Sunday, October 24, 2010

Big Harpe and Little Harpe

Micajah and Wiley Harpe –known respectively as "Big" and "Little" Harpe—spread misery and terror through the western frontier in the 1790s.  They took what they wanted and recognized no law, leaving a trail of death and destruction through Kentucky and Tennessee.  More heinous than mere outlaws, the Harpes had declared war on humanity, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately; repaying frontier hospitality with arson and death.  The Harpes are considered by many to be the first recorded serial killers in American history.

Date: 1798 -1799

Location:  Tennessee and Kentucky

Victims: 25 - 40 men, women, and children

Cause of Death:  Shooting, slashing, chopping

Accused:  Micajah "Big" Harpe and Wiley "Little" Harpe


Though their story ends a few years prior to the 19th Century, the Harpes have already been mentioned several times on Murder by Gaslight and they deserve a post of their own. When Investigating a story this old, one tends to find the facts obscured by legend, but the tale of Micajah and Wiley Harpe has remained remarkably constant for over 200 years. Writing in 1828, just 29 years after the events, Judge James Hall said:
“In collecting oral testimony of events long past, a considerable variety will often be found in the statements of the persons conversant with the circumstances. In this case, I have found none, except as to the fact of the two Harpes having exchanged horses.”
We’ll get to the exchanged horses in a minute, but unlike most of the older stories at Murder by Gaslight, there is really only one version of the Harpe’s story. This is partially because the facts have been preserved in legal documents, newspaper stories, and reminiscences by people like Judge Hall, and partially because the facts surrounding the Harpe’s are so atrocious they would be impossible to embellish or romanticize.

Though they were known as the Harpe brothers, Micajah and Wiley Harpe were first cousins, sons of William and Joshua Harpe, who had come from Scotland and settled in North Carolina. During the American Revolution Micajah and Wiley fought with the Chickamauga Indians on the side of England against the American rebels. As loyalists, they were forced to flee their homes after the American victory and they moved to the Knoxville area of Tennessee.

Micajah was the older and larger of the two and came to be known as “Big” Harpe. A warrant later issued by Kentucky Governor Gerrad describes Big Harpe as:
“About six feet high, of robust make…built very straight…full fleshed in the face…ill-looking downcast countenance…his hair black and short but comes very much down his forehead.”
Other accounts describe Big Harpe as tall as six foot four.

Wiley was known as “Little” Harpe and he was described as:
“very meager in his face, has short black hair, but not quite so curly as his brother’s, he looks older, though is really younger.”
Most sources say Little Harpe’s hair was red – his distinguishing feature.

In 1797 Little Harpe—then in his late twenties or early thirties—married a “pretty and delicate” woman about 20 years old named Sarah “Sally” Rice. Not to be outdone, Big Harpe came home with two wives—his legal wife, Susannah Roberts, described as “rather tall, rawboned, dark hair and eyes and rather ugly” and his “subordinate” wife, Susannah's sister Betsy, described as “rather handsome, light hair and blue eyes and a perfect contrast with her sister.” The five settled in together in a cabin outside of Knoxville.

Not long after, horses and other livestock began to disappear from neighboring farms. At the same time, the Harpes became known for supplying local stores with pork and mutton. In 1798 Edward Tiel tracked his missing horses to the Harpe cabin. The cabin was empty so Tiel and a number of companions continued tracking until they overtook the Harpes with the stolen horses. The Harpes surrendered but escaped before they could be taken to Knoxville.

The Harpe women would later call this the turning point when their men “declared war on all mankind.” They first began burning stables belonging to prominent Knoxville citizens and robbing their houses during the chaos, but soon they turned to murder. They seized a man named Johnson from a Knoxville tavern and a few days later his body was found, gutted and filled with stones, in the Holston River.

The Harpes and their women fled north to Kentucky and began a murderous rampage. They robbed and murdered a peddler named Peyton near the Cumberland River. On the road they met two travelers named Paca and Bates and persuaded them to travel with them for safety. The Harpes shot the two men from horseback. Bates died instantly but Big Harpe had to finish off Paca with his tomahawk.

