The True Story of Canada's Most Barbaric Feud
"So hurry to your homes, good folks,
Lock doors and windows tight.
And pray for dawn, The Black Donnellys
Will be abroad tonight."
-- Old Song
The letter, sent from Port Huron, Michigan, adressed to William Donnelly of Lucan, Ontario, and dated February 14, 1880, read:
"William Donnelly: You and your surviving relatives have long been a disgrace to the Lucan district. Heed some good advice while the breath of life is still in you. You and your remaining brothers get to hell out of the country while there is still time, or you will get the same as your parents and the others did."
It was signed: "One who had the pleasure of helping to kill your mother and father, and saw your brothers fall ."
It seems that the Donnellys of Lucan were none too popular. Of their slayers it was said: "The men that killed the Donnellys deserve special seats in heaven."
The terrible Donnelly feud, by far the most notorious and violent in the annals of Canada, was an almost endless series of depredations with human depravity at its worst.
The feud began in the spring of 1847, and only a few hours after James Donnelly, an Irish immigrant, first arrived in Lucan from his native Tipperary. It lasted nearly thirty-three years; was marked with murders, gang wars, highway robbery, mass arson, derailed trains, mutilations and barbarisms paralleling the Dark Ages.
For sheer savagery, the notorious Hatfield-McCoy affair or the lawless exploits of Jesse James, were as a Victorian tea-party compared to the Donnelly feud.
Not that such a record of past violence should come as a surprise, Canada's history of crime and criminals is by no means as placid as many believe. For much more than a century, Canada has had criminals as ruthless and crimes as macabre as you will find anywhere in the world. But there was only one Donnelly feud. Fortunately, for the Dominion, it stands alone.
It was during the feud that Lucan (formerly Marysville) became known as "the wildest spot in Canada," as its night skies glared with the flames from burning structures and masked riders thundered down lonely sideroads with shouts of triumph. Vandalism in full swing, street brawls were numerous as were gun battles with law officers, while crops were destroyed, coaches waylaid, horses mutilated and poisoned cattle left dying in the fields. Outsiders avoided the district as one would a plague-stricken area.
Then it all ended, suddenly and unexpectedly. The Donnelly feud was finally climaxed in a drastic manner akin to its lengthy duration; the massacre of an entire household during the dark hours before the dawn of February 4, 1880.
At the time, the massacre and the trials that followed received national attention, being featured for weeks in the Dominion's leading newspapers. It is doubtful if the most secluded hamlets throughout the nation were not aware of at least some of the happenings of "The Biddulph Township Tragedy."
Though more than three score and ten years have passed since that final night of murder, strange stories are still told out on the Roman Line, the long road that runs by the Donnelly farmhouse, and on which many of the outrages occurred. On stormy nights when the elders gather around the kitchen lamp, while the wind sweeps over broad fields and snowdrifts pile high to the windows, you will hear grim tales of the Donnellys.
I know, for I have heard them.
You will hear how old Johannah Donnelly cursed those who were killing her husband and family, even as life was being clubbed from her, and how every member of the mob, in the last raid on the Donnelly farmhouse died a violent death. You will be told that on certain nights as dirty clouds drift across the moon, phantom forms on phantom horses can be seen hurrying along the Roman Line. "The restless spirits of the Donnellys still seeking vengeance," is the explanation. There will be tales of past terror and lawlessness almost beyond belief; and you will be sure to hear that foremost story -- that even now it is impossible to get a horse to go past the old Donnelly place after midnight.
Shortly after the turn of the century, some backroads bard set down the words:
"Birds don't sing and men don't smile,
Out on the Roman Line.
Their faces grim and so they'll be,
Until the end of time.
For the midnight hour brings alarm,
And horses won't pass the Donnelly farm,
Stay off that road or you'll come to harm,
Out on the Roman Line."
The material for the following pages was gathered from old newspapers, police and court records, as well as other unimpeachable sources and by several trips to the Lucan area.