Henderson County, Kentucky

Sketch of Big and Little Harpe

Outlaws had increased in number and daring until they infested all of the Green River section, extending as far northeast as Mercer County. Captain YOUNG, with a group of armed men from Mercer County, was determined to clear the state of this menace.

Two of the criminals the captain was most eager to capture were the HARPE Brothers. The HARPES, consisting of "Big" (Micajah) and his two wives, Susan (Wood) HARPE and Betsy ROBERTS, and "Little" (Wiley) HARPE and (Sarah) Sally (Rice) HARPE had come from Tennessee, down the Boone Trace, and into western Kentucky in the year 1798. Another version is that the brothers Micajah (born abt 1768) and Wiley (born abt 1770) HARPE, started out life as first cousins William and Joshua HARPE both natives of Scotland who emigrated as young children with their parents, two brothers, who settled in Orange Co, NC. Their father was thought to have been a Tory who fought for the British at the Battle of King's Mountain and other battles in the area. After the Revolutionary War, the Tories were forced to flee to Mississippi. However, the HARPE brothers fled into east Tennessee.

These two seemed to kill for pleasure rather than gain and their trademark, a gutted body filled with rocks and dumped in a stream, had spread terror throughout the settlements.

Big HARPE was above the ordinary stature, bony and muscular, his clothes dirty and shabby, distinguishing him as a man wholly unused to the courtesies of civilized life. His countenance was so repulsive that every indication of villainy was plainly marked thereon. He wore no covering on his head, so the natural protection of thick, coarse hair, of a fiery red, uncombed and matted, gave evidence of the rudest exposure. He was armed with a rifle, knife and tomahawk. He was a veritable outlaw, destitute of every touch of human nature, and prepared, at all points, for assault and defense.

Little HARPE was a smaller man, but, in other respects, the counterpart of his partner in crime, and with him frequently engaged in riotous drunkenness and debauchery. On 01 Jun 1797 Little HARPE married Sarah (Sally) RICE in Knox County, TN.

After a number of known atrocities, the HARPES were first arrested in the state of Kentucky on 25 Dec 1798, for the murder of a man named LANGFORD who had befriended them at a public house near Rockcastle River and was foolish enough to show off his silver coin too many times.

After a preliminary hearing in Lincoln County Court, there was enough evidence for a trial and the five prisoners were taken to Danville on Jan 5th, to await the April term of District Court. For the next two months the HARPES plotted their escape, which came on March 16th. It is said that they left the three women in jail for practical reasons - all three were pregnant. The three women remained in jail for a hundred days, during which time each gave birth to a child: two girls and a boy, each child two months apart in age (on 08 Apr 1799, Sarah (Sally) Rice HARPE gave birth to a daughter). At their trial in April, with the same evidence against each woman, one was found "guilty", one "not guilty" and one was "acquitted". The judge offered a new trial to the one woman convicted and the attorney general decided four days later not to re-try her. Eventually all were released and given a horse to take them back to Tennessee. Instead, they headed west, traded the horse for a canoe and came down Green River to Henderson County.

In the spring of 1799 the HARPES spent some time at Cave-in-Rock, but proved themselves too bloodthirsty even for that desperate crew. Upon reaching the cave the HARPES joined the pirates in the trade of their craft, attacking heavily laden flatboats traveling downriver with goods. After one such attack the pirates threw an impromptu celebration inside the cave. Two or three passengers were brought ashore. The HARPES stripped one man, tied him on the back of a blindfolded horse and led it to the top of the bluff. With shouts and blows they forced the frightened horse over the edge of the cliff. The outlaws inside the cave became aware of terrified screams, hoof beats, and the clatter of dislodged rocks. They ran out of the cave, they could see the horse's neck extended, its legs galloping frantically against the thin air, and tied to its back the naked, screaming prisoner, with stark horror on his face. In an instant horse and man were dashed against the rocks below. The scene proved that the HARPES had to go. They ordered them to leave and to take their women and children with them.

