The Harpe Brothers: America’s Original Serial Killers
This deadly pair from 18th century America left a bloody trail across the frontier as they slaughtered men, women, and children to satisfy their bloodlust.By Stephanie Almazan
In the late 1700s, Micajah “Big” Harpe and Wiley “Little” Harpe became known as America’s first serial killers. The ruthless, cold-blooded murderers were a threat to everyone they encountered – men, women, and children – until at long last they were apprehended.
Though they were widely referred to as the Harpe Brothers, some sources say that they were cousins. Their fathers were siblings who emigrated from Scotland, and were Tories who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War. The boys grew up close in Orange County, North Carolina. A six-foot-four Micajah earned the nickname “Big” as he loomed over “Little” Harpe.
When the Revolutionary War began, the brothers were said to have joined a Tory rape gang, motivated more by ill intentions than supporting the British crown. They brutalized young women, murdered patriots, and burned down farms. One intended target reportedly escaped harm at the last moment thanks to a Captain James Wood. Captain Wood shot at Little Harpe and broke up the attack – though the blast only wounded him.
In 1780, the brothers joined the British troops to fight through the Carolinas. After a year, they grew bored and aligned with the Cherokee Indians, pillaging the region. They exacted revenge on the aforementioned Captain by stealing his daughter, Susan Wood. They took her, along with another young girl named Maria Davidson, as their wives.
These women were treated no different than any females the Harpes had previously encountered – they were brutalized, raped, and held captive as the brothers made their way into present day Tennessee. The outlaws traveled with four additional men. One individual, Moses Doss, expressed concern for the women – the Harpes made him pay for his insolence with his life.
It’s said that Susan and Maria both became pregnant during their travels. In each instance, the brothers killed the children.
The roaming Harpe clan spent the next 12 years in Nickajack, an American Indian village settled by Cherokee and Chickamauga Indians near present day Chatanooga. Even after the British surrendered in Yorktown in 1781, the brothers continued to lend their support to the Indians in their attacks against settlers.
Then in September 1794, the Harpes somehow got word of a planned American attack on Nickajack village. They left just in time and found a new camp, where they continued to pillage villages. In 1797, they called a cabin near Knoxville home. Here, Little Harpe found a comely new wife, Susan Rice, while Big Harpe took on Susan Wood and Maria as his own.
Rather than slow the Harpe Brothers down, their growing family only intensified their bloodlust. They murdered two men in the Tennessee region, and two more travelers passing through Kentucky. Their gruesome signature? Disemboweling the body, filling it with rocks, and sinking it into the river.
When a traveller named John Langford was found dead, an innkeeper named the Harpes as the killers. Authorities tracked down the dangerous Harpes and briefly put them in jail in Danville, Kentucky. It wasn’t long, however, before they escaped.
Soon there was a $300 bounty on each of their heads. They headed north to evade capture and killed two more men along the way. Upon arriving at the banks of the Saline River, they killed the three men they encountered there. Authorities closed in, but the Harpes shook them just outside Cave-in-the-Rock, Illinois.
Here, they joined forces with a pirate gang led by Samuel Mason. These outlaws would attack the flatboats floating lazily on the river. But even this band of criminals couldn’t stomach the vicious Harpes, who would take their captives to the top of a cliff, make them strip naked, and throw them to their deaths.
The brothers were told to leave, so they returned to Tennessee. There, the murders continued.
In the summer of 1798, their death toll included a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a child named Coffey. William Ballard’s body was found in the Holton River, disemboweled in the trademark Harpe fashion. James Brassel had his throat slashed and John Tully also turned up dead.
The murders continued into Kentucky. A man named John Graves and his son both had their heads axed off. Two children (one a young slave) and a family asleep in their camp were murdered. Another man called Trowbridge was also disemboweled. Most disturbing of all was the report that Big Harpe killed his own infant daughter by smashing her head against a tree, irritated by her incessant crying.
One family who must have been unaware of the Harpes’ violent reputation was the Stegalls. They took the Harpes in for the evening as many pioneers often did, only to meet their deaths. The brothers killed one guest, Major William Love, and heartlessly slit the throat of Mrs. Stegall’s four-month-old son. When Mrs. Stegall cried out, they murdered her, too.
Authorities intensified their pursuit once word spread that the Harpe Brothers were back. One posse member out for personal justice was Moses Stegall – relative to the slaughtered Stegall family.
On August 24, 1799, the posse finally tracked the pair down, right before they were planning to kill yet another man. Big Harpe was shot off his horse, while Little Harpe fled. Moses Stegall got his revenge – by slowly sawing off Big Harpe’s head. Before dying, Harpe confessed to at least 20 murders. As a warning, Big Harpe’s head was stuck onto a pole at an intersection in Henderson, Kentucky, later called Harpe’s Head.
Susan Wood, Maria Davidson, and Susan Rice were found at a nearby camp shortly after Big Harpe’s capture. They each had a child in tow. The women were tried for the Stegall family murders, but were later released and established new families free from the brothers’ brutal control.
Little Harpe found his way back to the riverboat gang in Illinois, where he started using the alias John Setton. He remained there for four years, until he hatched a plot to turn in their leader, Samuel Mason, who had a large bounty on his head.
He and another outlaw James May cut off Mason’s head and presented it to authorities. Their scheme backfired, however, when the cutthroats were quickly recognized as fugitives. Fate finally caught up with the surviging Harpe in January 1804 when he and May were executed, their heads staked on Natchez Road.
The brothers’ brutal deeds left a permanent stain on the American frontier. Since their slayings seemed motivated by bloodlust, the Harpe Brothers are often referred to as America’s first serial killers.
While their death toll remains unknown, the details of the bloody case continue to haunt the region – so much so that that many of the Harpe descendants have changed their last names so as to disassociate themselves from the infamous pair.
Feature illustration: "I Took Ye for an Indian" by Frederic Remington (via Murder by Gaslight); Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons; William England / Getty