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Terror of the Harpe Serial Killers

Updated on July 31, 2015

Big Harpe Sketch

Harpe Brothers

About two centuries ago, two men, named Harpe arrived in Kentucky, spreading death, terror and mayhem. They were known as the brothers Micajah and Wiley Harpe, which were aliases. They were actually first cousins. One historian referred to them as "the most brutal monsters of the human race" in describing their tale of carnage and bloodshed.

Little is known of the Harpe’s early history and many argue over details of their life. But what is known is even as young men their presence frightened ordinary folk. Some historians claim America's first serial killer was H.H. Holmes from the late nineteenth century, but there were several operating as early as one hundred years before.

Micajah, the oldest was born in 1768 and described as tall, big-boned, muscular and just downright mean. He was always dirty and had red hair. He carried a hunting knife, tomahawk and a rifle and could care less who he hurt or killed. He was sometimes called “Big Harpe.”

The younger Harpe, born in 1770, was just as dangerous but not quite as frightening. What made the two mad dog killers can only be guessed at. Several writers say they had once been arrested and convicted for a crime they did not commit. Whether they were seeking revenge or just cold blooded killers is hard to say.

It is said they emigrated from Scotland as young children and their fathers were John and William Harpe, who settled in Orange County, North Carolina.

But, even here historians disagree. Some say Georgia or Tennessee. Even the place of their birth is disputed to be in America and it was their fathers who emigrated, around 1761. But at some point as they grew older the boys changed their names, from William and Joshua to Micajah and Wiley and passed themselves off as brothers.

H. H. Holmes

At first the families wanted to run a plantation and did for a few years before the colonies entered the war. But when war came, instead of remaining farmers, they fought in the war…although they were too young to be soldiers. In addition, they didn’t fight for the Colonies, but for the British.

Eventually the two Harpes decided military life wasn't their cup of tea either. So just before the war ended they deserted, became outlaws and drifted west.

Somewhere along the way, Micajah kidnapped Maria Davidson to be his wife along with another woman, Susan Wood. Some sources say their names were Betsy and Sally, because they used aliases. In any case, the Harpes inflicted sufficient punishment to them so they wouldn't think of running off. Sometime between 1795 and 1797 they apparently came into Knox County, Tennessee, settling near a place called Beaver's Creek. By this time, it is said they had killed five times…including four of their own children!

Wiley legally married a woman from Knoxville named Sarah Rice; others say her name was Susanna. Why they bothered to get married is anyone’s guess as it is reported Big Harpe lived with both Betsy and Sally as common-law wives.

Apparently, once they all settled in Tennessee, they made an effort to raise crops and get along with other residents. However, they were restless for more and it wasn't long before they killed a man who showed concern for their women and began stealing livestock from their neighbors.

As more thefts occurred it became obvious to the locals it was the Harpe’s doing the stealing. When no one was found at home a search party was formed. Following a trail into the Cumberland Mountains, not only was the missing livestock found, but the Harpes as well. The cousins were arrested and escorted back to town, but they managed to escape.

In another county, the Harpes murdered Hugh Dunlap, who had made it abundantly clear he intended to bring them to justice, no matter what it took. Around the same time, another man named Ballard fell victim to the killers. They stuffed his body with stones and tossed it into a river. Their rampage continued with a man and his son being slaughtered while planting crops. Another family camping near the Whippoorwill River was slaughtered in like manner.

Around this time, Micajah also killed his, or Wiley's, four-month-old daughter by swinging her by the ankles and smashing her head against a tree.

Wearing scalps in their belts and buckskins, the Harpes killed children, women and men indiscriminately. They raped, stole and killed without fear of reprisal because there was little to no law to speak of.

Hoping to put a stop to the pair’s horror the governor of Kentucky issued a $300 reward to anyone who could capture one or both of the Harpes. This only resulted in the Harpes temporarily withdrawing into the Cumberland Mountains between Kentucky and Tennessee, all the while stealing and committing more murders.

A posse was rounded up to go in pursuit of the Harpes and they soon found them. Micajah and Wiley found themselves captured once again, on Christmas Day in 1798. They were imprisoned in Danville, the seat of Lincoln County, to await a trial. However, once again they managed to escape; it is thought by bribing a guard. The Harpe women were also imprisoned but they did not escape, as all were pregnant. Upon their release they went to meet their husbands, as per instructions from a messenger. None attempted to go elsewhere and start a new life free of the Harpes.

