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Black Donnellys | Origin of the Massacre and Ghosts

Ghost Guide Daniel – – A headline from a nearby newspaper said it all about the ” Black Donnellys ” in February of 1880… “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”.

A crime still talked about today.  Here’s what led to that dark night.

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Starting with Aggression

The Donnelly’s emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s to find success in Canada.

James and Johannah Donnelly were considered squatters.  Settling on contested land near in Biddulph Township, in a small town called Lucan (about 30 minutes outside London, Ontario).

Black Donnellys - Family Tree

This began a conflict.  As they were considered to have entered the town by force. 

The friends of Patrick Farrell, along with neighbours and the community looked down on them.

Patrick Farrell

There was a dispute on the land for which the Donnelly’s settled.  After negotiations, the land was split.  Donnelly’s given only half of the 100 acres they wanted. 

Patrick Farrell was involved in the dispute.  The Donnelly’s accused of stealing lands.  Anger brewed, leading to Patrick and James Sr drinking at the same place (called a logging bee) on the same night of June 25, 1857.

A fight broke out and James Donnelly attacked Patrick with a wooden handspike.  Plunged into the left side of Patrick’s head, killing him instantly.

Black Donnellys - Handspike that killed Patrick Ferrell
A Handspike | Tool that killed Patrick Farrell

And James ran!  Hiding for over a year.  Evading the authorities with methods, such as dressing like a woman. 

But then he was caught.  Tried, found guilty and sentenced to seven years in Kingston Penitentiary

Next Generation Anger

James Sr missed out on the formative years of his sons.  A new generation of anger only adding to the fire.

The Dangerous Roman Line

Crime was rampant in the region before and after the Donnelly’s.  Escalating after the murder of Patrick Farrell. 

An example in 1859.  Records show a local authority figure contacting the then Attorney General of Canada.  Saying,

“… even the judges are not safe.  In the area, it’s wise to only go about during daylight hours.”

The Attorney General who received this message… John A. Macdonald, the later Prime Minister of Canada.

It Must be the Donnelly’s

Two things.  First, it’s easy to blame a hated family for all the town’s troubles.  And second, some of the blame may have been justified.

The Donnelly boys got a reputation.  Any crime, much arson and some assaults.  All laid at the feet of the boys. Known for being always ready to fight if not getting their way. 

Why not?  Against the community that hated them in an already extremely dangerous region.

Side Story

The Abduction of Maggie Thompson

It happened in 1874.  James’ son William Donnelly was in love with Maggie Thompson.  Not much record on how long the couple were together.  And no romantic stories from the relationship.

The account picks up after William asked Maggie to be his wife.  The Thompson family were against this, her father stating clearly, “You’ll never marry that boy!”

Black Donnellys - William Donnelly
William Donnelly | Handsome fellow?

William, not used to be told what to do, is said to have attempted an “abduction”.  I found no record on if it was against Maggie’s wishes.  But they did hide her away.

The Thompson family was aided by James Toohey.  The Toohey’s were friends of the Thompsons, and enemies to the Donnelly’s.  They hid Maggie, on the night William was trying to find her. 

This led to a fight between Toohey and a friend of William’s. 

This is important because it motivated James Toohey.  And soon after he joined the “Vigilance Society”.  The group who’d eventually massacre the family.

Justify a Massacre

The campaign against the Donnelly’s started two years early, in 1878.  Politics led to a community leader turning against them.

A new parish priest named Father John Connolly.  Appointed because he was Irish.  The higher-ups of the Catholic Church thinking an Irishman could bring peace to the violent region. 

They were wrong.  As Father Connolly’s first act was to setup the “Vigilance Committee”.  Allowing the people to police their own community. 

The problem… the Vigilance Committee was made up of only Donnelly enemies.  Starting one year early in February 1879, they planned the attack.

James Donnelly Sr may have felt the tension.  He visited a local magistrate to file a complaint.  The record showing him say,

“… we’re blamed for everything.”  

And the very next day… James was dead.

The Donnelly Massacre

It happened on February 4, 1880.  A friend of the Donnelly kids was over that day.  13-year-old Johnny O’Connor spent the day working on the farm, along with “feeding the pigs and things”. 

Black Donnellys - Original Homestead and Farm
Sketch of Original Homestead

James Sr talked the boy into staying the night.  Even giving Johnny his bed in the main bedroom. 

James Sr, Johannah, their son Thomas, and a niece named Bridget, along with Johnny inside the house.  The rest of the family out for the night. 

