The Bloody Harpes

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Hey, y’all, and welcome to Southern Macabre! I’m Aeryn and I’m so glad you could join me for True Crime Friday! Today’s story may not be appropriate for younger listeners, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Today I’m going to tell you about the first American serial killers, Micajah “Big” and Wiley “Little” Harpe. Micajah was born Joshua Harper before 1768 and his cousin, Wiley, was born William Harper in 1770 to Scottish parents in what is now Orange County, North Carolina. Some sources say they were brothers, but a researcher had evidence that their fathers were brothers making them first cousins. Also, I’m not positive I pronounced the oldest one’s name right so I’ll refer to them as Big Harpe and Little Harpe to make it easier on me and so that this doesn’t get too confusing.

The Harpes were loyal to Britain during the American Revolution. Afterward, they became outlaws stealing from and killing settlers in the rural frontier west of the Appalachian Mountains. They killed between 39 and 50 men, women, and children during their reign of terror which lasted until their deaths.

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the Harpe’s fathers attempted to join Patriot American forces but were refused due to being loyalists prior to. Their neighbors didn’t trust them. This may have led to the Harpe brother’s feelings and bloodlust for revenge against their neighbors who they viewed as traitors against the British crown. 

Captain James Wood claimed that Big Harpe and Little Harpe joined a Tory “rape gang” in North Carolina. They took advantage of wartime lawlessness by raping, stealing, murdering, and burning property. Especially farms belonging to Patriot colonists.

Captain Woods’s son, Frank, was a Patriot soldier and Susan Woods’s brother. Susan Woods was kidnapped by Big Harpe and forced to marry him. Frank said that he saw the Harpes serving loosely as Tory soldiers in October 1780 under British Commander Major Patrick Ferguson. Frank took aim at Big Harpe but missed.

Around April or May of 1775, Big Harpe and Little Harpe left North Carolina for overseer jobs in Virginia. Big Harpe traveled with two women who may have been sisters named Susan and Betsey or Betty Roberts. He had children with both women. Little Harpe married Sarah “Sally” Rice, the daughter of a minister. 

The Harpes basically vanished until 1797 when they began their crime spree through Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois. The Harpes eventually confessed to killing thirty-nine people, but some estimate that number being greater than fifty.

They were living in Knoxville, Tennessee that year, but were run out of town after being charged with stealing hogs and horses. They were accused of murdering a man named Johnson and this part is graphic. They ripped him open, covered him in urine, and filled his chest cavity with stones before dumping him in the river. This was their preferred method. They reportedly butchered anyone at the slightest provocation, even babies.

They fled to Kentucky where they entered the state around Cumberland Gap along the Wilderness Road. They possibly murdered a peddler named Peyton before stealing his horse and goods. In December 1797 they killed two travelers from Maryland. John Langford was murdered when he was traveling from Virginia to Kentucky and a local innkeeper pointed the finger at the Harpes. The two men were pursued, captured, and jailed at the state prison in Danville, Kentucky. Unfortunately, they were able to escape. A posse formed against them and the young son of a man who assisted authorities was killed and mutilated by the vengeful Harpes.

The governor of Kentucky placed a $300 bounty on each of their heads on April 22, 1799. Heading north, they killed two men named Edmonton and Stump. Then they murdered three men who were camping on the Saline River in Illinois. 

Samuel Mason was a river pirate and criminal gang leader who they met up with at Cave-In-Rock, a natural cave on the bluffs of the Ohio River in Illinois. The two men, along with their wives and children, stayed with Mason’s gang for a time. They were forced to leave after the gang watched them take travelers to the top of the bluffs, strip them naked, and pushed them off. Think how horrible these two men were that other criminals didn’t even want to be associated with them!

The Harpe families returned to Tennessee, but Big Harpe and Little Harpe’s killing spree didn’t end. They killed a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey in July. Soon even more bodies were discovered, including that of William Ballard who had been disemboweled and thrown into the Holston River. In Logan County they murdered a little girl, a slave, and an entire family for sleeping at their camp.

In August 1799, Big Harpe smashed his infant daughter’s head against a tree because her constant crying annoyed him. It was the only crime for which he expressed genuine remorse. That same month, a man was found disemboweled in Highland Creek. The Stegall’s were kind enough to allow the Harpe men to stay in their home in Webster County. In exchange, they murdered a guest named Major William Love. When Mrs. Stegall’s four-month-old son began to cry, they killed him. When she got upset, they killed her, too.

A new posse was formed after these murders and was led by John Leiper. Moses Stegall, the grieving father and widower, was part of this posse. They found the Harpes preparing to murder a traveler named George Smith on August 24, 1799. The posse called for the Harpes to surrender, but they tried to run. Big Harpe was shot in the leg and back by Leiper. As he lay dying he confessed to twenty murders. Leiper held the large, burly man while Moses Stegall slowly removed his head. It was spiked on a pole at a crossroads that is still known as Harpe’s Head or Harpe’s Head Road.

Little Harpe escaped and rejoined the Mason Gang at Cave-In-Rock. He was captured along with the rest of the gang, but he gave the name John Sutton. He and Mason escaped, but Mason was shot. Afterward, Little Harpe and another gang member, Peter Alston, tried to claim the bounty on Mason. Peter was the son of Phillip Alston, a known counterfeiter. It is unclear if they killed Mason or if he died from his wounds. They cut off his head and when they presented it, a Kentuckian recognized them as outlaws and they were finally arrested.

They escaped but were quickly arrested again. They were tried, sentenced, and hanged for their crimes in January 1804. Their heads were cut off and placed high on poles along the Natchez Trace to warn other outlaws. The Natchez Trace was a remote trail that today is a road that runs from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. A lot of people were murdered on the Trace including Merriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

After their deaths, their wives were finally free and able to live ordinary, respectable lives. Sally Rice Harpe returned to her father’s home in Knoxville, Tennessee. She remarried and moved with her husband and father to Illinois in 1820.

Susan Wood and Betsey Roberts lived in Russellville, Tennessee for a while. Susan remarried later and passed away in Tennessee. 

Betsey married John Huffstutler on September 27, 1803. They lived as tenants on Colonel Butler’s plantation. They moved to Hamilton County, Illinois in 1828 and had many children. They passed away in the 1860s.

The Harpes crimes were so horrific and their deeds so widespread that many with the last name chose new surnames. It is rumored that the infamous Wyatt Earp was originally a Harpe whose family changed their names to avoid association.

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