After this they spent some more time in Tennessee, their route marked by more and more killings. Although they knew Governor GARRARD of Kentucky had offered a reward of three hundred dollars for their capture, they returned to a small cabin on Canoe Creek, some eight miles south of Red Banks. When General Samuel HOPKINS, then Chief Justice of the new county as well as agent for the Transylvania Company, received a report that the HARPES were in the county, he detailed men to watch the cabin. The HARPES changed their appearance and habits to such an extent that suspicion was lulled. While the spies were watching the HARPE men at the cabin, the women traveled elsewhere in the area collecting supplies as well as old debts.

After a week of surveillance, the spies gave up on 20 Aug 1799. The following day, the HARPES started south to meet their wives, along the way they stopped at the home of James TOMPKINS on Deer Creek in what is now Webster County. They told TOMPKINS they were Methodist preachers. TOMPKINS invited them in for the midday supper where Big HARPE said a long grace at table. Ironically, during the conversation, TOMPKINS was asked if he hunted much, who replied that he did when he had the ammunition. The HARPES made a liberal division of their stock of powder with TOMPKINS. It will be seen that by a most singular providence, Big HARPE would be mortally wounded by his own powder that he had given to TOMPKINS.

They left TOMPKINS unharmed and went a half mile northeast to the home of Squire Silas McBEE, a justice of the peace against whom they held a grudge. (Probably because he had assisted Captain YOUNG.) Their attempt to murder him was defeated by the barking of his hunting dogs.

Later that night they reached the house of Moses STEGALL, about five miles east of what later became the town of Dixon. STEGALL was absent but his wife and their four-month-old baby were at home and a guest named Major William LOVE, a surveyor, that had taken shelter for the night. It is said that STEGALL owed one of the HARPE women a dollar. STEGALL met the party in the flats of Deer Creek as he was going to Robinson's Lick for salt. He told the HARPE women to call upon his wife in passing, giving explicit directions where his wife could find the money. The women went to Mrs. STEGALLS and told her what her husband had said. She found his purse, containing about $40.00 in silver, out of which she paid the claimed dollar. The wives then told their husbands how much money Mrs. STEGALL seemed to have, and this led to the perpetration during the following night.

Mrs. STEGALL offered the HARPE Brothers a bed to sleep in as long as they didn't mind sharing it with Major LOVE. They accepted and during the night they killed Major LOVE and complained to their hostess the next morning that he had kept them awake all night with his snoring. When Mrs. STEGALL explained that breakfast would be late because the baby was fretful, they offered to rock him in the cradle. As she served the meal she commented on how quiet the baby had become. When she found her baby dead from a slashed throat, and began screaming, the HARPES used the same knife to cut her throat, too. As an afterthought, they set fire to the cabin, hoping the smoke and flames would attract Mr. McBEE so they could ambush him.

Robinson's Lick was the principal source of salt for the settlements. As two men, named HUDGENS and GILMORE, came back from the Lick with packs of salt, the HARPES accused them of setting fire to the cabin, placed them under arrest and started marching them toward Squire McBEE'S house. On the way Big HARPE shot GILMORE through the head and, when HUDGENS tried to defend himself, Little HARPE brained him with his own gun.

Squire McBEE had missed the ambush by taking a shortcut to a neighbor's house. When STEGALL returned, McBEE helped him raise a posse to go after the murderers. In the meantime, the HARPES, with two good horses acquired at STEGALL'S, rejoined their wives and children and continued south.

The posse was composed of seven backwoodsmen: Moses STEGALL, Silas McBEE, James TOMPKINS, John LIEPER (Leeper), Matthew CHRISTIAN, Neville LINDSEY, and William GRISSOM. After camping for the first night on the western shore of Pond River, they forded the river early the next morning and soon sighted the HARPES on a distant hill talking to a settler named SMITH. Big HARPE rode off in one direction; Little HARPE disappeared on foot in a different direction. The posse soon found Little HARPE'S wife at the rock house where the HARPES had camped and she pointed in the direction taken by Big HARPE and his wives. Later Big HARPE deserted his wives and they were captured.

