The Vicious Harpes – First American Serial Killers


British in the American Revolution

British in the American Revolution

Earning the dubious distinction of being the United States’ first documented serial killers, Micajah “Big” Harpe, and Wiley “Little” Harpe were murderous outlaws who operated in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi in the late 1700s. Often referred to as the Harpe Brothers, they were actually cousins who often passed themselves off as brothers.

Both of their fathers were Scottish immigrants who had settled in Orange County, North Carolina. Micajah Harpe was born to John Harpe and his wife, while Wiley Harpe, who was actually named Joshua, was born to John’s brother, William and his wife. Soon after the arrival of the Harpes in America, they changed the spelling of their original name from “Harpe” to “Harp.”

Growing up near each other, the boys soon took up the nicknames of Big and Little Harp, as Wiley was much smaller than Micajah. The two left North Carolina in 1775 for Virginia intending to find jobs as slave overseers; however, the American Revolution interrupted their career. The pair sided with the British, but their interest seemed to be more in violence and criminal activities than any sense of patriotic duty. Along with other like-minded irregulars, they apparently thrilled in the activities of burning farms, raping women, and pillaging the American patriots. When Little Harp attempted to rape a girl in North Carolina, he was shot and wounded by Captain James Wood; however, he survived.

In 1780, the Harpes joined with the regular British troops and fought in several battles along the North and South Carolina borders. The next year, they left the army and joined up with a group of Cherokee Indians, raiding settlements in North Carolina and Tennessee and continuing their pillaging. Taking revenge on Captain James Wood, who had earlier wounded Little Harpe, the pair kidnapped his daughter, Susan Wood, and another girl named Maria Davidson. The women served as wives to the Harpes.

The pair, along with the brutalized women and four other men, then began to make their way to Tennessee. During the trip, a man named Moses Doss had the “audacity” to be over-concerned for the brutalized women. For his concern, he was killed by the Harpes. The group then settled in the Cherokee-Chickamauga village of Nickajack located southwest of modern-day Chattanooga, Tennessee. For the next dozen years, the Harpes, along with their “wives” lived in the Indian village. During this time, both of the captive women became pregnant twice and their children were killed by their fathers.

After the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, the Chickamauga and a break-away band of Cherokee continued to make war on American patriots and the Harpes were only too willing to help them, fighting in the Battle of Blue Licks, Kentucky on August 19, 1782, and other smaller skirmishes.

In September 1794, the Americans planned to take the offensive against the Indians at Nickajack, but somehow, the Harpes got wind of the attack and fled before the Patriots wiped out the village. The Harpes and their women then settled down at a new camp nearby, where they stayed for the next nine months, once again pillaging local villages in Tennessee. By the spring of 1797, they were living in a cabin on Beaver’s Creek near Knoxville. That same year, Little Harpe married a local girl; a minister’s daughter, named Sarah Rice, and the other two women became the “wives” of Big Harpe.

Just over a year later, in late 1798, the Harpes would begin their murder spree, one of the most violent in the nation’s history. They first killed two men in Tennessee, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail. By December, they had moved on to Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland. Unlike most outlaws of the time, they seemed to be more motivated by blood lust than financial gain, often leaving their victims disemboweled, filling their abdominal cavities with rocks, and sinking them in a river.

Murdered Man

Murdered Man

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 then 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.

On April 22, 1799, the Kentucky Governor issued a $300 reward on each of the Harpe’s heads. Fleeing northward, the Harpes killed two men named Edmonton and Stump. When they were near the mouth of the Saline River, they came upon three men who were encamped and killed all three. The pair then made their way to Cave-In-The-Rock in southern Illinois, a stronghold of the river pirate, Samuel Mason. In the meantime, the posse was aggressively pursuing them, but unfortunately, stopped just short of Cave-in-The-Rock.

Along 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. However; though 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 throwing them off, they were asked to leave.

The Harpes then returned to Eastern Tennessee, where they continued their vicious murder spree in earnest. In July 1798, they killed a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey. Soon, more bodies were discovered including William Ballard, who had been disemboweled and thrown in the Holton River, James Brassel, who had his throat viciously slashed was discovered on Brassel’s Knob, and another man named John Tully was also found murdered.

In south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son were found dead with their heads axed and in Logan County; the Harpes killed a little girl, a young slave, and an entire family who were asleep in their camp. In August, a few miles northeast of Russellville, Kentucky, Big Harpe killed his daughter, by bashing her head against a tree, because the baby was crying.

2 thoughts on “The Vicious Harpes – First American Serial Killers”

  1. Information regarding the Harpes is sketchy and often conflicting but there is a novel called “Degeneration The Story Of Betsy Roberts” by NG Neville, on Amazon Kindle which explores how she survived the Harpes. A very good read, well researched but obviously partly fictionalised.

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