It’s Feb. 3, 1780, on the cusp of midnight. Outside, it’s snowing. The Mallorys, like most of the residents of Washington, Conn., are asleep in their bedroom. But 19-year-old Barnett Davenport, the family’s farmhand and boarder, is not. In one hand, he holds a swingle, a wooden instrument he uses each day on the Mallory farm to extract flax fiber for linen production.
The candle in his other hand is the room’s only light.
He stands next to the bed where Caleb Mallory lies sleeping. Beside Caleb, in a separate bed, his wife is sleeping with their 8-year-old granddaughter.
Davenport swings. The wood makes contact with Mallory’s head. There’s screaming, panic. Mallory knocks the candle from Davenport’s hand, and it hits the ground, making the room now dark. Davenport continues to attack, first Mallory, then Mrs. Mallory, then their granddaughter. He doesn’t stop, not even when the swingle splits and he has to change weapons, grabbing the musket beside their beds. He thinks they’re dead.
Down the hall, the Mallorys’ 5- and 6-year-old grandsons are startled by the noises. Davenport tells them everything is all right. He puts them to bed and proceeds to loot the home.
And then, a groan from Caleb Mallory in the bedroom. More swinging. Then silence.
Davenport changes out of his blood-soaked garments and into some of Mallory’s clothes. He lights several fires throughout the premises. Then he leaves the house, the bodies and the two live children to burn.
It’s America’s first known mass murder, a case that has intrigued New Milford historian Michael-John Cavallaro.
After nearly three years of investigation, Cavallaro, author and vice chairman of the New Milford Conservation Commission, will be sharing the details of this gruesome night with the public Tuesday. He stumbled across the murders while researching his first book, “Tales of Old New Milford,” and returned to it while writing his latest book, “Slavery, Crime and Punishment on the Connecticut Frontier.” He has since written a screenplay about the murders and Newgate Prison.
Although uncovering the details of the 1780 crime proved to be challenging, Cavallaro eventually discovered the only surviving copy of Davenport’s 14-page confession, published later that year. With the help of curator Stephen Bartkus at the Gunn Historical Museum, Cavallaro was able to view a microphage file of the document.
“The tale that this [confession] told was just phenomenal. For the first time, I knew that I had the truth,” says Cavallaro.
The confession was not written by Davenport, who was illiterate, but most likely transcribed during Davenport’s jail time by the “very well-known and much-loved” Rev. Judah Champion of the First Congregational Church in Litchfield, says Cavallaro. It didn’t simply detail what had happened that night. It also explained the history of the 19-year-old killer.
Described as a “career criminal” and “sociopath” by Cavallaro, Davenport was born and raised in New Milford. He had three brothers; two were older, and one, named Nicholas, was younger.
“He had a very, very tough childhood,” says Cavallaro. Davenport’s father ran an ironworks and offered his son out as a farmhand from the age of 7 or 8. He didn’t have an education and eventually picked up what Cavallaro calls “bad habits.”
By 15, Davenport was guilty of robbery and horse thievery and had already contemplated murdering his employer, a farmer. At 16, Davenport enlisted in the Massachusetts military under the name Bernard, an alias, which he was prone to using throughout his lifetime, says Cavallaro. He deserted, then joined a militia and deserted again.
He eventually ended up in Woodbury, where he met Caleb Mallory. Seeing Davenport dressed in rags, with nothing in his pockets, Mallory invited him to work for his family.
“They took him in. They felt sorry for him. They gave him a job,” says Cavallaro.
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.
Although Davenport looted the home, Cavallaro says it was an afterthought and not the motive.
“He tells you right in the confession that his mind was just obsessed with the thoughts of murder and that he had set his mind on murdering [them] five or six days earlier,” he says. “Clearly, this is a very, very disturbed man who has gone from being a sociopath to a psychopath.”
Davenport set the house on fire, with the live children inside, hoping the fire would cover his tracks, says Cavallaro.
When the police found only five bodies in the rubble of the Mallory home, they sent out a search party that eventually found Davenport in a cave in Cornwall.
“At the point of capture, he said he had an accomplice,” says Cavallaro, who suspects that Davenport was simply trying to lessen his punishment.
But when Davenport was taken to Newgate Prison and realized that his younger brother, Nicholas, had been arrested because Davenport had been using his name, “he recants the statement” about an accomplice, says Cavallaro.
The Mallorys knew Davenport as “Mr. Nicholas.” He had stolen his brother’s identity, says Cavallaro, leading the police to arrest them both.
Although Nicholas had nothing to do with the murders, Cavallaro says the brother remained imprisoned because he knew that Davenport had abandoned the army.
“Had Nicholas turned his brother in, then the murders may not have happened,” he says.
Nicholas, then 17, received 40 lashes and was sentenced to life in prison. He spent two years at Newgate before being released under the condition that he would stay in New Milford for the rest of his life. He died a pauper at 58.
Davenport also received 40 lashes. He was hanged on May 8, 1780.
“The number of victims goes on and on and on. Nicholas is a victim. The parents of the lost children? They’re victims. Caleb Mallory’s seven adult children? They’re victims,” Cavallaro says.
“From farm to farm to farm to farm, this story spread like wildfire,” says Cavallaro. “Up to that time in 1780, nothing like that had ever been heard of before. It was just a shocking, shocking, shocking tale.”
While researching the murders, Cavallaro was initially unfazed. It wasn’t until Cavallaro read the confession that he was affected, particularly upon discovering that the Mallorys knew Davenport as Nicholas.
“That was it. That was where I felt like I was suddenly kicked in the stomach. I was depressed for several days. The reality of it all truly, truly sank in,” says Cavallaro, who drives by the site of the murders on his way to work most days.
The most haunting line of the confession, says Cavallaro, “sent chills up my spine.” He named his lectures after it: “A Night Big With Uncommon Horror.”
Cavallaro’s lecture is at 7 p.m. tonight at New Milford Town Hall, 10 Main St. He’ll discuss the murders, his research process, his reaction to the story and a screenplay he’s written based on the crime.
“The average person today thinks of the Colonial person as being humble and pious and Puritan-like,” he says. “But really, we’re no different now than then.”
Published in Hartford Courant