Written by Matthew Marcum
It was a sweltering August in 1799 as a riverboat carried supplies from the East, down the Ohio River, and into what we now consider to be America’s Mid-West. Laden with hundreds of dollars’ worth of food, furs and crafted goods, the sailors hoped to sell them for a much higher price than possible in America’s larger and more developed cities. It may have made great business sense, but there was one very big obstacle to overcome.
The portion of river they traveled was a known hotbed of criminal activity. Several gangs of river pirates famously sailed those waters and often made camp along the river’s bank, stopping and pillaging any vessel unfortunate enough to cross their path.
By simply sailing the Ohio, the men were taking a massive, calculated risk. If all went well, and that was a big if, they would arrive in a fraction of the time it would take to transport their goods by any other means. However, if things did not go well, they could lose much more than their cargo.
As the sun reached its highest point in the sky, tensions on the boat were growing. Several miles back, what could have very well been a pirate scout was spotted camping along the northern bank in a peculiar spot. The crew had called out to him but he had not responded. Eventually the man had faded into the distance, never once seeming to pay them any mind.
All had seemed fine up until that point, but now, further down the river, the craft was moving into a much more vulnerable position.
The river was beginning to narrow and the forests that pressed against the Ohio’s mud-covered banks were giving way to rising, rocky bluffs. At the same time, twists and turns in the water were forcing the craft to maneuver much more cautiously while also cutting off visibility to what lie farther downriver.
The captain knew that if there were ever a perfect spot for an ambush, they were sailing right toward it.
It’s at this point you might be wondering why the crew didn’t turn back for their own safety, and it was for the simple reason that the ship they were sailing was physically incapable of doing so.
The ship had no name and that was because it was less of a ship and more of a giant raft. Known as a flatboat, the craft was roughly 6-meters wide and 20-meters long with a flat bottom and no sails. The cargo sat in the center of the raft while the crew stood around its perimeter guiding it with large ores and poles. Since it relied on the river’s current to push it forward, the craft completely lacked the ability to sail upriver. It had been built specifically for this journey and, if it were able to make it to its destination, it would be deconstructed and its lumber sold to be repurposed into homes, shops, wagons, and other essentials of the late 18th century.
As for those aboard, the vessel was captained and crewed by the very owners of the cargo they were transporting. Little more than farmers and craftsmen, most of them had as much sailing experience as I do, which, I should mention, is absolutely zero.
Now, as the men float down the river, the gravity of the situation weighs heavily on each of them. None of them dare speak more than a whisper to one another out of fear of drawing the attention of anyone who might be waiting just out of sight.
As the flatboat approaches a sharp bend in the river, the men plunge their ores into the water and begin carefully guiding it. As they round the corner, they see what awaits them on the other side.
The river narrows and flows directly into an area where dozens of men armed with muskets, pistols, and knives line the banks on either side.
The crew pull in their ores as they quickly try to arm themselves. Some reach for and begin loading muskets while others draw blades and ready themselves to be boarded.
A man from the shoreline orders them in a commanding voice to drop their weapons, but the crew does not comply. He then signals to his men and several shots ring out. Musket balls fly through the air before tearing through fabric and flesh. A sailor grabs his chest before collapsing onto the deck. Several more fall overboard as others scramble to the rear of the raft looking for cover.
The pirates throw grappling hooks and begin heaving the vessel toward the shoreline. Once it’s close enough, several of the men cast aside their spent arms and ready their knives. They leap onto the deck and rush toward the remaining crew.
The captain watches his crew members fall one-by-one as the pirates stab and slash their way closer toward him. Overwhelmed, he drops his weapons and throws his hands into to the air.
“I surrender!” he calls out.
As he does, a large, hulking man with a raggedy hat and deep, red scars across his face approaches. He wears a wicked smile as he presents his blood-soaked knife.
The captain drops to his knees and begs for his life, but the man is undeterred. He grabs the captain by the collar and presses the blade to his neck. Just as he is about to end the man’s life, a voice calls out from the shore ordering him to stop.
Reluctantly, he does.
