He served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War. But Barnett Davenport made his mark on early America in far less heroic way: he’s remembered as the first known mass killer, a crime dubbed “the most horrid murders ever perpetrated in this country, or perhaps any other.”
Thanks to the research efforts of New Milford, Connecticut historian Michael-John Cavallaro, quite a bit is known about Davenport. In 1780, after deserting from the military at age 20, he took a job working on the farm of Caleb Mallory, who owned a grist mill in Washington, in Connecticut’s rural Litchfield County. It wasn’t long before his plan to commit “the blackest crime that ever mortals committed” began to take shape, according to the confession Cavallaro unearthed in the University of Virginia archives.
Davenport was hardly an upstanding citizen to begin with. He’d been convicted of robbery and horse thievery at age 15, and routinely used false identities (including that of his own brother) in his military stints, as well as to get the job with the Mallorys. They were a kind family who took pity on him, according to Cavallaro. Bad move:
A little more than two months later, after spending hours using a swingle to help with the family’s linen production, Davenport decided to use the tool to murder the family.
The dead were Mallory and his wife, Jane, and their three grandchildren. The adults and the oldest grandchild, who was nine, were beaten to death; the younger kids, who were 6 and 4, perished in the fire he set to cover his tracks. After hiding in a cave in nearby Cornwall, Connecticut, for six days, he was captured and brought to trial.
His confession notes that he planned to rob the house, but his main motive was far more terrifying: over the few months he lived with the Mallorys, he simply became obsessed with the idea of killing, and was “haunted and possessed with the thoughts of murder.” His plan was set in motion when he convinced Caleb and Jane’s daughter to leave her children in the care of their grandparents and take a short trip, leaving the most vulnerable family members unwitting participants in what he called a “night big with uncommon horror.”
After putting some things into my knapsack; with the candle in one had and the swingle in the other, I went into the room where Mr. Mallory, his wife and one grand child lay asleep. First I smote him with my might once or twice on his head; upon this Mrs. Mallory awaking attempted to rise up; I turned and struck her one or two blows. Mr. Mallory then sprung up; I struck immediately at him; but he partly warded off the blow with his arm, and then struck the candle out of my hand; I then pushed him back, and down upon the bed, belabouring him with the club — He asked me who I was? what I meant? and said, tell me what you do it for? Then called to his wife to come and help him repeatedly.
Who can abstain from tears, while relating these things! Mrs. Mallory made no answer, only shrieks, cries, and doleful lamentations. Having for some time smote Mr. Mallory and pounded him, the swingle split. Upon this, I catched a gun which stood behind the door, and with this instrument of death, proceeded still to smite him: I then turned again, and did the same to Mrs. Mallory, and continued striking till she lay still as well as he.
He also graphically describes dispatching the eight-year-old, noting that the girl called him “Mr. Nicholas,” the false identity he was using at the time, that of his brother Nicholas, and notes that he felt a slight twing of regret at killing her (but none for offing “my aged patrons and benefactors”). What happened next was just as stomach-turning, according to Davenport’s account:
...Amidst these dying groans and streaming blood, I looked for the key to open the chest where the money lay; but could not find it. Then I went, got a pestle and broke open the chest. By this time both Mr. Mallory and his wife began to struggle — I mashed his head all to pieces with this instrument: And she rising partly up in the bed, I smote her also with the pestle on her head, several times, and she tumbled behind the bed. Before this I saw her face swoln to twice its common bigness, disfigured with wounds, and covered with gore and streaming blood.
To an heart not past all feeling what could have been more shocking! But how unmoved was I, who now set myself to searching for the money of the dead. Having found a considerable sum of paper currency, and some solid coin; and searched among the papers for more, scattering them about. I put on some of the dying man’s clothes:—plundering the room in which those still groaning persons, in the anguish of death, then were lying.
He then went into the room where the other children were sleeping, told them the noises were because their grandmother was “sick,” set three fires that upped his body count to five, and went on his merry way.
With the power of his own damning words against him, Davenport was sentenced to 40 lashes and then to death by hanging. (His unlucky brother Nicholas, long-suspected of being accomplice due to his brother’s identity-thieving ways, also got 40 lashes.)
Davenport expert Cavallero noted that the quintuple murder was a complete anomaly in 1780; it was a “shocking, shocking, shocking tale.” Indeed, America’s first mass murder was so heinous — albeit committed in a manner that’s not so uncommon anymore — that it would likely grab headlines even today.
Photo of historic Nathan Cooper Gristmill water wheel in New Jersey via Creative Commons.