The Harpe Brothers: America’s First Serial Killers
In the chaos following the American Revolutionary War, a pair of bandits known as the Harpe Brothers went on a vicious killing spree across the frontier. They are now considered the first serial killers in America.
Now, the Mason gang could be ruthless, but even they were shocked by the Harpes’ actions. The gang asked them to leave after they got into a habit of taking travelers to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and then throwing them off.
Legend says that after his head was placed in the tree, a witch removed the skull, ground it into powder, and used it as a healing potion for a relative. When travelers retold the story, they swore they could hear laughter coming from the nearby bushes and trees.
Near Dixon, Kentucky is a junction in the road where US Highway 41 meets State Highway 56. It’s labeled on the map at Harpe’s Head Road State Historic Site.
It’s name hints at one of the most notorious crime sprees in US history, bred from the very war that created the country as we know it.
This is the story of the Harpe Brothers, America’s first serial killers.
Before we begin, I want to give a quick warning that we’re going to talk about some pretty nasty stuff in this video. In fact, it’ll be a miracle if this video doesn’t get demonetized.
Don’t think just because we’re talking about historical events that it’s somehow tamer or more sanitized because it was a “simpler time”. If anything, it’s the opposite.
This may be one of those episodes where you send the kids to the other room. Put a different video on for them – here, I’ll link to a video about smart animals. That’s cute.
They gone? Okay, let’s begin.
First let’s set the scene. It’s the late 1700s. The United States as we know it didn’t exist yet. Tensions between the colonies and the British empire were at an all-time high.
Protests broke out in multiples cities. In 1770, British troops fired on a group of protesters in Boston, killing three on the spot, with two more dying later from their wounds. This came to be known as the Boston Massacre.
Although like most things in history, the word “massacre” is an embellishment. The “peaceful protesters” were more like a drunken mob descending on 9 redcoats who panicked and fired into the crowd.
But still… tension.
Three years later, The Boston Tea Party happened when protestors dumped more than 300 chests of British tea into the harbor to protest the Tea Act.
Which led to the most caffeinated fish of all time.
All of this came to a head when fighting began in Lexington and Concord, setting off the American Revolutionary War in 1775.
But just like the Boston Massacre isn’t quite as one-sided as we were brought up to believe, not everyone in the colonies were on board with the revolution. There were a lot of people who were doing kinda good with the British and wanted to stay with them.
Like think about how divided we are today, they were just as divided but they were actually at war. Acts of violence broke out between neighbors on the the different sides all the time.
This was especially true on the frontier, which at the time was territories like Kentucky and Tennessee.
The idea of “the frontier” is almost more of an abstract concept these days, there’s nothing really like it today to compare it to.
The frontier wasn’t just unsettled, wild land, it was kind-of lawless; every man for himself, there was no authority to turn to if you got in trouble.
And there were plenty of ways to get in trouble. Roads were little more than well-worn Indian trails through overgrown forests where around every corner and behind every tree there could be a gang of bandits waiting to rob you. Or hostile natives ready to protect their land with violence.
And it’s in this violent, divided world that the Harpe Brothers emerged.
So, another thing about this time period is it was a time of myths and legends like Johnny Appleseed and Daniel Boone. Bigger than life heroes who tamed the wilderness and created a path for manifest destiny.
But where you have bigger than life heroes, you’ll also find bigger than life villains. And that was the Harpe Brothers.
So it’s a challenge to discern what is fact and legend with their story. These are events that took place over 200 years ago involving some seriously shady dudes.
The story is that they grew up in a family of loyalists who sided with the Crown, and things escalated to the point that one day a mob of revolutionaries attacked their family and lynched their parents.
The Harpe brothers fled into the wilderness where they were taken in by an Indian tribe. The tribe taught them how to survive in the bush and even more importantly, how to fight and kill like warriors.
And after that, they spent the rest of their lives using those skills to take revenge against the entire human race, murdering anybody they came across and displaying cruelty beyond all human comprehension. That’s the story.
