The mass murder of five members of the Donnelly family from Ontario is one of the most notorious events In the history of Canada.
Two adults, two of their sons and a niece were beaten to death in a late night attack on their home by a mob of men. Among the attackers was at least one member of a local Heenan family.
Decades of Feuding
The killing was the climax of a long running feud between the Donnelly family and their neighbours in the farming community near Lucan village. It was a dispute that began over land rights and escalated into violent competition over stagecoach lines.
The “Black Donnellys” as they became known, were Irish immigrants from Tipperary who settled in south west Ontario in the 1840s. They had, like so many thousands of others, fled Ireland in the hope of making a new life in Canada. The problem was that they had no rights to the land on which they began to farm. And so began a dispute with Patrick Farrell, who claimed the land was rightfully his. The conflict culminated in his murder in 1857 and the imprisonment of his rival James Donnelly.
While James was serving his prison sentence, his sons ran wild. Over subsequent years the family made life hell for their community, committing arson and assault and fighting over women. Some parts of the community decided it was time to act. Fourty of them formed a Vigilance Committee, meeting in secret to achieve just one objective: to rid the township of the Donnellys.
Vigilantes Take Action
Matters came to a head in January 1880 when a local farmer’s barn was burned down. Although there was no direct evidence, the community suspected the Donnellys were to blame. It was time for the Vigilance Committee to take action.
Just after midnight on February 3, 1880, a group of around 20 men, surrounded the Donnelly’s home and launched an attack on the inhabitants, repeatedly clubbing James, his wife Johannah, son Tom and niece Bridget . The mob then left, setting fire to the dwelling with the bodies inside, as they went to a different location to find and kill another son William.
The first wave of killings was witnessed by a thirteen year old boy who would later testify to the viciousness of the attacks and the multiple beatings exacted on the three inhabitants.
News of the deaths spread quickly through Lucan, where local people were stunned by reports of the ferocity of the attack. Journalists began arriving in the village over the next few days, filing ever more sensational reports.
“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,” proclaimed the Listowel newspaper in February 1880. Other newspapers labelled it “the blackest crime every committed in the Dominion” of Canada.
Within two days, 13 people were arrested in connection with the attacks, including police constable James Carroll who was belived to be the mob’s ringleader. Yet despite two trials no-one was ever convicted of the attack. In the first trial, the jury failed to agree on a verdict – seven voted for acquittal, four were in favour of a guilty verdict and one juror was undecided. The jury in the second trial found the police constable Carroll not guilty of the murder. The rest of the prisoners were granted bail and were never tried for the Donnelly murders.
Heenan Involvement In the Murders
Among the members of the Vigilance Society were three men with the surname Heenan: Dennis, Anthony and Michael. Michael was arrested on a charge of murder but was released in February 1880 – there is no evidence he ever went to trial.
Information about these three men is extremely limited. They are all mentioned in The Donnellys Must Die by Orlo Miller, an authoritative account of the massacre, but only Michael Heenan and another man called James Heenan get more than a passing reference. According to Miller, both these men were active in an earlier action taken by the society when a cow belonging to one of Donnelly’s enemies went missing.
The Vigilante Society went calling on James Donnelly, with James Heenan acting as the spokesman, demanding to search the premises. They left without finding the cows and then headed to the home of his son William three miles away. William said afterwards: “Some had sticks. Michael Heenan had a piece of scantling, James Heenan had a stick. ”
On that occasion the vigilante group left without the cow and without any violence.
Who Were the Heenans?
None of the material I’ve read about the massacre gives any indication of whether Dennis, Anthony, Michael and James were related.
Census records however provide some clues as to their identities.
In 1881 (the nearest census to the killings), there are 3 Heenan families living in the Biddulph township and Lucan township of Ontario.
Family Group 0004: In Biddulph township this family is headed by Anthony Heenan, a farmer aged 61 who was born in Ireland. His family consists of his wife Mary and eight children. He has one son called Dennis, aged 27 and said to have been born in Ontario, and another son, Michael aged 25, also born in Ontario. This family is present in both the 1861 and 1871 census. The father and both these sons could be candidates as the vigilantes.
Family Group 0005: Also in Biddulph is this family headed by James Heenan, a farmer aged 55 from Ireland and his wife Bridget. They have seven children including a son James, aged 21, born Ontario and another son Anthony , aged 17, born in Ontario. There is a further son Denis but he is aged just 9 at the time of the census so we can rule him out from any vigilante activity. James senior and James junior plus Anthony could be candidates however as members of the vigilante group.
Family Group 0003: Resident in Biddulph township is John Heenan, an 88 year old farmer and his wife Catherine. There are two other residents in the same property – John Heenan, aged 30 and Margaret Heenan, aged 25. The names and ages rule them out of the running as vigilantes.
Family Group 0006: In Lucan township there is a family headed by Anthony Heenan, a labourer aged 40, his wife Anne and their four children. Although they have two sons, both are young teenagers and neither have names connected with the events at the Donnellys.
On this basis I’m speculating that the men mentioned in Orlo Miller’s book are brothers Dennis and Michael Heenan from family group 0004. They are the only people with those names in Biddulph township who are not children. Additionally, anewspaper report about the arrest of Michael Heenan gives his age in 1880 as 25 – very close to the age of the son listed in family 0004.
The James Heenan that is mentioned by Miller is most likely the son recorded in family group 0005 (he is in fact the only James Heenan in Biddulph) . Which leaves me wondering whether the Anthony Heenan said to have been in the vigilante society is the head of family group 0004 or the 17 year old son listed in family group 0005. I’m leaning towards it being the older man but I have no proof.
Are these individuals related in some way? I suspect some of them are – families from Ireland tended to emigrate to locations where there were already other family members or friends present to provide a support network. Perhaps Anthony and James, heads of families 0004 and 0005 are brothers. I should emphasise this is purely speculation on my part. I don’t know how the Anthony in Lucan fits in however.
It’s been fascinating learning about this case and trying to piece the information about the Heenans together . There are still considerable gaps in my knowledge however which I’m hoping to resolve over time.
Miller, Orlo The Donnellys Must Die
Heaven & Hell On Earth: The Massacre of the Black Donnellys website at https://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/donnellys/home/indexen.html
Black Donnellys entry at Wikipedia: website at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Donnellys
Census of Canada 1881: Biddulph, Middlesex, Ontario, district 169, division 3 ; Roll: C_13270; Lucan, Middlesex North, Ontario; Roll: C_13270; Page: 12. Available via Ancestry.com and Find My Past.co.uk