early as 1760 pioneer families set out from the eastern seaboard colonies
toward the Ohio Valley and the frontier of Mississippi and Alabama. One of
the most famous early frontiersmen was Daniel Boon of the Carolinas who settled
Kentucky. He and his group of pioneers blazed several trails across the Kentucky
and Tennessee wilderness into the Mississippi Valley area. Two of those trails
were known as the Wilderness Road and Boon's Trace. For many years to come
the pioneer settlers used these trails to reach their destinations.
After the American Revolution the lure of rich land and limitless forest drew
more and more people into the Mississippi Valley. By 1800 both banks of the
Ohio were dotted with settlements and the Mississippi was settled sporadically
down to Fort Mobile (Alabama). With more and more settlements, traders began
bi-yearly trips back and forth down the Mississippi. It would take them six
months to get down the river on the flat boat, and six months to travel by
foot or horseback back home, as the flat boats were not made to navigate up
river and were torn apart and the lumber used for building houses. The Natchez
Trace was the primary route back north and was used by all.
The dangers to the pioneer family and those traveling down the Mississippi
in search of trade were not limited to navigation of the muddy waters, or
the sturdiness of their vessel. Their trips were dangerous, not only on account
of the Indians whose hunting-grounds bounded their track on either side, but
also because the shores of both rivers (Ohio and Mississippi) were infested
with organized bandits, who sought every occasion to rob and murder.
Born in North Carolina, the sons of a Revolutionary War soldier and a Negro
slave, Micajah Harpe and Wiley Harpe, also known as Big Harpe and Little Harpe,
respectively, are the most infamous and despicable of these bandits. Although
historians sometimes contradict themselves on minor details, the basic facts
are consistent in every recantation. My research has led me to believe that
the Harpe brothers were more than likely the first serial killers on American
Paul Wellman in his 1964 book Spawn of Evil describes Big Harpe as being "above
the ordinary stature of man. His frame was bony and muscular, his breast broad,
his limbs gigantic. His clothing was uncouth and shabby, his exterior weatherbeaten
and dirty, indicating continual exposure to the elements." (29) His larger
than ordinary head and a face with "a kind of ferocity that made it exceedingly
repulsive." (29) His description of Little Harpe was similar except he had
red hair and "bore a hang-dog look of cunning and treachery." (29) As their
nicknames hint, Big Harpe was the bigger of the two. Historians agree that
Little Harpe was the more scheming of the two and Big Harpe was the brute
Their recorded history begins in 1795 when they left North Carolina heading
west. Two sisters accompanied them, Susan and Betsey Roberts. Susan claimed
to be the wife of Big Harpe and Betsy, according to The Outlaw Years by Robert
M. Coates, was wife to either of the Harpes, as the "mood seized her, or them."
From North Carolina the foursome traveled into Central Tennessee and associated
themselves with a renegade tribe of Cherokee Indians. "It was from the Indians,"
Coates writes that "they learned to strike with cunning and walk warily."
Moses Doss was the first known person murdered by the Harpes. Moses was a
friend of the Harpes and lived with them, the Indians, and their women in
the wilderness. His mutilated body was found on a trail leading to the Cherokee
Indian town of Nickajack. It is said that Micajah Harpe murdered Doss because
of the affection he was showing the Harpe women. Apparently the brothers did
not mind trading wives with each other, but not anyone else! It was shortly
after the murder was discovered that the Harpes learned of Captain Andrew
Jackson's (later President of the United States) planned attack on the Cherokees
of Nickajack village (in retaliation for the attacks on Nashville) that the
Harpes, their women, and four of their Indian friends, removed themselves
to their hideout in the Cumberland Mountains.
William Lambuth, a circuit rider preacher for the Methodist Church was the
next person who reported meeting the Harpes. In fact he was one of a few men
who ever cross their path and lived to tell about it. Wellman details Lambuth's
account of their meeting.
