Micajah "Big" Harpe (1748? – August 1799)
and Wiley "Little" Harpe (1750? – February 8, 1804), were
murderers, highwaymen, and river pirates, who operated in Tennessee,
Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi in the late 18th century.
Their crimes appear to have been motivated more by
blood lust than financial gain and many historians have called them
the America's first true "serial killers".
The Harpes are said to have been brothers (though
some sources say cousins), born in Orange County, North Carolina to
Scottish parents. Their father or their uncles were allegedly of Tory
allegiance, who fought on the British side during the Revolutionary
War. Big Harpe is known to have had two wives, sisters Susan and
Betsey Roberts. Little Harpe married Sally Rice, daughter of a Baptist
Disputed claims of early lives and involvement
in Revolutionary War and Indian Wars
In Jon Musgrave's article of Oct. 23, 1998, in the
southern Illinois newspaper, American Weekend, through thorough
research, he cited the T. Marshall Smith 1855 book, Legends of the War
of Independence, and of the Earlier Settlements in the West, that the
Harpes were much older than most mainstream historians have
acknowledged. Smith stated he had heard stories from his grandfather,
older pioneers, and those who had interviewed two of the Harpe wives.
One of his stories was that the Harpe brothers were
actually cousins, William and Joshua Harper (who would sometime later
take the alias Harpe) who had emigrated in 1759 or 1760 at a young age
from Scotland. Their fathers were brothers, John and William Harper,
who settled in Orange County, North Carolina between 1761 and 1763.
The Harper patriarchs were loyal to the British
Crown and were known as Royalists, Kings Men, Loyalists, and Tories
and may also have been regulators involved in the North Carolina
Regulator War. The anti-British Crown neighbors of the Harpers were
known as Whigs, Rebels, and Patriots. Around April or May, 1775, the
young Harper cousins left North Carolina and went to Virginia to find
overseer jobs on a slave plantation.
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, little
is known of the Harpes' whereabouts. According to Smith based an the
eyewitness account of Captain James Wood, they joined a Tory rape gang
in North Carolina and took part in the kidnapping of three teenage
girls, with a fourth girl being rescued by Captain Wood. These gangs
took advantage of the war by raping, stealing, and murdering, and
burning and destroying the property, especially farms, of patriot
In an interview Smith had with the Patriot soldier,
Frank Wood, who was the son of Captain James Wood, he revealed that he
was the older brother of Susan Wood Harpe, the later kidnapped wife of
Micajah "Big" Harpe. Frank Wood claimed to have seen the Harpe
brothers, serving "loosely" as Tory militia, under the command of
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Legion, at the Battles
of Blackstocks, November 20, 1780, and Cowpens, January 17, 1781.
They also appeared in the same supporting role at
the Battle of King's Mountain, October 7, 1780, under British
commander Major Patrick Ferguson. These battles that the Harpes
supposedly participated in resulted in major Patriot victories.
Following the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781,
the Harpes left North Carolina, dispersed with their Indian allies,
the Chickamauga Cherokees, to Tennessee villages west of the
On April 2, 1781, they joined war parties of four
hundred Chickamauga Cherokee and attacked the Patriot frontier
settlement of Bluff Station, at Fort Nashborough (now Nashville,
Tennessee), which would again be assaulted by them, on either July 20,
1788, or April 9, 1793. A Captain James Leiper was killed in the 1781
attack on the fort and may have been related to the John Leiper, who
was later involved in the killing of Micajah "Big" Harpe in Kentucky
On August 19, 1782, the Harpes accompanied a
British-backed, Chickamauga Cherokee war party to Kentucky in the
Battle of Blue Licks, where they helped to defeat an army of Patriot
frontiersmen. During the Harpe brothers' early frontier period among
the Chickamauga Cherokee, they lived in the village of Nickajack, near
Chattanooga, Tennessee, for approximately twelve to thirteen years.
During this span of time, they kidnapped Maria
Davidson and later Susan Wood, and made them their women. In 1794, the
Harpes and their women abandoned their Indian habitation, before the
main Chickamauga Cherokee village of Nickajack in eastern Tennessee
was destroyed in a raid by American settlers. They would later
relocate to Powell's Valley, around Knoxville, Tennessee, where they
stole food and supplies from local pioneers.
The whereabouts of the Harpes were unknown between
the summer of 1795 and spring of 1797, but by spring they were
dwelling in a cabin on Beaver's Creek, near Knoxville. On June 1,
1797, Wiley Harpe married Sarah Rice, which was recorded in the Knox
County, Tennessee marriage records. Sometime during 1797, the Harpes
would begin their trail of death in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois.
As young men, the Harpes lived with renegade Creek
and Cherokee Indians who committed atrocities against white settlers
and against their own tribes. By 1797 the Harpes were living near
Knoxville, Tennessee. However, they were driven from the town after
being charged with stealing hogs and horses.
They were also accused of
murdering a man named Johnson, whose body was found in a river, ripped
open and weighted with stones. This became a characteristic of the Harpes' murders. They butchered anyone at the slightest provocation,
R.E. Banta in The Ohio claims that Micajah Harpe even
bashed his infant daughter's head against a tree because her constant
crying annoyed him. This was the only crime for which he would later
confess genuine remorse. From Knoxville they fled north into Kentucky.
