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, had already developed a reputation as a brazen robber and horse thief. When he turned 16, in 1776, he ran off to Massachusetts, 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, seeking work as a farmhand, using his younger brother’s name Nicolas as an alias. He was hired by Caleb Mallory, a farmer and miller who lived with his wife, children, and grandchildren in the modern-day town of Washington. Mallory gave “Nicholas” a job, a new set of clothes, and a place to stay.

In a chilling confession  published soon after his arrest, Davenport described his seemingly psychopathic obsession with killing the Mallory family, a compulsion he had developed almost immediately after he was hired “without the least provocation or prejudice against any of them.” On February 3, 1780, he put his obsessive and premeditated murder plans into action. Just after midnight, Davenport entered his master’s bedchamber and bludgeoned him, his wife, and their young granddaughter —who was sleeping alongside them — to death.  He used both a blunt farm implement and the butt end of a musket to do so. Then, after looting the house, and to cover his tracks,  Barnett set it aflame, completely indifferent to the fact that two other young grandchildren were still sleeping inside.

A massive manhunt for the Mallorys’ killer quickly led to the arrest of Barnett’s younger brother, the real Nicholas Davenport, who was jailed 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 made a full confession to the local minister and was sentenced to be publicly whipped and then hanged for murdering the five members of the Mallory family. On May 8, his death sentence was carried out on Litchfield’s Gallows Hill,  bringing one of the most heinous chapters in Connecticut history to a 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