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 makes 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 of the reporting was oral and phonetically-spelled 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 to note where a claim stands alone. Mistakes are mine, of course, but every source is different enough in the details to raise questions. The agreed-upon part is that these men were monstrous, bloodthirsty, and cruel, killing scores of people, if not many untold more.
The more I dug, the more confused I got, but also the more fascinated by the weird and awful and inconsistent behaviors of these guys. The consensus seems to be that they were responsible from anwhere from 25 to 40 murders, but it could easily be more. I’ll explain why, then you can tell me where you think these buckskinned freaks fit into the taxonomy of villains. This is a long one, 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 were sons of a Revolutionary War soldier and a Negro slave. They may have been left on their own at a very 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, where speread-out people weren’t able to compare blood-stained notes. Also, there wasn’t any federal law enforcement organization as such until the formation of the federal marshals by the Judiciary Act of 1789. Those who hunted the Harpes tended, instead, to be posses made up of men who’d have to neglect their own homes and livelihoods during the pursuit. In the early days, 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 also called Little Harpe, a slightly smaller and leaner redhead, who also disliked hats and was more cunning, but just as fond of weapons. Together as young men, they 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 prefer buckskins and even to wear scalps at their belts.
They would still have been boys or just teens 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 to be loyalists, but probably most of all 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 those forces commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, but not before they attacked a partriot’s farm in North Carolina. It was there that a Captain James Wood, likely the father of the farmowner, rescued one of four teenaged girls from abduction by the Harpes.
Some say it was Wood’s own daughter Susan (to be called Sally by the Harpes) who was later kidnapped again to become Big Harpe’s common-law wife, joining an earlier abducted “wife” Maria Davidson, also called Betsy. If Susan was once-rescued by Captain Wood, perhaps that excited the Harpes’s determination to (re)claim this particular target, but we know she was eventually their consort. Sometimes, it’s reported that the first two “wives” were sisters themselves, surnamed named Roberts. Both the women and the Harpes used the surname Roberts at times. With the Harpes, what isn't confusing is twisted.
After the 1781 defeat of the British at Yorktown, the young Tory-supporting Harpes left the Carolinas as outlaws, along with the Chickamauga Cherokees whose warring against settlers had also been 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 made a vocation of killing anyone who’d supported the British in the war. Anti-Loyalist forces would also make up some of the posses who later hunted the Harpes. The Harpe boys and their girls seem to have lived together in the wilderness, in between robbery and brutality, for anywhere from seven to twelve years, and for much of that time, we have no body count.
Some say the women helped the Harpes with their crimes. 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 for the Harpes, or were too scared to leave, but they did stick faithfully by them. That means even when they had chances to escape and even though the men repeatedly killed their children after the women’s pregnancies. One of these babies 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 their offspring seem to have been slaughtered for expedience soon after birth.
After those years outside 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 in eastern Tennessee, which some say they constructed and some say they rented. But then, there appears to have been an escalation or regression after 1797—or perhaps there was just better documentation—and it starts when Little Harpe legally married pretty Sarah/Susannah Rice, the daughter of a frontier preacher, and added her to the harem.
With the third wife, the Harpes apparently were trying to settle down to homesteading and farming, but gave up and killed a neighbor who they thought was looking too hard at their women. In other reports, they'd simply begun reverting to their thieving ways, stealing pigs and setting fires to barns in their wake. It’s possible that the obvious livestock- and horse-stealing was what finally inflamed the populace against them for good. One robbed neighbor, Edward Tiel, followed the Harpes with a team of men into the Cumberland Mountains and actually caught them. However, the pair escaped into the woods five miles before they arrived back to Knoxville. Since Tiel’s hunting party lived to tell the tale, I have to wonder if the Harpes actually escaped or bought their way out. It would not be the last time the pair slipped custody, but had anyone had known the full list of misdeeds of the men they were detaining, probably no one would’ve taken the trouble. Once the Harpes had fallen off the neighborly wagon, so to speak, they launched a genuine crime spree. Again, these acts might not have been any worse or numerous than in previous periods of atrocity, but the names of the victims became known in the area and the stories got widespread attention.
For a time, the outlaws and their families were sheltering 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 in fact, shared this labyrinthine hidey-hole with riverboat pirates, who routinely ambushed and robbed passing flatboats.
However, most of the river 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 back from the Harpes unpleasantly later…
More Outrageous History:
There seem to be examples demonstrating that the Harpes held grudges and sought out those who wronged them in an organized, premeditated way, as well as committing random mayhem. Some say they let a preacher live out of respect for his good work and their warriors’ respect for George Washington, whose name was written in his bible’s flyleaf. Conversely, a very well-known Kentuckian and Revolutionary soldier’s 13 year-old son was chopped into pieces and put down a sinkhole. Tory 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 they didn't seem to care enough about being discovered to have made such efforts for neceesity alone. In another instance, they killed a black boy named Coffey (another head bashed against a tree)—see comments below for more discussion around this event—and didn’t even take his horse or the grain he carried, so that might’ve been whim as well. Obviously, the dead boy and his possessions were found and not well-hidden, because we know about them, so criminal concealment seems not to have been as driving an urge in the way they treated corpses as their sadistic pleasure.
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 later on simply to kill their rape victims, as they didn’t pick up any more “wives.” It’s also been suggested that their renown as horse-thieves was 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, but crafty, and Wiley was known to be a decent talker. They even posed as preachers at times to trick their victims into giving them access.
