Tales of Old New Milford

The young man said his name was Nicholas Davenport, but that was a lie.

In the late fall of 1779, the 19-year-old came to work for Connecticut flax farmers Caleb and Jane Mallory at their Washington farm. They didn’t know that his real name was Barnett Davenport and that he had assumed the name of his younger brother Nicholas, most likely to avoid authorities. Nor did they know he was a robber and army deserter.

Davenport would later recall that Caleb Mallory “took me in out of pity and compassion, and engaged to let me have some clothing, of which I stood in special need.”

It was an act of kindness that would cost Caleb Mallory dearly.

“I determined upon the murder of Mr. Mallory and his family, [at] the first opportunity,” Davenport said in a later confession, “and this, merely, for the sake of plundering his house; without the least provocation, or prejudice against any of them. The family in which I now lived consisted of Mr. Mallory, Mrs. Mallory, a daughter-in-law, a daughter, and three grandchildren.”

Two hundred thirty-seven years ago this month, around midnight on Feb. 3, 1780, when the Mallorys’ daughter and daughter-in-law were absent from the house, Davenport launched his “bloody, land-defiling, soul-ruining, and heaven-daring plan,” setting in motion what he called “a night big with uncommon horror.”

With a candle in one hand and a blunt wooden farm tool called a swingle in the other, Davenport rummaged through the Mallory household in search of valuables. He then entered the bedroom where the Mallorys and their 7-year-old granddaughter lay sleeping and began bludgeoning the husband and wife in their beds, first with the swingle, then with the butt of a gun he grabbed while in their room.

When the granddaughter awoke, Davenport attacked the child, as well. “She cried out bitterly; she called out for me, or to me, by the name, the pleasant child used to call me, saying, Mr. Nicholas. But I continued paying on; feeling no remorse at killing my aged patrons and benefactors. For the child, I seemed to feel, some small relentings, without remitting in the least, my execrable exertions.”

When the other two, even younger, grandchildren were woken by the noise, Davenport told them their grandmother was sick and to go back to bed. Perhaps knowing something was wrong, they obeyed but were sobbing as they did so.

After looting more and returning to the bedroom to further attack the moaning Mr. and Mrs. Mallory, Davenport changed out of his bloody clothes. As he left, he lit the house on fire in multiple spots, burning it to the ground and killing the two remaining grandchildren.

Davenport fled on horseback, believing the authorities would assume him killed in the blaze, as well. He had just killed five people and committed what appears to be the earliest documented mass murder in U.S. history.

The gruesome details of the murder were rediscovered in recent years thanks to the efforts of New Milford historian Michael-John Cavallaro, who researched it for the second book in his series on New Milford history, Tales of Old New Milford: Slavery, Crime and Punishment and the Connecticut Frontier. Ultimately, he found the only surviving copy of Davenport’s 14-page confession in the archives at the University of Virginia.

The confession had been published in 1780 and seems to have been widely circulated during the final years of the Revolutionary War.

The confession — printed in Cavallaro’s book — provides a rare insight into the life and mind of an early mass murderer. Born in New Milford in 1760, Davenport received little schooling and worked as a farmhand from the age of 7 or 8 on. “It is a maxim as old as Ancient Rome that no man becomes evil in a minute,” he said. Throughout his life, Davenport engaged in criminal activity. By the age of 15 he had already committed horse robbery and other thefts and had contemplated murder. At 16, he enlisted in the Massachusetts military, serving under Benedict Arnold and George Washington before deserting the army and working for Caleb and Jane Mallory in Washington.

When Davenport’s body was not found in the burned-down house, at least two, and probably more, local law enforcement officers began tracking the killer, writes Cavallaro in his book.

Possibly with the help of his 17-year-old brother — the real Nicholas — Davenport hid out in Litchfield in the hamlet of Milton in a swamp for six days. From there he attempted to escape to New York state, and according to local legend, spent a night in a Cornwall cave, where authorities finally tracked him down. Davenport claimed to have had an accomplice in the crime initially, perhaps in an attempt to garner a lesser sentence. This, and the fact Davenport had used Nicholas’ name while working at the Mallory farm, led to Nicholas’ arrest. He was sentenced to 39 lashes and life in prison, ultimately serving two years of time before being acquitted of his brother’s crime.

In his confession, Davenport recanted his claim of having an accomplice and admitted he acted alone. After a one-day trial in Litchfield, he was sentenced to death preceded by 39 lashes while he was tied to the back of a cart and paraded about the Litchfield Green. He was hanged on May 8, 1780, at noon, his body left to swing from the gallows until 3 p.m.

Davenport made his confession verbally after this sentence was announced and it was recorded by a visitor to his jail cell. He concluded the confession by expressing the wish that his story would serve as a cautionary tale. “O that others may take warning by my dreadful example and fearful end! And avoid those sins which I have committed, and which by a series of wickedness have led me on to the most awful crimes that ever were perpetrated in this land, or perhaps any other; and for which I must (most justly) suffer a violent death, and I greatly fear, everlasting burning, horror and despair.”

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University