They entered the state on the Wilderness Road, near the Cumberland
Gap. They are believed to have murdered a peddler named Peyton, taking
his horse and some of his goods. They then murdered two travelers from
In July 1799, John Leiper raised a posse to avenge
the murder of Mrs. Stegal, including Moses Stegal, the victim's
husband. Leiper reached Harpe first, and managed to shoot Big Harpe.
After a scuffle with a tomahawk, Leiper overcame Harpe. When Stegal
arrived, he decapitated Harpe and stuck his head on a pole, at a
crossroads still known as "Harpe's Head" or Harpe's Head Road in
Webster County, Kentucky.
By the end of their reign of terror, the
"Bloody Harpes" were responsible for the known murders of no less than
40 men, women, and children. Little Harpe eluded the authorities for
some time, using the alias John Setton, until allegedly being caught
in an effort to get a reward of his own on the head of an outlaw,
Samuel Mason. He was captured in 1803, tried and hanged on February 8,
According to Jon Musgrave, the Harpe women, after
cohabitation with the brothers, led relatively respectable and normal
lives. Upon the death of Micajah "Big" Harpe in Kentucky, Wiley
"Little" Harpe went into hiding and their women were apprehended and
taken to the Russellville, Kentucky state courthouse and later
released. Sally Rice Harpe went back to Knoxville, Tennessee to live
in her father's house.
For a time, Susan Wood Harpe and Maria Davidson
(aka Betsey Roberts Harpe) lived in Russellville. Susan Wood remarried
later, and died in Tennessee. According to Ralph Harrelson, a
McLeansboro, Illinois historian, records show that on September 27,
1803, Betsey Roberts remarried, moved with her husband to Canada in
1828, had many children, and eventually the couple died in the 1860s.
Cave-In-Rock historian, Otto A. Rothert, believed that Susan Wood died
in Tennessee and her daughter went to Texas. According to the former
sheriff of Hamilton County, Illinois, in 1820, Sally Rice, who had
remarried, travelled with her husband and father to their new home in
Illinois via the Cave-In-Rock ferry.
After the atrocities committed by the Harpes, many
members bearing the family name changed their name in some way, to
hide the heritage of their infamous ancestors. The Harpes may have
disguised their Tory past from their Patriot neighbors by changing
their original name of "Harper," which was a common Loyalist name in
Revolutionary War-era North Carolina. Some went by "Harp" merely
removing the final "E" in Harpe, but leaving the pronunciation the
same. Others changed the name significantly. Wyatt Earp is a famous
example said - though unconfirmed - to have been a member of the Harpe
family. There are still descendants of the family today, including
those who have changed their surname back to the original spelling.
Appearances in literature, stage, television,
The Harpe saga was explored in depth by noted
historian Paul I. Wellman in his book Spawn of Evil, now no longer in
E. Don Harpe, perhaps the only Harpe descendant to
openly acknowledge and write about the Harpe brothers, currently, has
two books born wolf DIE WOLF The Last Rampage of the Terrible Harpes
and Resurrection: Rebirth of the Terrible Harpes with a third book
being written. His short work, The True Story of America's First
Serial Killers, may be as close to the truth about the story of the
Harpes as has been written.
A graphic novel was written in 2009 by Chad Kinkle
and illustrated by Adam Show called Harpe America's First Serial
The Harpe brothers, identified as "Big Harp" and
"Little Harp" are among the characters in the stage musical The Robber
Bridegroom, adapted by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman from the novel
by Eudora Welty. In this musical, Big Harp has already been
decapitated at the beginning of the story, but his disembodied head is
still alive: the head is portrayed by an actor whose body is concealed
behind the scenery. Robert Hayden's poem "Theory of Evil" takes the
Harpe brothers' crimes, and Big Harpe's demise, as its explicit
In the 1941 film version of The Devil and Daniel
Webster, both Harpes are among the jury the Devil calls, but do not
appear in the original story. Big and Little Harpe appeared in
Disneyland's Davy Crockett miniseries. Both Harpes and their decedents
play a key role in the Silver John book The Voice Of The Mountain by
Manly Wade Wellman, though their real-life accounts were fictionalize
and morphed into more supernatural abilities. The Harpe brothers were
the inspiration for Big and Little Drum in Lois McMaster Bujold's The
Micajah "Big" Harpe, born Joshua Harper (before
1768 (probably, c. 1748) – August 1799) and Wiley "Little" Harpe, born
William Harper (before 1770 (probably, c. 1750) – February 8, 1804),
were serial killers, murderers, highwaymen, and river pirates, who
operated in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi, in the
late eighteenth century.
The Harpes' crimes appear to have been motivated
more by blood lust than financial gain. They are most likely the
United States' first known serial killers, reckoned from the colonial
era forward. The Harpe Brothers are credited with having killed
thirty-nine people, and may have killed as many as fifty.
It is difficult to differentiate the facts about
the Harpe Brothers from the later legends of their exploits.
The Harpes were born in Orange County, North
Carolina to Scottish parents. Micajah was probably born in or before
1768 and Wiley in or before 1770. It is possible they were actually
first cousins named Joshua and William Harper who later took the alias
Harpe and emigrated from Scotland in 1759 or 1760. According to this
theory their fathers were brothers, John and William Harper, who
settled in Orange County, North Carolina, between 1761 and 1763.
