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The terrifying true story of the Harpes, who terrorized Tennessee two centuries ago — and paid with their heads

Killing Cousins

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Two hundred and fourteen years ago, the devil himself passed through Tennessee. Or so believed the early settlers and terrified townsfolk who heard the whispers, read the reports, saw the gruesome results with their own disbelieving eyes.

He was an emissary from a distant future — from a time preoccupied with serial murder, increasingly unfazed by the bleakest extremes of human nature. As America prepared for its westward surge, the mandate of manifest destiny, he went west toward his own fate: in a cane break deep in rural Kentucky, with his own butcher knife held tight to his throat.

He remains an enigma. His motives are a blur. Even the color of his hair is disputed. His origins are shrouded in confusion and mystery, and some contradictions may never be fully resolved. This much is known: By a conservative reckoning, he and his steadfast partner — his brother? his cousin? — cut a swath of carnage from Knoxville to Henderson, Ky., that left at least 28 people dead.

Their victims lay face up in rivers, gutted, their eyes wide and staring, their innards replaced with stones. Or they lay hacked and strewn in the Cumberland wilderness, left to entropy's appetite. They were killed for the gold they carried; they were killed despite the kindness they gave. The killers drew no distinction between men and women, boys and girls, children and infants. Not even their own.

Today, the names of Micajah and Wiley Harpe survive as a bloody rebuke to the supposed age of innocence — to the idea of a time when living was easier, people were gentler, and the world made sense. At the end of his horrific spree, Micajah Harpe looked out on a land he had thrown into terror and chaos, a harbinger of the bloodshed civil war would bring the area in the coming century. But to him, it wouldn't have mattered.

By that time, his head was no longer attached to his body.

"Many men, leaving the policed and prosperous East, had felt strange impulses strengthening within them, wild new instincts blossoming in their hearts. At home, in the cities, on farms along the Housatonic or the Yadkin Rivers, they had been indistinguishable from their fellows, but once they entered the wilderness they were transformed. Its perfumed appeal, its dark menace particularized them: as if in a kind of intimate abandonment as if, alone against the dark heart of the continent ... they revealed by their violences, or by their heroisms, how different they were from other men."
—Robert M. Coates, The Outlaw Years, 1930

It was no easy task, on the cusp of the 19th century, to remove a man's head. An ocean away, the French were proving innovators in this realm. In rural Kentucky, however, it took determination, motivation. The man known as Big Harpe had supplied his pursuer with both. He and his blood-kin partner, known as Little Harpe, used a butcher knife to do it.

The origins of the men often called "America's first serial killers" are hard to pin down. They emerge, eyes blazing, from a historical fogbank of multiple spellings, dubious records and contradictory accounts. In many — notably that of Illinois historian Jon Musgrave, author of a widely read 1998 article on the Harpes — the story begins with the arrival in America of two Scottish immigrants, John and William Harper, in approximately 1759. Micajah was reportedly born in 1768, Wiley two years later.

Whether one brother fathered both children, or each brother fathered one, remains a matter of debate. What seems accepted, though, is that as revolutionary fervor swept the Carolinas, the family sided with the Redcoats against their fellow colonists. Bad move. In the years following the pivotal British loss in 1780 at the Battle of Kings Mountain, according to family researcher Ernest Harp, Patriot "regulators" seized their property and belongings, bent on driving Tory sympathizers from the region. Whether their parents were killed or fled, the young Harpes were left to fend for themselves.

"Without condoning their deeds in any way, I honestly think they were men who believed they were driven into this lifestyle, and that they had no choice other than to do the things they did," Harp, a descendant who has published two novels based on his ancestors under the name E. Don Harpe, says via email. "I don't believe there was ever a time when they regretted the things they did, the lives they took, or the blood they left on the ground behind them. It just didn't occur to them to give it any thought."

Harp believes they survived by stealing, living off whatever they could hunt, and holing up in caves — traits that would serve them well in later life.

