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Donnelly descendants meet at museum filled with family’s history

Lucan was once called the roughest town in Canada. For years, locals remained silent about the brutal murders of the infamous “Black Donnellys.” These days, the Donnelly Museum is drawing tourists, including its descendants

Up until a few months ago, the great-grandchildren of the famous “Black Donnellys” — who live in Brantford—didn’t know their St. Catharines cousins existed.

But after reading an article online about Patrick Donnelly’s descendants in the Thorold News — published on the anniversary of the horrific massacre of their ancestors on Feb. 4, 2019 — Jim Cameron contacted members of the Newman clan in St. Catharines, and met his new family for the first time this past winter.

The family gathered for a follow-up spring visit to the Donnelly Museum in downtown Lucan this past week, and sat together to watch a short film, The Strange Story of the Donnellys. Produced by Tom Barton and Ray Fazakas, it revealed the sad, true story of how their great-grandparents and other family members were brutally murdered by a posse of 40 townspeople in the wee hours of Feb. 4, 1880.

Matt Newman, great-great-grandson of Patrick Donnelly—who escaped his family's fate since he lived in Thorold at the time instead of Lucan—said he remembers studying with the rest of his class about his ancestors being killed. But because his mom died at age 43, “and there were nine of us,” he and his siblings were more focused on the present than the past when they were young.

His father, Thomas Newman, was friends with Fazakas, the lawyer who authored The Donnelly Album. Thomas’ copy of the book contains handwritten notes stuck in the pages, scrawled with notes about family members.

About 20 years ago, Thomas—who is now deceased—hand-delivered a letter to the former Thorold News office on Front Street, defending his Lucan ancestors. Matt, his son, told the Thorold News last week that “Despite rumours, they never hurt horses. They had the best stagecoach and it created rivals. There was no doubt that they were hellions. They were tough, but anything that happened got blamed on them.”

and maybe that’s why he didn’t fight. He was a successful businessman and owned a hotel (in Thorold), and after the murders, I think he lost his way for a while. I think he never got over his brothers’ and parents’ death.”

Matt and his brothers didn’t know Cameron existed, so when he contacted them this past winter, they called Fazakas, who confirmed, “Yes, Jim is your cousin.”

Jim Cameron is, in fact, Will Donnelly’s great-grandson.

“Over the years I read different books,” about his famous ancestors, Cameron told the Thorold News. “We never wanted to talk about it. It was too hurtful. We’re like celebrities now. I meet people from Ireland and all over when I’m down here” at the Lucan Museum, which he visits frequently, making the trip from his home in Brantford.

Cameron is the one who began investigating the family tree and locating Donnelly descendants. Shortly after meeting with twin half-brothers Blaine and Billy Monaghan, Billy passed away. Cameron felt it was important to remember him so he made a donation of family artifacts to the museum in both their names. Last week's reunion was intended to bring members of the family together, but also to unveil the new museum display. 

To repay Cameron for escorting them around Lucan last week, the Newman siblings plan to take Jim on a tour of St. Catharines and to Donnelly’s Pub in Thorold, once the site of Patrick Donnelly’s hotel.

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Cathy Pelletier

About the Author: Cathy Pelletier

Cathy Pelletier is an award-winning newspaper journalist/editor who writes for
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