“The massacre of the Donnelly family, in the township of Biddulph, by an armed mob, is a crime which has no parallel in the history of Canada,” proclaimed the Listowel newspaper in February 1880.
The notorious Donnellys emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s with the hope of finding success in what would later become Canada. James and Johannah became squatters who eventually settled on contested land near London, Ontario. Before long, conflict characterized their relationship with many of their neighbours and the community as a whole. The feud escalated in 1857 when James Sr. killed Patrick Farrell, a man involved in a dispute over the land the Donnelly clan had illegally called home.
While James Sr. spent time at the Kingston Penitentiary for the crime, his seven sons grew into manhood. They eventually earned a sullied reputation of their own. Accused of many crimes including arson and assault, the Donnelly name became synonymous with trouble. The Donnellys (and their children James Jr., William, John, Patrick, Michael, Robert, Thomas and Jenny) were always ready and willing to go to battle whether it was over their stagecoach line or a young woman. Not surprisingly then, some residents of Lucan and Biddulph Township held the Donnellys responsible for almost every ill that befell the community. One day, James Donnelly complained to a local magistrate, “we are blamed for everything.” The next day he was dead.
On February 4,1880 the Donnelly farm was burned to the ground. The bodies of James, his beloved Johannah, son Tom and niece Bridget were in the ashes, the victims of a cruel and vicious mob. Another son lay dead in a separate murder the same night. To this day, despite a great deal of evidence (including an eye witness), no one has been found guilty of the crime. Many had no doubt “who done it”, but in two trials the jury would not deliver a guilty verdict.
Take a look at the evidence and a reconstruction of the scene of the crime. ‘Who did it?’ is part of the mystery here. Who would you have convicted if you were the jury? But there are other, deeper mysteries. What were the motives? Why would no jury convict the murderers? Was this a community taking justice into their own hands when the justice system failed, or was it mob rule terrorizing rural Ontario? Did the Donnellys deserve their fate? Why was there no justice for the Donnellys?
How to begin? We don’t expect you to read every document on this site. Nor is there a set path that you must follow. Instead, like professional historians, you can choose your own route. Based on what you find you will form opinions about what happened, why it happened and whether or not the Donnellys deserved their fate. Be sure to test your theories against those of your fellow sleuths.