The Harpes soon returned to Kentucky. On the way back they encountered two men. They killed one, but the other escaped and was able to inform everyone the Harpes were back. The residents again armed themselves. This time the residents were determined to stop them once and for all.

The Harpes continued to live in the woods and caves but would sometimes venture out to steal supplies. At one place, their actions spelled the beginning of the end for the Harpes, but not before several more lost their lives.

One day late in August 1799, the murderous cousins and their women came to the Moses Stegall homestead. The Harpe wives got to know Mrs. Stegall, who was tending to her infant child and according to a newspaper account, they alerted their men she kept a sum of $40, hidden in the cabin. It isn’t known for certain whether they spent the night but it was morning when the Harpes asked Mrs. Stegall to cook them a meal.

After convincing the woman, she put her child in its cradle so they could look after it while she cooked the food. The baby quieted down; in fact the child didn’t make a single sound during the entire time she prepared breakfast. After serving the meal, she went to check on her baby. She found her child with a cut throat. The baby had been killed simply to keep it quiet. As Mrs. Stegall screamed the Harpes stabbed her to death with a butcher knife and fled.

Her husband came running to find his slaughtered wife and child. Although in shock, he and seven others including a Captain John Leiper went in pursuit of the Harpes. They located them the next day in a rocky cavern holed up inside a cave.

The posse surprised them as they were resting. According to a news article Wiley and Big Harpe were separated and Wiley saw the posse and left while Big Harpe was left with nowhere to run. A gun battle ensued and Micajah was wounded. He managed to mount a horse, leaving the women behind in the cave. When the posse caught up with Big Harpe, Leiper shot him in the leg and back.

Harpe fell off his horse and crawled to a log to where he prepared himself to die. He'd dropped his gun, and so he had no defense. Leiper slowly approached, reloading his gun.

However, by this time, the posse had caught up. Blinded by rage, Stegall planned to exact revenge on Harpe. He grabbed a knife and holding him by the hair ran the blade in a slow sawing motion across the back of his neck. Micajah suffered, but he didn't cry out. Instead, he glared at Stegall and exclaimed, “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned." Stegall finished the job by removing his head. Harpe was 31 years old. For his bravery, Leiper was given a $250 reward. Others hoping to cash in went looking for Little Harpe, but he was able to elude capture for several more years.

The posse returned to where the women had been tied to the trees. They were taken to a court in Russellville and interrogated as to why they were with the Harpes. They claimed they had not known how bad they were when they first joined with them. But once they did they feared leaving would endanger their own lives, as well as those of their families. The officials ultimately decided they had been coerced to cohabit with the outlaws. So, they were released.

However, Little Harpe was still at large. It is generally believed Wiley Harpe came across a band of thieves, headed by Sam Mason who had a $2,000 reward on his head. Wiley saw an opportunity to collect it. As with all thieves it's often a matter of, which will do in the other first. So, when the chance presented itself, he decapitated Mason. How Wiley planned to collect is a mystery. Walking into a lawman’s office as a wanted person himself trying to claim a reward would not be the brightest idea.

Unbeknownst to Wiley, troops were on their way from eastern Tennessee to take over Louisiana and Mississippi territories. Some knew Harpe on sight and when he arrived with Mason's head in his hand he was immediately thrown in prison. Once again, he temporarily managed to get away, but was soon recaptured outside Greenville, Mississippi.

On February 8, 1804, Harpe and another outlaw were hanged. Their heads were removed and placed on poles as a warning to other outlaws.

As far as their death tally is concerned, depending on the source, it ranged from 17 to 40. Perhaps it was more as many atrocities were attributed to them, but never proven.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      That's interesting. My research never uncovered that fact. But, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    • profile image

      Kenny D 5 years ago

      As a descendant of Hugh Dunlap, I'm happy to be able to point out that the Harpes DID NOT murder Hugh, but rather murdered Ballard mistakenly believing him to be Dunlap. Whew!

    • profile image

      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      It is amazing how cruel people can be. A very good hub.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I was in a hurry earlier to get to work and rushed the proofread. I caught it when I got back. Thank you. I felt a link wasn't necessary as these two scoundrels can easily be found on google.

    • miss_jkim profile image

      miss_jkim 6 years ago

      This is an interesting Hub. Your first two paragraphs have a lot of redundancies that you might want to correct.

      I like the pictures. How about some links and maybe an Amazon ad to a book that will give the reader more information about the subjects, serial killers of the time period, or serial killers in general?

      I see promise here.