Serial Killers Biography: The Harps Brothers: America's First

Serial killers biogrpahy of the Harps Brothers, a killing team of cousins on the Kentucky and Tennessee frontier. When they traveled around in 1799 murdering people, they had their wives and children along.

We think of serial killers as a modern day phenomenon, beginning somewhere around the time of Jack the Ripper in London. But 100 years earlier on the American frontier, in Kentucky and Tennessee, two cousins who called themselves brothers terrorized the Wilderness.

Micajah "Big" Harp was the son of John Harpe, a Scottish immigrant to Orange County, North Carolina. John's brother, William Harpe, had a son named Joshua, who became known as Wiley "Little" Harp. Together the cousins became known as The Harps, a killing team passing as brothers, who traveled the area with wives and children in tow. They are calculated to have murdered 30 people, including some of their own children.

The boys left North Carolina in 1775 for Virginia intending to be slave overseers, but the American Revolution interrupted their career. The Harps were Loyalists and with a gang of like-minded irregulars, which included Indians, went about the countryside raping and pillaging, usually with Patriots as their victims. Captain James Wood, a local Patriot, shot and wounded Little Harp in the course of one attempted rape of a local girl in North Carolina. In 1780, the British took these Tory irregulars into its troops and the Harps fought in several battles along the Carolinas border.

The following year, the Harps left the army and joined up with Cherokee confederates to raid such settlements as Station Bluff, now Nashville, Tennessee. They kidnapped Captain Wood's daughter, Susan, at this time, and another local girl named Maria Davidson. Joined later by Sally Rice, the three women served as wives to the two Harp brothers.

The Harps and their family moved into Nickjack in 1781, a Cherokee-Chickamauga town in the vicinity of what is now Chattanooga, Tennessee. Along the way there, the Harps defined the brutal relationship they would have with their wives and when Moses Doss, a member of their gang objected, he was murdered.

The Harps lived at Nickjack many years participating in British-backed Indian raids on Kentucky settlers west of the Appalachians. They fought at the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782, and the attack on Bledsoe's Lick in Tennessee. In those years the Harp wives, Susan Wood and Maria Davidson, gave birth to two children apiece, all of whom their fathers murdered. The Harps had early warning in 1794 that the Americans were on their way to destroy Nickjack and they escaped the night before with their wives and children. The Harps settled in a small cabin near the frontier capital of Knoxville, Tennessee. Here, in 1797 Wiley "Little" Harp took a minister's daughter, Sally Rice, as his legal wife.

In late 1798 the Harps went on the road and the real killing began. 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' signature was to disembowel their victims and fill the stomach cavities with rocks to weight them down so they'd sink in a river.

John Farris's Wayside House was an inn at the edge of the Wilderness. Here travelers stopped to rest and join up with others headed in the same direction for safety in numbers. On December 12, the Harps stopped there and were offered breakfast by a kind young man named John Langford, who was traveling from Virginia to pay a visit to a friend in Crab Orchard, Kentucky. When Langford turned up dead off Boone's Trace in the Wilderness, innkeeper Farris pointed authorities after the Harps.

They were all arrested near Crab Orchard and jailed in Danville, Kentucky, but the two men managed to escape, leaving the women behind to fend for themselves.



The Harps fled to sparsely settled Henderson County, Kentucky and eventually reached Cave-In-The-Rock on the Illinois side of the Ohio River. Their wives, once the women were released from prison, joined them there. Cave-In-The-Rock was the nest of a large gang of river pirates headed by Samuel Mason, a Revolutionary War veteran turned pirate.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Governor had sent out a posse after the Harps and almost caught them in a cane field in Central Kentucky. One of the posse members called on Col. Daniel Trabue, a respected settler in Adair County, for advice on apprehending the Harps. As Col. Trabue and the posse member, Henry Skaggs, discussed the situation, Trabue's young son out on an errand turned up dead and mutilated, bearing the Harps' signature carving. On April 22, 1799, the Governor issued a $300 reward on each of the Harp heads.

Moving north from Adair County, the Harps killed a man named Edmonton, a settler named Stump, and, reaching the Potts Plantation near the mouth of the Saline River, three men sitting around a campfire. Meanwhile, the posse, out after the Harps on their race across the state, 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 or they might have had the Harps that day.

The favorite prey of Mason and his pirates 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 asked to leave.

The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. 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, so they killed her, and 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.

They rested near Russellville on the Mud River and this is where Big Harp took one of the crying babies and brained her against the trunk of a tree. A man named Trowbridge who'd gone for salt at Robertson's Lick, had his torso hollowed out, loaded with stones and sunk in Highland Creek. Major 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. The Harps, pretending to be the posse out after themselves, executed two men named Gilmore and Hudgens, whom they accused of being the Harps, just for fun.

As the Harps prepared to kill settler George Smith, near where they were living in a cave, the real posse rode in. After a chase, the posse left Big Harp's body where it lay, took his head to a crossroads, and displayed it there for the sober contemplation of passers-by. Little Harp escaped and is thought to have rejoined the river pirates. The three captive wives lived on and so did one of their daughters.

The cave in the hillside became known as Harp's House and the hill, Harp's Hill, located near the Pond River in western Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Near Dixon, the road along which Big Harp's head was displayed in 1799, was named Harp's Head Road. The crossing itself is called Harp's Head.

Today, few residents or travelers know these place names are in honor of America's first known serial killers.

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