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History 19th Century

The Donnellys: Massacre, Trial and Aftermath, 1880–1916


by (author) John Little

ECW Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2021
19th Century, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2021
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Nov 2021
    List Price

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A story made all the more shocking because it’s true.

In 1880, an organized mob of the Donnellys’ enemies murder four family members and burn their house to the ground. Another sibling is shot to death in a house a short distance away. William Donnelly and a teenage boy are the only witnesses to the murders.

The surviving family members seek justice through the local courts but quickly learn that their enemies control the jury and the press. Two sensational trials follow that make national and international headlines as the Donnellys continue to pursue justice for their murdered parents, siblings and cousin.

Behind the scenes, political factors are at play, as Oliver Mowat, the Premier/Attorney General of the province of Ontario, fearing the backlash a conviction would render, gradually withdraws support from the prosecution of the killers. After the trials, the Donnelly’s enemies continue their crusade against the family, paying off potential witnesses to the murders and fabricating one last set of charges that they hope will put the remaining Donnellys away forever.


About the author

Contributor Notes


John Little is the bestselling author Who Killed Tom Thomson? He has authored over 40 books on subjects ranging from philosophy and history to exercise and martial arts, in addition to being an award-winning filmmaker. Little is a contributor to, the Toronto Star, and has been interviewed by CNN, Canada AM, NPR, A&E, People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and the Family Channel. He resides in Bracebridge, Ontario, with his wife, Terri, and children Riley, Taylor, Brandon, and Ben.


Excerpt: The Donnellys: Massacre, Trial and Aftermath, 1880–1916: 1880–1916 (by (author) John Little)


At approximately 2:15 a.m. John Donnelly bolted from his sleep. He was certain he’d heard a noise. Less than ten seconds later he heard somebody pounding on the kitchen door of William’s house.

“Fire! Fire!” called a voice from outside in the darkness.

The pounding on the door resumed.

John reflexively was out of bed and on his feet. The calls came again, but this time from a different voice.

“Fire! Fire!”

“Open the door!”

The rapping on the door intensified. John decided to investigate the commotion, waking Martin Hogan as he jumped off the bed and walked across the bedroom floor of the guest room and through the door that led into William Donnelly’s bedroom. As it had been cold in the guest room, John still had his clothes on. His entry into the bedroom awakened his brother William, who now also heard the pounding on the door and sat up in his bed. As John walked into William’s room, he looked at his brother and asked, “Who’s hollering ‘fire’ and rapping at the door?” William watched as his brother turned to his right and opened the door that led into the kitchen.

Again, the voices came.

“Fire! Fire!”

“Will! Open the door!”

Having reached the kitchen door, John Donnelly now threw it open.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

In reply came a blast from a shotgun, augmented by the simultaneous discharge of a rifle. Thirty pieces of shot ripped through John’s upper torso, snapping ribs and shattering his collarbone in the process. The bullet from the rifle tore through his groin in an upward trajectory, ripping through his flesh front and back, and ultimately lodging itself in the window frame at the far end of the kitchen. The impact of the shots lifted John off his feet and sent him hurtling backwards several feet, where he hit the door frame to William and Nora’s room and then collapsed on his back, his head coming to rest against the door jam. A wad of paper from the shotgun blast slowly floated in from the open door and came to rest upon the kitchen floor. Everyone in the house was now awake.

“Oh, Will! Oh, Will! I’m shot!” John gasped. His breathing became laboured as he felt his life begin to ebb from his body. He then offered up a short and raspy prayer before the darkness descended upon him. “And may the Lord have mercy on my soul!”

Panic now spread amongst the occupants of the house.

“Martin! Get up!” he yelled. “John’s been shot!”


Editorial Reviews


“John Little has once again taken a great Canadian mystery and given it fresh life and new insights. He did it with Tom Thomson, and now he has done it with the infamous Donnelly murders. This is investigative journalism as good as it gets.” — Roy MacGregor, OC, author of Canadians: Portrait of a Country and Its People

“True crime fanatics will relish Little’s vivid and inspired storytelling.” — Library Journal


Other titles by John Little