America's First Known Serial Killers: The Harps, Big and Little

Oct 13, 2009 - by Doris Lane - 0 Comments

Big Harp Little Harp Sign

Big Harp Little Harp Sign

The first known serial killers in American history were the Harp boys. During the years of the Revolutionary War, the two cousins went on an indiscriminate killing rampage, killing anyone who got in their way. They killed infants, including their own, children, women and numerous men. They killed for the sake of killing.

by Doris Lane

Harp's Hill is near the Pond River in western Muhlenberg County, Ky., not far from Highway 62. There is a crossing in the road near Dixon named Harp's Head and one of the crossing roads is named Harp's Head Road. Some miles away, the precise location lost to time, there is a cave known as Harp's House. To tell how these places earned their names is to tell the story of Micajah (Big) and Wiley (Little) Harp, America's first known serial killers.

They passed for brothers, but were cousins, sons of brothers John and William Harpe, Scottish immigrants to Orange County, N.C. The boys were named William (Micajah/Big), son of John, and Joshua (Wiley/Little), son of William. Big Harp and Little Harp left home as young men in 1775, aiming to become overseers of slaves in Virginia. Career plans diverted by the American Revolution, the Harps instead became Tory outlaws in a gang that roved the North Carolina countryside, raping farmers' daughters, pillaging livestock and crops, and burning farmhouses. In the attempted kidnapping of one young girl by a Tory rape gang, Little Harp was shot and wounded by local Patriot Captain James Wood.

In 1780, the British took the Tory irregulars and their Cherokee allies into their ranks. The Harps fought under Tarleton's command at King's Mountain, near the Carolinas' border, in October; in the Battle of Blackstocks in November, and in January 1781 in the Battle of Cowpens. Shortly after Cowpens, the Harps left the army and joined up with their Cherokee confederates, taking part in the Indian raid on Station Bluff, now Nashville, Tenn. They soon returned to North Carolina, where they kidnapped Captain Wood's daughter, Susan, and another local girl, Maria Davidson. The kidnapped women would serve as wives to the Harps until the bitter end.

The Harps took the women across the Appalachians to the Cherokee-Chickamauga town of Nickjack, in the vicinity of what is now Chattanooga, Tenn. Along the way, a member of the gang, Moses Doss, objected to the brutal treatment of the women and the Harps killed him. The Harps, with their wives, lived in the Indian village at Nickjack for over a decade. In that time, they participated in British-backed Indian raids on Kentucky settlers west of the mountains, such as the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782. Later they took part in the Indian attack on Bledsoe's Lick in Tennessee. The night before the Americans finally wiped out Nickjack in 1794, the Harps received warning and managed to escape with their women before the battle.

While living at Nickjack, both women had given birth twice; each time, the fathers murdered their babies. Counted with Moses Doss, the four infanticides made five known killings before 1797, or so, when the Harps settled in a cabin on Beaver's Creek near the frontier capital of Knoxville, Tenn. On June 1, 1797 Little Harp legitimately married Sally Rice, the daughter of a local minister, bringing the number of Harp wives to three.

A Killing Rampage

After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland. The Harps liked to gut their victims and fill their stomach cavities with rocks to weight them down so they'd sink in a river.

When they stopped for breakfast on Dec. 12, 1798 at John Farris' Wayside House near the Big Rock Castle River, despite the thieving and killing along the way, the Harps were hungry and flat broke, filthy and bedraggled. But there was a kind and generous young man who was staying at the inn who invited them to be his guests at his table.

His name was John Langford. He was traveling from Virginia to pay a visit to a friend in Crab Orchard, Ky. A halfway house, such as Farris', was a place many travelers stopped and waited in order to join up with others heading in the same direction. It was wild and dangerous countryside and earned its name, The Wilderness. Two cattle drovers found Langford's mutilated corpse in The Wilderness two days later, when their cattle shied off Boone's Trace into the woods at the scent of blood.

The body was taken back to John Farris' Wayside House and the innkeeper pointed the way to the Harps and their women, who were apprehended outside Crab Orchard. All five were imprisoned, but the Harp men managed to escape, leaving their women to face justice alone. The Harps fled for the barely settled and ill-defined Henderson County, Ky. Eventually, the Harp wives were released, escorted out of town with three infants born in jail, and one gift horse among them.

As abused and frightened women are wont to do, they immediately swapped the horse for a canoe, traveled west along the Green River toward the Ohio River, and a reunion with the husbands Harp at a pirates' den called Cave-In-The-Rock on the Illinois side.

The Kentucky frontier had gone on alert after the Langford killing and the Harps's subsequent escape from the law in Danville. Kentucky Gov. James Garrard ordered out a posse after the Harps. The posse caught up with the Harps in a cane field in Central Kentucky, but the posse members were too afraid to try to capture them, allowing them to get away through the cane.

