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The Donnelly's: Digging up old dirt on a local horror story

Ivana Pelisek | Interrobang | Lifestyles | October 27th, 2008

The year was 1880.

It was a cold February 4th morning when the Donnelly family woke up to what would be their last day. People in the small town of Lucan, just 30 minutes north of London, awoke to the horrifying images of five Donnelly family members murdered over reasons still today not fully known.

Even though the Donnelly massacre happened over 120 years ago, it still fascinates people to this day. Whether the story is told through books, novels or play scripts it remains to be one of today's most infamous true Canadian stories of all time.

Rob and Linda Salts currently live on the property where the massacre took place over a century ago. The couple bought the land a couple decades ago because of its location.

“We have lived here 20 years and we did not purchase because of the history but because the farm had six acres and was close to my school I transferred to,” said Rob Salts.

“In the past, paranormal groups have recorded Electronic Voice Phenomena and I have several digital photos showing faces looking out our windows. There have been many things that have happened and are not readily explained.”

During the early-morning hours of February 4, 1880, approximately 30 townsmen members of the Biddulph Peace Society under the leadership of the town's police Constable James Carroll, stormed the Donnelly household. Crude farming equipment was used to pull-off such an intense hatred crime. After the severe crime was committed, the farmhouse was burned to the ground, causing the accused to flee the scene.

During that early morning, a 13-year-old farmhand named Johnny O'Connor, was staying the night with the Donnelly family, at which time he had hidden under a bed and was ignored during the massacre; apparently the assailants did not see him.

He eventually escaped to a nearby farmhouse and later became the primary witness in the trial against the vigilantes, who had since stormed off to Will Donnelly's house. At the house the already murderous mob mistakenly shot and killed John Donnelly, thinking that it was Will who answered the door, before retreating into the night.

“The Donnellys were murdered by their neighbours as a result of a feud over the purchase of land here in Biddulph Township. The family was successful in business and had their own stagecoach line in the 1870's. Their neighbours were jealous,” admitted Salts.

“During the wee hours of that morning, the five family members murdered were Tom Donnelly, 25, James Donnelly, 64, his wife Johannah 60, their niece Bridget, 21, and John Donnelly, 43.”

Before arriving in Canada in 1842 from Ireland the Donnelly family had been linked to numerous crimes that originally took place in their hometown.

After arriving in Lucan, almost every crime was linked to the Donnelly clan. Although such accusations were just that, none were ever brought to trial and charges were never laid.

The people of Lucan believed the Donnellys were murdered because of the crimes they committed before settling in the small Township of Biddulph.

As a result of the horrific crimes, two trials were held at the London Court House in 1880 and 1881. The end result was the acquittal of Police Constable James Carroll.

Today, Rob and Linda Salts enjoy their time together at the farmhouse that once belonged to the infamous “Black” Donnelly clan who set their own rules. Perhaps their murder was one of jealousy, and today it remains as a historical event that has interest all around the world.

Salts is the author of “You Are Never Alone our Life on the Donnelly Homestead,” which is an account of what it's like to live feet away from a place where a tragic family massacre took place. Today Salts conducts tours of the old Donnelly property to keep the mystery alive. For more information on the Black Donnelly family or tours visit
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