The captain looks up and into the eyes of the man who would have killed him and is met with a hateful and burning stare. The man seems genuinely angry that he had been called off.
He calls for someone to bring him a rope and moments later another man, smaller and younger, albeit sharing many of the same facial features, arrives with one. Together they bind the man before dragging him across the deck and tossing him into the mud. Moments later they raise him to his feet and stand on either side of him. The three men watch as the pirate crew tear into the captain’s cargo, all while dancing and singing to their good fortune.
The captain, who I have to believe was almost certainly feeling a tremendous amount of relief to be alive, had no way of knowing that on either side of him stood the outlaw brothers, Micajah and Wiley Harpe.
Together, the pair had used the chaos and confusion that was
America’s Revolutionary War, and its aftermath, to commit crimes that were unheard of at the time. They had spent nearly twenty years terrorizing, robbing, murdering, and even enslaving citizens of a land that had been going through one of its most fragile time periods.
This is the story of Micajah and Wiley Harpe, better known as The Bloody Harpes.
A Lonely Childhood
As much as I enjoy writing about a group of river pirates famous for their Swashbuckling, rum-soaked adventures, it’s time to travel back in time to learn exactly why the captain would have been better off dead than in the hands of the Harpes.
A natural starting point for any true-crime story is with the killer’s childhood, however, there is not an extraordinary amount of detail known about the brothers’ early lives. Most sources focus on the crimes they would later commit, and that doesn’t start until the Harpes reach adulthood.
Thankfully, what we do know, is that the Harpes grew up in a time and place that was very well documented due other events that were occurring simultaneously. Knowing what we now know about the importance of a child’s formative years, these events would certainly go on to guide the brothers’ political beliefs and provide invaluable context as we move forward.
So, with all that being said, I will now provide you with a brief history lesson:
Forty years before the events on the Ohio River, a man and his wife, known only as the Harpes, arrived in colonial America after spending months aboard a ship, braving the perils of the Atlantic
Ocean. They, like so many others, had come to America in search of a better life, one filled with economic opportunity and political liberty.
After landing on the coast of North Carolina in the fall of
1759, the Harpes traveled roughly 150 miles inland to an area known as Orange County. There they secured a plot of farmland on which to build their home and raise their future children.
At first, the land seemed sufficient to provide them with enough food to both eat and barter with, however, unbeknownst to them, the Harpes had arrived at the onset of a drought that would slowly devastate the area for next decade.
Year after year, they watched as the yields grew smaller and the fields more barren. The creeks that ran through their land dried up, the forests that once surrounded them died, and the neighbors with whom they had developed close ties began to move away.
No one would have blamed them for leaving, but, the Harpes were determined to stick it out.
Over time, the area became increasingly impoverished as investors from wealthier coastal cities began migrating to the area and purchasing the infertile land for next to nothing. They used this land to establish trade routes and build general stores which sold everything from furs and crafted goods to fresh produce. While it may seem that having a new source of food during a drought might be a good thing, these stores caused a dynamic shift in the local economy.
The farmers who, up until that point, had relied mainly on a system of trading, suddenly found themselves unable to match the new highly competitive prices and, as a result, found their buying power diminished.
Faced with unprecedented hardship, even more residents chose to abandon their homes and head further west. However, there were some, like the Harpes, who absolutely refused to be displaced. They were determined to overcome these new challenges. However, conditions would not improve.
Before long, those who remained in the area could only afford to do so by relying on loans from the very shops who were driving them deeper into poverty. These loans were offered at ridiculous interest rates and, out of desperation, many residents had no choice but to accept them.
When it came time to pay the bill, many found that they simply could not. Eventually, the stores began suing to recoup their losses. They hired lawyers who used their superior knowledge of the law to win against the farmers who, more often than not, represented themselves in court. Most were forced to settle using the only thing they had left, their land.
To give you an idea of just how desperate the situation had become, by 1765 the number of yearly lawsuits brought against local farmers in Orange County had multiplied by a factor of 16.