In the mid-1780s, they made their way to Tennessee and spent much of the next seven to 12 years living among the Cherokee. Even then, they were sketchy characters. It is speculated that when Chief John Watts, leader of the renegade faction known as the Chickamauga, led his famous attack in 1792 on the settlement of Buchanan's Station — a battle that would determine Nashville's future — the Harpes were there on his side. And when Maj. James Ore sprang a counterattack in 1794 that wiped out the Chickamauga town of Nickajack near Chattanooga, killing numerous women and children, the Harpes are said to have slipped out the night before.

Even before the grisly crimes that stoked a newborn century's nightmares, the Harpes must have cut unnerving figures in the muddy, shadowed trails that predated paved roads and interstates. A traveler who passed the Harpes in their flight from Nickajack would have seen a hulking, long-limbed man, more than 6 feet tall, slinking through the woods bearing a gruesome weapon — a large tomahawk capable of cleaving a man's skull.

This was Micajah, aka Big Harpe. At his side would have been Little Harpe: shorter but smarter, some said, and more devious. Like his brother, he didn't favor headpieces; with his fiery red hair, he must have looked like a lit powder keg. With them would have been two bedraggled women — according to some accounts, kidnapped sex slaves forced into submission; according to others, two sisters, Susan and Betsy Roberts, one plain and nondescript, the other blond and noted for her looks, both cast adrift with the Harpes as their only anchors.

Was Big Harpe's hair red and simply gnarled with dirt and animal grease? Or did he have curly black hair that proved he had slave blood in his ancestry, as rumor claimed? History at present is no clearer on this point than it is on how the Harpes spent the next few years. As they distanced themselves from Nickajack, there are signs they made a stab at domesticity. By 1797, they had settled into life at a cabin alongside Beaver Creek, near the Holston River eight miles outside Knoxville.

That summer, Little Harpe married Sarah (Sally) Rice, the daughter of a Knoxville minister, the Rev. John Rice. In September, Blount County marriage records show that one "McAjor" Harpe wedded "Susanna" Roberts — though Betsy Roberts stayed at the cabin too. According to former Murray State University professor Kenneth Tucker in his own Harpe research, "The brothers disregarded traditional marital guidelines and shared the three women sexually."

What ended the Harpes' cohabitation on Beaver Creek isn't entirely known. In his 1962 book The Devil's Backbone: The Story of the Natchez Trace, a compendium of cutthroats, grift and skullduggery, Jonathan Daniels quotes a mail rider named John Swaney, who said he'd been riding when the Harpes bet the farm — literally — on a single horse race. They lost their shirts, and in revenge, he said, they took off to make the whole world feel their fury.

But other accounts, perhaps not incompatible, say the Harpes had been feathering their Beaver Creek love nest with rustling and other crimes. The Harpes' pork futures would be booming, for example, about the time a neighbor noticed his swine had disappeared.

In April 1797, a young Methodist preacher, the Rev. William Lambuth, was riding through the woods when a large man stepped from the brush toting a rifle, a smaller man close behind. They set about divesting him of his goods when at once the larger man saw a name scribbled in Lambuth's Bible: George Washington.

"That is a brave and good man," he is said to have told the preacher in a thick Scottish burr, "but a mighty rebel against the King." Despite this moment of unexpected probity, Lambuth's fate was looking grim. That's when (in Ernest Harp's telling) "two unkempt women" appeared from a thicket. The Harpes and their women bundled up his belongings and vanished into the woods, and a moment later the large man emerged from the foliage.

"We are the Harpes!" he shouted in his brogue, and the forest closed around them.

Lambuth lived, something that would not become a pattern. The last straw came when a neighbor named Edward Tiel, a regulator, accused the Harpes (correctly, it seems) of stealing his horses. He put together a small posse, captured Big and Little Harpe in the Cumberland Mountains, and began marching them toward civilization to stand trial.

