The Continental Congress declared the first National Thanksgiving in 1777, but the Harpe brothers weren’t thankful for anything except another day to thieve and kill.
Recently I encountered the story of the pair who are perhaps America’s first serial killers, though they exhibited some horrifying characteristics of spree killers, too. What must make it trickier for historians to be definite is that so many of the witnesses ended up dead, the men and their eventual “wives” all changed their names, and much was given in oral and phonetically spelled reports long after the fact. Because there’s dispute over a fair few details, I’m trying only to put down things I read sourced in multiple places and noting where a claim stands alone. Mistakes are mine, of course, but I have to say, every source is different enough in the details to raise questions!
The more I dug, the more confused I got, but also the more fascinated by how weird and awful and inconsistent the behaviors of these guys. The consensus seems to be that they were responsible from anwhere from 25 to 40 murders, but I think it could easily be more, and I’ll tell you why. Then you can tell me where you think these buckskinned freaks fit in the taxonomy of villains. This is a long one, but that makes it worth two regular posts, right? So, fill up your mug of what-have-you. . .
First of all, the Harpes might not have really been brothers, but first cousins instead who emigrated (or whose parents did) from Scotland. One account says the Harpes are even sons of a Revolutionary War soldier and a Negro slave. They may have been left on their own at a young age, turned out from their homestead and into the forest and caves where they’d live most of their lives.
These killers and career criminals covered a lot of ground, zigzagging through Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and southern Illnois as they desired or required. Their wide scope of operations and the wildness of the country surely protected them from earlier discovery, since people weren’t able to compare the blood-stained notes. Also, there wasn’t any federal law enforcement organization as such until the formation of the federal marshals by judiciary Act in 1789. Those who hunted the Harpes tended, instead, to be posses made up of men who’d have to neglect their own livelihoods in the pursuit. Until it became a matter of widespread public safety, personal revenge, and a reward from the governor, once the Harpes left a region, the residents were too relieved to see them gone to bother tracking where they went.
We know the elder by either 2 or 6 years, William, changed his name to Micajah (mee-KAH-zhuh), and the junior, Joshua, changed his name to Wiley. (Records also have this spelled McAjor and Willie, plus the final ’e’ in Harp drops in places.) Micajah was also called Big Harpe and was six feet or more of hulking brute with black hair and a fierce expression. He liked carrrying a tomahawk and often went bareheaded. Wiley was Little Harpe, a slightly smaller redhead, who also disliked hats and was more cunning but as fond of weapons. They both spent years among renegade Cherokee who attacked both settlers and their own tribes. Micajah was said to be the brawn and Wiley the brains, though they were well-matched in viciousness. Both were known to wear buckskins and even scalps at their belts.
They would still have been boys in early 1780 when they’re reputed to have thrown in with the British Legion of the Tory army, perhaps partly because their father(s) had been known loyalists, but probably most to enjoy the sanctioned rapes and plunder of richer colonial targets. It’s also said by some that the pair were so brutal that they were eventually mustered out of the forces commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, but not before they attacked a partriot’s farm in North Carolina and a Captain James Wood, likely father of the farmowner, rescued one of four teenaged girls from abduction by them.
Some say it was Wood’s own daughter Susan (to be called Sally by the Harpes) who was later kidnapped successfully to become Big Harpe’s common-law wife, joining an earlier abducted “wife” Maria Davidson, also called Betsy. Whether Susan was the daughter and original girl rescued by Captain Wood, thus exciting the Harpes’ determination to claim this particular target, we know she was eventually their consort. Sometimes, it’s reported that the first two “wives” were sisters themselves named Roberts. Both the women and the Harpes used the name Roberts at times.