Prior to the American Revolution, their fathers may
also have been North Carolina Regulators, involved in the War of the
Regulation or "Regulator War". This occurred between 1765 and 1771,
opposing the continuing royal government interference by colonial
officials in the Province of North Carolina.
During the American Revolutionary War, the Harpes'
fathers tried to join the Patriot American forces but were refused
because of their earlier associations with British loyalists. The
treatment of the Harper family by hostile Patriot neighbors may have
contributed to Big and Little Harpe's feelings of persecution and
their desire for revenge.
Big Harpe later traveled in the company of two
women, Susan and Betsey/Betty Roberts, possibly sisters, both of whom
bore him children. Little Harpe married Sally Rice, the daughter of a
Around April or May 1775, the young Harper cousins
left North Carolina and went to Virginia to find overseer jobs on a
Involvement in the American Revolutionary War
and Indian Wars
Little is known of the Harpes' whereabouts at the
outbreak of the American Revolution. According to the eyewitness
account of Captain James Wood, they joined a Tory rape gang in North
Carolina. These gangs took advantage of the war by raping, stealing,
murdering, and burning and destroying property, especially farms of
Patriot colonists. The Harpes' gang took part in the kidnapping of
three teenage girls, with a fourth girl being rescued by Captain Wood.
Captain Wood's son was patriot soldier Frank Wood,
who was the older brother of Susan Wood Harpe, later kidnapped and
married by Micajah "Big" Harpe. Frank Wood claimed to have seen the
Harpe brothers, serving "loosely" as Tory militia, at the Battle of
Kings Mountain in October 1780, under British commander Major Patrick
Ferguson. Later, the Harpes served under the command of Lieutenant
Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Legion, at the Battles of
Blackstocks in November 1780 and Cowpens in January 1781.
Following the decisive British defeat by
Patriot-French forces at Yorktown in 1781, the Harpes left North
Carolina, dispersing with their Indian allies, the Chickamauga
Cherokees, to Tennessee villages west of the Appalachian Mountains.
On April 2, 1781, they joined war parties of four
hundred Chickamauga to attack the Patriot frontier settlement of Bluff
Station at Fort Nashborough (now Nashville, Tennessee), which would be
assaulted by them again, on either July 20, 1788, or April 9, 1793.
On August 19, 1782, the Harpes accompanied a
British-backed Chickamauga Cherokee war party to Kentucky at the
Battle of Blue Licks where they helped to defeat an army of Patriot
frontiersmen led by Daniel Boone.
During the Harpe brothers' early frontier period,
among the Chickamauga Cherokee, they lived in the village of Nickajack,
near Chattanooga, Tennessee, for approximately twelve or thirteen
years. During this time, they kidnapped Maria Davidson and later Susan
Wood and made them their women.
In 1794, the Harpes and their women abandoned their
Indian habitation before Nickajack was destroyed in a raid by American
settlers. The Harpe brothers would later relocate to Powell's Valley,
around Knoxville, Tennessee, where they stole food and supplies from
local pioneers. The whereabouts of the Harpes are unknown between the
summer of 1795 and spring of 1797, but by spring they were dwelling in
a cabin on Beaver's Creek near Knoxville.
The Harpes may have disguised their Tory past from
their Patriot neighbors by changing their original name of "Harper,"
which was a common Loyalist name in Revolutionary War-era North
On June 1, 1797, Wiley Harpe married Sarah Rice,
which was recorded in the Knox County, Tennessee marriage records.
Sometime during 1797, the Harpes would begin their trail of death in
Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois.
Atrocities and serial murders
The Harpes confessed to the killing of a confirmed
thirty-nine people, but the estimated combined total (including
unknown victims) may number more than fifty. What follows are the
accounts of a few of the murders the two committed.
In 1797, the Harpes were living near Knoxville,
Tennessee. They were driven from the town after being charged with
stealing hogs and horses. They were also accused of murdering a man
named Johnson, whose body was found in a river, covered in urine and
ripped open, with the chest cavity filled and weighted down with
stones. This became a regular corpse disposal method and signature
characteristic of the Harpes' serial killings. They butchered anyone
at the slightest provocation, even babies.
From Knoxville, the Harpes fled north into
Kentucky. They entered the state on the Wilderness Road near the
Cumberland Gap. They are believed to have murdered a peddler named
Peyton, taking his horse and some of his goods.
In December, they murdered two travelers from
Maryland. 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 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 in retaliation by the Harpes.
On April 22, 1799, Kentucky Governor James Garrard
placed a three-hundred dollar reward on each of the Harpes' heads.
Fleeing northward, the Harpes killed two men named Edmonton and Stump.
When they were near the mouth of the Saline River in southern Illinois
they came upon three men encamped there and killed them. The pair then
made their way to Cave In The Rock in southern Illinois, a stronghold
of the river pirate and criminal gang leader Samuel Mason. A posse had
been aggressively pursuing them, but stopped just short of the cave on
the opposite shore in Kentucky.
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. While 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, the Mason Gang forced the Harpe brothers to leave.
