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History 19th Century

The Donnellys: Powder Keg, 1840–1880


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 violent family living in violent times.

In the 1840s, the Donnelly family immigrates from Ireland to the British province of Canada. Almost immediately problems develop as the patriarch of the family is sent to the Kingston Penitentiary for manslaughter, leaving his wife to raise their eight children on her own.

The children are raised in an incredibly violent community and cultivate a devoted loyalty to their mother and siblings, which often leads to problems with the law and those outside of the family.

The tensions between the family and their community escalate as the family’s enemies begin to multiply. The brothers go into business running a stagecoach line and repay all acts of violence perpetrated against them, which only worsens the situation.

Refusing to take a backwards step, the Donnellys stand alone against a growing power base that includes wealthy business interests in the town of Lucan, the local diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, law authorities and a number of their neighbours.


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: Powder Keg, 1840–1880: 1840–1880 (by (author) John Little)


It’s twelve o’clock on Saturday, November 14, 2014. My youngest son, Ben, and his South Muskoka Bears Major Midget hockey team have just finished their first game of a tournament in London, Ontario. They won their game and Ben scored a nice goal, so I’m happy. But the team’s next game isn’t until three o’clock that afternoon, so we’re going to be doing a lot of sitting around until an hour or so before the next game. Ben, understandably, wants to hang out with his friends on the team during this interval, which means he’s going to park himself at the arena. Consequently, I now find myself alone with three hours on my hands to fill. It occurs to me that I’m not that far from the Roman Line, maybe a thirty-minute drive. I’ve always wanted to go there, as somewhere on that stretch of roadway sits the property upon which the Donnelly story played out. The infamous Donnelly children were raised on that lot of land and four members of the family were murdered there on a cold February night in 1880.

Despite being taught nothing of this bit of southern Ontario history in school, when I first learned about the Donnellys, their story gripped me like few stories have (before or since). Indeed, some thirty years previously, during my second year of university, a roommate had invited me to spend a weekend at his parents’ home in Mitchell, Ontario. During the course of meeting his parents, we sat down at the family table to eat. Some small talk was exchanged and then I posed a question that I thought would be a good icebreaker: “How far away is Lucan?” His father, a lawyer in town, answered, “Oh, about half an hour. Not far. Are you interested in going to Lucan?” “Definitely!” I replied enthusiastically. “Why?” he asked. “I understand that’s where the Donnellys were killed,” I replied. Although my statement was wrong (i.e., the Donnellys were killed within their farmhouse on the Roman Line in Biddulph — not Lucan, which is about three and a quarter-miles to the northeast of the town), my enthusiasm was obvious. But then a look fell over the father’s face that immediately let me know I would not be going to Lucan. “We don’t talk about that here,” he said. And the table fell quiet until someone introduced a subject that was evidently far less contentious. I never forgot that, and the father’s attitude only served to further fan the flames of my nascent curiosity.


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