Gaining the trust of susceptible victims became the Harpe’s modus operandi. They were known to burn down houses and murder the inhabitants leaving with nothing more than they would have obtained from the simple hospitality of the homeowners. They murdered a young slave—smashed his head against a tree—and left behind his horse and the grain he had been carrying.

In one case the Harpe family’s breakfast bill at a tavern was paid for by a traveler named Thomas Lankford. Lankford was later robbed and murdered by tomahawk about ten miles from the tavern. The Harpes were immediately suspected. They were overtaken and arrested in Hustonville, Kentucky on Christmas Day 1798. All three Harpe women were pregnant at the time of the arrest and two gave birth in prison that winter but the family did not stay together long; Big and Little Harpe escaped jail on March 16, 1799. The women were later acquitted of the murders and eventually rejoined their men.

The fugitives were pursued by a posse led by “Devil Joe” Ballenger, and a reward was placed on their heads, but the Harpes' murder spree continued in Kentucky. The body of Johnny Trabue, son of Revolutionary War veteran Col. Daniel Trabue, was found dismembered near a grist mill. He had been butchered for a sack of flour. Frederick Stump, Jr. was hunting on his farm when the Harpes slit his throat and stole his rifle. His corpse bore the Harpe’s signature: gutted and filed with stones in the Barren River.

The Harpes traveled as far north as Cave-In-Rock, Illinois—literally a cave in the rocks inhabited by river pirates. Allegedly the other outlaws were so appalled by the behavior of the Harpes, that they drove them out of the cave and back to Kentucky.

In one notable incident the Harpes impersonated Methodist ministers and went to the house of Moses Stegall. Stegall worked both sides of the law and he and his wife knew the Harpes from their days in Knoxville. Moses was gone when they arrived but his wife kept their identity secret from her other guests. What happened next varies somewhat from telling to telling. In some accounts the Harpes arranged to sleep apart, each with another traveler with the express purpose of killing the tavelers. In other tellings the only traveller was Major William Love, who shared a room with Big Harpe. Harpe became so enraged by the Colonel’s snoring that he smashed the colonel’s head with his tomahawk. In both versions the Harpes later murdered Mrs. Stegall and her infant son and burned down their house.

The killing continued until they were tracked by a posse that included a vengeful Moses Stegall. The two Harpes abandoned the women and headed in different directions. The posse on horseback followed Big Harpe. Here is the variation noted by Judge Hall. In some accounts the Harpes inadvertently exchanged horses in the chaos. Big Harpe, who thought he was on his extremely strong and powerful horse, was actually riding his cousin’s weaker animal. Confident he could outrun the posse, Big Harpe stayed on horseback when it would have been better to dismount and take to the trees. Others say Big Harpe was simply outrun by the posse.

John Leiper, a friend of Moses Stegall, overtook Harpe and shot him through the back. Big Harpe tried to fire back but his rifle misfired. He fought on with his tomahawk until he was overpowered. Before he died Big Harpe confessed to 18 murders and only regretted one of them. When his infant daughter would not stop crying he bashed her head against a tree and killed her. He said:

“It cried and I killed it; I had always told the women, I would have no crying about me.”
He also claimed, probably falsely, that he had amassed a fortune which he had hidden around Kentucky, inspiring generations of treasure hunters.

Moses Stegall shot him through the heart then cut off his head with his hunting knife. The dismembered body was left in a spot near the town of Graham, Kentucky, still known as Harpe’s Hill. The head of Big Harpe was paced in the fork of a tree near Highland Lick. Today the spot is marked by a Kentucky highway marker on Route 41A north of Dixon, Kentucky.

Little Harpe fled to Mississippi where he joined a band of river pirates led by Samuel Mason. Mason had a price on his head as well, and when he found himself alone with Mason, Little Harpe murdered him and cut off his head. He took the head to the authorities to collect the reward. The head was recognized right away as that of the outlaw Samuel Mason but the bearer was also instantly recognized as Little Harpe. Harpe was arrested in Mississippi where he was tried, convicted and executed for murder.


The Harpe women were still in custody in Kentucky. Sally claimed she did not know that her husband Wiley was bad until she moved in with him. But, like the other women, she had several chances to take the children and leave. All three women always went back to Big and Little Harpe.