About five miles from Knoxville, according to Ernest Harp, something chilling happened. As the party moved on, through dense and inhospitable wilderness, the two prisoners quietly slipped away without their captors noticing and disappeared. The shaken militiamen looked around vainly, but to no avail. It was as if the woods had swallowed them. Only eerie silence remained of the wanted men.

Henceforth, all their deeds would be bloody.

Their trail of slaughter begins in late 1798 at Hughes Tavern, a watering hole west of Knoxville. An 18th century tavern could serve as a town hall or center of early governance, but not this "rowdy groggery" known to the Harpes and other roughnecks. Little Harpe even manages to get into a scrape that ends with a knife wound in his chest, courtesy of one John Bowman, which doesn't mean much at the time. It would take more than a cat scratch to lay out a Harpe.

Among the drinkers on hand is a man named Johnson. Whether he had snitched on the Harpes at some point is a matter of speculation. Regardless, a few days later, a traveler spots something floating in the nearby Holston River. It is a man's body, disposed of in a hideous way.

The man's guts have been ripped out. The cavity is stuffed with stones, intended to sink the carcass to the bottom. They must have dislodged, or the man known as Johnson wouldn't have his sole claim to posterity — as the first of what would become many more victims.

That is not to say he was the first man the Harpes ever killed. Historians cite one Moses Doss, whose hacked and mutilated body was found on a desolate road near a Cherokee village in 1797. (He'd been the Harpes' friend, according to Tucker, but made eyes at one of the Roberts gals and sealed his fate.) There's also evidence to suggest they killed a peddler named Peyton, whose corpse was discovered near the Cumberland River in Knox County not long after Johnson's, and a pair of Maryland travelers named Paca and Bates.

For this killing, though, the Harpes do not face charges. The tavern's reputation is so dire that lawmen suspect the barkeep.

The next one will leave no doubt, either in its savagery or its senselessness.

One of the persistent mysteries of the Harpes' saga is the role of the women, who by this point were all three pregnant. Several accounts, including that of T. Marshall Smith in his 1855 Legends of the War of Independence, say the Harpes kidnapped and brutalized women: A Revolutionary War soldier named Frank Wood, speaking many decades later, told Smith that Susan Harpe was in fact his little sister, wrenched from the family and evidently pressed into sexual servitude.

Juries over the years would embrace the proto-Stockholm Syndrome defense that the women were traumatized into compliance. There is, of course, basis for this in psychology. The complicating factor, though, is that at every chance the women were separated from the men — beginning with the Harpes' capture by Edward Tiel — they not only didn't run but hastened to join them afterward. This, at a time when any such journey would have been tediously deliberate.

Whatever bond holds the women to the Harpes, they rejoin and set course down the Wilderness Road, the trail blazed by Daniel Boone westward into Kentucky. It brings them to the settlement of Little Rock Castle, the last stop for 30 miles on a bitterly cold journey. They arrive at Pharris' Inn, a respite with the bonus of cash-laden travelers.

There, they have the good fortune to run into Stephen Langford. (Some accounts refer to him as Thomas Langford.) A gregarious fellow, he offers to pay for the ravenous, destitute Harpes' food and lodging. They gladly accept, but can't help but notice the abundant coinage as he opens his purse to pay.

In Ernest Harp's telling, the wary innkeeper warns Langford not to flash his cash, that there are blackguards afoot. Langford relays this to his new companions, who concur wholeheartedly. Perhaps they should accompany their friend on his journey, for strength in numbers? Happily, he agrees.

Days later, according to Harp, a cattleman finds the remains of Stephen Langford. His body has been left for scavengers in the underbrush.

The innkeeper identifies Langford. What's more, he fingers the Harpes.

A posse catches up with the men and their pregnant womenfolk on Christmas Day 1798. The brood is taken to jail in Stanford, Ky., a rare occasion when the Harpes succumb without a fight. A warm jail with meals beats cold and starvation, especially for three pregnant women. Little more than a week later, the Lincoln County court orders them held for trial.

All five are moved in January 1799 to the jail in Danville, Ky., a fortress Samson himself couldn't rend. Not only is it built of hewn logs 9 inches thick, but to clamp down the bastards jailer John Biegler invests in a bolt and two horse locks for the men's feet, a new lock for the front door, and 3 pounds of nails.

The jail's expenses are tallied in county records. So, too, are the 12 shillings it must spend on March 16, 1799 — the cost of the damage the Harpes cause when they break free, to write their names across the state in blood.

The Harpes head west, subject of a then-unprecedented manhunt. It will soon reach new levels of fury. On April 10, according to Musgrave, posse members ride three miles west of Columbia, Ky., to the home of Col. Daniel Trabue, a leading citizen and former Revolutionary War soldier. They want him to join the pursuit, and Trabue agrees — as soon as 13-year-old Johnny Trabue returns from borrowing flour and beans at a neighbor's home.

Then appears a troubling sight: the boy's dog, untethered, wild-eyed, smeared with blood.

The dog leads them to a sinkhole. There the men find Johnny Trabue's mutilated body. The flour and beans the Harpes kept. Enraged and grief-stricken, Trabue gives chase, accompanied by a veteran tracker and Indian fighter named Henry Skaggs. But again it is as if the pitiless woods have enfolded the Harpes from harm.

By this time, back in Danville, the three women have given birth, and the last of their legal woes ends in a mistrial. They are sent on their way with clothes, sympathy and a horse, but not before they are cautioned never to return to the Harpes. The women agree — then trade the horse down the road for a canoe. Their destination, down the Green River toward the mighty Ohio, is a cesspool of peril that even boatmen fear.

Cave-in-Rock, Ill., true to its name, opens like a maw in the limestone bluffs over the Ohio River. As river trade boomed, its 55-foot-wide cavity proved a natural wonder — for river pirates preying on flatboats as they passed. (Small wonder it's the modern-day home to the Gathering of the Juggalos.) Presiding over a scurvy crew there was Samuel Mason. Years before, according to Daniels' book The Devil's Backbone, Mason and his son had been accused of robbery in Natchez, Miss., convicted and publicly flogged. He protested his innocence with each of 39 lashes — until the last, when he told the crowd that if they saw him punished again, it would be for something he'd actually done.

At Cave-in-Rock, at least three bodies and a $300 price on their heads from the governor of Kentucky later, the Harpes reunite with their women and babies. As they settle into the pirates' trade, the stone tunnel becomes the most welcoming home they will know the rest of their days. But even its welcome runs out, after a notorious incident recorded in Otto A. Rothert's seminal 1923 book The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock, still one of the best accounts of the Harpes' rampage. After a flatboat raid, the pirates are divvying up the booty when they are startled by noise high up on the bluffs.

Big Harpe and Little Harpe have found a diversion. They have seized a passenger from the boat and lashed him naked and blindfolded to a horse, also blindfolded. They stand atop a 100-foot bluff. When man and animal are helpless, the brothers begin to shout and beat the horse, driving it closer to the cliff's edge. As the pirates watch, the screaming captive and terrified horse plunge over together. They smash on the rocks below.

Too bloodthirsty even for the company of professional throat-cutters, and drawing more heat than any outlaws in the state of Kentucky, the Harpes are told to leave Cave-in-Rock. They spend the baking summer of 1799 leaving corpses strewn indiscriminately from Kentucky to Knoxville and back.

They kill a man near Knoxville, possibly mistaking him for someone else.

They kill a black boy for his corn.

They kill a white girl, according to Ernest Harp, and "cut her body into one-inch strips."

They seize a pair of brothers, claiming with perverse amusement to have captured the dreaded Harpes. When one manages to escape, he returns with help — only to find his brother's head split by a tomahawk blow.

They massacre an entire family and their slaves, leaving at least eight butchered, perhaps many more.

