Southern Illinois History Page

Frontier serial killers: The Harpes

American Weekend

    Two centuries ago this fall a murder spree began stretching from the Cumberland Gap in westernmost Virginia to Cave-in-Rock and Potts Spring in southeastern Illinois.
    During the next nine months the murderers killed at least 40 men, women and children on the frontier until a posse caught up with the killers and took the leader's head on Aug. 24, 1799. Known as the brothers Micajah and Wiley Harpe, the two started out life as first cousins William and Joshua Harpe both natives of Scotland who emigrated as young children with their parents, two brothers, who settled in Orange Co., North Carolina. In addition to their other aliases, frontier historians simply remembered them as Big and Little Harpe.
    James Hall, a Philadelphia native and judge in Shawneetown during the 1820s, wrote the first histories about the characters. His introduction from his 1828 "Letters from the West" serves best for the story:
    "Many years ago, two men, named Harpe, appeared in Kentucky, spreading death and terror wherever they went. Little else was known of them but that they passed for brothers, and came from the borders of Virginia. They had three women with them, who were treated as wives, and several children, with whom they traversed the mountainous and thinly settled parts of Virginia into Kentucky marking their course with blood. Their history is wonderful, as well from the number and variety, as the incredible atrocity of their adventures…"
    The nine-month spree began in the early Tennessee state capital of Knoxville. The Harpes and two of their women arrived there sometime between the summer of 1795 and the spring of 1797. They lived on a farm eight miles west of the village on Beaver Creek until late 1798, when a neighbor rightfully accused the Harpes of stealing his horses. The Harpes ran off, but the neighbors eventually caught up with them and the horses. As they made their way back to the capital, the Harpes escaped. For a while the neighbors pursued but eventually gave up.
    Rather than hiding, that same night the Harpes returned to a "rowdy groggery" operated by a man named Hughes a few miles west of Knoxville. The Harpes had frequented the establishment before and knew the operator. Inside they found a man named Johnson for whom they were looking. He may have been the man who enlightened Harpes' neighbors about the horses' whereabouts. Why him will never be known. The Harpes took and killed him. Some days later a passerby found his body floating in the Holstein River, ripped open and filled with stones — a trademark of what would become a Harpe victim.
    The Harpes got away with that murder, in part because authorities believed the establishment's owner and his brothers-in-law who were present that night had something to do with it. Meanwhile, the Harpes traveled eastward toward the Cumberland Gap to meet up with their wives. While traveling the Wilderness Road they killed twice more, the first time a pair of Marylander travelers named Paca and Bates. The second time occurred on Dec. 13, with a young Virginian named Langford, a man foolish enough to travel the wilderness alone and show off his silver coin in too many inns.
    Like Johnson, they failed to dispose of the body well enough and passing drovers discovered it a couple of days later. Almost immediately the nearby innkeeper recognized the body and figured out the culprits. A posse gathered and the chase began. On Christmas Day, 1799, they caught the Harpes and imprisoned them in Stanford, Ky. A preliminary hearing on Jan. 4, found enough evidence for a trial and ordered that the prisoners be taken to the district court at Danville, Ky.
    For the next two months the Harpes plotted their escape which came on March 16. They left the women in the jail for practical reasons — all three were pregnant. By the time the district court freed the women in April, all three had given birth, each child two months apart in age.
    After their escape the Harpes continued their murderous spree. In late March or early April they killed a man near the future site of Edmonton followed by another murder on the Barren River eight miles below Bowling Green. On April 10, they killed the 13-year-old son of Col. Daniel Trabue who lived three miles west of present Columbia, Ky. Ironically, posse members chasing the Harpes were at Trabue's house urging him to join the chase then they discovered Trabue's son missing and believed him abducted by the Harpes.