This sudden redistribution of wealth led to a political shift as well. The new residents were firmly in favor of a colonial government as opposed to the British rule that the area was used to. Keep in mind that this is still an entire decade before the American revolution and, while nobody was yet publicly calling for independence, there was much contention about what power the Colonials actually had to govern themselves.
The new arrivals elected officials who established a council that called themselves the Courthouse Ring. This counsel began passing new laws which raised taxes on the residents of Orange County who, by this point, were beyond destitute.
The residents were furious. Many did not recognize the authority of this new counsel and refused to pay the taxes so, to enforce these new laws, the council appointed a group of sheriffs. These sheriffs were notoriously corrupt and would often demand more from the farmers than was actually owed. To add insult to injury, the wealthy who could have certainly afforded to pay, were able to simply bribe the sheriffs with a fraction of what was actually owed. And, once they were in your pocket, they were more than willing to look past any embezzlement schemes or tax evasion that you might be unjustly accused of.
The Harpes were among those most effected during this time and they, along with dozens of other families in the area, began publicly calling for a more accountable Government, one that would treat everyone equal, regardless of their social and economic standing.
And finally, without further delay, it was during this time of civil unrest that the focuses of our story, Micajah and Wiley, were born. In 1768 and 1770 respectively, the pair, like so many other children of the time, had to quickly grow up in order to survive a cruel and unjust world.
As the sons of a struggling farmer, they most likely started working as soon as they were able to walk. By the time most children today would just be entering elementary school, they would be expected to work long hours doing everything from tending livestock to picking what few crops the land managed to produce.
As time went on, tensions in the area continued to rise. More and more farmers were forced to stand by and watch as their neighbors lost everything. Knowing that something must be done, many began taking a more active approach. They threatened the lives of the courthouse ring, the sheriffs, the tax collectors, and even the
Judges. They vandalized the local shops and turned away the incoming shipments that supplied them. This became known as The Regulator’s Movement.
Things were escalating fast but the residents of Orange County were not alone in this fight. The adjacent Anson and Granville counties were suffering under similar laws and, by 1764, the movement had gained the support of between six and seven-thousand of the counties’ 8000 total residents.
Seeing the passion of the people moved the Council. Finally able to understand the perspective of the common people, they realized their mistakes and agreed to step down. A new government was elected for the people, and the farmers had their land returned to them. The following years would prove that when we all stand together, the will of the people cannot be ignored.
Okay, that last part didn’t happen. Instead, North Carolina’s provincial Governor, William Tyron, commission an armed militia that to send a strong message by quickly detaining the movement’s leaders.
Isn’t America’s history wonderful?
The next few years are a fascinating time that I could spend literal hours writing about. But, seeing as you are not here to learn about the minute details of an uprising that happened over 250 years ago, I’ll give you the cliff-notes version.
By 1771, after 7 years of civil unrest, occasional protests, and some minor skirmishes, the Regulators had developed a reputation as scoundrels and insurrectionists. The movement eventually reached its climax when Regulators captured and imprisoned two of the Governor’s militiamen. The Governor ordered the immediate release of his men and, when he was ignored, sent the bulk of his forces to put down the rebellion once and for all.
A battle ensued and, in the end, approximately sixteen men were killed. Eight Regulators and eight of the Govenor’s militiamen were in the ground and public opinion was now completely against the movement.
After achieving almost nothing and having completely lost the support of the people, the Regulator’s movement was officially over. As an act of goodwill, everyone involved, excluding a handful of the movement’s leaders, were pardoned. They, along with three of the
Governor’s officers who had been caught giving aid to the movement, were hanged for their crimes. After receiving pardons, many of the those most involved with the movement opted to move further west into what is now eastern Tennessee.
So, after hearing all of that, you might be wondering to yourself, “What the hell does this have to do with the Harpes?”
Well, fear not, because the history lesson is now officially over and I can explain how all of this relates to the two adolescents.
As one of the few families who refuse to be uprooted, and because of their father’s well-known support of the Regulator’s
Movement, the entire Harpe Family became the targets of harassment by the counties remaining residents. They were blamed for so many of the area’s troubles and eventually the Harpe name itself became associated with criminality and impropriety.