The Harpes then returned to eastern Tennessee,
where they continued their vicious murder spree. They killed a farmer
named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey in July
Soon more bodies were discovered, including those
of William Ballard, who had been disemboweled and thrown in the Holton
River; James Brassel, who had his throat viciously slashed and was
discovered on Brassel's Knob; and John Tully. John Graves and his
teenage son were found dead with their heads axed in south central
Kentucky. In Logan County, the Harpes killed a little girl, a young
slave, and an entire family they found asleep in their camp.
In August, a few miles northeast of Russellville,
Kentucky, Big Harpe bashed his infant daughter's head against a tree
because her constant crying annoyed him, the only crime for which he
would later confess genuine remorse.
That same month, a man named Trowbridge was found
disemboweled in Highland Creek. When the Harpes were given shelter at
the Stegall home in Webster County, the pair killed an overnight guest
named Major William Love, as well as Mrs. Moses Stegall's four-month
old baby boy, whose throat was slit when he cried. When Mrs. Stegall
screamed at the sight of her infant being killed, she was also
The Harpe killings continued in July 1799 as the
two fled west to avoid a new posse, organized by John Leiper, which
included the avenging husband and father Moses Stegall. While the pair
was preparing to kill another settler named George Smith, the posse
finally tracked them down on August 24, 1799.
The posse called for the Harpes to surrender; they attempted to flee. Micajah Harpe was shot in
the leg and back by Leiper, who soon caught up with Big Harpe and
pulled him from his horse, subduing the outlaw with a tomahawk in a
scuffle. As he lay dying, Micajah Harpe confessed to twenty murders.
When he was done, while Harpe was still conscious, Moses Stegall
slowly cut off the outlaw's head. Later, the head was spiked on a pole
(some accounts claim a tree) at a crossroads near the Moses Stegall
Cabin still known as "Harpe's Head" or "Harpe's Head Road" along a
modern-day highway in Webster County, Kentucky.
Wiley Harpe successfully escaped the confrontation
and rejoined the Mason Gang pirates at Cave-in-The-Rock. Four years
later Wiley Harpe may have been captured, along with the rest of the
Mason Gang, but went unrecognized because he was using the alias of
"John Setton" or "John Sutton." Both Harpe and Samuel Mason, the gang
leader, escaped, but Mason was shot.
Afterwards, Little Harpe and
another gang member, Peter Alston, who went by the name "James May,"
tried to claim the reward for Samuel Mason, although it is unclear
whether Mason had died from the wounds sustained during the escape or
whether Harpe had killed him. Either way, as they presented the head,
Harpe and Alston were recognized as outlaws themselves and arrested.
The two soon escaped but were quickly recaptured, tried, and sentenced
to be hanged. In January 1804, Wiley Harpe and Peter Alston were
executed. Their heads were cut off and placed high on stakes along the
Natchez Trace as a warning to other outlaws.
According to Jon Musgrave, the Harpe women, after
being freed from cohabitation with the brothers, led relatively
respectable and normal lives. Upon the death of Micajah "Big" Harpe in
Kentucky, the women were apprehended and taken to the Russellville,
Kentucky state courthouse but later released. Sally Rice Harpe went
back to Knoxville, Tennessee, to live in her father's house. For a
time, Susan Wood Harpe and Maria Davidson (aka Betsey Roberts) lived
in Russellville. Susan Wood remarried later, and died in Tennessee.
Her daughter went to Texas.
On September 27, 1803, Betsey Roberts married John
Huffstutler and lived as tenants on Colonel Butlers Plantation. They
moved to Hamilton County, Illinois in 1828, and had many children; the
couple eventually died in the 1860s. In 1820, Sally Rice, who had
remarried, traveled with her husband and father to their new home in
Illinois via the Cave-In-Rock Ferry.
The Harpe brothers were the inspiration for Big and
Little Drum in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife: Passage.
Wiley Harpe is also the subject of a song on Bob Frank and John
Murry's 2006 album, World Without End.
In 2015, the Investigation Discovery series Evil
Kin aired an episode about the Harpe brothers called "Something Wicked
in the Woods."
In the 1941 film, "The Devil
and Daniel Webster" (or "All That Money Can Buy"), Big and Little
Harpe are part of the "jury of the damned" that Daniel must convince
in order to free Jabez Stone.
Frontier serial killers: The Harpes
By Jon Musgrave - American Weekend
October 23, 1988
Two centuries ago this fall a murder spree began
stretching from the Cumberland Gap in westernmost Virginia to
Cave-in-Rock and Potts Spring in southeastern Illinois.
During the next nine months the murderers killed at
least 40 men, women and children on the frontier until a posse caught
up with the killers and took the leader's head on Aug. 24, 1799. Known
as the brothers Micajah and Wiley Harpe, the two started out life as
first cousins William and Joshua Harpe both natives of Scotland who
emigrated as young children with their parents, two brothers, who
settled in Orange Co., North Carolina. In addition to their other
aliases, frontier historians simply remembered them as Big and Little
James Hall, a Philadelphia native and judge in Shawneetown during the
1820s, wrote the first histories about the characters. His
introduction from his 1828 "Letters from the West" serves best for the
"Many years ago, two men, named Harpe, appeared in Kentucky, spreading
death and terror wherever they went. Little else was known of them but
that they passed for brothers, and came from the borders of Virginia.