Big HARPE was riding a powerful horse that had belonged to Major LOVE. Among the pursuers, only TOMPKINS had a comparable steed. After LEIPER attempted a long-distance shot and missed, he discovered that his ramrod had jammed. At the same time his horse began to fail. He persuaded TOMPKINS to trade horse and gun with him and soon began to close the gap. HARPE, knowing that there hadn't been enough time for LEIPER to reload his weapon, he turned and took careful aim at LEIPER. Then using TOMPKINS' gun containing the powder given him by HARPE, LEIPER fired his second round towards HARPE, entering his backbone and damaging the spinal cord. Although mortally wounded, HARPE brandished a huge tomahawk and threatened his pursuers. After another half mile, HARPE became so weak he dropped the tomahawk and allowed LEIPER and CHRISTIAN to pull him from the saddle, just as McBEE arrived. HARPE complained of thirst and LEIPER used HARPE'S own shoe to bring him a drink.

McBEE told the outlaw that he was dying, but the posse would give him time to pray. Big HARPE seemed uninterested in this, but one version says he confessed to twenty murders, including one of his own children. It seems probable that the men waited about an hour for HARPE to die. Then STEGALL reminded him of how he had butchered his wife and child, and drew his own knife. One version has him sawing off the head while the man was still alive; another says he first shot him near the heart (not to injure the head which he preserved as a souvenir), and then twisted the head off like wringing the new of a chicken.

The decapitated body was left in Muhlenberg County, two miles west of Unity Baptist Church near what has since been known as HARPE'S Hill. The head was taken 35 miles to a crossroads near STEGALL'S cabin and displayed for many years as a warning to other outlaws.

"Little" Wiley HARPE escaped and eventually rejoined Captain (Samuel) MASON'S band of river pirates at Cave-In-Rock.. Four years later, Little HARPE using his alias of John SETTON accompanied by James MAY, killed Captain MASON to collect the reward offered. After presenting the head and a tall tale explaining how they did it, they took the reward money and started to leave. Someone in the crowd, probably a victim of an earlier flatboat attack, recognized HARPE and MAY as outlaws. Authorities immediately arrested them, but they soon escaped. On the run again, a posse caught up with them and brought them to justice where they were tried in Circuit Court, Greenville, Mississippi, January 1804 and found guilty. They received identical sentences and hung by the neck until dead. But for good measure, their heads were cut off and placed high on stakes along the Natchez Road as a warning to other outlaws.

It will be remembered that the three HARPE women were left at the camp, prisoners, in charge of two of the LEEPER party. Immediately after the killing of Big HARPE the three women and their children (each woman had a young child) were brought to the new county seat at Henderson and, since the jail was not built, were placed in an empty block house on the river bank near the site of the first R.R. bridge. To secure them the sheriff bought a door and lock and charged them to the county. On September 4, 1799, an examining trial was held for Susannah and Sally HARPE and Betsy ROBERTS, on the charge of being parties to the murders of Mary STEGALL, James STEGALL, an infant, and William LOVE on the night of 20 Aug 1799. The trial was held by Justices Samuel HOPKINS and Abram LANDERS. Sufficient evidence was presented to bind over the women to the District Court. Two days later Sheriff Andrew ROWAN, Amos KUYKENDALL, John STANDLEY, Green MASSEY, Nevil LINDSAY and Gibson HARDEN left with the women to take them the ninety-five miles to Russellville to await the action of the Grand Jury on October 28, 1799. They were tried and released.

Sarah (Sally) Rice HARPE returned to the Knoxville area to be with her father. Sally was represented as being a young woman of great beauty, who married a highly respectable man in Tennessee, raised a large family of children, all esteemed for sobriety, honesty and industry. The name of the gentleman has never been told, because a silly world might take occasion to reflect upon the children, in consequence of the mother's connection with the HARPES.

Susan Wood HARPE stayed in the Russellville area for a while living a normal respectable life. Susan died in Tennessee and it is believed that her daughter eventually moved to Texas.

Maria Davidson, who continued to use her alibi of Betsy ROBERTS married John HUFFSTUTLER on 27 Sep 1803. By 1828, they had moved to Hamilton County, Illinois, where they raised a large family and lived until their deaths in the 1860s.

Annals and Scandals by Maralea Arnett
History of Henderson County, KY by E. L. Starling
Frontier Serial Killers: The Harpes by Jon Musgrave
Frontier Justice by Harold Utley, President, H.C.H.S.
Outlaws by Evonne

Transcribed by Netta Mullin for HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS