by lyle e davis
|Upper left: Micajah “Big Harpe,” below, “Wiley, “Little Harpe” and Micajah “Big Harpe,” Top right, Cave-in-The-Rock, where bands of thieves and murderers, including the Harpes, hid and preyed on river travelers such as those on the flatboat, left, inset.
We have had our share of murderous thugs of late . . . Charlie Manson, The Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Starkweahter, Charles Withman (the Texas Tower Sniper) . . . and the list goes on.
Few individuals, however, can match the bloodthirsty killings that formed the predicate for what we call today ‘serial killers.’
Toward the end of the 1700s in America, the territory known as Tennessee was a wild and woolly place. Adventurers, boatmen, traders and people just moving from one part of the country to another found their way through its thick forests. One of the central pathways was the Natchez or Chickasaw Trace, which connected lower parts of the Mississippi River to central Tennessee, e.g., Nashville to Natchez, and linked three rivers: the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi. At first, the Trace was simply a series of narrow trails used by deer and Native Americans, and for a while, one could travel only single-file on horseback. But as more people utilized it, the Trace broadened. Its heaviest use, according to the National Park Service, was from 1785 until 1820. Only 10 years later, it was abandoned as an official channel and it was nearly absorbed back into the woods, but today's Natchez Trace Parkway follows approximately the same route. Few drivers realize just how dangerous and bloody it once was — thanks in part to a pair of serial killers. It appears they were America’s first known serial killers and were called the Harp brothers, though they were neither brothers (they were cousins) nor were they Harps. They were Micajah "Big" Harpe and Wiley "Little" Harpe ), murderous outlaws who operated in Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois in the late 1700s. Though they were cousins they often passed themselves off as brothers.
In "The Devil's Backbone," a reference to the Natchez Trace, Jonathan Daniels describes its history. Early on, European-Americans unused to the wilderness relied on Choctaw, Chickasaw, or Cherokee scouts. Eventually, trading posts run by whites went up at various locations along the way. Many eminent people traveled this 440-mile trail, such as Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson, and explorer Meriwether Lewis (who died there at Grinder's Stand in 1809 and is buried there). Itinerant preachers saving souls also used the Trace, as did merchants seeking their fortune, and it thus became a lucrative area for highwaymen. One of the most notorious spots was Natchez-Under-the-Hill, a port to the Mississippi River.
The town drew gamblers, prostitutes and "Kaintucks," or frontiersmen from areas north, who sold their goods and boats, and then walked around with pockets full of cash. They drank the profits away and then started for home. But just outside the town limits, bandits awaited them, often in organized gangs, and among them were two men who grew notorious for their cut-throat ways — even to the other outlaws.
These two men were the Hart “brothers.” Both of their fathers were Scottish immigrants who had settled in Orange County, North Carolina. Micajah Harpe was born to John Harpe and his wife, while Wiley Harpe, who was actually named Joshua, was born to John’s brother, William and his wife. Soon after the arrival of the Harpes in America, they changed the spelling of their original name from “Harpe” to “Harp.”
The first documented rogues of the serial killer type were Micajah and Wiley Harpe. They slaughtered for fun and profit. Apparently the first account of their deeds came from James Hall, a judge in Shawneetown, who in 1828 wrote about how they spread death around Tennessee and Kentucky for about nine months. Then in 1855, T. Marshall Smith offered stories about their pre-rampage years. One historian referred to them as "the most brutal monsters of the human race."
Growing up near each other, the boys soon took up the nicknames of Big and Little Harp, as Wiley was much smaller than Micajah. The two left North Carolina for Virginia intending to find jobs as slave overseers; however, the American Revolution interrupted their career. The pair sided with the British, but their interest seemed to be more in violence and criminal activities than any sense of patriotic duty. Along with other like-minded irregulars, they apparently thrilled in the activities of burning farms, raping women, and pillaging the American patriots. When Little Harp attempted to rape a girl in North Carolina, he was shot and wounded by Captain James Wood; however, he survived.
