February 3: The First Mass Murder in U.S. History

 

One of the darkest days in Connecticut history occurred today in 1780, as 19-year-old Revolutionary War deserter Barnett Davenport brutally murdered his employer and his entire family in what many historians recognize as the first documented mass murder in American history.

Born in New Milford in 1760, young Barnett was a troubled youth who, by the age of 15, developed a reputation as a brazen robber and horse thief.  When he turned 16, he then ran off to Massachusetts, where he joined the Continental Army under an alias and served at Valley Forge and Monmouth before deserting.  In 1779, a penniless and destitute Barnett returned to western Connecticut, looking for work as a farmhand and using his younger brother’s name, Nicolas, as yet another alias.  He was soon hired by Caleb Mallory, a farmer and miller who lived with his wife, children, and grandchildren in the modern-day town of Washington, who gave him a job, a new set of clothes, and a place to stay.

In a chilling confession that was published after his arrest, Davenport described what seems like a psychopathic obsession with killing the Mallory family soon after he was hired, “without the least provocation or prejudice against any of them.”  On February 3, 1780, he put his premeditated plan into action. Just after midnight, Caleb entered his master’s bedchamber and proceeded to bludgeon him, his wife, and their young granddaughter who was sleeping alongside them to death using a blunt farm implement and the butt end of a musket.  Then, after looting the house, Caleb proceeded to set it aflame in hopes of covering his tracks, completely indifferent to the fact that two other young grandchildren were still sleeping inside.

A massive manhunt for the Mallory’s suspected killer soon led to the arrest of Barnett’s younger brother, the real Nicholas Davenport, who was sentenced to jail time in East Granby’s Newgate Prison for the alleged crime of harboring his brother.  Barnett himself was found hiding in a cave in Cornwall a few days later, and brought to the town of Litchfield to face justice.  There, he gave his full confession to the local minister, and was sentenced to be publicly whipped and then hanged for the murder of five members of the Mallory family.  On May 8, his death sentence was carried out on Litchfield’s Gallows Hill, finally bringing one of the most heinous chapters in Connecticut history to its conclusion.

Further Reading

Peter Vermilyea, “Gallows Lane and the Execution of Barnett Davenport,” connecticuthistory.org

Crystal Maldonado, “First Mass Murder in America Captivates New Milford Historian,Hartford Courant

Erik Ofgang, “America’s First Mass Murder,Connecticut Magazine