They had three women with them, who were treated as wives, and several
children, with whom they traversed the mountainous and thinly settled
parts of Virginia into Kentucky marking their course with blood. Their
history is wonderful, as well from the number and variety, as the
incredible atrocity of their adventures."
The nine-month spree began in the early Tennessee state capital of
Knoxville. The Harpes and two of their women arrived there sometime
between the summer of 1795 and the spring of 1797. They lived on a
farm eight miles west of the village on Beaver Creek until late 1798,
when a neighbor rightfully accused the Harpes of stealing his horses.
The Harpes ran off, but the neighbors eventually caught up with them
and the horses. As they made their way back to the capital, the Harpes
escaped. For a while the neighbors pursued but eventually gave up.
Rather than hiding, that same night the Harpes returned to a "rowdy
groggery" operated by a man named Hughes a few miles west of
Knoxville. The Harpes had frequented the establishment before and knew
the operator. Inside they found a man named Johnson for whom they were
looking. He may have been the man who enlightened Harpes' neighbors
about the horses' whereabouts. Why him will never be known. The Harpes
took and killed him. Some days later a passerby found his body
floating in the Holstein River, ripped open and filled with stones — a
trademark of what would become a Harpe victim.
The Harpes got away with that murder, in part because authorities
believed the establishment's owner and his brothers-in-law who were
present that night had something to do with it. Meanwhile, the Harpes
traveled eastward toward the Cumberland Gap to meet up with their
wives. While traveling the Wilderness Road they killed twice more, the
first time a pair of Marylander travelers named Paca and Bates. The
second time occurred on Dec. 13, with a young Virginian named
Langford, a man foolish enough to travel the wilderness alone and show
off his silver coin in too many inns.
Like Johnson, they failed to dispose of the body well enough and
passing drovers discovered it a couple of days later. Almost
immediately the nearby innkeeper recognized the body and figured out
the culprits. A posse gathered and the chase began. On Christmas Day,
1799, they caught the Harpes and imprisoned them in Stanford, Ky. A
preliminary hearing on Jan. 4, found enough evidence for a trial and
ordered that the prisoners be taken to the district court at Danville,
For the next two months the Harpes plotted their escape which came on
March 16. They left the women in the jail for practical reasons — all
three were pregnant. By the time the district court freed the women in
April, all three had given birth, each child two months apart in age.
After their escape the Harpes continued their murderous spree. In late
March or early April they killed a man near the future site of
Edmonton followed by another murder on the Barren River eight miles
below Bowling Green. On April 10, they killed the 13-year-old son of
Col. Daniel Trabue who lived three miles west of present Columbia, Ky.
Ironically, posse members chasing the Harpes were at Trabue's house
urging him to join the chase then they discovered Trabue's son missing
and believed him abducted by the Harpes.
From the Trabue home, the Harpes continued towards Cave-in-Rock by way
of Red Banks (now Henderson, Ky.), Diamond Island and Potts Spring in
Illinois. Meanwhile the Danville court acquitted one of the Harpe
women, forced a mistrial on the second and convicted a third during
trials on April 15. The judge offered a new trial to the one woman
convicted and the attorney general decided four days later not to
re-try her. With their freedom once again theirs, the women left the
jail and headed for Cave-in-Rock where a messenger had told them to
meet their men.
On April 22, the governor of Kentucky issued a $300 reward for the
capture of the Harpes. During this time, the extent of outlawry in the
western portion of Kentucky, especially in the Ohio River counties
from the Green River on down, spurred the local militias into action.
Under a Capt. Young, they drove the outlaws out of Mercer County, then
crossed the Green into Henderson County where they killed 12 or 13
outlaws and pushed the rest downriver. They continued their law and
order sweep until they reached the Tradewater River and Flin's Ferry
at its mouth. Cave-in-Rock lay just beyond and Capt. Mason's pirates
prepared for the attack that never came. Instead the pirates welcomed
fleeing outlaws and the Harpes seeking refuge.
Historians believe the Harpes spent less than a month in Illinois, but
long enough for three or four murders. The first took place on their
way to the cave. Hall wrote that in the 1820s, there were still
persons in Shawneetown who could point out the spot on the Potts'
Plantation near the mouth of the Saline River where the Harpes "shot
two or three persons in cold blood by the fire where they had camped."
Hall did not say where on Potts' Plantation the men had camped, but a
likely place would have been Potts' Spring, the same spring where the
legendary Billy Potts killed his victims. The spring lies near the
base of a south-facing bluff halfway on the trail between Flin's Ferry
and the saltworks near Equality.
Upon reaching the cave the Harpes joined the pirates in the trade of
their craft, attacking heavily laden flatboats traveling downriver
with goods. After one such attack the pirates threw an impromptu
celebration inside the cave. Seeing only survivor alive to tell the
tale of the attack the Harpes developed a fiendish idea for
entertainment. With the others drunk in their revelry the Harpes took
the survivor up to the top of the cliff. They stripped him naked, tied
him to a horse, blindfolded the horse and ran it off the cliff.
"Suddenly, the outlaws in the cave became aware of terrified screams,
hoof beats, and the clatter of dislodged rocks. They ran out of the
cave, they could see the horse's neck extended, its legs galloping
frantically against the thin air, and tied to its back the naked,
screaming prisoner, stark horror on his face. In an instant horse and
man were dashed against the rocks," wrote W. D. Snively Jr. in his
book "Satan's Ferryman."