    From the Trabue home, the Harpes continued towards Cave-in-Rock by way of Red Banks (now Henderson, Ky.), Diamond Island and Potts Spring in Illinois. Meanwhile the Danville court acquitted one of the Harpe women, forced a mistrial on the second and convicted a third during trials on April 15. The judge offered a new trial to the one woman convicted and the attorney general decided four days later not to re-try her. With their freedom once again theirs, the women left the jail and headed for Cave-in-Rock where a messenger had told them to meet their men.
    On April 22, the governor of Kentucky issued a $300 reward for the capture of the Harpes. During this time, the extent of outlawry in the western portion of Kentucky, especially in the Ohio River counties from the Green River on down, spurred the local militias into action. Under a Capt. Young, they drove the outlaws out of Mercer County, then crossed the Green into Henderson County where they killed 12 or 13 outlaws and pushed the rest downriver. They continued their law and order sweep until they reached the Tradewater River and Flin's Ferry at its mouth. Cave-in-Rock lay just beyond and Capt. Mason's pirates prepared for the attack that never came. Instead the pirates welcomed fleeing outlaws and the Harpes seeking refuge.
    Historians believe the Harpes spent less than a month in Illinois, but long enough for three or four murders. The first took place on their way to the cave. Hall wrote that in the 1820s, there were still persons in Shawneetown who could point out the spot on the Potts' Plantation near the mouth of the Saline River where the Harpes "shot two or three persons in cold blood by the fire where they had camped." Hall did not say where on Potts' Plantation the men had camped, but a likely place would have been Potts' Spring, the same spring where the legendary Billy Potts killed his victims. The spring lies near the base of a south-facing bluff halfway on the trail between Flin's Ferry and the saltworks near Equality.
    Upon reaching the cave the Harpes joined the pirates in the trade of their craft, attacking heavily laden flatboats traveling downriver with goods. After one such attack the pirates threw an impromptu celebration inside the cave. Seeing only survivor alive to tell the tale of the attack the Harpes developed a fiendish idea for entertainment. With the others drunk in their revelry the Harpes took the survivor up to the top of the cliff. They stripped him naked, tied him to a horse, blindfolded the horse and ran it off the cliff.
    "Suddenly, the outlaws in the cave became aware of terrified screams, hoof beats, and the clatter of dislodged rocks. They ran out of the cave, they could see the horse's neck extended, its legs galloping frantically against the thin air, and tied to its back the naked, screaming prisoner, stark horror on his face. In an instant horse and man were dashed against the rocks," wrote W. D. Snively Jr. in his book "Satan's Ferryman."
    The scene proved to the pirates that the Harpes had to go. They ordered them to leave and take their women and children. After that night in May 1799, the Harpes reign of terror quieted down for a while — or at least for a few weeks. By mid July they began their final race toward death. In quick succession they killed a farmer named Bradbury about 25 miles west of Knoxville and another man named Hardin about three miles downstream from that city.
    On July 22 they murdered the young son of Chesley Coffey on Black Oak Ridge eight miles northwest of Knoxville. Two days later they struck William Ballard, also a few miles away from Knoxville. On July 29, they came across James and Robert Brassel on the road near Brassel's Knob. Pretending to be posse members looking for the Harpes, the Harpes turned against the Brassels, accusing them of being the notorious outlaws. Robert escaped and went for help. With him gone, the Harpes beat James to death. As they headed toward Kentucky they killed another man, John Tully around the beginning of August in what is now Clinton County, Ky. Then in an almost daily attacks the Harpes murdered John Graves and his son and finally the families and servants of two Trisword brothers who were encamped on the trail about eight miles from modern-day Adairville, Ky. Also during this period they killed a young black boy going to a mill and a young white girl. A few miles northeast of Russellville, Ky., Big Ha rpe even killed one of his own children, or his brother's child.
