To a casual historian, the name Barnett Davenport may seem obscure or even innocuous. But the bearer of that name became one of the most significant killers of whom you've never heard – when he was only 19. Years before the US met its first serial killers, Davenport became the the country's first mass murderer. He ferociously beat and killed multiple members of a family who had employed him, including their young granddaughter, leaving the victims as well as the rest of the living family members to burn as he escaped. His horrific actions on one cold night in 1780 changed the way people thought about crime and criminals at that time.
Barnett Davenport was a drifter who, after deserting from George Washington's Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, moved from place to place, even fighting as a paid proxy for other men. At one point, he deserted again but was captured and taken back. In late 1779 or early 1780, Davenport took a job with Caleb Mallory. Mallory was a grist mill operator in rural Connecticut who welcomed the unemployed wanderer into his home.
Caleb Mallory and his wife Jane lived with their two daughters and three grandchildren. On February 3, Davenport convinced the two Mallory daughters to go on a trip, leaving the grandparents alone with the three grandchildren. That night, around midnight, Davenport went into the Mallory home and ferociously beat Caleb, Jane, and the oldest grandchild, Charlotte, to death.
After he killed the three Mallory family members, Davenport took whatever he could find from the house and removed his bloody clothes, changing into some of his victims'. To cover his tracks, he set the house on fire, a blaze that killed the two remaining grandchildren.
A contemporary account from the New England Gazetteer summed up his crimes:
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.
After setting the house on fire, Davenport fled, leaving his five victims to burn. He took refuge in Cornwall, Connecticut, and was found in a cave six days later. He was arrested and taken to Litchfield and held in Newgate Prison.
When he was captured, he claimed that he had not acted alone, but there's no indication that he had an accomplice.
Davenport's confession was unnerving in its description of his killings. He detailed entering the house, taking some items, then stalking his prey:
...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."
After the elder Mallorys were dead, Davenport alleged he put on Caleb Mallory's clothes, went into the room where John and Sherman had been sleeping, and told the startled children to go back to sleep.