Hidden Nearby: The Morris Academy

Morris monument

This small marker and the remnants of the foundation mark the location of the Morris Academy, a landmark co-educational institution.

James Morris

The Academy was the brainchild of James Morris III, who was born on January 19, 1752 in South Farms (which, in 1859 was renamed Morris in his honor).  Morris’ father James was a deacon, and the son harbored hopes of entering the ministry.  An enthusiastic reader, young James routinely traveled to Bethlehem to borrow books from that town’s library.  His education, which began with these library books, was guided by three remarkable teachers.

Nathan Hale

At eighteen, Morris began studies under Bethlehem’s Dr. Joseph Bellamy, one of the leading theologians of the late 18th century.  It is reported that Morris also studied under Nathan Hale, before enrolling at Yale.  While at Yale, Timothy Dwight, later president of the university and one of the leading figures in American educational history, served as Morris’ tutor.

The Battle of Yorktown

Following his graduation, Morris returned home to help on the family farm, teach students in Litchfield, and ponder a future in the ministry.  The Revolutionary War, however, got in the way.  He served first in the Connecticut Militia, then in the Continental Army, fighting on Long Island, at White Plains, and at Germantown, Pennsylvania, where he was captured.  Upon receiving parole, he hurried to Yorktown, Virginia, where he served Alexander Hamilton during that climactic battle of the Revolution.

After the war he returned home and married Elizabeth Hubbard, with whom he raised five children.  His fellow townspeople elected him both justice of the peace and a selectman.  By 1790, however, when children began regularly showing up at his door, Morris put aside his ideas about the ministry and looked instead for a career in education.

A typical scene in an early co-educational school

Rare for his time, Morris accepted both boys and girls as students.  This sparked significant discussion, as many believed that education would cause women to lose sight of their more traditional roles.  In 1794, a town hearing was held about the situation, and any charges against Morris were dismissed.

The foundation of the Morris Academy

The foundation of the Morris Academy

By 1800, Morris’ school had grown so large that a formal structure was needed.  Wealthy subscribers were enlisted from the area to subsidize the $1,200 cost of the building, which opened on November 28, 1803.  (The building stood on the property where the James Morris School stands today)  By that time, Morris had educated students from all of the New England states except Rhode Island, as well as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and the West Indies.  He averaged between 50 and 75 students a year.

While Morris died in Goshen in 1820 (he is buried in East Morris), the school remained open until 1888.  As Barbara Nolen Strong wrote in her 1976 book on the Morris Academy, “The Morris Academy is entitled to be called a pioneer institution because of its ‘open door’ policy in coeducation. It was not the first in the United States, not even in Connecticut, but none of the other early academies opened their doors as wide and kept them open as long. No other coeducational academy spread its influence so far.” In a fitting gesture to the impact of James Morris on the community, the town of South Farms changed its name to Morris in 1859.

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Gallows Lane and the Execution of Barnett Davenport

Street names are often guides to a town’s past.  In Litchfield’s case, this is perhaps most graphically illustrated with Gallows Lane.

Most town residents have heard the story that the street got its name because executions once took place there.  The historian – trained to be a skeptic – questions this piece of lore.

But it’s true.  And the story reveals crimes of a bloody nature we don’t often associate with our forefathers.

Barnett Davenport was born in the Merryall section of New Milford in 1760.  At 16 he joined the Continental Army to fight in the American Revolution.  He served under George Washington, and was at Valley Forge, Fort Ticonderoga, and Monmouth Court House.  He had always been a troubled youth and was a convicted horse thief.  Perhaps because of his demons, or because he had simply had enough of war, Davenport deserted and returned home.

Early American grist mill

He took a job with Caleb Mallory, a farmer who operated a grist mill along what is now Route 109 in Washington.  Mallory and his wife Jane had two daughters who lived in the area.  One of the daughters had three children – a daughter Charlotte, 9, and sons John and Sherman, 6 and 4.  In February 1780, Davenport convinced Caleb’s two daughters to go on a trip.  With the two away from the house, Davenport entered the home on the night of February 3rd, and beat Caleb, Jane and Charlotte to death.  Looting the house of its valuables, he set it ablaze as he left, killing John and Sherman.