That night everything was quiet.  Johnny helped on the farm and later came in.  Said they, “…snacked on apples” before going to bed.

Early in the morning, Johnny woke to men’s voices shouting outside the house.  Looked out the window to see them rush towards the front door.  The boy jumped down and hid under the bed.

Taking the House

The men quietly broke into the house.  Snuck into a bedroom, and without waking him, handcuffed son Thomas. 

Moved into the main bedroom looking for James Sr but found it empty.  They didn’t see Johnny under the bed. 

Black Donnellys - Johnny O'Connor
Johnny O’Connor | Survivor & Witness

James Sr woke up, and found his son Thomas handcuffed.  Saying aloud, waking Thomas, “… what have you got against us now!”  He assumed the police were raiding the house.  To get Thomas.

Then the men attacked.  Pulled James Sr, Johannah and Thomas out and beat them.   Bridget escaped and raced upstairs to hide. 

Thomas fought back.  But he was overwhelmed.  Broke free and ran for the door.  His plan… run and get help. 

A man with a pitchfork was waiting.  Thomas saw it too late.  Four sharp prongs thrust into his stomach.  Impaled, as the attacker push him back into the house, dropping Thomas beside his unconscious parents. 

They took the handcuffs off.  Maybe to feel better about brutally beating Thomas until he passed out.  Another man jumped in and swung a shovel, cracking open the son’s skull.

Then they set fire to the cabin.  Rushing out and leaving the family to burn.

People arrived at the ruins.  The fire had taken the house.  The wood cool enough again for folks to enter and look around. 

Finding burnt masses, lumped together, three hills on the first floor of James Sr, Johannah, and Thomas.  And another on the second floor.  This was Bridget.  She never got out of the house.

He Got Away

However, Johnny did!  Got away.  Later becoming our main witness to crime.  The truth he told on the stand, during the trial.  Members of the “Vigilance Committee” standing for murder.

Didn’t matter what the traumatized boy said.  Or the massive amount of evidence to murder. 

No one was found guilty.  

Many knew the murderers.  Two full trials passed.  No jury dared return a guilty verdict.

Black Donnellys - New gravestone in Lucan

It All Makes Sense

A power-keg of violence and anger.  What do they say… “Hindsight is 20/20!” 

Looking back on the events leading up to the massacre.  It’s almost (darkly) comical how bad things got.  There was no leader to step in and fix an out-of-control situation. 

Instead, the leaders stayed away.  Fear of the mob?  Concluding the violent “Roman Line” was a lost cause?  Maybe both.

Then all it took was one radical self-appointed “leader” to step in.  Justify the vigilance. 

Here in the future, we can only shake our heads. 

It makes sense why the massacre took place.  My choice is to learn from it.  It means something to share the story. 

As a reflection of violent situations today, an account of when the mob gets out-of-control.

Vintage Visit to Lucan & Donnelly Homestead

Donnelly Homestead Ghosts

The ghostly experiences seem to be related to residual energy from past violence. I was unable to uncover any detailed accounts or stories.

Do you have a Donnelly ghost experience to tell? 

Please Contact Me to share (with full credit)

Horses Feel the Tragedy

The effect residual energy has on horses is common. 

We know in the paranormal, animals are sensitive to ghostly energy.  An example is told at the infamous Hermitage Ruins in Ancaster during our Ghost Walks. 

In Lucan, country horseback riding is a popular activity.  Unique way to test energy around the homestead. 

Accounts of horses staying far away on the anniversary of the massacre, from Feb 3rd to 4th.   Refusing to turn off the Roman Line.

On random days, many horses stop before the homestead.  Not moving passed the house. 

And other times, well-trained horses go crazy when brought on the grounds.  Especially near the location of the original house.

Are they Still Watching

This experience makes the ghost stories feel proven.  When you can ask a question, “What causes this to occur?”  And get a solid answer.  I felt that when reading about it. 

How visitors moving around the house or near the barn.  All having a common feeling… like they’re being watched!

It makes sense.  The tragedy started outside the house.  A family helplessly trapped inside waiting for an attack. 

Severe emotions leave an impression.  Makes the feeling plausible. 

The spirits of the Donnelly Homestead look out those windows at visiting strangers.  Feeling nervous of our intentions.  Pulsing out unwelcoming emotion. 

The Rest are Vague

Want the rest?  Many are standard events of any haunting.

Do a quick search for “Donnelly Homestead ghost stories”.  Two great references are and

Other References of Note

Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History

Mystery Quests of James Donnelly

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