Life in the Township
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 10
Support Materials 1 (Briefing Sheet)

The Massacre of the “Black” Donnellys

The notorious Donnellys were an Irish family who emigrated from Tipperary, Ireland in the 1840s. Like thousands of other Irish immigrants fleeing the devastating potato famine, the extreme poverty and the social unrest in their home country, they settled in rural southern Ontario. The Donnellys took up land in Huron County, and chose to make their home along the Roman Line in Biddulph Township, so named by the Irish Roman Catholics who settled it. And the Donnellys, like most of their neighbours, were Roman Catholic immigrants from around Tipperary, Ireland. James and Johannah Donnelly became squatters (that is, people who took up their land without properly registering their ownership or paying for it).

By the 1850s, conflict, much of it violent, characterized life in Biddulph Township. The community was plagued by sheep killings, arson, numerous fights and brawls, and by murder. And by the 1850s, the Donnellys (and their children James Jr., William, John, Patrick, Michael, Robert, Thomas and Jenny) had established a reputation for picking a fight over just about anything. And some of the residents of the Roman Line in Biddulph Township (all of whom were Catholics), came to blame the Donnellys (Catholics, but friends with Protestants in the area) for every ill that befell the community. An old adage stated: “If a stone fell from heaven, they’d blame it on the Donnellys.” Troubles escalated in 1857 when James Donnelly Sr. killed Patrick Farrell, who had purchased the land the Donnelly clan had illegally called their own. To avoid punishment, James hid from authorities for almost a year, sometimes disguised as a woman. He eventually grew tired of the charade and turned himself in to the police. James Donnelly served seven years for his crime. The death of Patrick Farrell served only to strengthen some members of the community’s hatred of the Donnellys. But, as court records confirm, the Donnellys were not alone in committing crimes; they lived in a community plagued by arson, assaults and a culture of violence.

The community was not satisfied at the way justice was administered through legal channels in Biddulph Township. A group of disgruntled townspeople established a vigilante committee as a substitute for a legal trial, conviction and sentencing. Their purpose was to punish the wayward Donnellys whose crimes had escalated in the 1870s. Finally, 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. Another son, John, lay dead in a separate murder the same night. Evidence suggested that a cruel and vicious mob, a breakaway group of a society called, ironically, “The Peace Society,” was to blame. Despite a great deal of evidence (including at least one eyewitness) and two trials, no one was ever found guilty of the crimes.