Micajah, born in 1768, was tall, big-boned, and muscular, with a vicious countenance. Although he was frequently grimy, people could still see that he was a redhead. He liked to arm himself with dangerous weapons: a hunting knife, a tomahawk, and a rifle. He did not much care who he hurt or killed.
In 1780, the Harpes joined with the regular British troops and fought in several battles along the North and South Carolina borders. The next year, they left the army and joined up with a group of Cherokee Indians, raiding settlements in North Carolina and Tennessee and continuing their pillaging. When the colonies won and established their independence, the Harpes became outlaws. They now had little to lose, so rather than return home, they rode with gangs to plunder and steal, and then pushed their way west. Taking revenge on Captain James Wood, who had earlier wounded Little Harpe, the pair kidnapped his daughter, Susan Wood, and another girl named Maria Davidson. The women served as wives to the Harpes.
The pair, along with the brutalized women and four other men, then began to make their way to Tennessee. During the trip, a man named Moses Doss had the “audacity” to be over-concerned for the brutalized women. For his concern, he was killed by the Harpes.
They apparently came into Tennessee's Knox County some time between 1795 and 1797, settling close to a place called Beaver's Creek. By this time, says Doris Lane, they had killed five times — including four of their own children.
The group then settled in the Cherokee-Chickamauga village of Nickajack located southwest of modern-day Chattanooga, Tennessee. For the next dozen years, the Harpes, along with their “wives” lived in the Indian village. During this time, both of the captive women became pregnant twice and their children were killed by their fathers.
After the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, the Chickamauga and a break-away band of Cherokee continued to make war on American patriots and the Harpes were only too willing to help them, fighting in the Battle of Blue Licks, Kentucky, on August 19, 1782 and other smaller skirmishes.
In September 1794, the Americans planned to take the offensive against the Indians at Nickajack, but somehow, the Harpes got wind of the attack and fled before the patriots wiped out the village. The Harpes and their women then settled down at a new camp nearby, where they stayed for the next nine months, once again pillaging local villages in Tennessee. By the spring of 1797, they were living in a cabin on Beaver's Creek near Knoxville. That same year, Little Harpe married a local girl; a minister’s daughter, named Sarah Rice, and the other two women became the “wives” of Big Harpe.
Just over a year later, in late 1798, the Harpes would begin their murder spree, one of the most violent in the nation’s history. They first killed two men in Tennessee, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail. By December, they had moved on to Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland.
Unlike most outlaws of the time, they seemed to be more motivated by blood lust than financial gain, often leaving their victims disemboweled, filling their abdominal cavities with rocks, and sinking them in a river.
Next, a man named John Langford, who was traveling from Virginia to Kentucky, turned up dead and a local innkeeper pointed the authorities to the Harpes. The criminal pair was then pursued, captured, and jailed in Danville, Kentucky, but they managed to escape. When a posse was sent after them, the young son of a man who assisted the authorities, was found dead and mutilated.
On April 22, 1799, the Kentucky Governor issued a $300 reward on each of the Harpe heads. Fleeing northward, the Harpes killed two men named Edmonton and Stump. When they were near the mouth of the Saline River, they came upon three men who were encamped, and killed all three. The pair then made their way to Cave-In-The-Rock in southern Illinois, a stronghold of the river pirate, Samuel Mason. In the meantime, the posse was aggressively pursuing them, but unfortunately stopped just short of Cave-in-The-Rock.
Along with their wives and three children in tow, the Harpes holed up with the Samuel Mason Gang, who preyed on slow-moving flatboats making their way along the Ohio River. This place was a "natural fortress honeycombed with subterranean passages so large that the Harpes hid herds of cattle and horses in them."
However; though the Mason Gang could be ruthless, even they were appalled at the actions of the Harpes. After the murderous pair began to make a habit of taking travelers to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and throwing them off, they were asked to leave.