The Harpes while traveling on the Wilderness Road approached him. After robbing
him of his belongings and horse, Micajah Harpe was rifling through Lambuth's
Bible when he saw the name of George Washington on the flyleaf, just below
the owner's name. Big Harpe asked Lambuth if he had ever seen George Washington.
Lambuth replied that he had seen him once in Richmond. Big Harpe commented,
"[That] is a brave and good man, but a mighty rebel against the King!" (Rothert
Apparently Big Harpe was impressed that Lambuth had seen George Washington
and softened. When the Harpes realized that Lambuth was a preacher, they returned
all his belongings. "As the Harpes, by then joined by their women and drove
of livestock, made their exit for the woods, Lambuth heard the shout, 'We
are the Harpes'!" (Wellman 34) Thus, Lambuth eventually made his way to the
next settlement and related his story which soon was carried up and down the
frontier by the many emigrants and traders.
The Harpes were reported as settling down in the young town of Knoxville where
they managed for sometime to keep the appearance of honest settlers. They
built a cabin on a small tract of land along the Beaver Creek, a few miles
west of town. It is here that Little Harpe met and fell in love with Sally
Rice, the respectable daughter of a frontier preacher, and they were soon
The record shows that this fašade did not last long and it wasn't long before
the Harpes were stealing livestock. When some of their neighbors became suspicious
that the Harpes were the thieves and contacted the authorities, a series of
mysterious fires destroyed their barns and outhouses. Right after the fires,
the Harpes decided it was time to go, and stole a team of fine horses to take
with them. Although a posse tracked them down, the Harpes were able to escape
and as a result began their lives on the run. In the pioneer days, horse thieving
was as bad a crime as murder and perhaps that is why the Harpes from this
point forward, never left any of the victims alive to tell the story.
It was not long until the rogue band happened upon a small tavern operated
by a man named Hughes located on the bank of the Holston River (five or six
miles above Knoxville). It was here that they kidnapped a pioneer name Johnson
(his first name was never known) and killed him. Two days later the body of
Johnson was found. The murder was so grotesque that few would actually put
it into print. The Harpes "had ripped open the body of their victim, performed
the revolting act of pulling out his intestines, and filled the cavity with
stones, so that it would sink and stay down in the river." ( Wellman 40) This
method of getting rid of a dead body was repeated by the Harpes and was later
used by other madmen of the era, i.e., Mason, Hare, and Murrell. It became
the trademark of the land pirates or river pirates, as they were sometimes
After the murder of Johnson, the Harpes "lived like man-eating animals" and
had "a cannibal lust for blood". (Wellman 43) Their next victim was a lone
traveler named Peyton. Peyton was a peddler who traveled from settlement to
settlement selling his household wares. After killing Peyton they only took
his horse and a few of his belongings and left the rest, which clearly shows
that their motives were not just for profit.
The Harpes had no respect for a kind soul, as was evidence by their murder
of Stephen Langford. On December 12, 1789, the Harpes wandered up to a tavern
owned by John Farris on the banks of the Rockcastle River in Kentucky. Langford,
a guest at the tavern from the previous night was eating breakfast. When Langford
noticed two men and three pregnant women, Otto Rothert in The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock
reports, "they seemed objects of pity". (69) When Farris asked if the crude
looking group wanted breakfast, one of them answered they had no money. Feeling
brotherly love and compassion, Langford bought their breakfast. The innkeeper
reported that Langford left with the Harpes on their way through wilderness
country. When the Harpes came out of the wilderness Langford was not with
them; however his horse was.
It was soon thereafter that two young men named Bates and Paca were unfortunate
enough to cross paths with the Harpes. As was normal in those days, when people
met on the trails, they often spoken and advised of their plans. When Bates
and Paca mentioned to the Harpes they were headed to Logan's Station, that
became the Harpes destination as well. Susan Harpe, after her arrest in Russellville,
Kentucky, told how both Big Harpe and Little Harpe, after murdering the men,
took their clothes from the dead corpses and dressed in them, strutting around
and bragging about how pretty (purty) they were. It seemed that the rifle
shot killed Bates instantly, but when Little Harpe checked Paca, he was still
alive, so he split his head with a tomahawk.