The scene proved to the pirates that the Harpes had to go. They
ordered them to leave and take their women and children. After that
night in May 1799, the Harpes reign of terror quieted down for a while
— or at least for a few weeks. By mid July they began their final race
toward death. In quick succession they killed a farmer named Bradbury
about 25 miles west of Knoxville and another man named Hardin about
three miles downstream from that city.
On July 22 they murdered the young son of Chesley Coffey on Black Oak
Ridge eight miles northwest of Knoxville. Two days later they struck
William Ballard, also a few miles away from Knoxville.
On July 29,
they came across James and Robert Brassel on the road near Brassel's
Knob. Pretending to be posse members looking for the Harpes, the
Harpes turned against the Brassels, accusing them of being the
notorious outlaws. Robert escaped and went for help. With him gone,
the Harpes beat James to death. As they headed toward Kentucky they
killed another man, John Tully around the beginning of August in what
is now Clinton County, Ky. Then in an almost daily attacks the Harpes
murdered John Graves and his son and finally the families and servants
of two Trisword brothers who were encamped on the trail about eight
miles from modern-day Adairville, Ky.
Also during this period they
killed a young black boy going to a mill and a young white girl. A few
miles northeast of Russellville, Ky., Big Ha rpe even killed one of
his own children, or his brother's child.
At Russellville the Harpes threw their various pursuers off the track
tempting to them travel a false trail southward back into Tennessee.
Instead, the Harpes continued northward to Henderson County. During
the first or second week of August they found a cabin on Canoe Creek
about eight miles south of Henderson and rented it. A failed attack on
a neighbor aroused suspicion, but a week of surveillance on the Harpe
cabin failed to convince the locals of the renters' true identities as
While spies watched the Harpe men at the cabin, the Harpe women
traveled elsewhere in the area collecting supplies and old debts.
After a week of surveillance, the spies give up the job on Aug. 20.
The following day, the Harpes left to meet their wives at a
rendezvous. While riding good horses that morning, they met up with
James Tompkins, a local resident. Tompkins had not met the men before
and believed their tale of being itinerant preachers. The local man
invited them home for the midday supper where Big Harpe presided over
with a more than adequate meal blessing.
Ironically, during the
conversation, Tompkins admitted that he had no more powder for his
gun. In a show of charity Big Harpe poured a teacup full from his
powder horn. Three days later that powder would be used to shoot Big
Harpe in the back as he tried to escape.
Leaving Tompkins' place in peace, the Harpes traveled on to the house
of Silas McBee, a local justice of the peace, but because of McBee's
aggressive guard dogs, decided against an attack. Instead they
traveled to the home of an acquaintance, Moses Stegall. Moses wasn't
home, but his wife offered them a bed to sleep in as long as they
didn't mind a third man, Maj. William Love, who had arrived earlier.
They accepted, but later that night murdered Love, Mrs. Stegall and
the Stegall's four-month-old baby boy. In the morning they burned down
the house hoping to attract the attention of McBee.
The smoke attracted McBee and a number of others. By the next morning
the posse grew to include seven local residents, including Stegall.
All day they followed the Harpes' trail. At night they camped and
started again the next morning, Aug. 24, on the trail. While chasing
the Harpes they discovered two more victims of the men killed a few
They soon found the Harpes' camp with only Little Harpe's wife
present. She pointed the way Big Harpe and the other two women went.
About two miles away, they caught up with Big Harpe and called for his
surrender. Instead, he sped away leaving the women. Four of the posse
members shot at Harpe, one hit him in the leg. John Leiper missed and
then borrowed Tompkins gun for a second shot. Leiper then spurred his
horse forward to catch up with Big Harpe.
Knowing that there hadn't
been enough time for Leiper to reload his weapon, Harpe turned and
took careful aim at Leiper. Then, using Tompkins' gun containing the
powder given him by Harpe just days before, Leiper fired his second
round towards Harpe, entering his backbone and damaging the spinal
Harpe continued riding down the trail losing more blood every minute.
The posse caught up with him and pulled him from his horse without
resistance. Begging for water, Leiper took one of Harpe's shoes and
filled it full of water for him.
Harpe confessing his sins pulled
Stegall over the edge. He took Harpe's own butcher knife and slowly
cut off the outlaw's head. Placed in a saddlebag, the posse eventually
put it in a tree where the road from Henderson forked in two
directions, one to Marion and Eddyville and the other to Madisonville
and Russellville. For years, the intersection took the name Harpe's
The Harpe reign of terror had ended — almost. Little Harpe escaped and
eventually rejoined Capt. Mason's band of river pirates at
Cave-in-Rock. Four years later, Little Harpe and a fellow pirate named
May turned on Mason and took his head in for the reward money.
Presenting the head and a tall tale explaining how they did it, they
took the reward money and started to leave. Just then, someone arrived
in the crowd, a victim of an earlier flatboat attack, and recognized
Harpe and May as outlaws. Authorities immediately arrested them, but
they soon escaped.
On the run again, a posse caught up with them and
brought them to justice where they were tried, sentenced, hung. And
just for good measure, had their heads cut off and placed high on
stakes along the Natchez Road as a warning to other outlaws.