    At Russellville the Harpes threw their various pursuers off the track tempting to them travel a false trail southward back into Tennessee. Instead, the Harpes continued northward to Henderson County. During the first or second week of August they found a cabin on Canoe Creek about eight miles south of Henderson and rented it. A failed attack on a neighbor aroused suspicion, but a week of surveillance on the Harpe cabin failed to convince the locals of the renters' true identities as the Harpes.
    While spies watched the Harpe men at the cabin, the Harpe women traveled elsewhere in the area collecting supplies and old debts. After a week of surveillance, the spies give up the job on Aug. 20. The following day, the Harpes left to meet their wives at a rendezvous. While riding good horses that morning, they met up with James Tompkins, a local resident. Tompkins had not met the men before and believed their tale of being itinerant preachers. The local man invited them home for the midday supper where Big Harpe presided over with a more than adequate meal blessing. Ironically, during the conversation, Tompkins admitted that he had no more powder for his gun. In a show of charity Big Harpe poured a teacup full from his powder horn. Three days later that powder would be used to shoot Big Harpe in the back as he tried to escape.
    Leaving Tompkins' place in peace, the Harpes traveled on to the house of Silas McBee, a local justice of the peace, but because of McBee's aggressive guard dogs, decided against an attack. Instead they traveled to the home of an acquaintance, Moses Stegall. Moses wasn't home, but his wife offered them a bed to sleep in as long as they didn't mind a third man, Maj. William Love, who had arrived earlier. They accepted, but later that night murdered Love, Mrs. Stegall and the Stegall's four-month-old baby boy. In the morning they burned down the house hoping to attract the attention of McBee.
    The smoke attracted McBee and a number of others. By the next morning the posse grew to include seven local residents, including Stegall. All day they followed the Harpes' trail. At night they camped and started again the next morning, Aug. 24, on the trail. While chasing the Harpes they discovered two more victims of the men killed a few days before.
    They soon found the Harpes' camp with only Little Harpe's wife present. She pointed the way Big Harpe and the other two women went. About two miles away, they caught up with Big Harpe and called for his surrender. Instead, he sped away leaving the women. Four of the posse members shot at Harpe, one hit him in the leg. John Leiper missed and then borrowed Tompkins gun for a second shot. Leiper then spurred his horse forward to catch up with Big Harpe. Knowing that there hadn't been enough time for Leiper to reload his weapon, Harpe turned and took careful aim at Leiper. Then, using Tompkins' gun containing the powder given him by Harpe just days before, Leiper fired his second round towards Harpe, entering his backbone and damaging the spinal cord.
    Harpe continued riding down the trail losing more blood every minute. The posse caught up with him and pulled him from his horse without resistance. Begging for water, Leiper took one of Harpe's shoes and filled it full of water for him. Harpe confessing his sins pulled Stegall over the edge. He took Harpe's own butcher knife and slowly cut off the outlaw's head. Placed in a saddlebag, the posse eventually put it in a tree where the road from Henderson forked in two directions, one to Marion and Eddyville and the other to Madisonville and Russellville. For years, the intersection took the name Harpe's Head.
    The Harpe reign of terror had ended — almost. Little Harpe escaped and eventually rejoined Capt. Mason's band of river pirates at Cave-in-Rock. Four years later, Little Harpe and a fellow pirate named May turned on Mason and took his head in for the reward money. Presenting the head and a tall tale explaining how they did it, they took the reward money and started to leave. Just then, someone arrived in the crowd, a victim of an earlier flatboat attack, and recognized Harpe and May as outlaws. Authorities immediately arrested them, but they soon escaped. On the run again, a posse caught up with them and brought them to justice where they were tried, sentenced, hung. And just for good measure, had their heads cut off and placed high on stakes along the Natchez Road as a warning to other outlaws.

