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The Case Of The Black Donnellys

1139 words - 5 pages

The case of the so-called “Black Donnellys” is indicative of social and community relations during the nineteenth century in Upper Canada. Characterized by frontier agriculture, a growing but weak authority structure, and an influx of emigration, mob justice complemented the legal system nefariously. The arson of the Donnelly's home, as well as James Senior's imprisonment demonstrate the role of these two powers in society. I will argue that Upper Canada during the mid to late nineteenth century reacted to increased crime with both community power, in the form of vigilante justice, and legitimate authority, in the form of the penitentiary system; this uptick in crime coincided with settlement of the land by British emigrants. The factors that surrounded this phenomenon were emigration, land, crime, vigilante power, and legal enforcement, particularly the role of the Kingston Penitentiary.
Upper Canada was in the tumultuous process of settlement during the nineteenth century. From 1800-1860, wheat and flour exports went from a negligible amount to peak at 13 billion bushels in 1860.1 It is important to understand the rapid nature of settlement to contextualize life in rural Upper Canada. From 1805-1840, the population increased by over eight hundred percent.2 Many of these were Irish emigrants, even in the period preceding the famine; these pre-Famine Irish emigrants were predominantly “middling farmers,” «c'est à dire des fermiers cultivant des terres petites ou moyennes, ceux qui ont été le plus durement touchés par la baisse soudaine des prix des produits agricoles à la fin des guerres napoléoniennes [en Europe]».3 Many of the emigrants settled into townships and villages on the agricultural frontier, such as the Biddulph township. According to the 1870 census, Biddulph township was almost eighty percent Irish (3,293 of 4198), and thirty percent Catholic.4 Emigration was not uniformly so Irish, but in Biddulph township, this was the largest group—representing a level of ghettoization. Settlement was aided by the Canada Company in this area of Middlesex county. The Canada Company, founded in 1820,5 existed to help settle the very fertile land in what was then Huron County (Biddulph would later join Middlesex county). They granted tracts of this highly desirable land to emigrants.
This increase in population was coupled with an increase in crime. The Kingston Penitentiary, built in 18356, was the symbol of state authority. Appropriately, it was tenuous, and occasionally scandal-plagued. It was at the Kingston Penitentiary where James Donnelly Sr was imprisoned for seven years for the murder of Patrick Farrell. Also known as the gaol (or jail),7 it was as uncomfortable as possible. Donnelly himself was subjected to the standard punishment of four meals bread and water at least four times in 1858-59,8 though much harsher punishments existed—including a particularly cruel tool known as “the Cats,” which was used over 100 times...

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