As the bodies were being found, word spread through the territory like wild
fire. People were afraid of the Harpes. Soon a posse found the two men and
three pregnant women and took them back to Stanford (formerly Logan's Station)
where they were housed in the jail. While awaiting trial, two of the women
gave birth. Trial was set for April 15, but the Harpes had other plans. On
March 16 they escaped, leaving their women behind. Shortly after their escape,
the third woman gave birth. It wasn't long before the women were released
from jail and aided by the "kindly folk made up a collection of clothing and
money, and provided an old mare for them." (Coates 39-40)
The Governor of Kentucky presented James Ballenger an order authorizing him
to pursue the Harpes and granting permission to cross state boundaries in
order to execute this order. The search party separated into two groups, one
headed by Henry Scaggs who happened upon the homestead of Colonel Daniel Trabue,
a Revolutionary soldier and one of Kentucky's finest gentlemen. While discussing
their purpose, the Colonel was awaiting the return of his son, John Trabue,
a thirteen year old, who had been sent to the neighbors house to borrow some
flour and bean seeds. Time passed and the boy never returned. When the search
party went to look for the boy, they found evidence that the Harpes had killed
a calf and made moccasins. There was no sign of the boy and it wasn't until
several weeks later that his body, cut into pieces, was found in the bottom
of a sinkhole.
The pioneers of the territory were afraid to step outside of their homes as
news of these terrible murders spread. Finally, the Governor of Kentucky passed
a proclamation calling for the capture of the Harpes, dead or alive. Before
the proclamation had time to circulate throughout the territory, the Harpes
had killed a man named Donley and had butchered another named Stump about
eight miles below Bowling Green.
The Harpes and their women headed into lower Green River country and worked
their way to Cave-in-Rock, Ohio. The number of dead they left in their wake
is unknown, but shortly before reaching the cave, they killed a Mr. Potts
near the mouth of the Saline River.
Cave-in-Rock was known by all to be a haven for outlaws and due to the various
search parties looking for the Harpes, all the outlaws returned to their haven,
causing it to be a bit crowded. The "Harpes were driven from the cave by the
other band of outlaws." (Rothert 94) It seems that the Harpes were too brutish
and bloodthirsty for even the outlaws. During the short time they were there,
they Harpes robbed a flatboat, killing three of its four occupants. The fourth
was stripped naked, put on his horse, and pushed from a cliff 100 feet high.
The horse and man lay broken on the rough rocks of the river. This outraged
their fellow outlaws who were mainly just thieves and not murderers. "It was
only the pity that was felt for the women and children that saved the Harpes
from being killed." (Rothert 69) The Harpes were told to leave. It is assumed
the time frame was May 1799.
In July 1799, another cruel murder of a farmer named Bradbury was discovered
and a few days later a young boy was killed while he was hunting stray cows
in the woods. It is reported that the Harpes bashed the boy's head against
a tree spilling his brains. Two days later they killed William Ballard. When
his body was found it showed signs of disembowelment. After this series of
murderers, the Harpes left that area and headed to Harriman Junction. On July
29, they met James and Robert Brassel on a stretch of road near Brassel's
Knob. When the Harpes spoke to the Brassels they told them they were bounty
hunters looking for the dreaded Harpes. The Brassel brothers quickly told
them of the murder William Ballard and the Coffey boy. Needless to say, the
brothers were attacked with only Robert getting away.
Robert ran through the woods until he met up with a party of men who were
traveling to Knoxville. He persuaded the men to help him save his brother
and they reluctantly agreed as they only had one gun to protect themselves.
When they returned to the spot, they were horrified to find that James had
been beaten to death and his throat cut. They followed the tracks, which indicated
the Harpes had gone towards Knoxville. A few miles down the path, the party
ran into the Harpes with their women and children. The men were scared and
didn't confront them. The Harpes continued on their trek to Tennesssee.
