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The Harpe Brothers, the first known serial killers in America, committed some of their worst atrocities in the summer of 1799 while they sought refuge from pursuing Kentucky regulators at the river pirate stronghold of Cave-in-Rock, on the Ohio River. The Harpes were eventually forced to leave by the infamous outlaw gang leader, Samuel Mason, after playing a joke on the river pirates. The Harpes tied a naked captive to the back of a horse and pushed them off the cliff above the mouth of the cave to their deaths on the rock below.[1]
Micajah "Big" Harpe
Born Joshua Harper
Before 1768 (probably, c. 1748)
Scotland, Kingdom of Great Britain or Orange County, Province of North Carolina (British Royal Colony), British North America, British Empire, present-day Orange County, North Carolina
Died August 1799 (aged 31-51)
Muhlenberg County, Kentucky
Cause of death murder by decapitation with knife
Resting place unknown
Nationality American
Other names Micajah Harper, Micajah Roberts
Occupation horse thief, bandit, burglar, highwayman, river pirate, plantation overseer, soldier, frontiersman
Known for One of the first known serial-killers in America
Spouse(s) Susan Wood, Maria Davidson (alias Betsy Roberts) (shared by both brothers)
Children 4
Parent(s) William Harper or John Harper (who were brothers)
Relatives Wiley Harpe (brother or cousin)
Wiley "Little" Harpe
Born William Harper
Before 1770 (probably, c. 1750)
Scotland, Kingdom of Great Britain or Orange County, Province of North Carolina (British Royal Colony), British North America, British Empire, present-day Orange County, North Carolina
Died February 8, 1804 (aged 29-49)
Old Greenville, Jefferson County, Mississippi Territory
Cause of death execution by hanging
Resting place unknown
Nationality American
Other names Wiley Roberts, John Setton, John Sutton, John Taylor
Occupation horse thief, bandit, burglar, highwayman, river pirate, plantation overseer, soldier, frontiersman
Known for One of the first known serial-killers in America
Spouse(s) Sarah "Sally" Rice (shared by both brothers)
Children 4
Parent(s) William Harper or John Harper (who were brothers)
Relatives Micajah Harpe (brother or cousin)
Wiley Harpe Alias John Setton Court Signature.jpg

Micajah "Big" Harpe, born Joshua Harper (before 1768 (probably, c. 1748) – August 1799) and Wiley "Little" Harpe, born William Harper (before 1770 (probably, c. 1750) – February 8, 1804), were serial killers, murderers, highwaymen, and river pirates, who operated in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi, in the late eighteenth century. The Harpes' crimes appear to have been motivated more by blood lust than financial gain. They are most likely the United States' first known serial killers, reckoned from the colonial era forward.[2] The Harpe Brothers are believed to have killed thirty-nine people, and may have killed as many as fifty.

Early life[edit]

It is difficult to differentiate the facts about the Harpe Brothers from the later legends of their exploits.[3]

The Harpes were born in Orange County, North Carolina to Scottish parents.[4] Micajah was probably born in or before 1768 and Wiley in or before 1770.[5] It is possible they were actually first cousins named Joshua and William Harper who later took the alias Harpe and emigrated from Scotland in 1759 or 1760. According to this theory their fathers were brothers, John and William Harper, who settled in Orange County, North Carolina, between 1761 and 1763.[3]

Prior to the American Revolution, their fathers may also have been North Carolina Regulators, involved in the War of the Regulation or "Regulator War". This occurred between 1765 and 1771, opposing the continuing royal government interference by colonial officials in the Province of North Carolina. During the American Revolutionary War, the Harpes' fathers tried to join the Patriot American forces but were refused because of their earlier associations with British loyalists.[6] The treatment of the Harper family by hostile Patriot neighbors may have contributed to Big and Little Harpe's feelings of persecution and their desire for revenge against people they considered rebellious, colonial traitors who were still the British subjects of King George III.[7]

Big Harpe later traveled in the company of two women, Susan and Betsey/Betty Roberts, possibly sisters, both of whom bore him children.[7] Little Harpe married Sally Rice, the daughter of a Baptist minister.[8]

Around April or May 1775, the young Harper cousins left North Carolina and went to Virginia to find overseer jobs on a slave plantation.