The women were acquitted of murder. Susannah and Betsy settled in Logan County, Kentucky. Susannah eventually remarried. Sally went back to her father, then remarried and moved to Illinois.

Big Harpe confessed to 18 murders, but the Harpe brothers are known to have murdered at least 25 people and some estimates place the total as high as 40. Though they made their living by theft, they murdered out of hatred for their fellow man. Big and Litttle Harpe could well be America's first recorded serial killers.


Hall, John. Letters from the West; containing sketches of scenery, manners, and customs; and anecdotes connected with the first settlements of the western sections of the United States.. London, Henry Colburn,, 1828.

Hall, James. The Harpe's Head: A Legend Of Kentucky. Philadelphia:, Key & Biddle, 1833.
Rothert, Otto A.. The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock (Shawnee Classics). Glendale, California: The Arthur H Clark Company, 1924.

Main Picture: "I Took Ye For an Indian" by Frederic Remington


Anonymous says:
October 27, 2010 at 9:23 AM

I have read every article and am sad to see there are no more. While I understand that each takes a considerable amount of time to research, I do wish there were more and posted more often. I will be checking back frequently to read more.
Thaks for the great read!

Anonymous says:
June 2, 2012 at 3:12 PM

as a Harpe descendant find this very interesting

Anonymous says:
August 12, 2012 at 8:56 PM

There are several books and articles written about the Harpe brothers ...they murdered a son of Frederick Stump my great gggg grand and that is a way to read more about how they met their end.

Anonymous says:
August 22, 2012 at 10:12 PM

Wow!The stories my grand told me are true!Thanx for the detailed info.

Dan Trabue says:
October 9, 2012 at 1:20 PM

As a Trabue descendant (my name is actually Daniel Trabue), I too, find these horrible stories interesting. I was vaguely aware of the story, but this is a more complete version of it. Thanks!

Unknown says:
November 17, 2013 at 1:45 AM

I can't stand anonymous post.

Anonymous says:
January 21, 2014 at 7:39 PM

As a Southern Illinois native who spent her birthdays every year at Cave in Rock, I am very interested in the history of the area. I had heard stories from my grandfather and it is nice to get some verification of them. Thank you.

Leslie says:
April 4, 2014 at 11:43 AM

I am dreading the moment I realize I have read all your posts!

Anonymous says:
June 11, 2014 at 5:11 PM

I have read every story I can find regarding Moses Stegall, but there doesnt seem to be any follow up on who his family was. Anyone have any idea if he stayed in the Livingston County area? I am looking for the family line of my great grandfather Richard G Stegall from Livingston County KY.

Anonymous says:
December 8, 2014 at 12:34 PM

Harpe brothers are interesting!

Unknown says:
August 2, 2015 at 10:19 PM

I also find Micajah & Wiley to be very interesting. I do feel bad that they seen their parents being hung, I know that would mentally mess up any kiddo.. so my heart does go out to Big & Lil Harpe in a way. Like reading and knowing about these 2 is quite additive. I wish I could meet decendants of these men because it would just amaze me. Not here to bash any one & I do feel for the people that died as well. These men make me want to learn more about our American history.. does it make we weird that I kinda like Micajah because it says he had black decendant/s?!! So he's kinda like me..minus me killing people.

J. Cottrell says:
May 24, 2016 at 3:56 PM

Its amazing that they lasted in their antics so long. Seems like a bullet would be waiting for them around every bend of the river.

J. Cottrell says:
May 24, 2016 at 3:57 PM

Its amazing that they lasted in their antics so long. Seems like a bullet would be waiting for them around every bend of the river.

WilliamKing says:
October 10, 2016 at 11:06 AM


Johnny Dirts says:
April 1, 2018 at 10:17 AM

Hi, In 2012 I began writing a concept album with a story that required a tragic event. This article introduced me to the Harpes and I am so thankful for that. Here's the opening track - The Harpe Brothers Theme - the album will finally be released on Old Jank Records on 1st June 2018. It's been a slog!

David Johnston says:
July 22, 2019 at 5:22 PM

I read where as Big Harp's head was being decapitated, he told them they would make one hell of a butcher. WOW.....

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