History Slam Episode Forty-Seven: Sensationalism, the Donnelly Massacre, and Small-Town Canada

By Sean Graham

Factionalism tends to be viewed negatively – particularly when examined through a political lens – but for storytellers, factionalism can be a very effective tool. The conflict created by these factions has led to some of the best cultural material ever made. The Capulets and the Montagues, the Jets and the Sharks, and Bayside and Valley are all examples of classic factional disputes that have produced terrific stories. Even professional wrestling bases a good number of its story lines on factional disputes – the introduction of the NWO in the 1990s single-handedly changed the industry.

But those are all fictional and when real-world factionalism goes too far the results can be devastating. One only needs to look at the battles between drug cartels in Mexico to understand the damage that factionalism can bring. Occasionally, though, the violence that stems from factionalism takes on a new meaning and over time can even be, to a certain degree, celebrated. There is a growing market for artifacts and antiques from the Hatfields and McCoys and the feud even spawned an Emmy-winning mini-series in 2012. When past violence reaches that point, there can be an opportunity for those who continue to be affected by the violence to re-claim the story and take ownership of the past.

That is what has happened recently in Lucan, Ontario, a small town north of London. On February 4, 1880, the feud between the Donnelly family and what was known as the local ‘peace’ committee came to a head when five members of the Donnelly family were killed. Nobody was ever convicted of the crime and for a long time the residents of Lucan didn’t want to talk about it. As amateur historians continued to look into the massacre and as the principals of the dispute lost the battle against time, the town started to open up about the event. Part of this was to address what happened, but there is also a desire to re-claim the town’s image. The townspeople don’t want the town to only be known for the massacre and by openly discussing the event and including it in tourism guides, the town can take control of the image being presented.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, however, as there were some people at the time who tried to ensure that the massacre was not the only thing for which Lucan was famous. One of the most prominent of these was William Port, the town’s postmaster. Port’s diary reveals a man who loved the town and wanted people to understand the totality of the community. At the CHA in May, Greg Stott of University College of the North gave a paper on his research into the diary and noted that Port specifically attempted to get away from the sensationalism that surrounded the massacre.

In this episode of the History Slam I talk with Professor Stott. We chat about the UCN, his research on the town of Lucan, Ontario, and the culture of small towns in Canada. This was a particularly fun episode for me as Professor Stott taught me while I was an undergrad at Nipissing University.

Sean Graham is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa where he is currently working on a project that examines the early years of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He has previously studied at Nipissing University, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Regina and like any red-blooded Canadian his ultimate dream is to be a curling champion while living on a diet of beer and poutine.

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