A painting of Loyalist and Patriot militia fighting each other at the Battle of Kings Mountain. The Harpe Brothers, with their irregular Tory outlaw gang and other Loyalist militia, fought under the command of British Major Patrick Ferguson and were seen in 1780 at Kings Mountain, North Carolina by Frank Wood, a Patriot soldier of the Overmountain Men, and older brother of future Harpe captive Susan Wood. During the three hour engagement, Wood took aim at Big Harpe but missed his target.[9]

Involvement in the American Revolutionary War and American Indian Wars[edit]

Little is known of the Harpes' whereabouts at the outbreak of the American Revolution. According to the eyewitness account of Captain James Wood, they joined a Tory rape gang in North Carolina.[9]

These predatory Loyalist criminals took advantage of wartime lawlessness by raping, stealing, murdering, and burning and destroying property, especially farms of Patriot colonists.[10] The Harpes' gang took part in the kidnapping of three teenage girls, with a fourth girl being rescued by Captain Wood.[9]The Harpes also served as military associators, who were not provided soldiers uniforms, weapons, and pay from the British government. Like many other Loyalist volunteers they had to survive by foraging, robbery, and the looting of battlefields.

Captain Wood's son was patriot soldier Frank Wood, who was the older brother of Susan Wood Harpe, later kidnapped and married by Micajah "Big" Harpe. Frank Wood claimed to have seen the Harpe brothers, serving "loosely" as Tory militia, at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780, under British commander Major Patrick Ferguson. Later, the Harpes served under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Legion, at the Battles of Blackstocks in November 1780 and Cowpens in January 1781.[9]

Following the decisive British defeat by Patriot-French forces at Yorktown in 1781, the Harpes left North Carolina, dispersing with their Indian allies, the Chickamauga Cherokees, to Tennessee villages west of the Appalachian Mountains. On April 2, 1781, they joined war parties of four hundred Chickamauga to attack the Patriot frontier settlement of Bluff Station at Fort Nashborough (now Nashville, Tennessee), which would be assaulted by them again, on either July 20, 1788, or April 9, 1793. On August 19, 1782, the Harpes accompanied a British-backed Chickamauga Cherokee war party to Kentucky at the Battle of Blue Licks where they helped to defeat an army of Patriot frontiersmen led by Daniel Boone.[9]

During the Harpe brothers' early frontier period, among the Chickamauga Cherokee, they lived in the village of Nickajack, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, for approximately twelve or thirteen years. During this time, they kidnapped Maria Davidson and later Susan Wood and made them their women. In 1794, the Harpes and their women abandoned their Indian habitation before Nickajack was destroyed in a raid by American settlers. The Harpe brothers would later relocate to Powell's Valley, around Knoxville, Tennessee, where they stole food and supplies from local pioneers. The whereabouts of the Harpes are unknown between the summer of 1795 and spring of 1797, but by spring they were dwelling in a cabin on Beaver's Creek near Knoxville.

The Harpes may have disguised their Tory past from their Patriot neighbors by changing their original name of "Harper," which was a common Loyalist name in Revolutionary War-era North Carolina.

On June 1, 1797, Wiley Harpe married Sarah Rice, which was recorded in the Knox County, Tennessee marriage records. Sometime during 1797, the Harpes would begin their trail of death in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois.

In 1799, the Harpe Brothers were captured, held for trial, and broke out of the Kentucky state jail in Danville, the first state capital, before they could be sentenced to death by hanging for their murderous crimes. This historical reconstruction of the jail, where Micajah and Wiley Harpe were briefly incarcerated, was originally built by Isaac Hite as a log prison structure, having a central breezeway between two windowed prison cells, with a dirt floor and stone chimney on one side.
In 1799, near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the world's longest cave was the scene of a horrific murder, when the Harpes killed a young black man by slamming his head against a tree.
The old path of the "Natchez Trace", where, between 1799 and 1803, Wiley "Little" Harpe, following the death of his brother Micajah "Big" Harpe, joined Peter Alston, son of the counterfeiter Philip Alston, and the Samuel Mason Gang, committing highway robbery and murder against helpless and unsuspecting travelers, reported as crimes committed by "Mason of the Woods"

Atrocities and serial murders[edit]

The Harpes confessed to the killing of a confirmed thirty-nine people, but the estimated combined total (including unknown victims) may number more than fifty. What follows are the accounts of a few of the murders the two committed.

In 1797, the Harpes were living near Knoxville, Tennessee. They were driven from the town after being charged with stealing hogs and horses. They were also accused of murdering a man named Johnson, whose body was found in a river, covered in urine and ripped open, with the chest cavity filled and weighted down with stones. This became a regular corpse disposal method and signature characteristic of the Harpes' serial killings. They butchered anyone at the slightest provocation, even babies.[6]

From Knoxville, the Harpes fled north into Kentucky. They entered the state on the Wilderness Road near the Cumberland Gap. They are believed to have murdered a peddler named Peyton, taking his horse and some of his goods. In December, they murdered two travelers from Maryland. Next, a man named John Langford, who was traveling from Virginia to Kentucky, turned up dead and a local innkeeper pointed the authorities to the Harpes. The criminal pair was pursued, captured, and jailed in Danville, Kentucky, but they managed to escape. When a posse was sent after them, the young son of a man who assisted the authorities was found dead and mutilated in retaliation by the Harpes.[11]