After the 1781 defeat of the British at Yorktown, the Tory-supporting Harpes left the Carolinas as outlaws along with the Chickamauga Cherokees whose warring against settlers was also backed by Britain. They went to live in southeastern Tennessee, near the border with Georgia, in an Indian village called Nickajack. The years after the war were hard on Loyalists, and some of the American Revolutionaries or Patriots took made a vocation of killing anyone who’d supported the British in the war. If retribution like this made the Harpe boys orphans, it might also have done so for the Roberts girls, who could have escaped with them into the wilderness where they lived together for anywhere from seven to twelve years. These anti-Loyalist forces would also make up some of the posses later hunting the Harpes.
Some say the women helped the Harpes with their crimes. Whether their hands got dirty, they were sometimes reported by survivors to be present, to have been used as props to relax prospective victims’ suspicions about the men. Perhaps the women had been abused since girlhood into contracting some strain of love or were too scared to leave, but they did stick faithfully with the Harpes, even when they had chances to escape and even though the men repeatedly killed their children after the women’s pregnancies. One of these is the only murder Micajah is reported, from an account of his death, to have said he regretted. He swung an infant daughter of his or Wiley’s against a tree trunk to quiet her crying. At least three children are said to have survived their fathers, but the majority of the offspring seem to have been slaughtered soon after birth.
After those years out of civilization during which they might have robbed and killed without count, the communal family seemed to try to settle down, living in a cabin with land in Knox County, mid-Tennessee, which some say they constructed and some say they rented. There appears to have been an escalation or regression after 1797—or perhaps there was just better documentation—starting when Little Harpe legally married pretty Sarah/Susannah Rice, the daughter of a frontier preacher, and added her to the harem.
The Harpes apparently tried homesteading and farming, but ended up killing a neighbor who was said to be looking too hard at their women. In other reports, their swift decline was caused by their reversion to thieving ways, stealing pigs and setting fires to barns in their wake. It’s further proposed that the obvious livestock- and horse-stealing was what really inflamed the populace against them for good. One robbed neighbor, Edward Tiel, followed them with a team of men into the Cumberland Mountains and actually caught the Harpes, but the pair escaped into the woods 5 miles before Knoxville. Since Tiel’s party lived, I have to wonder if the Harpes escaped or bought their way out. It would not be the last time the pair slipped custody, but if anyone had known the full list of deeds of the men they were detaining, probably no one would’ve taken the trouble of holding them. Once the Harpes had fallen off the wagon—so to speak—they launched a genuine spree. Again, these might not have been any worse or numerous than previous periods of atrocity, but the names of the victims became known and the stories got widespread attention.
For a time, the outlaws and their families sheltered at southern Illinois’ Cave-in-Rock, a massive limestone complex of passages emerging at cliffs along the Ohio River and bearing the enticement of a sign that read “Liquor Vault and House for Entertainment.” The Harpes were able to hide stolen livestock herds and other fruits of their raids inside, but they weren’t alone. Actually, given the amounts they stole, they would’ve needed connections to liquidate it all anyway. They definitely had associates with whom they operated and dealt from time to time, and this labyrinthine space, in fact, they shared with riverboat pirates, who routinely ambushed and robbed passing flatboats.
However, these pirates weren’t routinely sadistic, and after seeing the Harpes send a naked boat captain on horseback over a cliff for laughs, they evicted the newcomers. A couple of these pirates would hear from the Harpes unpleasantly later.
There seems at least to be this indication that the Harpes held grudges and sought out those who wronged them in an organized, premeditated way. Some say they let a preacher live out of respect for his good work and warriors’ respect for George Washington whose name was written in his bible’s flyleaf. But Thomas Langford was a noble, if naive, young man and they just dumped his corpse off the side of the road after he bought their breakfasts. A very well-known Kentuckian and Revolutionary soldier’s 13 year-old son was chopped into pieces and put down a sinkhole. Revenge? Since all the Harpes took was a bag of flour from the grist mill where the boy was working, the goal certainly wasn’t profit.
Besides the occasional targeting, there are plenty of what seem to have been victims of opportunity, and the methods of murder were tremendously variable. They gutted some victims, filling the abdomens with rocks and sinking them in rivers. One of these may have been a squealer about their hog-stealing, but it’s hard to say that such effort was merited because they cared so much about being discovered. In another instance, they killed a black boy named Coffey (another head bashed against a tree) and didn’t even take his horse or the grain he carried, so that might’ve been whim as well. Obviously, he and his possessions were found and not well-hidden, because we know about them.
