Feb 3, 1780: Early American Mass Murder Changes Common Perceptions of Crime

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In one of the most famous crimes of post-Revolution America, Barnett Davenport commits an awful mass murder in rural Connecticut. Caleb Mallory, his wife, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren were killed in their home by their boarder, Davenport.

Davenport, born in 1760, enlisted in the American army as a teenager and had served at Valley Forge and Fort Ticonderoga. In the waning days of the war with the British, he came to live in the Mallory household. Today, Davenport’s crime might be ascribed to some type of post-war stress syndrome, but at the time it was the source of a different sociological significance.

On February 3, apparently unprovoked, Davenport beat Caleb Mallory to death. He then beat Mallory’s seven-year-old grandchild with a rifle and killed his daughter-in-law. Davenport looted the home before setting it on fire, killing two others.

His shocking confession was the basis of much soul-searching for the fledgling nation’s press. Many books were written about the crime, and the perception of murderers began to change in America. Until then, crime was most often seen as the result of common sinners losing their way. But Davenport’s crime and its portrayal to the public caused people to perceive criminals as evil and alien to the rest of society. To some degree, this view has persisted through the years.

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