Washington-Connecticut

The Crime of the (Eighteenth) Century

Today, February 3rd, marks the anniversary of the first mass murder in the post-revolutionary United States.

Two hundred and thirty-one years ago today, Barnett Davenport, a young man living in Litchfield County, Connecticut murdered his landlord, Mr. Caleb Mallory, and Mallory’s wife and granddaughter.  He then stole anything of value and set fire to the Mallory house which resulted in the death of two more sleepers in the house.

Davenport’s vicious actions resulted in multiple books and his life and crime became a ‘teaching moment’ for the young nation.   Prior to this incident, crime was most often seen, and reported in the press, as resulting from common sinners losing their way. Davenport’s crime and its portrayal by the press and fledgling publishing industry changed all that. American’s began to perceive criminals as evil and alien to the rest of society and that view continues to a large degree into the present.

In the Accessible Archives

Over a century later the crime was remembered in Litchfield County and this note was recorded in the American County Histories: Connecticut in a section on Executions:

GallowsMay 8, 1780, Barnet Davenport, aged twenty years, was executed for murder and arson in Washington. Residing as a laborer in the family of Caleb Mallory, he entered the sleeping-room of Mr. and Mrs. Mallory at midnight and beat them to death with a club, and their little grandchild shared the same fate. After robbing the house and setting it on fire the murderer fled, leaving two other persons asleep who perished in the flames.

More Information

To get an idea of how the early American newpapers covered this crime, here is an excerpt from the New England Gazeteer.

Washington Connecticut – This town has been the theatre of one of the most atrocious murders ever committed in New England.

The murderer was a man or rather fiend, by the name of Barnett Davenport.

From his own confession, it appears that his parentage and early education were exactly fitted to produce his wicked life and tragical end.

Untutored and unrestrained by parental government, he was left to grow up at random.

In the morning of life, no morality was inculcated upon him, and no sense of religion, either by precept or example.

On the contrary, he was, from early years, unprincipled, profane, and impious.

Before he was 9 years old, he was expert in cursing and swearing, and adept at mischief. At 11 years he began to pilfer. At 13 he stole money. At 15 he entertained thoughts of murder, and rapidly waxed harder and bolder in wickedness.

At 19, he actually murdered a family in cold blood.

As a friendless wandering stranger, he was taken into the house of Mr Caleb Mallory, and treated with the utmost kindness, in December, 1779.

Scarcely two months had elapsed, before the murder was determined on. The night of February 3rd, 1780, was fixed on to execute the horrid purpose.

With a heart hard as adamant, he lighted a candle, went into the lodging room of his benefactors, and beat them to death with a club.  A little grand child being with it’s grand parents shared the same fate, and two others were left in a sound sleep to perish in the flames.

Having kindled a fire in three of the rooms, he fled, after robbing the house of it’s most valuable articles.

But from an accusing conscience, and from the hand of justice, which followed hard upon his steps, he was unable to flee. He was taken, and executed at Litchfield in the May ensuing.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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