On April 22, 1799, Kentucky Governor James Garrard placed a three-hundred dollar reward on each of the Harpes' heads. Fleeing northward, the Harpes killed two men named Edmonton and Stump. When they were near the mouth of the Saline River in southern Illinois they came upon three men encamped there and killed them. The pair then made their way to Cave-In-Rock in southern Illinois, a stronghold of the river pirate and criminal gang leader Samuel Mason. A posse had been aggressively pursuing them, but stopped just short of the cave on the opposite shore in Kentucky.

With their wives and three children in tow, the Harpes holed up with the Samuel Mason Gang, who preyed on slow-moving flatboats making their way along the Ohio River. While the Mason Gang could be ruthless, even they were appalled at the actions of the Harpes. After the murderous pair began to make a habit of taking travelers to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and pushing them off, Samuel Mason forced the Harpe brothers to leave.

The Harpes then returned to eastern Tennessee, where they continued their vicious murder spree. They killed a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey in July 1798. Soon more bodies were discovered, including those of William Ballard, who had been disemboweled and thrown in the Holton River; James Brassel, who had his throat viciously slashed and was discovered on Brassel's Knob; and John Tully. John Graves and his teenage son were found dead with their heads axed in south central Kentucky. In Logan County, the Harpes killed a little girl, a young slave, and an entire family they found asleep in their camp.

In August 1799, a few miles northeast of Russellville, Kentucky, Big Harpe bashed his infant daughter's head against a tree because her constant crying annoyed him, the only crime for which he would later confess genuine remorse.[12] That same month, a man named Trowbridge was found disemboweled in Highland Creek. When the Harpes were given shelter at the Stegall home in Webster County, the pair killed an overnight guest named Major William Love, as well as Mrs. Moses Stegall's four-month old baby boy, whose throat was slit when he cried. When Mrs. Stegall screamed at the sight of her infant being killed, she was also murdered.


The Harpe killings continued in July 1799 as the two fled west to avoid a new posse, organized by John Leiper, which included the avenging husband and father Moses Stegall.[11] While the pair was preparing to kill another settler named George Smith, the posse finally tracked them down on August 24, 1799. The posse called for the Harpes to surrender; they attempted to flee. Micajah Harpe was shot in the leg and back by Leiper, who soon caught up with Big Harpe and pulled him from his horse, subduing the outlaw with a tomahawk in a scuffle. As he lay dying, Micajah Harpe confessed to twenty murders. When he was done, while Harpe was still conscious, Moses Stegall slowly cut off the outlaw's head. Later, the head was spiked on a pole (some accounts claim a tree) at a crossroads near the Moses Stegall Cabin still known as "Harpe's Head" or "Harpe's Head Road" along a modern-day highway in Webster County, Kentucky.[13]

Wiley Harpe successfully escaped the confrontation and rejoined the Mason Gang pirates at Cave-in-The-Rock. Four years later Wiley Harpe may have been captured, along with the rest of the Mason Gang, but went unrecognized because he was using the alias of "John Setton" or "John Sutton." Both Harpe and Samuel Mason, the gang leader, escaped, but Mason was shot. Afterwards, Little Harpe and another gang member, Peter Alston, who went by the name "Jeremy Clarkson," tried to claim the reward for Samuel Mason, although it is unclear whether Mason had died from the wounds sustained during the escape or whether Harpe had killed him. Either way, as they presented the head, Harpe and Alston were recognized as outlaws themselves and arrested. The two soon escaped but were quickly recaptured, tried, and sentenced to be hanged. In January 1804, Wiley Harpe and Peter Alston were executed. Their heads were cut off and placed high on stakes along the Natchez Trace as a warning to other outlaws.[14]

Harpe women[edit]

According to Jon Musgrave, the Harpe women, after being freed from cohabitation with the brothers, led relatively respectable and normal lives. Upon the death of Micajah "Big" Harpe in Kentucky, the women were apprehended and taken to the Russellville, Kentucky state courthouse but later released. Sally Rice Harpe went back to Knoxville, Tennessee, to live in her father's house. For a time, Susan Wood Harpe and Maria Davidson (aka Betsey Roberts) lived in Russellville. Susan Wood remarried later, and died in Tennessee. Her daughter went to Texas.[15] On September 27, 1803, Betsey Roberts married John Huffstutler and lived as tenants on Colonel Butlers Plantation. They moved to Hamilton County, Illinois in 1828, and had many children; the couple eventually died in the 1860s.[16] In 1820, Sally Rice, who had remarried, traveled with her husband and father to their new home in Illinois via the Cave-In-Rock Ferry.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

The Harpe brothers were the inspiration for Big and Little Drum in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife: Passage.[17] Wiley Harpe is also the subject of a song on Bob Frank and John Murry's 2006 album, World Without End.[18]

In 2015, the Investigation Discovery television channel series Evil Kin aired an episode about the Harpe brothers called "Something Wicked in the Woods."[19]

In the 1941 film, The Devil and Daniel Webster (or All That Money Can Buy), Big and Little Harpe are part of the "jury of the damned" that Daniel Webster must convince in order to free an innocent Jabez Stone.