The citizens of Tennessee were alarmed as they realized by the murder of John
Tully that the Harpes were back in their territory. Every man, woman, and
child was carrying a weapon of some sort. Soon Colonel Trabue, father of the
young boy that was cut to pieces during one of the Harpes rampages, was arranging
messengers to spread the word that the Harpes were back and to call upon the
citizens to help in their capture. Each messenger "spread the news along his
route, and from every settlement he passed, the report "The Harpes are here"
was hurriedly sent out." (Wellman 83) The warning in a short time had reached
every family in Kentucky and many in Tennessee. Soon the newspapers were publishing
accounts of the Harpes crimes. Although the word was out and many were gathering
to search for the Harpes, the despicable band of barbarians continued on their
The trail of bodies led the posse to believe they were headed toward Russellville
(Russell County, Kentucky) to the home of Mr. Roberts, father of two of the
women, and when the body of John Graves and his thirteen-year-old son were
found they knew they were right. The Harpes, using Graves' own axe, split
open the heads of both and threw their bodies in the brush surrounding the
house. Soon afterward the bodies of two children were found. Upon entry into
Logan County, the two Harpe men and two Cherokee Indians raided an encampment
of settlers, killing all but one man who escaped and ran for help. When he
returned to the camp with assistance, the mutilated bodies of seven people,
five adults and three children, were found.
Apparently Big Harpe did not mind killing children as he killed his own child
right in front of her mother. Otto Rothert details the murder as follows:
"Big Harpe snatched it - Susan's infant, about nine months old - from its
mother's arms, slung it by the heels against a large tree by the path-side,
and literally bursting its head into a dozen pieces, threw it from him as
far as his great strength enabled him, into the woods." (105)
The Harpes were next seen in Henderson County, Kentucky, where they rented
a cabin on a small farm on Canoe Creek. Henderson County was a neighborly
community and had just rid itself of several "rascals" and the citizens were
unsuspecting of the Harpes until one day when an Indian Fighter named Slover
heard the click of a gun while traveling through the woods and turned to see
the two Harpe men pointing their rifles at him. Being trained to retreat in
situations as this, he was able to get away and tell his neighbors. A day
or two later a man named Trowbridge disappeared (and some months later one
of the Harpe women told that he was killed and his body sunk in the stream).
During that time, the Harpes sent their women and children to one of their
many hiding places. Slover was suspicious of the Harpes and sent spies to
watch their day to day activity. Unbeknownst to Slover, the Harpes were aware
they were being watched and made their day as ordinary settlers. After the
spies retreated, the Harpes were again on the move.
In order to be discreet, Big Harpe and Little Harpe disguised themselves as
Methodist preachers. About fifteen miles into their journey, they stopped
at the home of James Tompkins. Tompkins invited the "preachers" to supper
and Big Harpe, to ward off suspicion, said a lengthy prayer before the meal.
In making conversation, one of the Harpes asked their host about his supply
of vension. Tompkins told the visitors that he had no wild meat, as he had
no powder for his gun. Big Harpe removed his powder horn and gave a teacup
full of powder to Mr. Tompkins. Thanking their host, they left.
Their destination was to the home of Squire Silas McBee, justice of the peace,
who was active in the hunt for them. They went to his house bent on butchering
him. It just so happened that Squire McBee had a large pack of hunting dogs
and when the Harpes started sneaking around, the dogs attacked and the Harpes
Next they headed to the home of Moses Stegall, a comrade in various crimes,
and found only his wife and four-month-old son home. Also visiting the Stegall
home was Major William Love, a surveyor, who was lodging in the loft in the
barn. When the Harpes arrived, Mrs. Stegall did not address them by their
real names. Major Love had no idea he was about to dine with the predators.
Dinner and conversation ensued, with the Harpes bringing up the subject of
the murderous outlaws who were prowling around the neighborhood. All three
men slept in the loft that night with Major Love being the first to fall asleep.
