As Founding Fathers like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin were getting old and dying, “Big” Harpe and “Little” Harpe were just getting started.
Micajah “Big” Harpe and Wiley “Little” Harpe were cousins. Heaven help you if you crossed their path. They would just as soon kill you as look at you.
Big’s father and Little’s father were brothers who had immigrated from Scotland and settled in North Carolina. The two boys grew up near each other and apparently were close enough to earn their nicknames.
Evidently the elder Harpes were pro-British during the Revolutionary War. After the war, those who had fought for the King were ostracized; many of them moved west. Others joined with some of the King’s still-faithful allies, the Creek and Cherokee Indians, and continued to fight their old enemies. Big and Little Harpe belonged to Tory gangs that looted and raped their patriot neighbors.
By 1796 the Creeks and Cherokees had been defeated by Kentucky and Tennessee militias. But nothing stopped Big and Little Harpe.
They settled near Knoxville, Tennessee, and took wives. Big Harpe took two wives, the sisters Susannah and Betsy Roberts.
It wasn’t long before locals began missing livestock. One man tracked some missing horses to the Harpe place. He and his companions caught up with the Harpes and the stolen horses, but Big and Little Harpe knew they had to get away, and they did. Horse stealing got you killed in those days. The Harpes – and their wives – were now on the run. And their career as cold-blooded killers began in earnest.
They started out by kidnapping and killing this man named Johnson near Knoxville. A few days later the body was found in a river. The Harpes had cut the man open and filled him with rocks to keep him submerged. This became their trademark.
They were now Kentucky-bound on the Old Wilderness Trail, where they robbed and killed a peddler. Continuing on their way they came across two travelers from Maryland. The Harpes persuaded the men to join forces – safety in numbers, you see. The unsuspecting travelers agreed.
The two men were shot. One died instantly. But the other one was killed as he was trying to get up. Big Harpe finished him with a tomahawk, splitting the guy’s head open.
Their next victim was a young Virginian named Langford who was on his way to Kentucky. The Harpes got into a quarrel with Langford, over the bill at a tavern. His fate was sealed once the Harpes found out he had a lot of money on him. He got a tomahawk blow to the head.
A posse went after the Harpes and caught them on Christmas Day 1798. They were put in jail, along with their pregnant wives. But they broke out of jail, leaving the women behind.
Their next victim was 13-year-old Johnny Trabue, the son of Colonel Daniel Trabue, a Revolutionary War veteran. The boy had been sent on an errand to a local mill. The Harpes killed and dismembered the boy – for a sack of flour.
More victims turned up. Big and Little Harpe’s trademark method of body disposal was a big help to the posse on their trail. The Governor of Kentucky put a bounty on their heads and authorized the posse to pursue them beyond Kentucky. The Harpe women, who had been acquitted of Langford’s murder, knew their men’s whereabouts. But they pretended to be done with the killers, taking advantage of the sympathy they had garnered from the locals.
The Harpes were chased to Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, just across the Ohio River. They fell in with outlaws there who liked attacking flatboats heading downriver. After one such attack, the Harpes decided to amuse their fellow pirates by killing the lone survivor. So they pushed the guy – and his horse – off a bluff to their deaths.
This act of sadism by Big and Little Harpe was too much even for the pirates. They ran the Harpes off.
They headed back to Tennessee, where their murder spree continued. Their victims just seemed to be anybody they came across. They killed men named Hardin and Bradbury. They killed 15-year-old Isaac Coffey. William Ballard. The Brasel brothers.
Across the Kentucky line they killed John Tully. Then John Graves and his young son, who had their skulls axed. All along a posse was after them.
Big and Little Harpe weren’t done killing, but now they had a target in mind: Silas McBee, the local justice of the peace. They got to McBee’s place, but his well-trained dogs kept them at bay, and they retreated. But their blood lust hadn’t dissipated.
Not far from McBee’s home they came upon the home of Moses Stegall. Stegall was supposedly a frontiersman who rode on both sides of the law, as James Prichard puts it. He wasn’t home the day the Harpes showed up. Present, however, were Mrs. Stegall, her child, and Major William Love, who was there on business.
Mrs. Stegall was acquainted with the Harpes and agreed to put them up for the night. Neither Mrs. Stegall, Major Love, nor the child survived the encounter, though. After killing all three, the Harpes set fire to the cabin.
Big and Little Harpe decided to lie low, figuring that McBee would soon see the smoke and come to investigate. Then they would kill him.
But first they kidnapped two men, Hudgens and Gilmore, whom they accused of the murders and falsely arrested. That was the end of Hudgens and Gilmore.
It was McBee they really wanted dead, so they continued to lie in wait for him. Word got out about the fire at the Stegall home, and a posse was organized. It included Moses Stegall.
The killing spree of Big and Little Harpe was about to come to an end.
The posse soon made it to the Harpes’ camp. One of the wives was there, and she gave them up, telling the men where the Harpes and the other women had gone. They caught up with Big Harpe and demanded his surrender. It wasn’t going to happen. Big Harpe took off, without the women.
The posse was in pursuit. Four of the men shot at Big Harpe. One shot entered Harpe’s backbone. Big Harpe kept riding but was soon pulled from his horse and informed that his time was up. It was Moses Stegall who held a knife to Big Harpe and told him that he, Stegall, was going to cut off Harpe’s head. But before he did it, he took his rifle and shot Harpe through the heart.
They took the head to a cross-roads and placed it on a tree. As a notice to other outlaws.
But what about Little Harpe?
He escaped, and ended up re-joining the gang of river pirates he had known in Illinois. Several years later, Little Harpe and a fellow pirate named May killed Captain Mason, their leader, and cut off his head, took it in for the reward money.
After giving the authorities a story about how they managed this feat, they started to leave, when someone recognized the two men as outlaws.
Harpe and May were arrested. But they escaped. A posse did catch up with them, though, and they were tried in Greenville, Mississippi, in January of 1804. Found guilty of robbery, they were sentenced to death.
Their heads were placed on poles, of course, as a warning to the criminally inclined.
Musgrave, Jon. October 23, 1998. “Frontier Serial Killers: The Harpes.” American Weekend.
Prichard, James M. April 2005. “Blood Trail: Mass Murder on the Kentucky Frontier.” Lexington, KY: Kentucky Humanities.