How the Harpes got their start

    The story of Big Harpe and his brother may end at Harpe's Head for practical purposes, but it certainly begins further back in time than their flight from Knoxville nine months earlier.
    Only one historian, Otto A. Rothert, pieced together all of the stories about the Harpes' murderous spree in his 1924 book, "The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock." Since reprinted by Southern Illinois University Press, his book offers the most comprehensive collection of stories about the pair.
    During the recent shooting of scenes for a documentary to be shown on The History Channel, the book practically served as the production company's bible. At the very least, it served in place of a detailed script. When a question would arise about a character's movement, someone would grab the book and open it to the appropriate page.
    However, Rothert doesn't focus on the what led up to the Harpes' outlaw years. In fact, only one author ever did in detail. T. Marshall Smith published his "Legends of the War of Independence" in 1855. Focusing on the lesser known stories and characters in the southern and western theaters of the Revolutionary War, Smith claims the Harpes as pro-British fighters at the Battle of King's Mountain and other skirmishes.
    Rothert dismissed Smith's claims in his book, noting that Smith "cites no authority for his various statements," although he did admit that Smith claimed in his preface to have heard the stories from old pioneers. While there are problems with Smith's book — mainly omissions of major events during the last few years of Big Harpe's life including Little Harpe's marriage — Smith did tell his readers where he got his information.
    Rothert noted that he used pages 318 to 377 of Smith's book. If that's all, then he simply missed a lot of information about the family that literally starts on the first page of the first chapter. An old Revolutionary War soldier named Frank Wood provided much of the information to Smith about the Harpes' activity during the war. Wood served at the Battle of King's Mountain when only 18. He should have been able to provide reliable information considering he personally saw Big Harpe at three battles. Unlike other Tories who fought for the British and raided the patriot farms, Wood had adequate reason to remember Big Harpe, for about nine months after King's Mountain, Big Harpe kidnapped Frank's younger sister Susan.
    Smith's sources also included his grandfather and from two of the Harpe women. His grandfather heard the story from Wood himself just weeks after the kidnapping. Both women had heard about the Harpes from their fathers, even before their kidnappings.
    Smith starts his story with John and William Harpe, the brothers who were fathers to the younger outlaw Harpes. The two immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1759 or 1760 and settled in Orange County, N.C., sometime during the period of 1761 to 1763.
    No one has fully examined the facts in Smith's book, but a quick check on the Internet of the USGenWeb archives for Orange County found a John and William Harper on a 1779 tax roll, which may be close enough considering the lack of consistent spellings during that period. Also, the same Internet archive showed a John Davidson as a signer on a Regulator petition in 1768. Smith starts his book with a conversation between the elder set of Harpes and a John Davidson, Maria's father and a Regulator fighting the British governor during the late 1760s and early 1770s.
    In late April or early May 1775, the young Harpes left home to try their luck in getting jobs overseeing slaves in Virginia. At this point the Harpes are either 20 and 18, or 15 and 13. Smith makes the same reference to their age in two different parts of the book five years apart. For this trip they stole at least one horse from the neighborhood of the Wood residence. For the next five years, their exact whereabouts are unknown, except that they took part in the Tory gangs that terrorized their patriot or Whig neighbors.
    During the Revolutionary War, semi-outlaw groups from both Tory and patriot sides roamed the no-man land between the American and British positions. These bands, particularly the Tory ones in Smith's book, saw the war as an opportunity to rape, pillage and burn without abandon their neighbors who may have been on the other side. He reported by name three kidnappings of young women by Tory rape gangs operating in North Carolina. Frank's father, Capt. James Wood, successfully interrupted the attempted kidnapping of a fourth teen, shooting and wounding Little Harpe, one of the five attackers.
    During 1780 as the British refocused their campaign on the South, they officially recognized and admitted these Tory irregulars and Cherokee allies into their ranks. On Oct. 7, the Americans attacked the a large portion of the British Army in the South at King's Mountain, near the border between the Carolinas. The younger Wood shot at Big Harpe but missed during the battle.
    After the battle — a defeat for the British — the Harpes briefly visited their fathers' neighborhood. However, they didn't stay there long, Wood also recalled facing Big Harpe in battle on Nov. 20 at the Battle of Blackstocks and again on Jan. 16-17, 1781, at the Battle of the Cowpens in South Carolina
    "On three occasions I saw him after that [Blackstocks], and twice we meet in battle. He was, as you know, belonging to [Lt. Banastre] Tarleton's command, and I with Gen. [Daniel] Morgan. At the battle of the Cowpens I saw him, and I am sure he saw me. But he managed to keep out of my way till we 100 and took prisoners to the number of 500 red British and Tories. But again big Bill got off with the retreat of Tarleton," recalled Woods years after the battle.
    Shortly after that, the Harpes left the British Army to go back with the Cherokees to their villages west of the Appalachians. During that trip they took part in the attack on Bluff Station (Fort Nashborough) at the present side of Nashville, Tenn., on April 1. Four hundred Cherokees took part in the raid. Nashville historians recalled a Capt. James Leiper among those who died in the assault. Leiper may have been a relative to the John Leiper who shot Big Harpe 18 years later. According to statements made after Big Harpe's death, John Leiper and Harpe knew and distinctively disliked each other.
    After the raid, the Harpes did not stay with the Cherokee's long. About the first week of June they kidnapped Maria Davidson. A week later they took Susan Wood. After rendezvousing at a hunter's cabin on the east side of the mountains, the Harpes, their captive and brutalized women, and four assistants crossed the mountains.
    During the 20 day trip to the Cherokee-Chickamauga town of Nickjack located southwest of modern-day Chattanooga, the Harpes managed to find time to kill Moses Doss. Big Harpe apparently found a problem with Doss' over-concern for the women's well being. For the next 12 to 13 years the women and the Harpes stayed in the Indian village.
    Twice each of the captive women became pregnant, and twice each the Harpes murdered their children.
    When the British surrendered at Yorktown, not all fighting ceased. Groups of Indians including the Chickamaugas, a break-away band of Cherokee, continued to make war on the pioneers in the settlements west of the mountains. As guests in their village, the Harpes often followed them on the warpath, including the Battle of Blue Licks on Aug. 19, 1782, when a large group of British-backed Indians defeated an army of Kentuckians. They again joined the Indians in an attack on Bledsoe's Lick in Tennessee, either on July 20, 1788, or April 9, 1793, dates of two major attacks on the settlement.
    Finally, the Americans successfully took the offensive and struck back wiping out Nickajack in September 1794. Somehow, the Harpes found out about the attack through their white contacts and secreted their women out of the village the night before the battle. Taking their wives on a nearly two-day journey, they found a new camp where the women stayed for nine months. During which the Harpes pillaged and foraged in the more settled portions of Tennessee such as Powell's Valley close nearer to Knoxville.
    From the summer of 1795 through the spring of 1797, historians don't know much about the Harpes' whereabouts. However, they did manage to move into a cabin on Beaver's Creek near Knoxville at least by the spring of 1797. On June 1, of that year Little Harpe married Sarah Rice, a local girl. The Knox County marriage records verify that tradition. Just over a year later, the Harpes would begin their murder spree.