The 1975 Broadway musical, The Robber Bridegroom featured two characters (Big Harp and Little Harp) based on Micajah and Wiley Harpe. Big Harp is presented as a "cut off head" in a trunk, rescued by his brother when he was put to death for thieving. He's also the smarter of the two brothers.


  1. ^ Gary D. McDowell and Ruth A. McDowell. 2007. Mississippi Secrets: Facts, Legends, and Folklore. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse 20.
  2. ^ Schram, Pamela J.; Tibbetts, Stephen G. (2014). Introduction to Criminology: Why Do They Do It?. Los Angeles: Sage. p. 51. ISBN 9781412990851. 
  3. ^ a b Musgrave, Jon (October 23, 1998). "Frontier serial killers: the Harpes". American Weekend. 
  4. ^ Rosen, Fred (2005). The Historical Atlas of American Crime. New York: Facts on File. p. 33. ISBN 9781438129853. 
  5. ^ Newton, Michael; French, John L. (2008). Serial Killers. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. p. 25. ISBN 9780791094112. 
  6. ^ a b Banta, R.E. (1998). The Ohio. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. p. 239. ISBN 9780813120980. 
  7. ^ a b Baldwin, Leland D. (1980). The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 122–123. ISBN 9780822974222. 
  8. ^ Schneidere, Paul (2013). Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 229. ISBN 9780805091366. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Smith, T. Marshall (1855). Legends of the War of Independence, and of the Earlier Settlements in the West. Louisville, Kentucky. 
  10. ^ Ward, Harry M. (2002). Between the Lines: Banditti of the American Revolution. Santa Barbara, California. 
  11. ^ a b "The Vicious Harpes - First American Serial Killers". 
  12. ^ Sears, Alfred B. (1 March 1950). "The Ohio by R. E. Banta". Indiana Magazine of History – via 
  13. ^ The United States criminal calendar. Charles Gaylord, Boston. 1840. pp. 281–283. 
  14. ^ Wagner, Mark and Mary R. McCorvie, "Going to See the Varmint: Piracy in Myth and Reality on the Ohio River, 1785–1830", In X Marks The Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen, pp. 219–247. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.
  15. ^ Rothert, Otto A. (1924). The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock. Cleveland. 
  16. ^ Ralph Harrelson, McLeansboro, Illinois historian
  17. ^ "Western Fantasy: Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife books". Retrieved 2011-05-10.  (comment #3 from Lois herself)
  18. ^ "World Without End by Bob Frank and John Murry". Retrieved 2013-12-09. 
  19. ^ "Something Wicked in the Woods". IMDb. Retrieved 2017-01-20. 
  • Coates, Robert M. The Outlaw Years: the History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace. 1930.
  • Gordon, Maj. Maurice Kirby. History of Hopkins County, Kentucky, published by the Hopkins County Genealogical Society.
  • Hall, James. The Harpe's Head: A Legend of Kentucky. New York: Key & Biddle, 1833.
  • Magee, M. Juliette. Cavern of crime. Livingston Ledger, 1973.
  • McDowell, Gary D. and Ruth A. McDowell. Mississippi Secrets: Facts, Legends, and Folklore. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2007.
  • Musgrave, Jon. "Frontier serial killers: The Harpes," American Weekend - The Daily Register, Harrisburg, IL, October 23, 1998.
  • Rothert, Otto A. (January 1927). "The Harpes, Two Outlaws of Pioneer Times". Filson Club History Quarterly. 1 (4). 
  • Rothert, Otto A. The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock, Otto A. Rothert, Cleveland 1924; rpt. 1996
  • Smith, Carter F. Gangs and the Military: Gangsters, Bikers, and Terrorists with Military Training. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
  • Thrapp, Dan L. Encyclopedia of frontier biography, Volume 4, Arthur H. Clark Co., 1988.
  • Smith, T. Marshall. Legends of the War of Independence, and of the Earlier Settlements in the West. Louisville, KY: J.F. Brennan, Publisher, 1855.
  • Ward, Harry M. Between the Lines: Banditti of the American Revolution. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2002.

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