Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Mass Murderers in Frontier Illinois: The Harpes Brothers

Micajah "Big" Harpe, born Joshua Harpe (c.1748-1799), and Wiley "Little" Harpe, born William Harpe (c.1750-1804), were murderers, highwaymen and river pirates who operated in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi in the late 18th century. Today, the Harpes are considered the earliest documented "serial killers" in U.S. history.
Micajah "Big" Harpe, born Joshua Harper and Wiley "Little" Harpe, born William Harpe. Image from the movie: Harp Brothers.
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 August 24, 1799. Known as the brothers Micajah and Wiley Harpe, the two started out life as first cousins William and Joshua Harpe, natives of Scotland who emigrated as young children with their parents, and two brothers who settled in Orange County, North Carolina. In addition to their other aliases, frontier historians remembered them as Big and Little Harpe.

James Hall, a Philadelphia native and judge in Shawneetown, Illinois, 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 chilling 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 he 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, partly 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 with their wives. While crossing the Wilderness Road, they killed twice more, the first time a pair of Marylander travelers named Paca and Bates. The second time occurred on December 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. The nearby innkeeper immediately 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, Kentucky. A preliminary hearing on January 4 found enough evidence for a trial and ordered that the prisoners be taken to the district court in Danville, Kentucky.

For the next two months, the Harpes plotted their escape, which came on March 16. They left the women in 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, Kentucky. 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 he was abducted by the Harpes.

From the Trabue home, the Harpes continued towards Cave-in-Rock through Red Banks (now Henderson, Kentucky.), 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 Captain Young, they drove the outlaws out of Mercer County, then crossed the Green into Henderson County, killing 12 or 13 outlaws and pushing 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 Captain 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 the only survivor 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 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, Kentucky. Then, in 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, Kentucky. 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, Kentucky., Big Harpe even killed one of his own children or his brother's child.

The Harpes threw their various pursuers off the track at Russellville, tempting them to 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 could not 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, collecting supplies and old debts. After a week of surveillance, the spies gave up the job on August 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, they 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, they 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 several others. By the following day, 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, August 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. They caught up with Big Harpe about two miles away 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's gun for a second shot. Leiper then spurred his horse forward to catch up with Big Harpe. Knowing there hadn't been enough time for Leiper to reload his weapon, Harpe turned and aimed carefully at Leiper. Then, using Tompkins' gun containing the powder given to 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 with water for him. Harpe confessing his sins pulled Stegall over the edge. He took Harpe's 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 Captain 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, and hung. And just for good measure, they had their heads cut off and placed high on stakes along the Natchez Road as a warning to other outlaws.

What Became of the Harpe 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 a while, living every day, respectable lives. A few months after Little Harpe lost his head after turning in Mason's, Betsey married John Huffstutler on September 27, 1803. By 1828, they had moved to Hamilton County, Illinois, where they raised a large family and lived until they died in the 1860s.

Sally later remarried and, like Betsey, moved to, or at least through, Illinois. In 1820, the former sheriff of Logan County, Kentucky., who cared for the women after the death of Big Harpe, saw Sally as they crossed the ferry at Cave-in-Rock. Sally was traveling to their new home with her new husband and father in tow.

Susan died in Tennessee. It's believed her daughter eventually moved to Texas.


Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Contributor J. Musgrave

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