The Harpes then returned to Eastern Tennessee, where they continued their vicious murder spree in earnest. In July 1798, they killed a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey. Soon, more bodies were discovered including William Ballard, who had been disemboweled and thrown in the Holton River, James Brassel, who had his throat viciously slashed was discovered on Brassel’s Knob, and another man named John Tully was also found murdered.
In south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son were found dead with their heads axed, and in Logan County the Harpes killed a little girl, a young slave, and an entire family who were asleep in their camp. In August, a few miles northeast of Russellville, Kentucky, Big Harpe killed his daughter, by bashing her head against a tree, because the baby was crying.
That same month a man named Trowbridge was found disemboweled in Highland Creek and when they were given shelter at the Stegall home in Webster County, the pair killed an overnight guest named Major William Love, as well as Mrs. Stegall’s four-month old baby boy, whose throat was slit when it cried. When Mrs. Stegall screamed at the sight of her infant being killed, she too, was murdered.
In another county, the Harpes murdered Hugh Dunlap, who had threatened to arrest them. He'd apparently made it clear that he intended to bring them to justice, no matter what it took. For his trouble, he lost his life. Around the same time, a man named Ballard fell victim to the marauders, and they stuffed his body with stones before throwing it into a river. A man and his son were both slaughtered while out planting crops, as was most of a family camping near the Whippoorwill River. There was only one survivor, who ran. Around this time, Micajah also killed his (or Wiley's) four-month-old daughter by swinging her by the ankles to smash her head against a tree.
Wearing scalps in their belts and the buckskin of Native Americans, the Harpes sought ways to bring misery all around. They made no distinction among children, women or men as their victims, or between free men and slaves. They simply raped, thieved, and killed as opportunities arose.
Moving along the Cumberland Gap, the Harpes and their wives traveled on Boon's trace, a path that took them into Kentucky, toward Richland Creek. There they met a peddler named Peyton, who was taking goods via horseback to various settlements. He had quite a load, and the prospect of taking these items was too rich for the Harpes, so they killed him and confiscated everything he had, including his pack horse.
From there, they journeyed toward a public house for wayfarers, operated by a man named Pharris (or Farris).
They arrived early in the morning, dirty and ragged from days on the trail, and demanded breakfast. A young man name Thomas Langford, on his way to Virginia, was already eating his repast. Pharris' wife served food to the Harpes, but after they had eaten, they haggled over the price, insisting that they would not pay.
Langford intervened to defend her, since her husband was not there to do it, and the Harpes turned their wrath on him. But he stood his ground, determined to do what was right.
"You have no cause to argue with a lady," Langford said. "If you're short on funds, I have plenty of money and I'll pay for the food." His aim was to make them desist in their abuse of Mrs. Pharris. He clearly did not realize that he'd just been scammed, as well as targeted for further treatment; he had revealed too much about himself and had become a tantalizing morsel. The Harpes, spotting his naiveté, accepted his offer and he paid the bill. They pretended to be reconciled and even suggested that Langford travel with their entourage as protection against the dangers on the road. He readily accepted.
After breakfast, they all set off together, traveling several miles until they were beyond anyone's view. In an instant, the Harpes set upon young Langford, killing him and taking his money. They tossed his corpse on the side of the road, covering it with some brush, and went their way.
There it lay, decomposing, until some cattle drivers happened along. The cattle smelled it first and the herd took off in diverse directions, bellowing as if a lion were at their tails. The cattle drovers were clueless about what had startled them so suddenly, but they had little time to ponder it. They ran to catch the stray cattle and herd them back together. While engaged in this task, one of them discovered Langford's body and called to his cohorts. Those with the courage to venture close looked through the corpse's effects for some indication of his identity. On his clothing, they found his name: Thomas Langford
They used a blanket to gather up the remains and carried him to the nearest public house to try to get help. This happened to be the Pharris establishment. The family recognized him at once as their previous lodger, and they remembered that he had gone off with the bedraggled family who had raised such a row about the price of their food. It seemed clear to everyone what had happened: The Harpes had lured Langford away and then killed him for his money.
