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Donnelly History - Part Two

On February 4, 1880, in the township of Biddulph, Ontario, Canada, five lives were snuffed out in a heartbeat. James and Johannah, their sons, John and Tom, and a niece, Bridget, all met their deaths violently in what would come to be known as, "The Biddulph Horror". As they lay in the throes of dying, a little boy, huddled beneath a bed, watched in terror as the massacre took place. He survived to tell the tale of what happened that tragic, grisly night in Canadian history when death came knocking. 

The following is an account of what Johnny O'Connor witnessed the night of the murders. His testimony at the murder trial was published by The London Free Press in 1880, in an article called, "The Biddulph Tragedy". Since no one else witnessed the crime, other than the criminals themselves, O'Connor's testimony is the best source for finding out what really happened that night, for only he knows the true story.

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A Survivor's Story
Murder Through The Eyes of a Child

On the eve of the massacre, Johnny O'Connor arrived at the Donnelly homestead. It was not unusual for him to come and stay with the family, as he often helped them with farm chores. The Donnellys were expected in Granton the next morning, February 4th, for an arson case that involved the torching of Grouchy Ryder's barn, and Johnny was needed to take care of the pigs while they were away.

After he arrived, he waited while John and Tom Donnelly put the horse away, and then they all went inside the house to eat apples and sit around until dinner, after which John left to see his brother, William, who lived at Whalen's Corners. Johnny followed Tom outside to feed the pigs and put a blanket on the horse for the night. After all the chores were done, they returned to the house to eat some more apples before turning in for the evening.

Being a small house, the family had to double up in their sleeping quarters. That night, Johnny shared a bed, located in the front bedroom of the house, with the senior member of the family, James Donnelly. Johannah Donnelly, his wife, took to her bed in the next room over, and was happy to share with her niece, Bridget, visiting from Ireland. Tom Donnelly, her youngest son aged 25, had a bed in a little room off the kitchen.

As Johnny drifted off to sleep, he remembered hearing Jim Feeheley's voice, a friend of the family, who had dropped by for a quick visit. "I went to sleep after I heard Feeheley talking," he recalled later at the murder trial. "I slept next to the wall; the head of the bed was towards the front of the house, and there were no curtains around it."

He Thinks He's Smart

Sometime between twelve midnight and two a.m., the boy was awakened by James Sr., as he scrambled out of bed. He immediately noticed James Carroll, the supposed leader of the Biddulph Peace Society, standing in the living room, and heard the old man ask him to hold the candle here while I dress". As Carroll moved to the doorway, Donnelly inquired about the purpose of the visit, and the constable told him that he "had another charge against him".

Donnelly continued to dress himself, and when he was finished, he gazed around the room for his grey coat. It was under Johnny's head, perhaps as a pillow, and the lad spoke up quickly. "Here it is," he said, handing the jacket over, and James slid into it before heading out into the kitchen. By then, Carroll had returned to the living room, and was seen walking around in a black, felt hat and a black coat with grey, flannel trousers. Johnny testified later that as soon as he saw the man, he recognized him, because he knew James Carroll "very well".

Meanwhile, Mrs. Donnelly had gotten up, and after calling for her niece to come and assist her with stoking the fire, joined Tom in a conversation that Johnny could not decipher from his position in the front bedroom. It was then that James entered the kitchen, and seeing his son in shackles, questioned the action. "You are handcuffed?" he asked, staring at the manacled wrists.

"Yes, he thinks he's smart," Tom returned, nodding towards James Carroll who had entered the kitchen, too. He was standing not far away; his dark, beady eyes shining like a demon in the soft candlelight. "Read the warrant..." Tom demanded. The words were barely out of his lips when all hell broke loose.

Death Came Knocking

The little kitchen exploded into chaos, and death surrounded the Donnellys on every side. Carroll had let out some kind of signal, and the door burst open with a gang of men who entered with murder on their blood-thirsty minds. Armed with clubs, sticks, and other farm implements, they surrounded the startled family, and began beating them to death. They cared not for the sex or the age of their victims, but only that their name was 'DONNELLY', and on that night, February 4th, 1880, the Donnellys had to die.

"I think there were about twenty of them (that) ran into the house," Johnny said during his testimony. "I don't know how many came in afterwards -- I was still lying in bed when they came in, and then I jumped out and crawled under the bed -- I could see out into the front room; the bed was near the end of the room, opposite the door." From that vantage point, Johnny said that everyone was in the kitchen except for Bridget whom he saw dashing across the floor towards the stairs that led to an upper level. "She was at the stairs' door when I saw her -- I could only see the front of the stairs from where I lay; when in bed I could see a couple of the steps, but no more."

