The Vicious Harpes – First American Serial Killers



That same month a man named Trowbridge was found disemboweled in Highland Creek and when they were given shelter at the Stegall home in Webster County, the pair killed an overnight guest named Major William Love, as well as Mrs. Stegall’s four-month-old baby boy, whose throat was slit when it cried. When Mrs. Stegall screamed at the sight of her infant being killed, she too was murdered.

The killings continued as the Harpes fled west to avoid the posse, which included Moses Stegall, whose family the Harpes had killed earlier in the month. While the pair were preparing to kill another settler named George Smith, the posse finally tracked them down on August 24, 1799. Calling for their surrender, the two sped away, but, Big Harpe was shot in the leg and the back. The posse soon caught up with him and pulled him from his horse. As he lay dying, he confessed to 20 murders and Mr. Stegall slowly cut off the outlaw’s head while he was still conscious. Later it was hanged on a pole at a crossroads near Henderson, Kentucky. For years, the intersection where the pole stood was called Harpe’s Head.

In the meantime, Little Harpe escaped and soon rejoined the Mason Gang pirates at Cave-in-The-Rock. Four years later, Little Harpe was using the alias of John Setton. When a large reward was offered for the head of their leader, Samuel Mason, Harpe, along with a fellow pirate named James May, killed Mason and cut off his head to collect the money. However, as they presented the head, they were recognized as outlaws themselves and arrested. The two soon escaped but, were quickly recaptured, tried, and sentenced to be hanged. In January 1804, they were executed and their heads cut off and placed high on stakes along the Natchez Road as a warning to other outlaws.

During their terrible crime spree, the Harpes killed more than 40 men, women, and children.

But, what happened to the three “wives” of the notorious Harpes?

On the day that Big Harpe was killed in August 1799, the women were left at the camp. The three women, each having one child, were taken to Henderson and placed in an empty blockhouse. On September 4th, all three were charged with being parties to the murders of Mary Stegall, her infant son, James, and Captain William Love. They were bound over for trial in Russellville but were tried and released in October.

Sally Rice Harpe then returned to the Knoxville area to be with her father. She later married a highly respected man and raised a large family.

Susan Wood stayed in the Russellville area, where she lived a respectable life. She died in Tennessee.

Maria Davidson, who was by then going by the alias of Betsy Roberts, married a man named John Huffstutler in September 1803. By 1828, they had moved to Hamilton County, Illinois, where they raised a large family and lived until their deaths in the 1860s.

After the atrocities committed by the Harpes, many family members changed their names so they wouldn’t be connected with the violent murderers.


Natchez Trace

Natchez Trace

Big Harpe and The Witch Dance

Witch Dance

Witch Dance

With the violence surrounding the vicious Harpes, it comes as no surprise that there is a ghostly legend attached to the notorious Micajah “Big” Harpe. In addition to terrorizing the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Illinois, the Harpes were often known to have traveled along the Natchez Trace through Mississippi. Between Tupelo and Houston, Mississippi, there is a place called Witch Dance. Steeped in mystery for centuries, it was not only the home of the Mound Builders of Mississippi but was also said to have been used by a coven of witches who would gather for nighttime ceremonies. Lore has it, that where ever the witches’ feet touched the ground during their dances, the grass would wither and die, never to grow again.

At some point prior to his death, Big Harpe was traveling along the Natchez Trace with an Indian guide who showed him the bare spots in the ground and told him of the legend of the Witch Dance. Big Harpe only scoffed at this and began to leap from spot to spot, daring the witches to come out and fight him. Of course, nothing happened, at least not then. Eventually, Big Harpe made his way back to Kentucky, where he was tracked down by the posse in August 1799. After he was decapitated and his head placed in the tree, the skull was said to have been removed by a witch, ground into powder and used as a potion to heal a relative. Word soon got around and when travelers retold the story along the Trace, they would swear they could hear crackling laughter coming from the nearby bushes and trees.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May 2019

Also See: 

American Pirate List

The Early Outlaw

Legends and Mysteries of the Natchez Trace

Witch Dance of the Natchez Trace


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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