This caused the boys to spend much of their childhoods isolated from those around them, with only each other for company. It was during this time that they likely developed a deeply warped view of the world around them as well as a codependency that would see them inseparable for their entire lives.
As the brothers reached their teenage years, they began looking for work outside of their father’s farm but were disappointed by their prospects. Nobody in town wanted a Harpe working under their employment.
So, Micajah, age 17, and Wiley, age 15, packed their bags and readied themselves to leave North Carolina all together. They were done living under the shadow of their father’s tattered reputation and were ready to make a name for themselves.
So, dear listener, now I must ask you, what type of work do you think that the young Harpes might have been drawn to? Could they be eager to learn a craft such as smiting or wig making? Were they seeking a formal education to become lawyers and defend those who, like themselves, had been trampled by the legal system? Or, perhaps, they simply sought to build their own farm and make an honest living the only way knew how.
Well, unfortunately, it was none of the above.
The two teens had caught word of an extremely lucrative cash crop called tobacco and planned to secure jobs as overseers on one of Virginia’s many slave plantations.
In order to make their journey more bearable, the Harpes committed what I believe to be their first documented crime. Under the cover of night, the two teens traveled to a neighboring farm and stole a horse. This was a crime that, at the time, carried an extremely harsh penalty.
To quote the law:
“On first offense [the convicted] shall stand in the pillory for one hour, and shall be publicly whipped on his, her or their [bare] backs with thirty-nine lashes, well laid on, and at the same time shall have his, her or their ears cut off and nailed to the pillory, and for the second offense shall be whipped and pilloried in like manner and be branded on the forehead in a plain and visible manner with the letters H. T.”
While I understand that horse thievery was a serious crime at the time, I can’t help but think that the very specific number of 39 lashes might be a bit of a disproportionate response.
Either way, sources dispute the next few years of the brother’s lives and I find myself in the rare position of being thankful for a lack of historical record. I am truly glad that I don’t have to describe to you the duties and responsibilities of a slave overseer during the 18th century.
All I will say, is that I believe it speaks volumes about the mental state of the pair that out of all the jobs available to young, able-bodied, men at that time, they chose one that would allow them to inflict as must misery as tolerated by the law, on the country’s most vulnerable people. It was a position that required so much cruelty that, even in a time and place that was famous for it, many people regarded as a job that no honest man could ever perform.
While we will never know for sure what drew the boys to such extreme violence at an early age, the next time we see them, that violence with be fully realized.
The American Revolution
The 1770s were a busy time in America to say the least. The regulators movement may have fizzled out without achieving its goal, but the sentiment of dissatisfaction that had driven it was spreading across colonial America like a virus.
We don’t for sure whether or not the Harpe Brothers ever actually made it to Virginia, because the next time that we see them, they are back in their home-state of North Carolina.
In 1775, roughly four years after leaving home, the brothers joined a gang of native Americans who were known to kidnap colonial citizens in the northern region of the state. The gang would often hold their victims for ransom, during which time the female captives would be subjected to never ending sexual assault by their captors.
Since the newspapers at the time often attributed these crimes to the entire gang as opposed to individuals within it, we can’t be sure as to the extent of the Harpes’ involvement. However, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that at the very least, they were complicit by association.
For the next five years, it is reported that the Gang would ride from town to town, charging through quiet farms like a pack of raging bulls. Wherever they went, only death and destruction were left in their wake.
You might be asking yourself why someone in a position of authority didn’t step up and put an end to this roaming gang of outlaws, but, as it turns out, everyone was preoccupied with a little-known conflict called the American Revolution.
By 1776, the colonies were in open rebellion against King George III, and the Harpes found themselves surrounded by people calling for a complete separation from Great Britain. Those people were forming ragtag militias from all across the land in an attempt to stand against the unparalleled might that was the British army.
For the Harpes, this was unthinkable. Seeing as they associated colonial rule with corruption and subjugation, they became fiercely loyal to the British Empire and would attempt to sign up for to fight in their ranks. To their dismay, the brothers were rejected. Although the exact reason is not documented, I have to believe that it probably had something to do with the rapes.
But that didn’t mean that the harps were completely useless to the British. For the next few years, they and their gang would travel alongside the British army raiding the homes of anyone whom they believed to be harboring pro-patriot sentiments.
Their goal in these raids was simple, absolute devastation.
After slaughtering the home’s inhabitants, they would rob it of its valuables, before selling fire to its fields. They didn’t just want to kill, they wanted to send a message:
“Stop supporting this pointless rebellion or else.”
The British army and its leaders were more than willing to look the other way, so long as the focus of the gang’s aggression continued to be directed at the right targets. They were encouraged to operate within the No-mans-land between the British and American armies and, if things got too dicey, were permitted to fall back behind British lines to relative safety.
As an American, I’d like to say that this kind of thing was not tolerated by our side, but the truth is, similar gangs supporting patriot forces were also operating within the area with the blessings of their own military leaders.
These American and British backed gangs would often engage in minor, unsanctioned battles of their own while the real armies fought nearby.
By 1780, after committing five years of unpunished crimes and atrocities, an officer was so impressed with the brother’s fighting skill, they were admitted into the British army as volunteer soldiers. As volunteers, the brothers were not provided uniforms, food, or weaponry of any kind. They were expected to survive by continuing to loot active battlefields and homes in the surrounding areas.
Thanks to the records of British troop movements, we have a pretty good idea of the brother’s whereabouts for the next few months. They would continue to fight for the British during several key battles including the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780, the Battle of Blackstocks in November, and finally, the Battle of Cowpens the following year.
By the middle of 1781, the British were beginning to suffer major defeats at the hands of the Americans and troop morale was at an all-time low.
The Harpes were beginning to grapple with the unthinkable idea that an American victory may be on the horizon. If that were to happen, it would mean an end to any immunity that they had enjoyed thus far. If the American’s took power, the brothers would inevitably be brought to justice and almost certainly executed.
And so, the Harpes began planning a trip to East Tennessee, to the same area that many residents of Orange County had migrated to after the dissolution of the Regulators. There, they hoped to find like-minded individuals who shared their same hatred of the colonial’s government.
The Harpes began readying themselves to travel but discovered one thing missing:
They needed wives.
Now don’t think for a second that either Micajah or Wiley were the romantic type, because, to them, marriage was just the logical next step. And, because the Harpes had no interest in the long and tedious process of courting the women of their dreams, they instead chose to simply kidnap and enslave the next ones they came across.
In the following days, the brothers set their sights on a group of women whose husbands were away fighting on behalf of the
Americans. One evening, as the sun was setting, they set upon the women’s home and captured them. They bound their wrists together using rope and escorted them by gunpoint in the direction of their camp.
Fortunately for the women, Capt. James Wood of the Continental Army happened upon the group as they traveled. Recognizing that the women were in trouble, and having the wherewithal the actually do something about it, Wood confronted the Harpes and ordered that the women be released. The Harpes responded by firing their muskets at him. After taking cover, he returned fire, managing to hit Wiley square in the chest. The younger of the Harpes fell from his horse and landed with a solid thud in the dirt below. Micajah rushed to help to him, releasing the rope that held the women in the process.
Wood was able to usher the women to safety, but by the time he returned with a group to capture the Harpes, they had already fled the area.
With his wounded brother in tow, Micajah rode hard toward the nearest British holdout. While the wound would prove to be nonlethal, it would cause Wiley to suffer chronic pain for the remainder of his life.
After several long months of recovery, Wiley was once again able to travel and the brothers began preparing to head West. Though, before doing so, Micajah insisted that they get revenge against the man who had nearly ended his beloved brother’s life.
The pair traveled to the home of Captain Wood, but were disappointed to find that he was not home. They were, however, pleased that his daughter, Susan, was. Micajah decided right then and there that, since Wood had allowed his previous, “wives” to escape, he would take the man’s own daughter as his bride. Susan resisted but was easily overpowered by the two brutish men.
Together, the pair escorted Susan away from the home, bound her arms and legs, and forced her to watch helplessly as the they burned her father’s home and slaughtered his livestock. When they returned, Micajah pulled the woman onto his saddle and the three of them set of.
In order to find someone for Wiley, the brothers made camp outside of a nearby town and, when nightfall came, kidnapped a woman named Maria Davidson.
Over the course of the next few days the men made it perfectly clear to their new wives—and I use that term as loosely as possible— what was expected of them. Susan and Maria were to cook, clean and eventually, when they reached their new home, provide them with children. Any perceived slight against either of them was met with extreme brutality. More than once the women were beaten to unconsciousness while attempting to adjust to their new lives.
Finally having found marital bliss, the Harpes began their journey west.
For the first few weeks, the group of four would travel alone, however, eventually they came across several men who were headed in the same direction. Those men, who apparently had no qualms with the brother’s obvious captives, found the Harpes to be great company and suggested that they all travel together. The brothers agreed and for the next few days, everything was fine.
All of that changed when one of the men, Moses Doss, began to become concerned for the health of the brutalized women. While witnessing Micajah inflict a particularly savage beating upon them, Doss decided to intervene. He walked up to Micajah and pulled him away, ordering him to stop.
Micajah turned to Doss and allowed his rage to be redirected at the man who had dared to tell how he should discipline his own wife.
He wrestled the man to the ground and, as the rest of the group watched, began delivering blow after blow to the man’s face until he was completely unrecognizable. After exhausting himself, Micajah stood up, unlatched his pants, and urinated on his man’s corpse.
Now, for the first time, Susan and Maria witnessed firsthand what their captors were capable of. They watched in horror as Micajah and Wiley used a knife to split open the man’s chest. Micajah removed the man’s organs as Wiley gathered large stones from a nearby riverbank. Together they loaded the stones into the man’s empty chest cavity, before tossing him into a nearby river. This method of body disposal would become a common staple of the brother’s murders.
Unsurprisingly, after witnessing the death of their friend and feeling a bit awkward about the whole situation, the remaining men soon parted ways with the Harpes.
As the tides of the Revolutionary war were beginning to turn, the Harpes began hearing rumors among their Native American allies that a town had been founded to the west that was so remote, many thought it to be undiscoverable without having specific directions to it. Fortunately for the Harpes, a former gang member had provided them with just that.
Situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, near what is now Chattanooga, the town of Nickajack awaited. It, along with four other villages, made up what was known locally as the Lower Towns. These towns were located along an innavigable stretch of the Tennessee river and surrounded by thick, confusing forests.
Sometime around the beginning of the revolutionary war, a group of Native Americans, under the leadership of a man named Dragging Canoe, had broken away from the Cherokee tribe in order to found a settlement of their own. This group had re-branded themselves the Chickamaugans and were notoriously violent toward the settlers that occupied the surrounding areas.
Under this new name, the Chickamaugans spent over two decades carrying out countless raids, destroying thousands of homes, and killing over 400 settlers in an attempt to drive the invaders from their land.
Like the Harpes previous gang, the Chickamaugans and their crimes were often completely ignored and even frequently encouraged by some British officials looking to inflict as much grief on the troublesome patriots possible. Due to its reputation, the settlement became known as a safe haven for outlaws, British spies, runaway slaves and even renegade members of other nearby tribes, such as the Shawnee and Muskogee.
When the Harpes arrived, the Chickamaugans welcomed them with open arms. Their reputation as British loyalists and adept fighters had proceeded them. They were immediately granted permanent residence among the tribe and given land on which to build a home.
Over the course of the next decade, the brothers would prove themselves invaluable. Due to their fair complexion, the Harpes were able to act as spies for the Chickamaugans who often found themselves stonewalled by the already distrusting settlers. They traveled from town to town, learning the land and ingratiating themselves with its inhabitants, after which they would send word to Dragging Canoe informing him of the optimal time to attack.
However, not satisfied with the dull duties of a scout, the
Harpes were more than eager to get their hands dirty when the time came. Along with the raiding parties, the brothers would slash, stab, and shoot anyone not fortunate enough to escape their wrath.