What happened to the women?

    Following Big Harpe's death, the posse chasing the Harpes took the three women to the court in Russellville. Eventually freed and released, the youngest wife, Sally (Rice) Harpe returned to her father's home in the Knoxville area.
    The other two, Susan (Wood) Harpe and Maria Davidson, who continued to use her alibi of Betsey Roberts, stayed in the Russellville area for awhile living normal respectable lives. A few months after Little Harpe lost his head after turning in Mason's, Betsey married John Huffstutler on Sept. 27, 1803. By 1828, they had moved to Hamilton County, Ill., where they raised a large family and lived until their deaths in the 1860s, according to McLeansboro historian Ralph Harrelson.
    Sally later remarried as well, and like Betsey moved to, or at least through, Illinois. In 1820, the former sheriff of Logan County, Ky., who cared for the women after the death of Big Harpe, saw Sally as they crossed the ferry at Cave-in-Rock. Sally, with her new husband and father in tow, were traveling to their new home.
    Susan died in Tennessee and Rothert believed her daughter eventually moved to Texas.

    Published, Friday, Oct. 23, 1998, in the American Weekend, a product of the following Southern Illinois newspapers: Benton Evening News, (West Frankfort) Daily American, The (Harrisburg) Daily Register, DuQuoin Evening Call, Eldorado Daily Journal, and the Marion Daily Republican.

For more on the Harpes, check out this web site which has excerpts from Judge James Hall's early accounts of the outlaws. Also, check out other Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock.
Created December 2, 1998 by Jon Musgrave