They killed farmers, groups of settlers, and travelers without concern for gender or age, whether slaves or free men. The rapes don’t seem to have stopped either, though it seems they were more likely now simply to kill their victims and they didn’t pick up any more wives. It’s also proposed that because they were now renowned horse-thieves is the reason they couldn’t let witnesses live, but sometimes, it seems to me like it was all about the killing, as in the case of the boy whose horse they didn’t bother to take. They weren’t merely thuggish though, but crafty, because Wiley was known to be a decent talker and they even posed as preachers to trick their victims into giving them access. I’d say they took joy in deceit and bloody mischief. Residents armed themselves against the stories they heard, but no one subdued them.
The Harpes would ride along various traces, the name for the paths through these thickly-wooded, sparsely-populated regions, until they found other riders to join. They’d even bring their wives along, and in those cases, their pitch was that there would be added safety in numbers, and of course, they had women to protect. Then, they’d rob and shoot their chivalrous companions later. It’s not clear from what I’ve read whether they carried all their wealth intact, preferring stealing to spending, but they’re not reported to have been flashy or especially finely turned out. Sure, it might’ve been too dangerous to show up at the general store, but then why not leave the area entirely for new territory? It seems most people reported the Harpe family looked shabby and dirty, so where did all the money go? At least part of it apparently made one jailer a wealthy man, and as I mentioned, I’ve got my doubts about Edward Tiel.
They killed Hugh Dunlop after he declared his intent to hunt them down. Then, the governor of Kentucky put a $300 bounty on their heads. Didn’t stop them from showing up trailworn at Farris’s (also Pharris) public house, harassing the mistress, later robbing and killing the young man who’d bought them breakfast to assist the lady and calm the situation. Thomas Longford probably accepted their offer of secure company along the road as a form of recompense. When the body was, as it happens, found by cattle drovers and brought back to the same pub that had hosted the Harpes, another posse was formed. This posse caught up with the extended family on Christmas Day of 1798 and imprisoned them in Danville, Kentucky.
It’s suggested that since all 3 women were pregnant and due at the time that the Harpes allowed themselves to be arrested so the women would have a warm, safe cell for birthing. It doesn’t tally with the men killing their own children, but by early March, the last woman had delivered. They and the infants were left behind, and the men escaped after they seem to have lavishly bribed the jailer to set them free. The jailer is described as having sudden wealth, quitting and buying a good farm, which implies more than a coin or two. I’d think they’d have been searched when put in prison, but, at any rate, the women and children were decided to be unwilling accomplices. They eventually freed from Danville and even given clothes and a horse in charity. Yes, they could’ve run, but they didn’t. They sold the horse, bought a canoe and paddled back up the Ohio to Cave-in Rock to await their monstrous mates, who killed indiscriminately on their merry way to the family reunion. Soon after rejoining the women and childred, the Harpes were hitting the road again to the devastation of many.
Bradbury’s Ridge, Tennessee, and Brassel’s (Brasil’s) Knob would both be named for later Harpe victims and the places those men’s bodies were discovered. It was a survivor of the latter attack who sounded the general alarm that the Harpes were back in action. The federal marshals had been established, but the Harpes were willing to live rough and there weren’t enough marshals to track them across 4 states. Whenever the Harpes did stop into civilization, usually because of some past association—the results were bloody. That’s partly why I don’t believe they were any more peace-loving when in the wild. I think anyone they ran across was vulnerable, and that means the number of victims, including local Indians and travelers who weren’t named or reported, could be so much higher.