The killings continued as the Harpes fled west to avoid the posse, which included Moses Stegall, whose family the Harpes had killed earlier in the month. While the pair was preparing to kill another settler named George Smith, the posse finally tracked them down on August 24, 1799. Calling for their surrender, the two sped away, but Big Harpe was shot in the leg and the back. The posse soon caught up with him and pulled him from his horse.
One of his captors asked, "Why did you do this? Why kill all those people?"
Harpe's response, readily given, was a classic answer, one that many future serial killers would echo. He said that he and his brother had grown disgusted with all mankind "and agreed with each other to destroy as many persons as they could." Harpe admitted that he knew he would one day pay the ultimate price, but he was determined to slaughter as many people as he could before that happened.
As he lay dying, he confessed to 20 murders, he said that there was only one murder for which he bore remorse: the murder of his own child. He had killed it, he said, because its crying had annoyed him. (This may have been the baby he smashed into a tree.) Soon arriving on the scene, Mr. Stegall, appropriately, slowly cut off the outlaw’s head, ensuring he would suffer and suffer and suffer. Once account described Stegall as grabbing him by the hair and running the blade in a slow sawing motion across the back of his neck. Micajah definitely suffered, but one writer reports that he didn't cry out. Instead, he stared at Stegall "with a grim and fiendish countenance, exclaiming, 'You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.'" Retribution, perhaps, for just some of the pain and misery he had caused not only Mr. Stegall, but many other victims.
At the time of his death, Harpe was only 31 years old.
Later, Harpe’s head was hanged on a pole at a crossroads near Henderson, Kentucky. For years, the intersection where the pole stood was called Harpe's Head.
In the meantime, Little Harpe escaped and soon rejoined the Mason Gang pirates at Cave-in-Rock. Four years later, Little Harpe was using the alias of John Setton. When a large reward was offered for the head of their leader, Samuel Mason, Harpe, along with a fellow pirate named James May, killed Mason and cut off his head to collect the money. However, as they presented the head, they were recognized as outlaws themselves and arrested. The two soon escaped but were quickly recaptured, tried, and sentenced to be hanged. On February 8, 1804, Harpe and Hays were hanged and their heads cut off and placed high on stakes along the Natchez Road as a warning to other outlaws.
During their terrible crime spree the Harpes killed more than 40 men, women and children.
But, what happened to the three "wives" of the notorious Harpes?
On the day that Big Harpe was killed in August, 1799, the women were left at the camp. The three women, each having one child, were taken to Henderson and placed in an empty block house. On September 4th, all three were charged with being parties to the murders of Mary Stegall, her infant son, James, and Captain William Love. They were bound over for trial in Russellville, but were tried and released in October.
Sally Rice Harpe then returned to the Knoxville area to be with her father. She later married a highly respected man and raised a large family.
Susan Wood stayed in the Russellville area, where she lived a respectable life. She died in Tennessee.
Maria Davidson, who was by then going by the alias of Betsy Roberts, married a man named John Huffstutler in September, 1803. By 1828, they had moved to Hamilton County, Illinois, where they raised a large family and lived until their deaths in the 1860s.
After the atrocities committed by the Harpes, many family members changed their names so they wouldn’t be connected with the violent murderers.
Breazeale, J.W.M. Life As It Iis; or Matters and Things in General. Knoxville, TN: James Williams, 1842.
Daniels, Jonathan. The Devil's Backbone. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1989.
Jenkins, Judy, "Fearsome Twosome had a Reign of Terror in These parts," The Gleaner, March 27, 1988.
Musgrave, Jon. "Frontier Serial Killers: The Harpes," American Weekend, October 23, 1998, illinoishistory.com. Retrieved 6/5/06.
Kathy Weiser, Legends of America, April, 2010.The Vicious Harpes - First American Serial Killers