Harpe brothers

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The Harpe Brothers, committed some of their worst atrocities, in 1799, while seeking refuge from pursuing Kentucky regulators, at the river pirate stronghold of Cave-in-Rock. The Harpes were finally forced to leave, by Samuel Mason, the infamous outlaw leader, in charge, after having fun tying a naked captive to a horse and pushing them, both, off the cliff of the cave, into a night time fire, splattering both, on the rocks below.
Micajah "Big" Harpe
Born Joshua Harper
Before 1768 (probably, c. 1748)
Scotland, Kingdom of Great Britain or Orange County, Province of North Carolina (British Royal Colony), British North America, British Empire, present-day Orange County, North Carolina
Died August 1799 (aged 31-51)
Muhlenberg County, Kentucky
Cause of death murder by decapitation with knife
Resting place unknown
Nationality American
Other names Micajah Roberts
Ethnicity Scottish
Occupation horse thief, bandit, burglar, river pirate, plantation overseer, soldier, frontiersman
Known for One of the first, known serial-killers in America
Spouse(s) Susan Wood, Maria Davidson (alias Betsy Roberts)
Children 4
Parent(s) William Harper or John Harper
Relatives Wiley Harpe (brother or cousin)
Wiley "Little" Harpe
Born William Harper
Before 1770 (probably, c. 1750)
Scotland, Kingdom of Great Britain or Orange County, Province of North Carolina (British Royal Colony), British North America, British Empire, present-day Orange County, North Carolina
Died February 8, 1804 (aged 29-49)
Old Greenville, Jefferson County, Mississippi Territory
Cause of death execution by hanging
Resting place unknown
Nationality American
Other names Wiley Roberts, John Setton, John Sutton, John Taylor
Ethnicity Scottish
Occupation horse thief, bandit, burglar, river pirate, plantation overseer, soldier, frontiersman
Known for One of the first, known serial-killers in America
Spouse(s) Sarah "Sally" Rice
Children 4
Parent(s) William Harper or John Harper
Relatives Micajah Harpe (brother or cousin)

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 18th century. The Harpes crimes appear to have been motivated more by blood lust than financial gain and they are most likely America's first known "serial killers", reckoned from the colonial era forward.[1] The Harpe Brothers are infamously credited with having killed 39 people and possibly, more than 50, including, unknown murders.

Early life[edit]

It is difficult to disentangle the actual facts about the Harpe Brothers from the later legends about them.

The Harpes were born in Orange County, North Carolina to Scottish parents.[2] Micajah was probably born in or before 1768 and Wiley in or before 1770.[3] It is possible they were actually 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.[4]

Their fathers were allegedly Tories, fighting for the British during the American Revolutionary War, and may also have been regulators involved in the North Carolina Regulator War. The fathers later tried to join the Patriot American forces but were shunned from participating because of their earlier British allegiance.[5] Their family's treatment from hostile Patriot neighbors may have contributed to Big and Little Harpe's feelings of persecution.[6]

Big Harpe later traveled in the company of two women, Susan and Betsey/Betty Roberts, possibly sisters, both of whom bore him children.[6] Little Harpe married Sally Rice, the daughter of a Baptist minister.[7]

Around April or May, 1775, the young Harper cousins left North Carolina and went to Virginia to find overseer jobs on a slave plantation.

A painting of Loyalist and Patriot militia, fighting each other, at the Battle of Kings Mountain. During the American Revolutionary War, the Harpe Brothers belonged to a Tory, rape gang, who were not soldiers, but common outlaws, spreading wartime terror, by kidnapping women, murdering unarmed civilians, stealing horses and livestock, and burning down Patriot farms, in North Carolina and South Carolina. In 1780, after receiving temporary amnesty for their war crimes, the Harpes saw action with the British Army, under Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain and Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens. In 1781, the brothers joined a band of renegade Cherokees and headed into the western wilderness and participated in Indian war parties, against Fort Nashborough, in Tennessee and in the Battle of Blue Licks, in Kentucky.

Involvement in the American Revolutionary War and Indian Wars[edit]

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, and murdering, and burning and destroying the 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.[8] Captain Wood's son was patriot soldier Frank Wood who was the older brother of Susan Wood Harpe, who was later kidnapped and married by Micajah "Big" Harpe.

Patriot soldier Frank Wood, Captain Wood's son, 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 in November 1780 and Cowpens in January 1781. They also appeared at the Battle of King's Mountain in October 1780, under British commander Major Patrick Ferguson.

Following the British defeat 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 Cherokee to attack 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. 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 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 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 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 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.

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.

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.

In 1799, the Harpe Brothers, were captured, held for trial, and broke out of the Kentucky state jail, in Danville, the first state capital, before they could be sentenced to death, by hanging, for their murderous crimes. This historical reconstruction, of the jail, where Micajah and Wiley Harpe, were briefly incarcerated, was originally built by Isaac Hite, as a log prison structure, having a central breezeway, between two, windowed, prison cells, with a stone chimney, on one side.
In 1799, near Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky, the world's longest cave, was the scene of a horrific murder, when the Harpes killed a young, black man, by slamming his head against a tree.

Atrocities and serial murders[edit]

The Harpes confessed to the killing of a confirmed thirty-nine people but the estimated combined total (including unknown victims) of their victims numbers perhaps more than fifty. What follows are, of course, only a fraction of the accounts 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, ripped open, and 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.[5]

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.[9]

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 all three. The pair then made their way to Cave In The Rock, on the in southern Illinois, a stronghold of the river pirate and criminal gang leader, Samuel Mason. A posse had been aggressively pursuing them, but unfortunately stopped just short of the cave, on the opposite shore of 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. In July, 1798, they killed a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey. 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.

