________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 16 . . . . April 15, 2005


Night Justice: The True Story of the Black Donnellys.

Peter Edwards.
Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 2004.
384 pp., pbk., $26.95.
ISBN 1-55263-622-4.

Subject Headings:
Donnelly family.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Thomas F. Chambers.

*** /4


The air was thick with the charred smell of smoldering wood when the teacher arrived early that morning at the school beside the Donnelly homestead, where one of the few recognizable forms remaining was the iron kitchen stove. Beside it lay Bridget and the old man, but now they were just black shapes and looked only vaguely human.

Some of Donnelly's ribs were intact, and there was a gaping hole in his skull. A pocket knife lay by his body, along with an ax head and the metal buttons of his coat, a pair of spectacles, and a quarter, a dime, and a penny, suggesting he had been dressed when he died that night.

There were spectacles by Johannah's body, too, the glass melted to a lump. Some ringlets of her hair remained by her skull, presenting a haunting early-morning image for the schoolteacher and his students.


Night Justice tells the story of the Donnelly family which came from Ireland in the 1840s and settled near Lucan in South Western Ontario. The Donnellys were little different from other Irish immigrants who came to Canada at this time. What sets them apart and makes them a good subject for a book is the fact that five of them were murdered on the night of February 4th, 1880. In telling the Donnellys’ story, author Peter Edwards tried to uncover as many of the details as possible of this macabre night and the subsequent trials (There were two) of the alleged murders. In the process, he has produced a social history of life in rural Ontario near London in the mid-19th century. It is a history of backbreaking farm work, lawlessness and vigilante justice.

     Edwards has previously written seven books. He has an honours degree in history, a master's degree in journalism and has been a reporter for the Toronto Star for 18 years. Night Justice is a good example both of historical research and good journalism. It would make an ideal text. In addition to the murder of the Donnellys, it gives a good account of pioneer life in rural Ontario and is well researched and factual. It has an index, a bibliography and informative chapter notes at the end of the book. It is also illustrated throughout with functional black and white drawings and photographs. Many of the drawings were done by Robert Harris who was hired by the Toronto Globe to cover the trial of the accused Donnelly killers. They are very well done and are a valuable addition to the book.

     The book is divided into four parts. “The Crime,” the first and shortest, tells the story of the murder of James Donnelly, his wife Johannah, sons Tom and Jack and cousin Bridget. This is followed by “The Roots of Murder” which explains the reasons for the widespread hatred of the Donnellys and why they were murdered. “Political Circus” is about the trials of the suspected killers and the poor quality of the court system at the time. “Aftermath” deals with the surviving members of the family and the fate of some of the killers.

     The Donnellys were murdered because people in Lucan thought that they were responsible for dozens of serious crimes and that they would never be punished by the justice system. There was some truth to this belief. When James Sr. was found guilty of murder, he only received a sentence of seven years, instead of the customary death sentence. If someone found guilty of murder received such a light sentence, what would be the punishment for those who burned down barns and houses and killed livestock? A similar thing happened to the men accused of killing the Donnellys. Even though there was a witness to the murders, the killers were not convicted, even after two trials. This lack of justice led to the rise of vigilante justice where the punishment was often worse than the crime.

     Night Justice reads like a novel because considerable use is made of dialogue. Because there is so much dialogue, the story could easily be dramatized. Since no record of the conversations between the people mentioned in the book would have been kept, except for the transcripts of the trials, Edwards recreated most of the dialogue. This makes the story realistic. The book is also very detailed. This, at times interferes with the story. One example of this occurs in Edwards' telling of the second trial of the accused killers. "Mr. Justice John D. Armour sat on an elevated chair, behind a handsome red oak desk with walnut inlays. Behind this was a massive painting of the royal coat of arms and three Gothic windows." While this does help to set the scene of the trial, fewer details would not weaken the story.

     There is one error in the book. Edwards wrote, "February 11, 1880, was Ash Wednesday, the start of the Roman Catholic Season of Lent." Lent is a Christian season and is also observed by Protestant denominations.


Thomas F. Chambers is a retired college teacher living in North Bay, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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