How the Harpes got their start
The story of Big Harpe and his brother may end at Harpe's Head for
practical purposes, but it certainly begins further back in time than
their flight from Knoxville nine months earlier.
Only one historian, Otto A. Rothert, pieced together all of the
stories about the Harpes' murderous spree in his 1924 book, "The
Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock." Since reprinted by Southern Illinois
University Press, his book offers the most comprehensive collection of
stories about the pair.
During the recent shooting of scenes for a documentary to be shown on
The History Channel, the book practically served as the production
company's bible. At the very least, it served in place of a detailed
script. When a question would arise about a character's movement,
someone would grab the book and open it to the appropriate page.
However, Rothert doesn't focus on the what led up to the Harpes'
outlaw years. In fact, only one author ever did in detail. T. Marshall
Smith published his "Legends of the War of Independence" in 1855.
Focusing on the lesser known stories and characters in the southern
and western theaters of the Revolutionary War, Smith claims the Harpes
as pro-British fighters at the Battle of King's Mountain and other
Rothert dismissed Smith's claims in his book, noting that Smith "cites
no authority for his various statements," although he did admit that
Smith claimed in his preface to have heard the stories from old
pioneers. While there are problems with Smith's book — mainly
omissions of major events during the last few years of Big Harpe's
life including Little Harpe's marriage — Smith did tell his readers
where he got his information.
Rothert noted that he used pages 318 to 377 of Smith's book. If that's
all, then he simply missed a lot of information about the family that
literally starts on the first page of the first chapter.
Revolutionary War soldier named Frank Wood provided much of the
information to Smith about the Harpes' activity during the war. Wood
served at the Battle of King's Mountain when only 18. He should have
been able to provide reliable information considering he personally
saw Big Harpe at three battles. Unlike other Tories who fought for the
British and raided the patriot farms, Wood had adequate reason to
remember Big Harpe, for about nine months after King's Mountain, Big
Harpe kidnapped Frank's younger sister Susan.
Smith's sources also included his grandfather and from two of the
Harpe women. His grandfather heard the story from Wood himself just
weeks after the kidnapping. Both women had heard about the Harpes from
their fathers, even before their kidnappings.
Smith starts his story with John and William Harpe, the brothers who
were fathers to the younger outlaw Harpes. The two immigrated to the
United States from Scotland in 1759 or 1760 and settled in Orange
County, N.C., sometime during the period of 1761 to 1763.
No one has fully examined the facts in Smith's book, but a quick check
on the Internet of the USGenWeb archives for Orange County found a
John and William Harper on a 1779 tax roll, which may be close enough
considering the lack of consistent spellings during that period. Also,
the same Internet archive showed a John Davidson as a signer on a
Regulator petition in 1768. Smith starts his book with a conversation
between the elder set of Harpes and a John Davidson, Maria's father
and a Regulator fighting the British governor during the late 1760s
and early 1770s.
In late April or early May 1775, the young Harpes left home to try
their luck in getting jobs overseeing slaves in Virginia. At this
point the Harpes are either 20 and 18, or 15 and 13. Smith makes the
same reference to their age in two different parts of the book five
years apart. For this trip they stole at least one horse from the
neighborhood of the Wood residence. For the next five years, their
exact whereabouts are unknown, except that they took part in the Tory
gangs that terrorized their patriot or Whig neighbors.
During the Revolutionary War, semi-outlaw groups from both Tory and
patriot sides roamed the no-man land between the American and British
positions. These bands, particularly the Tory ones in Smith's book,
saw the war as an opportunity to rape, pillage and burn without
abandon their neighbors who may have been on the other side.
reported by name three kidnappings of young women by Tory rape gangs
operating in North Carolina. Frank's father, Capt. James Wood,
successfully interrupted the attempted kidnapping of a fourth teen,
shooting and wounding Little Harpe, one of the five attackers.
During 1780 as the British refocused their campaign on the South, they
officially recognized and admitted these Tory irregulars and Cherokee
allies into their ranks. On Oct. 7, the Americans attacked the a large
portion of the British Army in the South at King's Mountain, near the
border between the Carolinas. The younger Wood shot at Big Harpe but
missed during the battle.
After the battle — a defeat for the British — the Harpes briefly
visited their fathers' neighborhood. However, they didn't stay there
long, Wood also recalled facing Big Harpe in battle on Nov. 20 at the
Battle of Blackstocks and again on Jan. 16-17, 1781, at the Battle of
the Cowpens in South Carolina.
"On three occasions I saw him after that [Blackstocks], and twice we
meet in battle. He was, as you know, belonging to [Lt. Banastre]
Tarleton's command, and I with Gen. [Daniel] Morgan. At the battle of
the Cowpens I saw him, and I am sure he saw me. But he managed to keep
out of my way till we 100 and took prisoners to the number of 500 red
British and Tories. But again big Bill got off with the retreat of
Tarleton," recalled Woods years after the battle.
Shortly after that, the Harpes left the British Army to go back with
the Cherokees to their villages west of the Appalachians. During that
trip they took part in the attack on Bluff Station (Fort Nashborough)
at the present side of Nashville, Tenn., on April 1. Four hundred
Cherokees took part in the raid.
Nashville historians recalled a Capt.