Reverend Judah Champion

Davenport escaped on foot and hid out in a cave in Cornwall for six days.  Captured, he was brought to Litchfield where he was arraigned and gave a full confession, likely to Reverend Judah Champion of Litchfield’s Congregational Church.  The confession remains in the archives at the University of Virginia.

Roger Sherman

He was put on trial, which was presided over by Roger Sherman, who previously had served on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence.  Sherman sentenced Davenport to forty lashes and then to be hanged.  The execution took place at Gallows Hill on May 8, 1780.  In 1768, a Native American named John Jacob had been hanged there for the murder of another American Indian.  In 1785, Thomas Goss of Barkhamsted was also hanged on the hill, for the murder of his wife.

Davenport would likely have been led in a procession from the Litchfield jail to the site of the gallows.  It was quite common in early America for large crowds to turn out for an execution, as it was considered an opportunity for moral instruction for children.  The sheriff would read the sentence to the condemned, who would be hooded and mounted on the stand.  A minister would give a sermon.  With the noose placed around Davenport’s head, the trap door was sprung.  The body would be left hanging for some time, a reminder to passersby of the dangers of immorality.

Gallows Hill, frightening now only to Litchfield runners, was once a site terrifying to the condemned.

Gallows Lane was once called Middle Street and at 28 rods (154 feet) was the widest in Litchfield.  Like many other streets, its name speaks to a dramatic past.

For more information on Barnett Davenport, see a Danbury News-Times article on the excellent work of a New Milford historian:  http://www.newstimes.com/local/article/New-Milford-historian-unearths-account-of-984284.php

Hidden Nearby: Goshen’s Liberty Pole

Note: Occasionally Hidden in Plain Sight will leave the environs of Litchfield in search of the historical landscape of the area.

On this Fourth of July, a marker on East Street North in nearby Goshen, Connecticut, allows us a window on to past celebrations of American freedoms and liberties.

John Adams famously believed that the signing of the Declaration of Independence “ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” He was not far from the mark; he erred only in believing that the celebrations would be held on July 2nd, the day the Continental Congress approved the document.

Raising a Liberty Pole in New York City, 1765

In Adams’ time, American patriots expressed their desire for freedom with liberty poles. Liberty poles were a common sight in the years before and during the American Revolution. These were tall, wooden poles, planted in the ground; they were different from regular flag poles in that they were usually topped by either a banner emblazoned with patriotic phrases or a liberty cap. (Liberty caps were conical-shaped hats, often made out of felt or other soft material; they were associated with the quest of Roman slaves for freedom.)

Liberty poles were often seen flying a red ensign; this was a signal for patriots to assemble to discuss the latest acts of British oppression. Naturally, British authorities objected to this means of communication between rebels, and the poles were destroyed. Just as quickly, however, they were rebuilt by Americans – especially the Sons of Liberty.

A French liberty pole

Liberty poles became symbolic of liberty, freedom and independence, and their use caught on in France during the French Revolution. They were also used as symbols of protest by farmers in western Pennsylvania during the period of the Whiskey Rebellion, from 1791 to 1794. As a symbol of liberty and freedom, the liberty pole was a popular image on 19th century American coins. In this 1857 “half dime,” the seated figure of Liberty holds a liberty pole topped with a liberty (or Phyrgian cap) in her left hand:

One wonders about Goshen’s liberty pole; it seems unlikely that there were many people in the area to gather around it in 1776. Why was it erected at this site, and not in the center of town? Was it, perhaps, simply a patriotic statement by an individual? Has there been a dramatic shift in the population center of Goshen? (There are other remnants of colonial Goshen further north on East Street.) Still, the town was proud of its patriotic activity in the Revolutionary Era and chose to commemorate it for the nation’s bicentennial. The town’s history records the events of July 4, 1876:

“In the early morning a company had assembled at the spot where a liberty pole had stood during the Revolution, and with appropriate ceremonies the stars and stripes were raised and flung to the breeze.”

One hundred years later, Goshen’s liberty pole was rededicated, as part of the official celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. A stone marker was dedicated, bearing the official seal of the Bicentennial, a flag pole erected behind it, and a time capsule buried.

We will celebrate the 236th anniversary of the nation’s independence in the style predicted by Adams – with pomp, parades, sports, and illuminations. Still, it is worth a trip to Goshen to be reminded of how freedom and liberty were celebrated in a simpler time.