Thursday, February 04, 2010

RIP The Donnelly family

. . . news of a most atrocious murder . . . perpetrated last night at Lucan 17 miles from London the victims were the Donnelly family. Father Mother two sons and one niece and then their house had been set afire to cover the crime four of the bodies were burnt to a cinder. The people in the city were terrified to hear of such a diabolical and lawless crime.
From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography's life of James Donnelly, done to death a hundred and thirty years ago, 4 February 1880.

Five years ago, I reviewed Peter Edwards's Donnelly book for Law Times, where I do a column. Since it's not online, I'm including the whole thing here.
After the Air India acquittals, we know somebody got away with murder -- and that dozens of people must know who planted the bombs. Peter Edwards’s new book, Night Justice: The True Story of the Black Donnellys, investigates another unpunished mass murder: the infamous Donnelly murders of 1880, where the identity of the killers was well known and no one was convicted.

The Donnelly family had lived since the 1840s in Biddulph township near London, Ontario. They had contributed their fair share in bringing about Biddulph’s degeneration into near-lawlessness, a place where assaults, arsons, and killings went on regularly. The Donnelly boys usually gave as good as they got, but gradually the family became scapegoats for the community’s rage. In February 1880, a lynch mob of the community’s leading citizens stormed their home and beat to death old James Donnelly, his wife, two of his sons, and a niece who had recently come to join them. Then they burned the house down around them.

But a hired boy who hid under a bed throughout the slaughter bravely identified the killers. So why was no one convicted?

Why no one was convicted for the Donnelly murders is one of the questions that interests Peter Edwards in Night Justice, surely the best and liveliest and most comprehensive account of the Donnellys yet. A Toronto Star reporter who has previously written about the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard and the shooting of Dudley George at Ipperwash, Edwards smells politics behind this failure of the justice system. Specifically, he fingers Ontario premier Oliver Mowat.

Most of the Donnellys’ neighbours were glad to see the Donnellys dead. They were either complicit in the murders or willing to shelter the killers. Local people who stood up for justice for the Donnellys risked sharing the Donnellys’ fate. A coroner’s jury drawn from local farmers and townspeople declined to point to any suspects. The first jury to try the killers deadlocked. The second jury voted for acquittal.

The acquittal frustrated London lawyer Charles Hutchinson, who prosecuted the case. But Edwards suspects acquittal was the result Premier Mowat (who was Hutchinson’s boss as attorney-general) hoped for and even connived at. South-western Ontario Catholics were important to Mowat’s electoral base. The Donnellys were Catholics, but it was also Catholics who killed them, cheered the deed, and acquitted the killers. Vigorous and successful prosecutions could only antagonize Catholic voters, Edwards suggests, so Attorney General Mowat helped prevent a change of venue to help give local Catholics the acquittals they wanted.

Actually, the evidence Edwards provides is pretty thin. Mowat was not likely to feel very threatened, no matter how the Donnelly verdicts came out. And it was federal judges, sustaining a long tradition that justice must be local, who refused the crown’s repeated petitions for a change of venue for the Donnelly trials. Edwards’ allegations about Mowat may reflect the instincts of a political reporter habituated to political conspiracy-hunting.

The true failure of state and justice in the Donnelly case seems to have been more systemic. It was little wonder that brutality, arson, and eventually mass murder took hold of the Donnellys’ neighbourhood over the decades, since local constables and magistrates were leading participants, and the larger justice system typically looked the other way. When it was only the bog-Irish brutalizing each other, Ontario didn’t much trouble to defend the rule of law and the authority of the state in Biddulph township.

Maybe the way we didn’t much trouble ourselves more recently when it seemed it was just East Asians threatening each other over Kalistan or Tamil Eelam.
Update Feb 11: Merna Forster reminds me of the Great Canadian Mysteries Donnelly material -- worth a look.
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