Apparently snoring bothered them as the man was found with his brains bashed
in. The next morning the Harpes asked Mrs. Stegall to make breakfast for them,
and when she would first have to tend to her sick child, they volunteered
to rock the baby while she cooked. After she placed their breakfast on the
table, she went to the crib to check on her baby and found that his throat
had been cut from ear to ear. The Harpes did not want the wailing of the broken-hearted
mother to disturb their breakfast, so with the same knife, they split her
throat, finished their breakfast, pilfered through the house for loot, and
set it on fire. They took two horses from the Stegall farm.
After leaving the farm, the Harpes hid in the woods along the trail, hoping
that Squire McBee would see the fire, investigate and fall into their trap.
Instead, two men Hudgens and Gilmore, came along and the Harpes accused them
of murdering the Stegalls. The Harpes told the men they would have to appear
before Squire McBee. When the men, thinking they had nothing to fear from
Squire McBee, started walking toward McBee's house, Big Harpe shot Gilmore
in the back of the head. Hudgens, upon seeing this, started running, but was
overtaken by Little Harpe, who beat his brains out with a gun.
The murderers went back to their hiding place watching for McBee but when
they saw a party of four or five men heading down the trail toward McBee's
house, they realized the fire had been discovered and news was spreading.
They made their escape unnoticed.
In the meantime, a party was organizing to search for the Harpes, joined by
Moses Stegall, who had just learned of the murder of his family. Also joining
the search party was James Thompkins, the gentlemen who dined the "preachers".
For two days and nights the posse tracked the outlaws until finally they were
spotted up on a ridge, standing by their horses. When the villains spotted
the possee, they each mounted their horses and went in opposite directions.
A search of the area resulted in finding the Harpe camp and only Little Harpe's
woman remained. When questioned, she said that Big Harpe had just left after
giving each of his women a mount (horse). The pursuit continued and Big Harpe
was found about two miles from camp on a ridge traveling with the other women.
When Big Harpe saw his pursuers, he abandoned the women and took out on his
own. As the possee prepared to give chase, Leiper, the best shot of all of
the possee, borrowed Tompkins gun, as he was having trouble with his gun due
Soon the posse caught up with Big Harpe. As they advanced, firing shots, it
was evident that Big Harpe was shot in the leg. Still the chase continued
and as Big Harpe stopped to reload his weapon, "Leiper took unerring aim,
and fired - and the same powder that the outlaws had a few days previously
given Tompkins, now sped the ball that mortally wounded Big Harpe." (Wellman
103) The shot severed his spine but he didn't quit fighting. He tried his
gun, which wouldn't shoot. Then he grabbed a tomahawk and threw it. The
outlaw tried to run but the possee soon caught up with him lying on the ground.
As he lay dying he begged for water and Stegall took his shoe and retrieved
water from a nearby brook and gave it to him. Stegall took his knife out and
showed it to Big Harpe and told him that he intended on cutting his head off
with it to compensate for the murder of his wife and only child. As the possee
waited for Big Harpe to die, Stegall took a gun and shot him in the side and
death came quickly. Then he proceeded to cut his head off and placed it in
a sack. Susan Roberts was forced to carry the head on a stick for miles back
to the nearest settlement where it was nailed to a forked tree on the trail
near Robertson's Lick and thereafter that point was known as Harpe's Head.
There is a tale of an old woman that years later took the head down and pulverized
it putting it into some home remedy to cure some ailment. Coates sums it up
best when he states:
Whether the tale is true or not, no one knows: it would have been strangely
fitting, certainly, had the head of the madman been pestled and powdered at
last to such a crazy purpose. (67)
The three women eventually made decent lives for themselves, taking on new
names. Little Harpe continued in his life of crime, joining with Samuel Mason
in his terrorization of the settlers along the Natchez Trace in Mississippi
and was eventually hung in Natchez.