James Leiper among those who died in the assault. Leiper may have been
a relative to the John Leiper who shot Big Harpe 18 years later.
According to statements made after Big Harpe's death, John Leiper and
Harpe knew and distinctively disliked each other.
After the raid, the Harpes did not stay with the Cherokee's long.
About the first week of June they kidnapped Maria Davidson. A week
later they took Susan Wood. After rendezvousing at a hunter's cabin on
the east side of the mountains, the Harpes, their captive and
brutalized women, and four assistants crossed the mountains.
During the 20 day trip to the Cherokee-Chickamauga town of Nickjack
located southwest of modern-day Chattanooga, the Harpes managed to
find time to kill Moses Doss. Big Harpe apparently found a problem
with Doss' over-concern for the women's well being. For the next 12 to
13 years the women and the Harpes stayed in the Indian village.
Twice each of the captive women became pregnant, and twice each the
Harpes murdered their children.
When the British surrendered at Yorktown, not all fighting ceased.
Groups of Indians including the Chickamaugas, a break-away band of
Cherokee, continued to make war on the pioneers in the settlements
west of the mountains. As guests in their village, the Harpes often
followed them on the warpath, including the Battle of Blue Licks on
Aug. 19, 1782, when a large group of British-backed Indians defeated
an army of Kentuckians. They again joined the Indians in an attack on
Bledsoe's Lick in Tennessee, either on July 20, 1788, or April 9,
1793, dates of two major attacks on the settlement.
Finally, the Americans successfully took the offensive and struck back
wiping out Nickajack in September 1794. Somehow, the Harpes found out
about the attack through their white contacts and secreted their women
out of the village the night before the battle. Taking their wives on
a nearly two-day journey, they found a new camp where the women stayed
for nine months. During which the Harpes pillaged and foraged in the
more settled portions of Tennessee such as Powell's Valley close
nearer to Knoxville.
From the summer of 1795 through the spring of 1797, historians don't
know much about the Harpes' whereabouts. However, they did manage to
move into a cabin on Beaver's Creek near Knoxville at least by the
spring of 1797. On June 1, of that year Little Harpe married Sarah
Rice, a local girl. The Knox County marriage records verify that
tradition. Just over a year later, the Harpes would begin their murder
What happened to the women?
Following Big Harpe's death, the posse chasing the Harpes took the
three women to the court in Russellville. Eventually freed and
released, the youngest wife, Sally (Rice) Harpe returned to her
father's home in the Knoxville area.
The other two, Susan (Wood) Harpe and Maria Davidson, who continued to
use her alibi of Betsey Roberts, stayed in the Russellville area for
awhile living normal respectable lives. A few months after Little
Harpe lost his head after turning in Mason's, Betsey married John
Huffstutler on Sept. 27, 1803. By 1828, they had moved to Hamilton
County, Ill., where they raised a large family and lived until their
deaths in the 1860s, according to McLeansboro historian Ralph
Sally later remarried as well, and like Betsey moved to, or at least
through, Illinois. In 1820, the former sheriff of Logan County, Ky.,
who cared for the women after the death of Big Harpe, saw Sally as
they crossed the ferry at Cave-in-Rock. Sally, with her new husband
and father in tow, were traveling to their new home.
Susan died in Tennessee and Rothert believed her daughter eventually
moved to Texas.
The Vicious Harpes - First American Serial
Kathy Weiser - Legendsofamerica.com
Earning the dubious distinction of being the United
States’ first known serial killers, Micajah "Big" Harpe and Wiley
"Little" Harpe were murderous outlaws who operated in Tennessee,
Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi in the late 1700's. Often referred
to as the Harpe Brothers, they were actually cousins who often passed
themselves off as 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.”
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 in 1775 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.
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. 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.
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
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
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. 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
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
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. As he lay dying, he
confessed to 20 murders and Mr. Stegall slowly cut off the outlaw’s
head while he was still conscious. Later it 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-The-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. In
January, 1804, they were executed 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
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.
Big Harpe and The Witch Dance
With the violence surrounding the vicious Harpes,
it comes as no surprise that there is a ghostly legend attached to the
notorious Micajah "Big" Harpe. In addition to terrorizing the states
of Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois, the Harpes were often known to
have traveled along the Natchez Trace through Mississippi. Between
Tupelo and Houston, Mississippi, there is a place called Witch Dance.
Steeped in mystery for centuries, it was not only the home of the
Mound Builders of Mississippi, but was also said to have been used by
a coven of witches who would gather for for nighttime ceremonies. Lore
has it, that where ever the witches' feet touched the ground during
their dances, the grass would wither and die, never to grow again.
At some point prior to his death, Big Harpe was
traveling along the Natchez Trace with an Indian guide who showed him
the bare spots in the ground and told him of the legend of the Witch
Dance. Big Harpe only scoffed at this and began to leap from spot to
spot, daring the witches to come out and fight him. Of course, nothing
happened, at least not then.
Eventually, Big Harpe made his way back to
Kentucky, where he was tracked down by the posse in August, 1799.
After he was decapitated and his head placed in the tree, the skull
was said to have been removed by a witch, ground into powder and used
as a potion to heal a relative. Word soon got around and when
travelers retold the story along the Trace, they would swear they
could hear crackling laughter coming from the nearby bushes and trees.