In disgust, one of the posse members, Henry Scaggs, went to the home of Col. Daniel Trabue, a Revolutionary War veteran and wilderness pioneer, who lived near the present Columbia in Adair County, to report the posse's cowardice.

As Scaggs sat in Trabue's house discussing the critical situation, Trabue's young son's dog, covered in blood, came limping into the yard. The dog had left the house earlier with Trabue's 13-year-old son, John, who had been sent along the old buffalo trace to borrow some flour and seed beans from a neighbor. About two weeks later the boy's body was found, decomposed, dismembered, and dumped in a sinkhole. The seed beans were there, but the flour was gone.

In response to the boy's murder, the governor issued a $300 reward on each of the Harp heads.

In the reward notice issued at Frankfort, Ky., Micajah Harp was described as being about six feet tall, as robustly built with an erect carriage, about 32 years old, with short black hair growing low on his forehead. He wore "a striped nankeen coat, dark blue woolen stockings, leggins of drab cloth and trousers of the same as the coat." Wiley was "very meagre in the face…looks older but really younger, and has likewise a downcast countenance. He had on a coat of the same stuff as his brother's, and had a drab surtout coat over the close-bodied one."

Moving north, the Harps killed a man named Edmonton, a settler named Stump, and, upon reaching the Potts Plantation near the mouth of the Saline River, they killed three men sitting around a campfire. Meanwhile, the posse, out after the Harps on their race across the state, summarily hanged some dozen criminals along the way, and ran a host of outlaws out of Kentucky. They stopped just short of Cave-in-The-Rock, on the Illinois side of the Ohio River, or they might have had the Harps that day.

This limestone opening in a bluff above the Ohio River at its junction with the Saline, was a well-known natural landmark throughout the 18th century, a rest stop for river travelers migrating west. Beginning in the 1790s and until the 1830s, it was home base to an entire corporation of river pirates. In 1798, the most famous among them was Samuel Mason, a Revolutionary War veteran turned river bandit. His large sign outside invited weary travelers to "Wilson's Liquor Vault and House for Entertainment." His unwary victims were beaten and robbed in the cave, and sometimes they lived to tell about it.

Mason's favorite prey was the slow-moving flatboats laden with produce for Natchez and New Orleans. Pretending to be local pilots guiding the boats through shallow parts of the rapidly flowing and eddy-ridden Ohio, the pirate/pilot would steer the craft onto a shoal, where Mason's gang would pick it clean and take the goods to market themselves. With the arrival of the Harps and their three wives and three babies, the relatively non-violent ways of the river pirates took a murderous turn. After a few Harp games of taking travelers to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and throwing them off, they were politely asked to leave.

The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel's Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today's Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived.

Stopping at a spot on land owned by Samuel Wilson on the Mud River near Russellville, they rested, thinking what to do to escape the posse in close pursuit. (The clearing in which the Harps rested later became a staging ground for Methodist revivals.) Sally's four-month-old daughter was fretful, perhaps hungry. Big Harp took the baby from her mother's arms, swung her by her tiny ankles, and brained her little head against the trunk of a tree.

Still, the killing continued.

A man named Trowbridge who'd gone for salt at Robertson's Lick, his torso hollowed out, loaded with stones and sunk in Highland Creek; Maj. William Love, an overnight guest at the Stegall home in Webster County, who snored; the Stegall's baby who cried; Mrs. Stegall who screamed when she saw her infant's throat was slit. Gilmore and Hudgens, returning from the salt lick with their hounds, came upon the Harps. Pretending to be the posse, the Harps accused the two men of being Harps, arrested, and executed them. As they prepared to kill settler George Smith, near where the Harps were living in the cave that came to be known as Harp's Home, the posse rode in.

After a chase, the posse left Big Harp's body on Harp's Hill, took his head to the crossroads, Harp's Head, and displayed it there on Harp's Head Road, attached to an oak tree, for the sober contemplation of passers-by. Before dying, Big Harp confessed to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30.

The three captive Harp wives lived on: Sally Rice returning to her family in Knoxville, remarrying, and migrating west with her new husband and her father, by way of Cave-In-The-Rock; Maria Davidson, called Betsey Roberts, marrying, moving to Illinois and raising a large family; Susan Wood becoming a weaver, raising her surviving daughter in Tennessee, and dying there.

As for Wiley, Little Harp, he rejoined the pirate Mason at Cave-In-The-Rock for about four years, when he showed up in Natchez with Mason's head for the reward money. Little Harp was recognized, hanged, cut down, and decapitated, his own head impaled along the side of the Natchez Trace outside Old Greenville in Mississippi Territory, as a warning to outlaws.

At least that is one story of the end of Wylie Harp, and it makes a good ending to the story of The Harps, Big and Little.


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