One important distinction to note, is that while the
Chickamaugans viewed these raids as retribution for the many injustices levied against their tribe, the Harpes were known to take a sadistic pleasure in the capture and torture of their victims.
Micajah, who was far more violent and ill-tempered than the younger Wiley, was known to enjoy coming up with uniquely horrific ways to inflict as much pain and humiliation on his victims as possible.
During these raids, Micajah learned, and would later employ, the delicate art of scalping as way to frame Native Americans for his crimes.
For those of you who may have heard the term but don’t know the full, gruesome details, Scalping is the act of separating a person’s skin and hair from the top of their skull using a knife or sharpened sword. However, those wanting to inflict as much pain on their victims as possible would often start off the process with a knife, before finishing it by tearing away the remaining flesh with their bare hands. This entire process was often done while the victim was both alive and aware of what was being done to them. While most died during the process or immediately after, those less fortunate lived for hours or even days after.
There are some reports, although rare, that some people survived for months, or even years, before inevitably succumbing to an infection in their exposed skull.
At some point while living in Nickajack, Susan and Maria would each give birth to two children. Since the brothers were known to share their wives with one another it’s not known for sure which one fathered each of them.
The brothers would regard this time as the happiest of their lives. They were surrounded by outlaws who, like themselves, had no qualms with murder, rape, torture or any number of other unthinkable crimes. Their captive wives and children had settled into their new roles and, even though they were most certainly miserable, they did not dare voice it. And finally, most importantly, they were free of the scourge that was the American Government.
But, like all good things, it would all soon come to an end.
In the fall of 1794, the Harpes were speaking with an associate from a nearby town when they learned troubling news. Several groups of land surveyors had recently gone missing in the area and it was making investors from back East nervous. Concerned that no more territory could be settled west of the Appalachians until the Chickamaugan threat could be dealt with, the US government had begun deploying scouts to the area to identify any and all threats.
Even more concerning was the fact that not only had those scouts successfully discovered the exact location of Nickajack, but that the
U.S. Army, under the command of Colonel Whitley, was currently rounding up volunteers to move in and lay siege to the entire area on the following day.
There is some sort of social commentary to be made on the fact that after two whole decades of allowing the Lower Towns to ravage the area, the one thing that finally got someone’s attention was the fact that they might be driving down property values on land that the U.S. government had yet to acquire.
Once again, I ask you, Isn’t America’s history wonderful?
Fearing that sending word to Dragging Canoe might cause Colonel Whitley to mobilize his forces sooner than expected, the Harpes opted to quietly return home, gather a few of their belongings, and escape under the cover of night as to not cause a panic. Seeing as they would need to move quickly, they were only able to bring with them what could be loaded onto their horses or carried in their arms.
The following day, a militia of over 500 volunteer soldiers, most of whom were family members of the gang’s previous victims, stormed the town at dawn. They were out for revenge and they would have it.
The Chickamaugans were caught completely by surprise. They had heard nothing of an attack and, thus, had been given no chance to prepare fortifications nor arm themselves with anything that might have given them a fighting chance. Chaos ensued as the forests and bluffs that had once been the towns greatest defenses, now obscured those who rained volley after of volley of musket fire on the town’s inhabitants. Surrounded by the soldiers on one side and pressed against the Tennessee river on the other, many began retreating across the river, but most were unsuccessful.
A soldier present that day named James Collier would later write the following:
“We dashed through the cornfields to the upper end of the town. The Indians had deserted their cabins and fled to the river. Several were killed in the river. One was laying on his face in a floating canoe, reaching his hands over each side and paddling. Several shot at him — I fired two or three times — and at length Colonel
Whitley came up and said, ‘Let me have a crack at him.’ I saw the blood spurt out of the Indian’s shoulder, and he made no more efforts.”
By the time the siege had ended, anywhere from fifty to as many as two hundred Chickamaugans had been killed. It is reported that so many died while trying to cross the river, the waters of the Tennessee had briefly turned red with blood.
