12 June 2019

The True Crime Book That Spawned an Industry

The Black Donnellys
Thomas P. Kelley
Toronto: Harlequin, 1962
158 pages
Oh you who hail from Ontario
Know the tale of the Donnellys Oh
Died at the hands of a mob that night
Every child and man by the oil torch light

                         — Steve Earle, 'Justice in Ontario' (2002)
Because I hail from Quebec that I didn't know much about the Donnellys until well into adulthood. My introduction came through a work colleague when I was living in Toronto. Together, we made up a very small department in a very large book retailer – so large that it had its own publishing arm.

We were it.

After a few months working together, he suggested we reprint Orlo Miller's The Donnellys Must Die. I nodded in agreement, though Miller meant nothing to me, and I'd never heard of the book. The new edition of The Donnellys Must Die we ushered back into print sold twelve thousand copies in twelve weeks. Its success led us to consider reviving Miller's next book, Death to the Donnellys. We joked about commissioning a third book to be titled Die, Donnellys, Die!

What Steve Earle refers to as "the tale of the Donnellys" is infused with bloodshed of a sort that we Canadians like to think of as foreign. It begins with the 1842 arrival of Irish farming couple James and Johannah Donnelly in what is today Lucan, Ontario. They had with them a son, who had been named after his father. Six more boys and a daughter would follow, all born on Canadian soil their parents had cleared. The respective births were punctuated by violence and murder. First to be killed was neighbour Patrick Farrell – "John Farrell," according to Kelley – whom patriarch James hit on the head with a handspike. The murderer then hid in the woods, and dared work his fields disguised in his wife's frocks:
Johannah was almost as tall and heavy as her husband; appareled in her clothes, Donnelly was taken for her by those traveling the road and seeing him in the fields, and he was able to get in the seeding. Later, still dressed in women's clothing, he brought in the crops, working with his sons, and did the fall plowing.
Murder by handspike aside, this episode is the lightest part of the Donnelly story. Kelley doesn't do as much with it as I thought he might, though he does go for laughs here and there throughout the book. Poor Johanna receives the brunt:
She looked like and should've been a man; her sex undoubtably robbing the bare-knuckle prize ring of a prospective champion. In later years she sprouted a miniature Vandyke, wore red flannels, and told of never having been "much of a beauty." Her picture proves the words to be an understatement.
In Kelley's account, the matriarch directed many of the misdeeds attributed to her offspring. Beginning in 1855, various members of the Donnelly family were charged with larceny, robbery, assault, and attempted murder, amongst other crimes. The events that most troubled this reader concerned animal mutilation. It all came to an end on February 4, 1880, when a mob descended on the Donnelly farmhouse, beat its residents to death, and set the building alight. They then moved on to the home of second son William Donnelly, where they killed third son, John Donnelly. 

Steve Earle is wrong. Not every child and man died that night. There was a survivor in John O'Connor, a hired farm boy, who hid under a bed when the mob broke in. No doubt that mob would've murdered him, too, just as they did Bridget Donnelly, James' twenty-two year-old niece, who was newly arrived from Ireland. No one was ever convicted of the slaughter.

That Kelley records John O'Connor's surname as "Connor" is typical. He made his living as a speedy magazine and paperback writer. He had a reputation as a man who could be relied upon to fill pages in a pinch. The Kelley technique is on full display in this passage:
The writer first heard of the Donnelly feud – bits of it, at least – more than twenty years ago when travelling around the Lucan area. Twenty at the time – ah, my lost youth – the history of Lucan and its violences of bygone years did not interest him. A pair of blue eyes in the nearby village of Exeter, did. Eventually marrying the owner of the eyes, and as time went on, learning more of the feud, it became apparent at last, however, that mere hearsay, a thorough knowledge of the Lucan district or even the tales of oldtimers, would not be enough to write the true story of the Donnellys.  Seemingly endless hours of research were and did become necessary – the reading of old files, old newspapers, police and court records, etc.
It's unlikely that the seemingly endless hours Kelley spent researching the Donnellys were many, but they were lucrative. They resulted in "The Donnelly Feud," a 1947 article written for New Liberty Magazine. It was reprinted in his book Famous Canadian Crimes (Toronto: Collins White Circle, 1949) and then reworked as "The Terrible Donnelly Feud" for his next book, Bad Men of Canada (Toronto: Arrow, 1950). The Black Donnellys, which followed four years later, is said to have sold more than a million copies.