In south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son were found dead with their heads axed. In Logan County, the Harpes killed a little girl, a young slave, and an entire family the Harpes 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.[10] 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, too, was murdered.


The Harpe killings continued in July, 1799, as the two fled west to avoid a new posse organized by John Leiper which included avenging husband and father Moses Stegall.[9] 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, but the attempted to flee. Micajah Harpe was shot in both the leg and the back by Leiper, who soon caught up with Big Harpe and pulled him from his horse, subduing the outlaw in a scuffle with a tomahawk. As he lay dying, Micajah Harpe confessed to 20 murders. When he was done, but while Harpe was still conscious, Moses Stegall slowly cut off the outlaw's head. Later the head was hung on a pole (some accounts claim a tree) at a crossroads near the Stegall Cabin at a crossroads still known as "Harpe's Head" or Harpe's Head Road in Webster County, Kentucky.[11]

Wiley Harpe successfully escaped and is believed to have 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 Road as a warning to other outlaws. .[12]

Harpe women[edit]

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 Harpe) lived in Russellville. Susan Wood remarried later, and died in Tennessee. Her daughter went to Texas.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]


After the atrocities committed by the Harpes, many family members changed their name in some way to hide the relationship to their infamous ancestors.

In book, film, and television[edit]

Many accounts of the Harpe brothers derive from James Hall's frontier stories published in Port Folio magazine between 1825 and 1828 and republished in Letters from the West (1828) and The Harpe's Head, (1833).

  • The Harpe saga was explored by journalist, Paul Wellman, in his book Spawn of Evil, now no longer in print.
  • E. Don Harpe, who claims to descend from 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 Killers.
  • 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 subject.
  • 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 the 1955 Walt Disney's Disneyland television mini-series, installment, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.
  • Both Harpes and their descendants play a key role in the Silver John book The Voice Of The Mountain by Manly Wade Wellman, though their real-life accounts were fictionalized and morphed into more supernatural abilities.
  • The Harpe brothers were the inspiration for Big and Little Drum in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife:Passage.[16]
  • In Tammy and the Bachelor, Debbie Reynolds, portrayed an ancestor, of the house, she was staying at and tells the story, of a family, on the Natchez Trace, who robbed by a fictionalized, "Little Harp", that is obviously, patterned after Little Harpe.


  • "Evil Kin", Season 3, Episode 4 (2015) focuses on the Harpe brothers.


  1. ^ Schram, Pamela J.; Tibbetts, Stephen G. (2014). Introduction to Criminology: Why Do They Do It?. Los Angeles: Sage. p. 51. ISBN 9781412990851. 
  2. ^ Rosen, Fred (2005). The Historical Atlas of American Crime. New York: Facts on File. p. 33. ISBN 9781438129853. 
  3. ^ Newton, Michael; French, John L. (2008). Serial Killers. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. p. 25. ISBN 9780791094112. 
  4. ^ Musgrave, Jon (October 23, 1998). "Frontier serial killers: the Harpes.". American Weekend. 
  5. ^ a b Banta, R.E. (1998). The Ohio. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. p. 239. ISBN 9780813120980. 
  6. ^ a b Baldwin, Leland D. (1980). The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 122–123. ISBN 9780822974222. 
  7. ^ Schneidere, Paul (2013). Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 229. ISBN 9780805091366. 
  8. ^ Smith, T. Marshall (1855). Legends of the War of Independence, and of the Earlier Settlements in the West. Louisville, Kentucky. 
  9. ^ a b http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-harpes.html
  10. ^ https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/7948/9609
  11. ^ The United States criminal calendar. Charles Gaylord, Boston. 1840. pp. 281–283. 
  12. ^ Wagner, Mark and Mary R. McCorvie, "Going to See the Varmint: Piracy in Myth and Reality on the Ohio River, 1785–1830", In X Marks The Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen, pp. 219–247. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.
  13. ^ Rothert, Otto A. (1924). The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock. Cleveland. 
  14. ^ Ralph Harrelson, McLeansboro, Illinois historian
  15. ^ the former sheriff of Hamilton County, Illinois
  16. ^ "Western Fantasy: Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife books". Retrieved 2011-05-10.  (comment #3 from Lois herself)
  17. ^ "World Without End by Bob Frank and John Murry". Retrieved 2013-12-09. 
  18. ^ Tammy and the Bachelor Universal 1957


  • Coates, Robert M. The Outlaw Years: the History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace. 1930.
  • Gordon, Maj. Maurice Kirby. History of Hopkins County, Kentucky, published by the Hopkins County Genealogical Society.
  • Magee, M. Juliette. Cavern of crime. Livingston Ledger, 1973.
  • Musgrave, Jon. "Frontier serial killers: The Harpes," American Weekend, Oct. 23, 1998.
  • Rothert, Otto A. (January 1927). "The Harpes, Two Outlaws of Pioneer Times". Filson Club History Quarterly 1 (4). Retrieved 2011-11-11. 
  • Rothert, Otto A. The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock, Otto A. Rothert, Cleveland 1924; rpt. 1996 ISBN 0-8093-2034-7
  • Smith, T. Marshall. 1855. Legends of the War of Independence, and of the Earlier Settlements in the West. Louisville, Ky.

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