Early American Serial Killers: The Harpes

The following article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the topic.

Today, we’re going to talk about the earliest documented serial killers in American history.  Buckle up, and let’s go!

H. H. Holmes is often referred to as America’s first serial killer.  I’ve already presented a case older than H. H. Holmes on this blog about The Servant Girl Annihilator.  Let’s talk about Micajah and Wiley Harpe today.

[Note: What I have here is heavily summarized.  Check my sources if you’d like to read more.]

Micajah and Wiley Harpe

These cousins—who called themselves brothers—were nicknamed, respectively, “Big” and “Little.”  It is disputed whether they were born in America or Scotland, but they were of Scottish descent.

Micajah “Big” Harpe was born in 1768.  As his name indicates, “Big” was a large and scary man.  He did not have regular bathing habits.  Despite the dirt, it was still obvious his hair was red.  He carried all manner of weapons–tomahawks, knives, and rifles–and knew how to use them.

Wiley “Little” Harpe was smaller and younger.  He knew how to use weapons to achieve his means, and he was just as ruthless of a killer as his cousin.

These two killers were characterized by their anger and their hatred of their fellow man. Their kills have no pattern or pathology.  They just killed any time they got the chance.  Sometimes they killed for monetary gain.  Other times, it seems they killed for fun.

The Revolutionary War Years

The Harpe cousins fought on the British side of the Revolutionary War.  They joined gangs of Tories in terrorizing and stealing from the Patriots.

By 1781, the Harpes had joined a Chickamauga Cherokee war party that was backed by British money.  In 1782, they fought with the Chickamauga Cherokee in Kentucky at the Battle of Blue Licks.

They lived in the Nickajack community with the Chickamauga Cherokees for twelve or thirteen years.  During this time, they kidnapped two women who they made their “wives.”  In 1794, they abandoned the Chickamauga community and were unheard of until 1797.

The Beginning of the Crime Spree

By 1797, it was believed that the Harpe cousins had killed five people, four of whom were their own children.  They settled with their wives in Knox County, Tennessee.  At first, they seemed intent on living normal lives.

That all fell apart when they began stealing their neighbors’ livestock to slaughter and sell.

After stealing Edward Tiel’s livestock, the Harpes were arrested.   They ended up escaping.  Now outlaws, the Harpes would show the world how vicious they were.

The Murders

The Micajah and Wiley Harpe are said to have traveled with scalps hanging from their belts.  These guys did some represensible things.  Let’s look at them by bullet points.

  • While traveling with a group of river pirates, the Harpes kidnapped and tied a flatboat passenger to a blindfolded horse.  They sent both over a cliff to their deaths on the rocks below.
  • As a warning to a community in Kentucky, the Harpes smashed a little girl’s head on a bridge structure.
  • They shot a man named Johnson in the head.  To hide the body, they cut him open, filled his chest cavity with rocks, and tossed him in a stream.  Of course, when the body decomposed, the rocks fell out and Johnson floated to the surface.
  • The Harpes lulled travelers into believing they’d ride with them for safety but would murder them once they gained their trust.
  • One story has Micajah grabbing his four-month-old daughter by the ankles and swinging her headfirst in a tree.

The Harpes didn’t have a preference of race or sex in their victims.  All the victim needed to be was alive.

Fugitives

Law enforcement sought the Harpes.  The Governor of Kentucky offered a reward for their arrest.  But at that point in America’s history, there was no agency prepared for this kind of crazy.

The Harpes killed one man who tried to arrest them.  They hid in the Cumberland Mountains and raided small settlements to steal and kill.

They wandered into Kentucky and killed a man named Pharris who bought them breakfast.  This got them arrested again, but they somehow escaped.  There is speculation that they bribed a jailor.

The Harpes hid along the border between Tennessee and Kentucky.  This area was newly settled and easy pickings for the Harpe family.  They continued killing anybody they could.

The community vowed to get rid of these bloodthirsty killers.