By the month of August, killing to the Harpes has become almost an instantaneous reflex, unthinking and spasmatic. When the baby son of one of the Harpes' wives begins squalling, begins squalling, will not cease its infernal squalling, as the brood holes up in a cave somewhere near Russellville, Ky., Micajah solves the problem as he best knows how. He dashes the infant's head against the wall of the cave, and all is silence.

As Micajah Harpe touches off the maelstrom that will mark his last week on earth, the Harpes are en route to Henderson, Ky., to rendezvous with their wives and Betsy Roberts, who have been off collecting debts. The biggest question mark in the story — the psychological condition of the dead Harpe baby's mother — has yet to be answered to anyone's satisfaction. The Harpes' story demands a much more thorough and painstakingly researched account than space provides here. But this much is known:

On Aug. 19, 1799, a Henderson County, Ky., resident named James Tompkins opens his door to a pair of scraggly strangers. They tell him they are jackleg Methodist preachers traveling the territory, and Tompkins takes them at their word. He supplies them with a hearty meal, according to Harp, over which the larger of the two men says a lengthy grace. The Harpes remain so firmly in character that they forget to kill Tompkins. Indeed, when the host says he doesn't have powder to fill his rifle, Big Harpe is moved to pour him a cupful from his own horn.

For his lone act of charity, Big Harpe will pay dearly.

From there they ride to the home of Silas McBee, a justice of the peace known as a ramrod law-and-order type, just the sort the Harpes would delight in killing. McBee's pack of snarling dogs changes their minds, however, so they come up with a plan. They ride on to the home of a man named Moses Stegall, whom some believe had been a criminal acquaintance of the outlaws in their Knoxville days.

His wife Mary answers the door. The Harpes tell her they've come to collect a dollar she owes Micajah's wife Susan. She gathers her purse — nice and full. At that point the Harpes notice they are not alone. Moses isn't there, but a houseguest is: one Maj. William Love, a surveyor whom Moses had invited before heading out on business. She also has a 4-month-old baby son.

She invites the Harpes to stay for the night, and with a full belly Micajah asks if he can sleep in the same room as Maj. Love. In multiple accounts, the household retires for the evening. Just one problem: Maj. Love proves to be a deafening snorer. Micajah fixes that. The major even looks asleep in his bed afterward, silenced forever by a tomahawk.

The next morning, the household (with one notable exception) wakes to Mary preparing breakfast. Only Mary's colicky baby son James will not stop crying in the next room. Well equipped to handle these matters, Micajah offers to quiet the infant. She agrees and returns to her work, and is grateful when the baby's cries quiet. Moments later, she goes to check on the child.

Blood from the baby's slit throat soaks the crib.

And when Mary Stegall will not be quiet, the same knife silences her.

The Harpes then sit down to breakfast. As a parting gesture, they kick over the wood stove — setting the cabin ablaze, Kenneth Tucker writes, in hopes that Silas McBee will see the smoke and ride into an ambush. But the Harpes are gone by the time McBee and Moses Stegall arrive by an unexpected route. On the expected route, two men, Gilmore and Hudgens, are found dead. (Their dog too, just because.) When Stegall finds Mary's body, Tucker notes, Big Harpe's knife is driven so deeply into her body that its hilt didn't burn.

An eight-man posse is assembled, including Stegall, McBee, James Tompkins and John Leiper. On Aug. 24, 1799, they find a camp where Sally Rice Harpe has apparently been abandoned. She points them in the direction the others set out. The other women are soon captured with their children, according to an 1887 account by historian Edmund Starling.

After a two-mile ride, according to Musgrave, they spot Micajah and Wiley Harpe talking to a man named George Smith. At the sight of the posse, the Harpes bolt in different directions — Big Harpe toward the hills, Little Harpe toward the forbidding swampland nearby. Smith runs toward the trackers, only to be winged by a bullet from Silas McBee.