The Harpes would ride along various traces, the name for paths through 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 whether they carried all their accumulated wealth intact, preferring stealing resources to spending on them. But they’re never 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, taking all the gains to new territory? Maybe their time homestading had convinced them that civilazation wasn't their fate. Most people seem to have reported the Harpe family looked shabby and dirty, so where did all the money go? As I mentioned, I think some of it must've gone to pay off Edward Tiel and his hunting party. And later, a jailer would strike suddenly rich.
Residents armed themselves against the stories they heard, but no one exercised themselves to subdue them. Perhaps because the Harpes killed Hugh Dunlop after he declared his intent to hunt them down. After that, seeing the threat to public safety, the governor of Kentucky put a $300 bounty on their heads. Didn’t stop the pair from showing up trailworn at Farris’s (also spelled Pharris's) public house, harassing its mistress, later robbing and killing a young gentleman, Thomas Langford, who’d bought them breakfast in order to assist the lady and calm the situation. Naive, Langford probably accepted the Harpes offer of secure company along the road as a form of recompense. When his body was found along the road by cattle drovers and brought back to the same pub that had hosted the Harpes, another posse was formed. This posse finally caught up with the extended family on Christmas Day of 1798 and imprisoned them in Danville, Kentucky. They'd joined the Tory army, beginning their ugly reputations eighteen years previously. That's enough time to rack up lot of corpses for such seemingly casual killers, don't you think? Could forty, as their total murder count, possibly be a high enough number?
It’s suggested that since all three women were heavily pregnant, the Harpes allowed themselves to be arrested on that Christmas so the women would have a warm, safe cell for birthing. However, that doesn’t tally with the image of men easily killing their own children. By early March, the last woman had delivered. The mothers and their infants were left behind, and the men escaped after seeming to have lavishly bribed the jailer to set them free. The jailer is described as having sudden wealth, such as allowed him to quit and buying a good farm, which implies more than a coin or two hidden in a boot. I’d think the Harpes would have been searched when put in prison, but… at any rate, the women and children were judged to be unwilling accomplices. They were eventually freed from Danville and even given clothes and a horse in charity. Sure, the three women could’ve run the other direction, but they didn’t. The women sold the horse, bought a canoe, and paddled right back up the Ohio River to Cave-in Rock to await their monstrous mates, who were killing indiscriminately on their merry way to the family reunion. Soon after rejoining the women and children, 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 since been established, but the Harpes were willing to live rough, and there weren’t enough marshals to track them across four states. Whenever the Harpes did stop into civilization, usually because of some past association with the place—the results were bloody. That’s partly why I can’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, may be so much higher than we know.
Under pressure, the Harpes fled later to the cabin of Moses Stegal (also spelled Stegall), a former riverboat pirate from Cave-in-Rock. They pretended to his wife to be itinerant Methodist preachers looking for a bed, then killed another snoring traveler sleeping with them in the loft, also slitting 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 recognized them when they arrived, but wouldn’t out them to the rest of the guests, probably from fear. Nevertheless, they killed her, too, before leaving, and set the house on fire, as reported by a laborer. Captain Moses Stegal joined with Captain John Leiper, another man who may have had former criminal acquiaintance with the Harpes, and they tracked the brothers down. Revenge played a part, of course, but perhaps even among career criminals, there’s a kind of uncontrolled bloodlust that’s intolerable? And perhaps only people familiar with how the Harpes had operated over the years had a chance of finding them.
Harpe wife Sarah later reported that Big Harpe orginally wanted to kill the family's remaining three children to make running from Stegal’s posse easier, but he didn’t. It was the smoke from their fire in a cave that alerted their pursuers. Wiley had slipped away from the group 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 in the side. In another strangeness, it’s reported that Moses Stegal, the new widower whose child was murdered, gave the wounded Big Harpe water to drink from his own shoe.
Big Harpe admitted then to eighteen murders before being shot again and decapitated. His head was displayed 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 in his last moments that he and his brother had buried loads of treasure all throughout Kentucky, a claim which inspired plenty of treasure hunters. perhaps it was supposed to buy his life. The men were known to be cave-dwellers, and given the amount of thieving accorded in some accounts, even before I read that, I’d wondered where all the wealth went. Buckskin’s pretty cheap.
Before his death, Big Harpe gave a reason for his crimes. One of the wives declared 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.” Makes his admitted body count of eighteen people, less than one per year, if we count from 1780 through 1799, seem vicious and evil, sure, but a little underachieving for his stated goal. Maybe those were all he could remember with two bullets in him and another on the way.
Little Harpe would be sharp enough to last four 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 then, and we know he made sure to rape and kill at least one young woman along the road. Mason, a former justice and ranger-gone bad, incurred a $2000 bounty on his head, and treacherous Wiley thought to claim it. (Do we really believe he slipped away with his brother's faster horse by happenstance?)
Knowing people would recognize Mason's head by his “wolf tooth,” Wiley met up with his old compatriot, killed the pirate with a tomahawk, and marched into town with Mason's head packed in clay to collect the reward. The supposedly smarter of the Harpes was recognized then, not just by his face, but by his own telltale scar from a bar fight at a “rowdy groggery.” Wiley was caught, then escaped, was recaptured, and finally hung with his accomplice in the bounty-claiming scheme in February, 1804. Like his brother's, Wiley's head was displayed on a pole, his along the Natchez road he'd menaced.
In the aftermath of this murderous duo, families with the name Harpe, also Harper, changed their names to avoid associations with them or with Loyalist leanings. 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.