Manhunt

The Harpes were hiding out in forested areas and caves in the mountains.  They occasionally left the safety of the woods to visit people they knew.  One such visit would be their undoing.

The Harpes visited the Stegalls because the Harpe wives claimed Mrs. Stegall had $40 in the cabin.

The Harpes convinced  Mrs. Stegall to cook them breakfast. While she was occupied, they  slit her infant daughter’s throat.  When Mrs. Stegall discovered what had happened, they stabbed her to death.  Then, they burned down the Stegall cabin.

A posse, which included Mr. Stegall, went into the wilderness to chase down the Harpes.

The Capture of Micajah Harpe

Micajah “Big” Harpe was found hiding out in a cave with the Harpe wives.  It is thought that Wiley “Little” Harpe saw the possee coming and escaped.

Though shot, Big Harpe managed to mount a horse and ride away, leaving the wives behind.  The posse tied up the wives and left them while they pursued “Big” Harpe.

“Big” Harpe’s horse gave out, and he was shot again.  His gun was not operational, and he had no strength left to fight with the butcher knife he held.  “Big” Harpe surrendered to the posse.

When asked why he killed all those people, Big Harpe cited disgust with humanity in general.  He and Wiley Harpe had made a pact to kill as many people as possible.

One account suggests the Harpes became enraged at mankind after being falsely convicted and imprisoned for a crime.

Some sources say “Big” admitted to as many as 40 murders.  Other sources put the number around 17.

The Death of Micajah Harp

The posse who tracked down Micajah Harpe attempted to saw off his head.  Micajah Harpe is reported not to have cried out, though he did criticize his executioner’s efforts.

The posse eventually had to shoot him again and let him expire before they could decapitate the corpse.

Micajah “Big” Harpe was 31 at the time of his death.

The posse left the body for animals to eat and displayed the head at an intersection of roads in Kentucky.  This intersection became known as Harpe’s Head.  Get it?

The Death of Wiley Harpe

Wiley “Little” Harpe escaped Micajah’s fate at the hands of the posse.

If he could have behaved himself, he might have lived out his life.  Instead, he moved to Natchez, Mississippi where he continued to murder people.

He joined a band of outlaws led by Sam Mason, who had a $2000 bounty on his head.  Wiley Harpe wanted to collect the bounty on Mason.  He planned carefully and beheaded Mason.

Ironically, when he turned in the head and tried to collect the reward, he was…surprise…taken into custody himself.

Wiley Harpe was hanged on February 8, 1804.

The Harpe Wives

The Harpe wives are an interesting footnote to this whole story.

The original two wives were Maria Davidson and Susan Wood.  Micajah Harpe kidnapped these women and lived with them as common-law wives.

Wiley Harpe was legally married to a woman named Sarah Rice.

The five Harpes lived together and shared everything.  In addition to the children the Harpe men murdered, there were as many as three living children in the household.

There are contrary stories about the Harpe wives’ willingness to live with these monsters.

Some stories suggested the wives were accomplices:

  • The wives were with the Harpes during the commission of the crimes in which they waylaid travelers.
  • When Big and Little Harpe were imprisoned for Pharris’s murder, the wives went to prison with them.  The wives were all pregnant and gave birth within two months of each other.  Once the women were freed from prison, they rendezvoused with Big and Little Harpe instead of running away.
  • It was the wives’ association with Mrs. Stegall that got the Harpes admitted to the Stegall Home.

After the capture of Micajah Harpe, the wives were questioned.  They maintained they were unwilling accomplices in their husbands’ crimes.  They were simply too scared to leave.  The Harpe wives were released and went on to live relatively normal lives.

America’s First Serial Killers

Micajah and Wiley Harpe are the earliest documented serial killers in America.  So next time somebody tells you it’s H. H. Holmes, you now know they’re wrong.

And when they tell you Jack the Ripper was the world’s first serial killer, that’s wrong too.  Locusta is much older than that. Depravity can be traced back to mankind’s earliest days.

Sources:

Harpe Brothers Wiki

“America’s First Serial Killers” by Katherine Ramsland