A Dark Anniversary

I want to do something a little different for today’s post. It’s the 3rd of February, which marks the eve of a significant, if largely forgotten, date in Canadian history. So instead of the usual fare, today I have a story to share with you. I’d like to take you on a journey back in time to a little place called Lucan, in southern Ontario, not far from London.


As you head off to bed tonight, I want you to drift back through time to this very date in 1880, nearly a century and a half ago. It’s cold, one of those bitter Canadian winter nights. The wind is howling outside the old farmhouse, flinging snow at the windows in gusts that rattle the panes. Out in the barn, the team of horses waits in their stalls, ready to be hitched to the wagon at first light for the blustery trek through the drifting snow into town.


Farm life is a hard life, especially so in these pioneer days. Even if your family wasn’t feared and reviled by much of the surrounding community, the isolation is stark. It’s a lengthy drive to the nearest township, and your closest neighbor is a half mile or more distant. Worse still, tomorrow is February 4th – your day in court. You, your spouse, and your youngest son all face a litany of charges to be heard by the travelling magistrate. There’s a good chance tonight is the last time your family – what remains of it – will all be together under the same roof.


This is the scenario that James Donnelly faced as he lumbered off to bed on what would be the final night of his life. The patriarch of the most feared and notorious family in Canada stirred the coals, tossed another log in the fireplace, and dragged his weary, arthritic bones to bed in the adjoining room.


At the same time, in nearby Lucan, a mob of thirty men were making their final preparations for their night’s work. They set off on foot in the biting cold and silently traversed the miles toward the Donnelly homestead. It was around 2AM, the house was quiet, its occupants sound asleep, when there came a loud pounding on the door and a gravelly voice demanded to be let in. James’ son, Tom, answered the door. It was the local constable, James Carroll, a burly, scowling fellow, who claimed he had an arrest warrant. It surely seemed suspicious that such a thing couldn’t have waited until morning, but the intruder was reluctantly invited in.


Again, imagine yourself in this scenario. You’ve barely had time to fall asleep when you’re jolted awake by a blast of cold air through the open door. Your battle-scarred, 63-year-old body, aching and throbbing from decades of working the fields and engaging in countless bloody brawls, screams in protest as you struggle up from your slumber, pull on your boots, and stumble into the kitchen to the sight of your family’s most hated adversary in the doorway. Your son Tom, 25, the youngest of your seven boys, stands barefoot and clad in his long underwear, locked in handcuffs. And then, perhaps just as the horrible realization of your situation becomes apparent, the world explodes and an angry, violent mob bursts through the door. They’re brandishing clubs, axes, and other weapons. They are not here to serve a warrant.


The battle is a vicious, bloody one that leaves many members of the mob broken and scattered – for years the Donnelly clan have run roughshod over the entire region due to their numbers and terrifying fighting skills. But tonight, six of the seven sons are absent; some grown and moved out, one in jail, two others dead. Though individually fierce and formidable, the remaining family members are a manageable number for the mob, who exact their revenge for the decades-long reign of terror they’ve endured.


When it’s over, James, his wife Johannah, their son Tom, and niece Bridget all lay dead or dying, bludgeoned and battered beyond recognition. Members of the mob poured coal oil around the kitchen and nearby rooms, tossed in a torch and, satisfied all in the house had been killed, set off on the second leg of their grim journey. As flames lit the night sky the mob, which had dwindled to just six members, made its way to the house of the second eldest son, William. There, they readied their shotguns, knocked on the door, and opened fire the moment it opened. It wasn’t William who answered but his brother John, who tumbled backward into the house as the life slipped from his bullet-riddled body. Unaware of having missed their intended target, the mob dispersed, their bloody work done.


There’s more to the story, of course. The unseen child in the Donnelly house, overlooked by the mob, the lone witness to the fearsome massacre. The ensuing trial of the killers. The years of fear, violence, and bloodshed that led to this fateful night. All this and more, but this is neither the time nor the place for those chapters. No, for now, this gruesome ending to the tale is all I have to offer. But tonight, on the eve of this gruesome anniversary, as you turn off the lights and snuggle down in your bed, give a thought to this dark chapter in Canadian history. And, if your peaceful sleep is interrupted by a knock at your door, maybe think twice before you answer it.

-JP