Court Documents

For several years now, historians have discovered the wealth of what are commonly called "court records," and they are increasingly interested in the paper trail left by the state apparatus for social control and criminal justice of bygone eras. Crimes were studied in depth by the courts then as much as they are now, and archives often hold numerous court records. Court documents are especially pertinent to this website, since the Donnely family themselves were often entangled with the court system, and, of course, since the murder of the Donnellys led to two criminal trials. In fact, understanding what happened to the Donnelly family requires engagement with judicial documents over a lengthy period of time.

The sources in this website that we have identified as court documents are of a heterogeneous nature. They include inquests, depositions, judgements, warrants for arrest, judge’s benchbooks, etc.. Most of the documents were handwritten, but occasionally some of them were typewritten as that technology became more common. Many of these documents are very difficult to read since the handwriting was often poor and since the documents have decayed over time. Often, misspellings and grammatical errors can also be found in the documents. These errors are reproduced here as they appear in the original documents.

Locating and utilizing court records, even for a case as infamous as the murder of the Donnellys, is not straightforward. Legal historians are familiar with the incomplete and confusing nature of judicial records. It is highly unsual to find a collection like that of the Donnelly Family Papers held at the J.J Talman Regional Collection in the University of Western Ontario Archives. The collection at the UWO is a compilation of various legal papers from a variety of sources. Cooperation among various archives made it possible to create such a complete collection, but there are still gaps. The archives collected the pertinent documents, catalogued them and microfilmed them. While this makes it more convenient for historians, they must be aware that in the creation of such a collection, there has been a level of interpretation made in the choice of documents, the order and the organization of the documents. Jail/gaol records relevant to Middlesex County are also found at UWO. Other court records that relate to the Donnelly case, such as judge’s benchbooks are found at the Ontario Archives. Benchbooks are handwritten notes made by the presiding judge.

Even though court records are produced by government agencies and respected individuals like lawyers and judges, they must be examined with a critical eye. These people made mistakes and lied like any other person. Researchers should bear in mind that judges, for instance, carried their own agendas and biases into the courtroom and that their notes were not always objective. Likewise, even though they were under oath, witnesses sometimes forgot details or purposely did not tell the truth. Moreover, individuals sometimes brought up false charges against each other. Regardless of these difficulties, without court records it would be very difficult to study the murder of the Donnellys.