Seeing no one in the front room other than Bridget fleeing for her life, Johnny ran after her and followed her up the steps to the next floor, but when they reached the top, she inadvertently slammed the door in his face. Afraid of being discovered by the assassins who were still in the kitchen finishing off James, Johannah and Tom, the lad raced back to the bedroom, and hid beneath the bed behind a clothes basket. "It was one of those big baskets, a little lower than the bed cords; there was about half a foot between the bed and the basket."

Just after Johnny crawled under the bed again, he saw Tom run across the living room floor. Being a feisty, powerful man, he had broken free from his antagonizers, and was making a run for it out the front door. Johnny wasn't sure how many men followed Tom outside into the cold night, but he could hear them beating him with "sticks". Minutes later, they carried him back inside, and threw him down on the floor close to the front door.

Dressed in Women's Clothing

"I could see Tom's feet at the door, and heard him groaning," the boy recalled. "I could hear something rattle when they threw him down; one fellow said, 'hit that fellow on the head and break his skull open'; then someone hit him three or four blows on the head with a spade." Johnny added that he saw the murder weapon as it was being carried past the door.

As the frightened lad peered out at the grisly scene lit only by a single candle, he spotted several men standing over Tom's expiring body. They appeared to be doing something to him that the young witness thought may have been the removal of his handcuffs. One man had a "blackened" face, another was "dressed in women's clothing", and two of them, Johnny recognized. "I saw John Purtell and Thomas Ryder there," he said. "Purtell was standing right beside Tom's body then -- and I knew Tom Ryder from his whiskers and face."

When the men had finished with Tom, someone asked the whereabouts of the girl, and another replied that she was upstairs. Johnny said that a lot of the men then ran up the stairs to get Bridget, but that he heard no sound up there as they took her life. Within minutes, their footsteps were heard on the stairs again, and someone announced that the girl, who was only 21, "was beyond earthly tale-baring". The killers then proceeded to the front bedroom, and after pouring coal oil over the bed under which Johnny lay hidden, they set it ablaze, and quickly abandoned the house to its untimely fate.

Johnny, shaking uncontrollably with terror, waited for what must have seemed like forever until he was sure that everyone had left the scene. He feared for his own life should the murderers discover him there; a witness to their heinous, most despicable crime. Then, crawling out from his hiding place at last, he tried to put out the flames that had engulfed the bed, but his efforts were in vain. "Then I looked and saw Tom lying in the room, and the old woman near the kitchen door; I tramped on her as I went out; I saw Tom lying in the front room, but saw none of the others; the two I saw were breathing, but I was too much frightened to see what state they were in."

Traumatized by the gruesome sight, the boy then ran across the road to the Whalen's house to get help. When Mrs. Whalen opened the door, she found a frightened, barefooted child on her doorstep, trembling from fear and the cold. And, as she ushered the boy inside to warm him by the fire, little did they know that somewhere out there on the dark Roman Line, the murderers were on their way to another rendezvous with death. They had not had their fill of Donnelly blood, and would take one more life before the night was over.

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Diagram of Murder Scene
Published in The London Advertiser, February 5, 1880.
The following is a re-creation of a diagram of James Donnelly's house that was published 
in The London Advertiser, February 5, 1880. It was most likely drawn using Johnny 
O'Connor's description of the horrific scene he had witnessed. The diagram has been 
changed in the many years since this publication due to updated historical research, 
but this is the original as it appeared the day following the massacre.

Diagram of James Donnelly's House
Diagram re-designed by Webmaster


Front entrance to property.
Where Tom Donnelly's remains were found. 
Front door
Spot where Tom Donnelly appears to have been brained.
Doorway between kitchen and front room.
Milk house, also burnt 
Front Room
Stairs to Tom Donnelly's bedroom 
Schoolhouse, S.S. No. 3
John Cain's homestead
John Whalen's homestead
Where remains of two women were found.
Patrick Whalen's homestead 
Where remains of James Donnelly were found.    

The story continues with the vigilantes going on to William Donnelly's home, and is
told according to his testimony that was documented at
the murder trial in London

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Death On Whalen's Corners
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HISTORICAL INFORMATION SOURCE: 1880 London Free Press article reprinted in
'The Donnelly Tragedy - 1880-1990', published by Phelps Publishing Company,
London, and 'The Donnellys Must Die' by Orlo Miller, published by Macmillan, Toronto.
Copyright © 1998-99 All rights reserved. Article written by Webmaster
Reproduction of this article in any form is prohibited.

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