There are a few problems with this story, for one thing the Harpe Brothers weren’t brothers at all. They were actually cousins.
Both of their fathers were Scottish immigrants who settled in North Carolina and they grew up together.
Their names were Micajah and Wiley, but they took on the nicknames “Big” and “Little” Harpe. Because, you know, one was bigger than the other.
Not the most creative nicknames I’ve ever heard but they got the job done.
Micajah “Big” Harpe was slightly older and, obviously, bigger. Contemporary accounts described him as the more impulsive and violent of the two and he often used his size to get his way.
Wiley “Little” Harpe was the brains of the duo, much more strategic and conniving, but just as ruthless.
As for the rest of their origin story, it’s not known for sure whether their parents were really murdered by revolutionaries, but as Loyalists they definitely had targets on their backs. And this tension and ostracism definitely would have shaped their attitudes toward the world as they grew up.
And the bit about being taken in by Indian tribes, again, it’s hard to say if that really happened to them but white settlers intermingled with Indian tribes all the time, especially on the frontier.
In fact, I was just reading a book where they were talking about how some of the earliest settlers actually abandoned their European communities to join the Indians because they preferred their way of life.
Especially in the Northeast, the Haudenosaunee tribes, the Five Nations were far more egalitarian and democratic than the Europeans that were obsessed with social classes.
In fact, the argument has been made that those values rubbed off on the colonists and set them on a course for independence and democracy. Like I mentioned the Boston Tea Party earlier, they dressed as Mohawk Indians when they did that as a symbol of the type of democracy that they wanted.
But, as I mentioned, some were loyal to the British, and that’s the side that the Harpe Brothers were part of.
And as the Revolutionary War took hold, they joined a Tory gang in North Carolina that waged guerrilla warfare against patriot colonists.
That’s one way of putting it, the other way is the war gave them a good excuse to assault, steal, and murder people.
They did actually join the British in a couple of battles including the Battle of Blackstock in 1780 and Cowpens in 1781.
And then the Americans defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and the war ended, meaning those colonial patriots they had been terrorizing and fighting against were now in charge.
So they got the hell out of North Carolina and went west into Tennessee, which was just a territory at the time, mostly Indian country.
By the way, that’s another thing that the story of the Harpe Brothers teaches us, you know, the way we learn about history is that the United States won the war, and everything was good, all was right with the world.
But the truth is a lot messier than that, like I said before there were major fractures over the Revolutionary War and those fractures didn’t just disappear once the war was over. In fact the violence of the war years only intensified hostilities and reprisals.
So yeah, they moved to Tennessee where they were out of the jurisdiction of state authorities.
And they took with them a trio of women, named Maria Davidson, Susan Wood, and Sarah Rice. Again, details are fuzzy here but some say they were wives and accomplices of the Harpe brothers, others say they were kidnapped.
There is a record of Wiley Harpe marrying Sarah Rice, but apparently they kinda “shared” the women.
So either a polyamorous Bonnie and Clyde situation, or two monsters with a harem of kidnapped victims.
Either way, they hid out in the Cherokee-Chickamauga village of Nickajack, near modern-day Chattanooga, for 12-13 years.
They ran a pig farm and earned a reputation as men you did not mess with because they would not hesitate to murder you.
I mean, the frontier was chock full of rogues and bandits hiding from authorities and preying on travelers and new settlers, but even amongst the bad guys, the Harpe Brothers stood out.
In fact, they weren’t alone, they had a band of other outlaws with them, one of whom was a guy named Moses Doss.
And maybe this gives some kind of clue to their relationship with the women, but at some point Moses became concerned for them. Perhaps he expressed his concern to the brothers, or maybe he threatened to go to authorities, but either way, they uh… killed him.
This is going to be a recurring theme.
By the spring of 1797, they were living in a cabin on Beaver’s Creek near Knoxville, Tennessee. And this is when something changed. And the Harpe Brothers went on the move.