They pursue Micajah Harpe to a cane break. According to Musgrave, four men fire; only one catches him, in the leg. His own ramrod jammed, John Leiper asks to borrow James Tompkins' rifle, loaded with powder from Big Harpe's own horn. He takes aim and pulls the trigger. The ball thunks into the outlaw's heavy frame, shattering his spine.

His own blood pouring for once from a wound, the most feared man in the territory slows to a crawl, waving his tomahawk until he loses the strength. His pursuers remove him from his horse and rest him beneath a tree. Accounts vary as to what happens next. Some say he asks for a drink of water, and it is brought to him in his shoe. Some say he begins to confess to his crimes: so many dead. Of them, he is said to have expressed remorse for only one — the child he killed of his own blood.

There is speculation later that Moses Stegall wanted to silence Big Harpe's confession before he reached anything that might incriminate him. He would meet his own violent end little more than a year later, Starling notes, gunned down by pursuers after helping one Joshua Fleehart make off with a Miss Maddox. But in the moment, no one accuses him of undue haste in wanting the savage Harpe dead. He withdraws a butcher knife — Musgrave says it was Harpe's own —and advances.

As his agent of retribution nears, history records Micajah Harpe's last words as, "You're a Goddamned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned."

And the sawing begins.

Once safely confined to the past tense, the severed head of Micajah Harpe was placed in a saddlebag (ruining the corn dinner that later shared the space) and nailed to a tree at the crossroads where the road from Henderson forks off toward Morganfield and Madisonville. "[The] rain-whitened skull grinned down at travelers for years," Jonathan Daniels writes. The body was left as carrion some 35 miles away in Muhlenberg County, two miles west of the Unity Baptist Church, near what is now known as Harpe's Hill.

Four years later, in Greenville, Miss., two men strode into the local circuit court bearing a foul parcel. It was a huge lump of blue clay, said to contain a prize worth $2,000 in reward money: the head of the dread river pirate Samuel Mason. The offer said "dead or alive," the leader said, and they tomahawked Mason and took them at their word.

First, though, the head had to be authenticated. That should have been a snap: Mason was noted for a single tooth that protruded like a fang. But another matter of authentication soon trumped the skull. According to Daniels, one Captain Stump visiting from Kentucky burst into the courtroom.

"Why, that man's Wiley Harpe!" he exclaimed.

Stump recognized the men's horses as his own, seized during a robbery on the Natchez Trace in which his companion ended up dead. He also recognized the man who took them, now going by the name John Sutton. (Some accounts use the surname Setton.) Pandemonium ensued as the reward seeker protested his innocence, until a man stepped forward from the crowd.

His name was John Bowman.

If that's Little Harpe, he told the agitated crowd, he'll have a knife scar under his left nipple from a go-round we had back in Knoxville, a tussle years ago at the long-forgotten Hughes Tavern. The reward seeker's shirt was removed.

There, before the crowd, stood a demon in the flesh: the last of the fearsome Harpe brothers, Wiley Harpe. As if the long-dead Johnson had delivered retribution from his watery grave, Little Harpe was tried and hanged. His own head was placed on a pike near Greenville for the honest world to see.

The Harpe women were tried for murder and acquitted, and history eventually allowed them and their surviving children to slip into something like tranquil anonymity. The Harpes themselves disappeared into legend. Their sorry, short, violent lives as men yielded to new lives as bogeymen, cautionary tales and troublers of sleep. Until even more heinous crimes came along, reducing them to asterisks in a grim logbook of serial-killer stats.

Of Micajah Harpe, the man who administered the lash of irrational cruelty to a waking nation, all that remains is a faded plaque inscribed "Frontier Justice" some three miles north of Dixon, Ky. He spent his life waging war on the encroaching civilization. If this is actually where his head was tacked up, his sightless eyes gaze for eternity upon a state road lined with small, safe, modestly apportioned homes, forever beyond his reach.

For him, this just might be hell.

Special thanks to Ernest Harp, Betsy Phillips and Scott Martin.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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