Farewell to the Donnellys and Peg-Leg Brown

    It’s the crenellations you notice first. It’s those characteristic castle battlements peeking over the trees in the midst of an urban 21st century cityscape….

    But this is no faux castle-amusement park attraction, but the real thing: the early 19th century Middlesex County Courthouse. Built in 1827 when the future province was little more than a wilderness, the Gothic structure stands in good health today, as London’s most famous landmark.

    And what stories it has to tell….


    It’s 1798—and the Parliament of Upper Canada has created the District of London. They place the centre of government in Vittoria (today nothing more than blink-and-it’s gone-settlement south of the town of Simcoe.)

    But as settlers continue to arrive and were drawn to the fertile lands around the Thames River where the town of London was sprouting braches, Vittoria was abandoned and the County Seat moved there. What was Vittoria’s eternal loss was London’s gain.

    And as befitting such an honour, a fine Country Court House would be constructed. None other than the esteemed Toronto architect John Ewart, who’d also envisioned Toronto’s Osgoode Hall, would be the designer.

    No shrinking violet, or fly-beneath-the- radar architect was Ewart. He favoured Scottish Gothic in his designs, including the distinctive up-and-down, crenellated parapets; tall, elegant lancet windows; octagonal towers; polygon bay windows; and massive wooden doors.

    Positioning the building on top of a hill completed the wow! statement.  

    A more modest gaol was constructed on the back of the Courthouse to make quick work of sentencing and housing the ne’er-do-wells of the day.  

    And rapscallions they were.

    The most notorious involved the outlaw Black Donnellys. In 1880, the Lucan neighbours of James Donnelly, who’d just been freed from a seven year lock-up in the Kingston Penitentiary for the murder of Patrick Ferrell, gave him a rousing homecoming.  

    Before the prodigal James had time to wash out his socks, the mob-neighbours murdered him, his wife, and two sons. Ringleaders who’d orchestrated the Donnelly murders were later tried in the Middlesex County Court House. Both of the trials were dismissed.

    The legend of the Donnelly faded into Ontario history.


    A less notorious case, but less compelling involves one Marion “Peg-Leg” Brown. A murderous Texan with a missing leg and a scar over one eye, he’d flown his Texan coop and landed in Ontario. A warrant was out for his arrest.

    In London, he’d been recognized, thanks to his distinctive peg-leg footprint, and a member of the Constabulary apprehended him. The policeman promptly met his maker, thanks to a Peg-Leg and a gunshot to head.

    The search for the murdering American was on across the country. Citizens came forward regularly with sightings of various Peg-Legged men. In total 15 peg-leggers were apprehended on suspicion of murder—and released.

    As time passed, the hunt for the real Peg-Leg Brown became an embarrassment for London Police Force.

    Eventually, the varmint was apprehended, selling liquor to Indians in his native U.S. He was brought to the Middlesex County Court House for trial. Peg-Leg Brown’s trial was a cause celebre, with over 300 spectators crowding into the Courthouse. Evidence showed that he’d killed at least 5 other men while on the lam.  

    In the end Marion “Peg-Leg” Brown was convicted of murder. As he was led away to the gallows, he prophesied: “Another innocent man has been convicted. The fact that no grass shall form on my grave shall prove my innocence.”

    At this pronouncement, a lightning bolt struck the courthouse.

    History has proved Peg-Leg’s prediction true. In 1985, his unmarked grave was dug up from under the tarmac of the Middlesex County House parking lot. It had been graveled for years. Peg-Leg’s ghost is said to haunt the halls and passageway of the building too. Especially on the anniversary of his sentencing. May 11, 1899.  

    As always, fact is stranger than fiction.  



  1. Wayne Buck July 29, 2013 / 7:17 am

    Ahh what memories your stories brought back. I passed that famous gaol almost every day on the way to and from high school. I remember the last man to be hanged within the walled area; James or Earl Rowe. We also were well acquainted with the stories of the Donnelly’s. My Dad delivered fuel for Supertest along the Roman Line south of Lucan. I made my first ever speech in grade 6 about The Black Donnelly’s. Arthur Miller later wrote a book about them. I still have it. he spoke at our (Lynda and I) graduation. Wayne

    • silcox2013 July 29, 2013 / 7:37 am

      Thanks Wayne for the comment. More Donnelly biz in the Huron Gaol blog.

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