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The Donnelly Curse

    A recent A&E special, "More Haunted Houses: Tortured Souls & Restless Spirits" told the story of the haunted Donnelly House in Lucan, Ontario, Canada.

    On February 3, 1880, the Donnelly family was murdered by a vigilante mob who believed the Donnellys were an evil lot, responsible for burning down several farmers' barns and many other crimes.

    The roots of the rumors about the Donnellys sprouted years earlier, when James and Johanna Donnelly first moved to Canada from Ireland. A landowner in Canada promised to sell the Donnellys a parcel of land if they would clear it of trees and rocks and make it into a useful farm. James and Johanna worked hard for many years, clearing and tending the land. They also had seven children along the way. But when they were finished clearing the land, the landowner went back on his word, and sold half the land to someone else.

    The Donnellys were very bitter. To make matters worse, their new neighbor--the man who had been sold the land promised to them--tried to drive the Donnellys from their home. When the neighbor and James Donnelly got into a fight, Donnelly killed his neighbor. James Donnelly was arrested and found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death.

    Many of the townfolk thought this sentence wasn't fair--that James Donnelly had acted in self-defense or, at worst, had been forced into the fight to protect his home. They signed a petition asking the court for mercy, and James was given a lighter sentence--seven years at hard labor. But now the town was divided: while some took Donnelly's side, the rest felt that Donnelly should have been put to death for the crime.

    Johanna stayed on the farm, and raised their children--but the boys were constantly getting into fights with the neighbor's children, who taunted them. Johanna taught her sons that they had to be tough and fight back.

    As the Donnelly boys grew olders, they grew out of control, starting fights and brawls, and generally terrorizing the town. When James Donnelly was finally released from prison, he had many enemies.

    Over the next few weeks, several neighbors' barns burned down, and the Donnellys were blamed. James and Johanna were arrested and charged with arson--but were released for lack of evidence. A vigilante group formed and plotted what to do. The group decided they would march to the Donnelly farm that night and force them to confess to the barn burnings.

    On the night of February 3, 1880, thirty men approached the Donnelly's house carrying torches, clubs and farm tools. Whatever their original intent, the meeting became a massacre. The mob clubbed James Donnelly to death and murdered one of their sons with a pitchfork and a shovel. They killed Joanna Donnelly by beating her to death. Then the mob splashed oil throughout the house and burned it down.

    Five of the vigilantes were later tried in court for the murders, but the jury found them not guilty, and the killers were set free.

    Rumors swirled about the Donnellys and their land. For years, people believed that Johanna Donnelly had cursed their attackers with her dying breath. The so-called curse claimed at least a few victims one night not long after the massacre. The leader of the vigilante mob was driving a carriage carrying his wife, his brother and his sister-in law. The carriage was hit by a train and all four were killed.

    For years, there was fear in the town. Children were not permitted to say the name "Donnelly" out loud. The town was still divided between those who felt the Donnellys had committed no crime, and those who felt they got what they deserved. Even today, the locals get upset when people start asking too many questions about an incident that occurred one hundred and fifteen years ago.

    The present owner of the Donnelly land believes his house may be haunted. Many evenings he has heard footsteps on the stairs or in another room, but when he has gone to investigate, has found no one there. And one day his son, playing in his room, looked up into the hallway and saw a family standing there--a man, woman, and three children dressed in clothes from the 1800s. But none of the living residents have ever felt threatened by any lingering spirits.

    Was there a Donnelly curse? As the A&E special pointed out, perhaps the real curse was a town divided because of rumors, anger and baseless fear.

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