Donnellys follows.
Read an eye-witness account of the Donnelly massacre.
Only one person knows what really happened that fateful night on the Roman Line.
Find out what he saw and how he survived that night of terror.
Click Here To Continue

Murder Through The Eyes of a Child

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HISTORICAL INFORMATION SOURCE: 1880 London Free Press article reprinted in
'The Donnelly Tragedy - 1880-1990', published by Phelps Publishing Company,
London, and 'The Donnellys Must Die' by Orlo Miller, published by Macmillan, Toronto.
Copyright © 1998-99 All rights reserved. Article written by Webmaster
Reproduction of this article in any form is prohibited.

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