One story is that people started noticing that their pig farm had run out of pigs but they still seemed to come to market to sell pigs all the time. And also a lot of other people’s pigs were going missing. So, they did the math.
And they’d probably been stealing pigs for a long time but in 1796, Tennessee became a state, meaning there was now some kind of law and order in the area. So it was time to hit the road.
And it started with a man named Johnson whom they met at a bar, or “rowdy groggery”.
The story goes that they met the man and noticed he had a bit of a full coinpurse. And they convinced him to travel with them.
This wasn’t unusual back then, like I said, the roads were dangerous, so people tended to travel in groups. The Harpes convinced him that they could keep him safe. Instead, they killed him and took his money.
A passerby found his body floating in the Holston River a few days later. It was ripped open and filled with stones, which kinda became a trademark of the Harpe Brothers, they would fill the body with stones and dump it in a river to make it sink to the bottom.
Which is kinda horrifying because even with all the killings that we know they committed, there are probably tons more we don’t know about because the bodies were never found.
The Harpes then moved east toward the Cumberland Gap to meet up with their wives.
They killed twice more while on the Wilderness Road. The first time was a pair of travelers named Paca and Bates.
The second time was a young man named Langford. But like their other victims, they didn’t dispose of the body very well.
Langford’s body was found and a nearby innkeeper recognized it, figuring out the Harpes committed the crime.
With their rate of violence escalating, a posse formed and chased the Harpes, who were caught on Christmas day in 1799. They were imprisoned in Stanford, Kentucky.
Enough evidence was found for a trial in the district court in Danville, Kentucky. But just before the trial date in March, the Harpes escaped.
In April, the Kentucky governor placed a $300 reward on each of their heads. That’s about $7000 in today’s money.
Now one might think that they would consider that too close for comfort and lay low for a while. They didn’t. They kept on killing people.
They headed west where they killed two more men on the trail, then near the mouth of Saline Creek, they came across three men who were camping and joined them for some s’mores.
I’m kidding, they killed them.
They eventually found themselves at an area called Cave-In-Rock in southern Illinois, which was a stronghold of the river pirate Samuel Mason.
The Mason gang used the cave as a hideout and from there would attack supply boats heading up the Ohio river. And this seemed like as good a place as any for the Harpes to settle down for a while with their wives and three children. Oh yeah, they had some kids at this point.
And this was a good fit for a while. But eventually the Harpes found a way to cause trouble.
Keep in mind, the Mason gang was one of the most ruthless bands of pirates around, but even they saw the Harpes’ brutality and were like, dude, chill.
Because the Harpes got a kick out of taking travelers to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and then throwing them off the cliff. Like you do.
So yeah, the Mason gang kicked them out. And this really speaks to what made the Harpes stand out. There were tons of thieves who would kill to protect themselves or serve their own interests, but the Harpes… they killed for sport. They got off on it.
Once they were dismissed from the Mason gang, they headed back into eastern Tennessee and continued their killing spree.
In July 1798, they killed a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey.
More bodies were soon discovered:
- William Ballard – disemboweled and thrown into the Holston River
- James Brassel – his throat slashed and found on Brassel’s Knob
- John Graves and his teenage son – their heads axed in south-central Kentucky
And in Logan County, Kentucky, they killed a little girl, a young slave, and an entire family who were sleeping at a campsite.
They also killed and disemboweled a man named Trowbridge in August.
With the violence escalating and a bounty on their heads, they found themselves being chased by various posses. In one close call, with a posse bearing down on them, Big Harpe’s infant daughter was crying and threatened to give them away. So he bashed her head against a tree.
Later he would confess genuine remorse for this. It’s the only murder he claimed to feel bad about.
But it was in the summer of 1799 when it all finally caught up to the Harpe Brothers.
They came upon the home of Moses Stegall in Webster County, Kentucky, and purchased a room for the night.
While there, they killed an overnight guest named Major William Love.