The Black Donnellys is not the best place to begin reading about the family and its fate; I recommend The Donnellys Must Die or, better still, The Donnelly Album by Ray Fazakas. Kelley's book is a fun read, but is wholly unreliable – which is not to say that it is without value. What I find most remarkable about the book has less to do with its contents than it does its impact. Sure, those who hail from Ontario know the tale of the Donnellys, but this wasn't always so. I don't doubt that Kelley (1905-1982), an Ontario boy who toured the province with his medicine man father, claims he hadn't heard of the family until "travelling around the Lucan area" at the age of twenty. After they faded from the headlines, very little was written about the Donnellys. Published a full seventy-four years after the bloody events of February 4, 1880, The Black Donnellys was the first book about the family and its fate. It's inaccuracies and – here I'm betting – commercial success encouraged Miller to write The Donnellys Must Die. More than a dozen Donnelly books have followed.

In this way, it is Kelley's greatest achievement as a writer. Would that we could all have such influence. He's owed a debt of gratitude.

Postscript: I left the very large book retailer in 2001, and began writing books that were published under noms de plume. Eight years later, when living in the Ontario town of St Marys, roughly twenty-five kilometres east of Lucan, I was commissioned to write a YA book on unsolved Canadian mysteries. A chapter on the Donnellys – "Who Killed the Donnellys?" – seemed a given. The St Marys Public Library then held seven books on the family, each of which was represented on the shelves by a block of wood bearing its title. Patrons interested in checking out a volume brought the appropriate block to the front desk. This system had been put in place to prevent theft.

Object: A paperback original, The Black Donnellys was first published in 1954 by Harlequin. My well-read copy, a seventh printing, was won for $7.50 in a 2009 auction at a St Marys, Ontario, thrift store.

Access: A 2002 Globe & Mail story reported that The Black Donnellys had to that point sold over one million copies in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. I point out that that same article refers to The Black Donnellys as a novel. The only American edition (right) is a 1955 paperback published by Signet. I've found no trace of a UK edition.

The Black Donnellys helped build Harlequin. The original 1954 printing was followed by fourteen others. The last was in April, 1968, long after Harlequin had (otherwise) come to focus exclusively on romances. Subsequent editions have been published by Greywood, Pagurian, Firefly, and Darling Terrace (it's current publisher).

Unsurprisingly, dozens of used copies are listed for sale online. Prices begin at US$2.99.

Easily found in academic libraries, but uncommon in the public. I suggest instituting the St Marys Public Library block system.

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  1. Crap, I forgot all about this topic. I've had this or another Black Donnelly's book on a TBR list for over a decade now.

    1. It was something similar with me, Gerald. A decade passed between buying and reading The Black Donnellys. I did not consult it when writing my YA mystery book.

  2. Having grown up in Alliston ,there were a few descendants of the Donnelly's residing there in my younger years so I was quite versed in the tales and legendd...remember the Kelley book from back then....Gerald Dewan

    1. One of my older friends in St Marys told me that as a child she was told not to mention the Donnellys for fear of offending a family involved in their slaughter. Now, there's a museum.

  3. I picked up 'The Black Donnellys' and 'Vengeance of the Black Donnellys' the same day, a few years ago. Haven't cracked them open yet.

    1. I won Vengeance of the Black Donnellys in the very same auction as The Black Donnellys. Of the two, it seems the more interesting, but reading the second before the first somehow seemed wrong.

    2. I often wondered how Thomas P. Kelley came up with the title 'The Black Donnellys'. Going through his dictionary page by page, not too long ago, I came across a maple leaf that he placed between the pages. The leaf covered the word blackguard. A blackguard is a bad guy, and is up to no good. I found many more maple leafs placed in his dictionary, all covering words that Kelley used in his novel 'The Black Donnellys'