The Harpes fled later to the cabin of Moses Stegal (also Stegall), a former riverboat pirate from Cave-in-Rock. They pretended to be itinerant Methodist preachers looking for a bed, killed another snoring traveler sleeping with them in the loft, then slit the throat of Stegal’s infant to keep it quiet while Mrs. Stegal was in another room cooking for them. Some people suggest that Mrs. Stegal knew them well enough, but wouldn’t out them to the rest of the guests. They killed her, too, before leaving, and set the house on fire, as reported by a laborer. Moses Stegal joined with Captain John Leiper, another man who may have had former criminal acquiaintance with the Harpes, and they tracked them down. Revenge, of course, but perhaps even among career criminals there’s a kind of bloodlust that’s intolerable? And perhaps only people familiar with how the Harpes had operated over years had a chance of finding them.
Wife Sarah later reported that Big Harpe orginally wanted to kill the remaining three children to make running from Stegal’s posse easier, but didn’t. It was the smoke from their fire in a cave that alerted their pursuers. Wiley had slipped away earlier to kill a wayfarer, it was said, but Micajah jumped on a horse (possibly Wiley’s horse, which was slower than the fleet one Wiley actually took) and rode off. The kids and women were restrained by being tied to trees, but the posse didn’t have enough men to chase down both brothers. They went after the fleeing Big Harpe, who got shot through the arm and into the side. In another strangeness, it’s reported that Moses Stegal, new widower, gave him water to drink from his own shoe.
Big Harpe admitted to eighteen murders, then was shot again and decapitated. His head was put either on a pike or in the fork of a tree in a place called Harpe’s Hill or Harpeshead, depending upon who you’re reading. I read in one place that Big Harpe also said that he and his brother had buried loads of treasure all throughout Kentucky, which inspired loads of treasure hunters. They were known to be cave-dwellers, and given the amount of thieving accorded in some accounts, before I read this, I’d wondered where the wealth went. Buckskin’s thrifty.
Before his death, Big Harpe gave a reason for his crimes. One of the wives said the men were upset over some injustice, but Big Harpe said he and his brother hated humanity “and agreed with each other to destroy as many persons as they could.”
Little Harpe would be sharp enough to last 4 more years. He rejoined the Cave-in-Rock gang of pirate Samuel Mason who’d since also become a “land pirate” working along the Natchez Trace. Little Harpe began calling himself Setton and making sure to rape and kill at least one young woman on the way. Mason, a former justice and ranger-gone bad, incurred a $2000 bounty on his head, and Wiley thought to claim it. Knowing people would recognize the pirate’s wolf tooth, he met up with his old compatriot, killed him with a tomahawk, and marched into town with the head packed in clay to collect the reward. The supposedly smarter Harpe was recognized not just by his face but by his own telltale scar from a bar fight at a “rowdy groggery.” He was caught, escaped, recaptured and hung with his accomplice in the scheme in February, 1804. His head was displayed on a pole along the Natchez road.
Families with the name Harpe, also Harper, changed their names to avoid Loyalist associations and in the aftermath of this murderous duo. It is unconfirmed, but rumored, that Wyatt Earp’s family was one.
RESOURCES, just in case you need more hideous Harpes, you can make up your own mind about what to think—
Here are some of the conflicting accounts I read, though many of them drew from the same source materials: TruTv’s “America’s First Serial Killers” by Katherine Ramsland, “The Vicious Harpes— First American Serial Killers” at Legends of America, “The Harpes” by Jason Walker English at The Past Whispers, Thomas B. Allen’s site for his book Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War, The Harpe Files of Don E. Harpe (Harp), a relative who’s written two books about his notorious forbears, “Big Harpe and Little Harpe” at the Murder by Gaslight blog. and US Marshals.gov. Some of these article have their own bibliographies, sharing the most contemporaneous account from Breazeale, J.W.M. Life As It Iis; or Matters and Things in General. Knoxville, TN: James Williams, 1842, and also The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock by Otto A. Rothert.
Clare Toohey is Clare2e here at CriminalElement.com and also blogs sporadically at Women of Mystery. She recently had a short, surreal crime story appear in Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She thinks if people only got their stories straight, the world would be much less interesting.