Life in Biddulph Township
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 10

Life in Biddulph Township

Authors: Catherine Duquette, Ruth Sandwell

Editors: Ruth Sandwell, Dick Holland, Catherine Duquette

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-16

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Early in the morning of February 4, 1880, five members of an Irish immigrant family were murdered in rural southwestern Ontario, allegedly by an armed band of vigilantes from the community. No one was ever convicted of these crimes.

You will not be asked to determine who committed this crime, but to be a detective of another kind—to solve the kind of mystery that historians address when they use clues from the surviving historical record to piece together a picture of life in a former time and place. You will be provided with one historical document and asked to develop a background piece on life in the Donnellys’ township that will help us understand the context for this violent episode in Canadian history.

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In this MysteryQuest, you are going to take on the role of a historian of the Donnelly massacre in 1880. Your task is to write a one-page background piece about life in Biddulph Township based entirely on the sensational eyewitness account of the massacre by Johnny O’Connor, a boy of 12 who was hiding under the bed while the events of that night unfolded. You must find in his testimony as much evidence about life in Biddulph Township as you can, enough, at least, to write a one-page background piece.

Before writing the article, you will learn how to draw conclusions (more precisely known as “drawing inferences from clues”), first from a photograph on the Donnelly website and then from testimony given by a key witness. On the basis of this one document, you will prepare your account of the economy, culture, and society of nineteenth century Biddulph Township.

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STEP 1: Learning to look for clues

We can learn much about something by looking for subtle clues. Consider a photo, for example. We may be able to infer the time of day by the shadows and by the activities people are performing in the picture, or infer the season by the kind of clothes people are wearing and by the growth stage of the vegetation.

Test your investigative abilities by working alone or with a partner to examine a photograph from the Donnelly website. For a simple picture, look at the photograph on the Welcome page of the website. This is a modern photograph of the road along which the Donnellys lived. For a more challenging picture, interpret the photograph on the Context page of the website. This is a 1880s picture of a market in London, Ontario, a town in the region where the Donnellys settled.

Your task is to look for clues to interpret the picture. Use the five Ws to structure your investigation:

  • Who is (or would be) in the scene? (For example, who would live/work in this setting?)
  • What is depicted? (For example, what is happening or being shown?)
  • Where does it occur? (For example, in the country or city? Farmland or uncultivated land?)
  • Why would these people or items be here? (For example, why would people have done or be doing this?)
  • When does the scene occur? (For example, the hour? day? season?)

The point of this activity is for you to appreciate that by looking for clues, you can make inferences about the time and place. For example, what clues can your find to infer whether the road depicted in the picture is a main highway or a backroad?

STEP 2: Learn about the history of the event

Before looking at the primary documents from the trial, it will be useful for you to familiarize yourself with the events surrounding the Donnellys’ murder. Read The Massacre of the “Black” Donnellys.

In passing it is interesting to consider the basis upon which this brief history was developed. That is, how do we know about what happened that night? This story came from evidence that historians have found, particularly from evidence offered at the trials of those accused of murdering the Donnellys. In other words, historians made inferences from primary sources that allowed them to draw these inferences about what happened and why. You are about to do this very thing.

STEP 3: Examine the testimony for clues

You are now going to see how much you can learn about life in the community from a single historical source — the testimony of Jim O’Connor, the only eyewitness to the murders. Carefully read O’Connor’s testimony, found in Evidence in the Case. Concentrate on extracting clues on three topics:

  • the economic background of the community (What were their occupations? How did they make a living? Were the people rich or poor?);
  • the cultural composition of the community (Did ethnic tensions exist within the community?);
  • and other social aspects of the community or of the individuals involved that might help explain daily life in the community (How did they treat each other?).

As you read the testimony, use the chart Evidence About Life in the Township to record your findings. In the first column, note any relevant statements from the testimony; in the second column, indicate the inference you might draw from this clue about life in the community. For example, Jim stated that he was given a whip to use on the pigs. This suggests that the Donnellys may not have been very gentle or kind to their farm animals. Record as much relevant information as you can find. You may need to use several copies of the chart to collect this information.

STEP 4: Present your account of life at the time

Write your 250-word background piece, using the evidence from Johnny O’Connor’s testimony to build a picture of the economic, cultural, and social life of Biddulph Township. Write your account in an interesting and clear manner.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing Inferences Drawn from Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant statements from the testimony and draw plausible inferences from them.

The evaluation rubric Assessing an Informative Account may be used to assess how much plausible information you provided and whether it was expressed clearly in an interesting manner.

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Look for additional evidence
Select two or three documents about the Donnellys’ murder to see if they add to, or refute, the information about life in the community that you gleaned from the testimony by Johnny O’Connor. Choose your documents by going to the following links:

Trial One

Trial Two

Test out your inferences
Look at other accounts, Context and Prelude, developed by historians about the social, political, cultural, and economic context of the massacre. Compare the inferences you drew based on the one historical document you considered to see how accurate and complete your inferences were about life in the community.

Learn more about the Donnellys
Apply your detective skills to another MysteryQuest associated with the Donnelly murders. This challenge invites you to explore what the underlying causes for these brutal murders were.

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Briefing Sheet: The Massacre of the “Black” Donnellys

Activity sheet: Evidence about Life in the Township

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Court Document, Testimony of Johnny O’Connor, Eyewitness, 1880