They then entered the kitchen and demanded Mrs. Stegall make them some food. She obliged, but when her four-month old boy started crying… well, we know how Big Harpe dealt with crying babies.
And when Mrs. Stegall screamed at the sight of Big Harpe cutting her son’s throat, they killed her as well. Then burned the cabin down.
This event would be the Harpes’ undoing. When Moses Stegall came home and saw what happened, he quickly formed a posse.
Vigilante justice was about to take hold.
By the time Stegall’s posse caught up with them, they had already murdered two more men named Hudgens and Gilmore.
As the posse closed in around their camp, Little escaped, but Big was chased down. They managed to shoot him once in the leg and once in the back.
And the legend has it that as he lay there bleeding out, he confessed his killings to the men who stood over him, waiting for him to die.
That’s when Moses Stegall took Big’s own butcher knife… and cut off his head.
According to the story, he did it while Big was still alive, and he did it as slowly as possible to extend the agony. Micajah’s last words were, “You’re a Goddamned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”
Once it was over, Moses took Big’s head and impaled it on the limb of a tree near the intersection of a local road to serve as a warning for other would-be bandits.
That spot is the infamous Harpe’s Head Road that I mentioned at the beginning of this video.
But Little got away. He headed west again with the women and returned to the Mason Gang at Cave-In-Rock under the alias of John Setton.
He managed to stay alive for 4 years before his insatiable greed got the best of it.
Turns out, Mason had a $2,000 bounty on his head. That’s equivalent to almost $50,000 today.
So, Little and another pirate turned on Mason and decapitated him.
They took the head in for the reward money. As he began to leave with the money, a victim from an earlier riverboat attack recognized him.
Authorities immediately arrested him, but he escaped…. again. Maybe his nickname should’ve been Willy and not Little.
A posse caught up with him and he was finally brought to justice. Tried, sentenced, and hung.
And just to make sure he was dead, they cut off his head and placed it on a spike along the Natchez Trace as a warning to other outlaws.
This was February of 1804, and their bloody spree of violence finally came to an end.
The three women were arrested and tried, but the community took pity on them. Again, there’s still debate around whether they were willing accomplices or kidnap victims, but in this case they were seen as victims. Or they were able to convince people they were anyway.
Perhaps a piece of evidence that swayed the jury was the fact that – that whole thing where Micajah murdered his own child? Apparently that happened several times.
There were three children – between the five of them – that survived. But apparently they had several more children. All of which were dispatched in the interest of expediency.
It’s hard to imagine a mother willingly staying with someone who does that to their children, or actively participating in it. But of course… there are female psychopaths too.
Regardless, the three of them went on to marry, raise families, and live in peace.
In the end, the Harpes claim to have killed 39 people. But that number may be closer to 50 or higher. Like I said before, the way they disposed of bodies means there could be a lot that went uncounted.
The Harpe name became synonymous with violence, lawlessness, and unspeakable evil. And many family members changed their last names to hide the fact that they were related to them.
Some just dropped the “e,” while others changed their names significantly. In fact, the rumor is that Wyatt Earp was a descendant of the Harpe Brothers.
But in a way… and bear with me because this could get pretentious for a second… Aren’t we all descendants of the Harpe Brothers?
The United States, for all it’s positives, has always had a dark underbelly to it.
Those tensions that were created in the fire of the revolution, the tensions that created the Harpes… they’re still around. They don’t take the same form they used to, they’ve evolved over time. But they’re still there – woven into the fabric our history.
We celebrate great heroes from the revolution but forget that revolution is messy and created fractures that led to unspeakable violence.
There are similar fractures in society today. Fractures that manifest in evil and violent acts with relentless, overwhelming regularity.
Am I working too hard on this? I’m just saying that there are lessons to be learned from the Harpe brothers. This isn’t just a salacious story about a couple of serial killers, they were serial killers formed by the very birth of this nation. Every rose has its thorn.
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