Unsolved: The Murder of William Donnelly

The grave of William Donnelly, Keller Cemetery

Standing on the hillside, just south of Route 22 near the collection of houses known as Yellow Springs, is the Keller Church and Cemetery. Over the years, I had passed this location numerous times, but never realized it existed. Driving up the narrow, grassy road that clung to the hillside, I arrived at the historic church and cemetery.

As I stepped out of the vehicle two things captured my attention. My first thought was one of sadness – parts of the churchyard and cemetery had been recently mowed, while other places had not appeared to have been mowed in months. The second thing was the view from the top of the hill was beautiful as I scanned the farmlands to the north and west of the hilltop.

I walked over to the monument that stood near the front of the church and read it. The memorial was placed during the centennial recognition of the church (1846-1946) and listed the pastors who served the congregation that once worshiped here. The church’s official name is the Keller Reformed Church, though to most it is simply called the Keller Church. The Reformed faith was brought into the region by Reverend John Deitrich Aurandt, a circuit rider who preached to residents when he passed through the area. As the faith grew, there was a desire for a church building and the land was donated by John Keller. Construction of the church started in August 1846 and was dedicated on January 22, 1847 with Reverend Samuel Reid being the first pastor.

The church building was erected on the remnants of the revolutionary site of Fort Lowry, also spelled Lowrey. Fort Lowry, erected in 1778, was a blockhouse on the lands settled by the Lowry family and was under the command of Captain Simonton. Studying the building, I noticed that the stonework had a number of small openings evenly spaced in it. It only took a moment to realize if this had been a blockhouse, these openings were holes through which the settlers would fire their rifles at any attackers.

Something moved nearby and turning I saw my mother had joined me to explore the old cemetery. While she went one direction, I began my search by studying the graves resting under the tall pines. My search ended quickly as my mother called out she had found the grave I had come to visit. Walking over to where she was pulling tall grass from around the old, fragile stone, I read the name and date and knew she had found the grave I had come to visit.

As I studied the stone, I noted there was nothing on it to reveal his cause of death. The simple stone merely stated his name, birth and death dates and a saying beneath them. However the death of William Donnelly is one shrouded in mystery – at the age of fifty-three William was murdered by person(s) unknown.

Note: As I researched his murder, many places refer to him as Captain William Donnelly. There is nothing on his stone that suggests he had a military rank, nor was his grave decorated with a flag like the other veterans in the cemetery. This leads me to believe that “Captain” in this case was a title rather than a rank.

Sunday, July 23, 1832 was like any normal day for William as he went about his business before settling in for the night. Around midnight, William was awakened by the sound of someone in his house and got out of bed to investigate. He went toward the front door in order to prevent the thief from leaving when a voice called from outside. With his attention toward the person outside, Donnelly was shot in the right side with a shotgun blast. Donnelly lingered until Tuesday before dying of his wounds.

As far as it can be determined, the thieves only took two guns that were owned by Donnelly and nothing else.

Men from Williamsburg, Alexandria and Huntingdon scoured the region searching for his killer(s) but were unsuccessful in capturing the guilty party. A reward of one hundred and fifty dollars was offered for the capture of the murderers, but was never claimed.

Exactly who murdered Donnelly was never determined, but it was believed it was a group of three men who had stopped at his house that Sunday afternoon. The men were believed to have been in the region due to working for the railroad or the canal. Initial reports described the trio as “one being a large man, supposed to be a Dutchman, the other two smaller” who were travelling with a yellow dog.

Two of the supposed murderers were spotted Monday morning on Tussey Mountain, roughly seven miles from the murder scene. The larger of the two men was described as a rough, ill-looking man dressed completely in black and carrying a bear or wolf skin pouch. The second man was described as being almost six-foot-tall and wore blue clothes and a cap.

The third man, who had been spotted with the duo Sunday morning, was the smallest of the three and was described as having sandy-colored hair and a freckled face. The smaller man was the one spotted carrying the shotgun that Sunday morning. While it will never be known, it is possible this was the man who fired the fatal blast which killed Donnelly.

According to all newspaper reports, the three men were never captured. However, in the August 18, 1832 edition of the American Railroad Journal there is a small announcement regarding the murder that I have not found anywhere else. The small snippet of information reports that a James Colter had been arrested and held at the Huntingdon County jail for “suspicion of being concerned in the murder of Captain William Donnelly.” After this announcement, there was nothing else reported.

Why the trio exactly singled out the Donnelly home for the robbery is not known. It may have been due to his living on a farm away from the nearest community, mixed with the fact the house was located near the canal running through the region. If robbery was the motive for singling out William Donnelly, then they failed to take any other valuable items and money as they only took the guns from the residence.

The murder of William Donnelly remains unsolved and forgotten, making random appearances in newspapers over the years.

I finished paying my respects to the murdered man, knowing that his murder – due to the years since it happened – will remain unsolved. Stepping away from the stone, I glanced around the cemetery and saw the other memorial that had brought me to the cemetery. Only a short distance away was the monument that remembered one of the last massacres that happened within the borders of Pennsylvania.

Continued in The Dean Family Massacre.

4 thoughts on “Unsolved: The Murder of William Donnelly

  1. I’m a direct descendant of William Donnelly and the President of the Keller Church trustee board. I appreciate your good work in this story. I do have some additional info to share if you are interested. There was a. confession to his murder!


      1. William’s murder has the distinction of the first unsolved murder in Huntingdon County. However, there was at least one suspect and a doomed convict’s confession. By mid-August of 1832, the American Railroad Journal reported that “a man named James Colter has been arrested and lodged in the jail of Huntingdon County on suspicion of being concerned in the murder of Captain William Donnelly.” Colter was indicted for murder during the November 1832 session of court. Despite at least 11 witnesses, the Grand Inquest returned the bill ignoramus (meaning there was not enough evidence to go to trial). Therefore, he was discharged. Seven years later, on August 7, 1839, a brief report from the Huntingdon Journal seems to indicate that another suspect involved in the case was found as well. The article stated that this other suspect, while “on the gallows for another crime, confessed to his particular part in the hellish deed.”


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