As for the Harpes and their wives, they were long gone, though probably still close enough to hear the muffled cries of those they had left to be slaughtered.
A few months after fleeing Nickajack, the Harpes, now in their thirties, arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee were they attempted to forgo their illegal activities in favor of a fresh start.
However, this was short-lived as, just months after arriving, the brothers were accused of murdering of a man named Johnson after his body was discovered washed up on the banks of the Tennessee river. The corpse had been mutilated and filled with stones, but had failed to fully sink into the water. The citizens of Knox County organized a posse and went to confront the Harpes, however they could not be located.
Unable to return to North Carolina and fearing that they could no larger stay in Tennessee, the Harpes fled north through the
Cumberland gap and into Kentucky. Believing a posse to be right on their tail, the brothers attempted to travel as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. At least two more men, a merchant named Peyton and a traveler whose identity is unknown, were found dead in the Harpes wake. Both men had been disemboweled and their throats cut.
Seeing as they were now wanted men, the Harpes, sleep deprived and lacking all basic necessities became erratic. They barely slept, refused to stay in one place for longer than a few days, and continued to murder anyone they came in contact with. After all, any rogue traveler might be tempted to point the authorities in their direction and that was a risk they could not tolerate.
Once again, the brothers met and killed a man for his supplies, but this time they also took the time to sever the man’s head from his body. Later that year, they crossed paths with two impoverished travelers from Maryland. Despite having nothing of value on them, the Harpes killed and mutilated them anyway. This served no purpose other than to feed the brother’s appetite for violence.
By December, the they were starting to feel like the heat might have finally been dying down. After months on the road, moving at an unsustainable speed through some of the country’s roughest terrain, they checked themselves into an inn and prepared to ride out the winter.
Unsurprisingly, someone noticed that as soon as the Harpes arrived, people and their valuables began mysteriously disappearing. One person in particular was John Langford. Langford had just arrived from Virginia and was staying at the same inn as the Harpes when his body was discovered. The innkeeper accused to the Harpes, but they fled before they could be confronted.
On the run again, the Harpes were forced to travel through freezing temperatures and icy snowfall as they made their way further north, only this time, they really were being pursued.
A collection of residents followed them day after day until finally, after being caught off-guard, the Harpes were apprehended and imprisoned in Danville, Kentucky.
This, however, is not the time for celebration, because a few short months after arriving, the Harpes would lead a revolt to escape captivity.
Now escapees, the Harpes reunited with their families, who I have to believe were suffering from a severe case of Stockholm syndrome, and continued their journey North.
Growing increasingly impatient with the Harpes antics, the governor of Kentucky, James Garrod, placed a bounty of $300 on each of the brothers’ heads. This not insignificant sum brought forth every bounty hunter in the area and sent them directly on a collision course with the Harpes.
Micajah, Wiley, and their wives and children, moved quickly through the Kentucky forests, carefully avoiding the main roads and once again leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. Two men, Edmonton and Stump, recognized the brothers but were captured and killed before they could raise the alarm.
It was during this time of hot pursuit that Micajah did the only thing he ever claimed to feel regret for. With bounty hunters closing in and Sarah no longer able to comfort her infant child in the freezing conditions, Micajah grew enraged and, without thinking, bashed his own daughter’s head against a nearby tree.
Knowing the strength that Micajah possessed, the child most likely died instantly and without suffering, but that doesn’t take away the image from my mind. The Harpes burred their daughter and continued on.
Wracked with grief and suffering from exhaustion, Micajah blamed the posse pursuing them as a main cause for his daughter’s death. When he learned the name of one of the men leading the group, the
Harpes took the time to seek revenge the only way they knew how. They found and captured the man’s adolescent son. They murdered and dismembered his body before leaving it as a warning for his father to find.
Unsurprisingly, this did not help their situation. The posse continued pursuing the Harpes and even used to boy’s murder to gain sympathy from other locals who joined in on the pursuit.
The Brothers’ plans had backfired at every turn and they knew that the walls were closing in all around them. If they ever wanted to rest easy again, they would need to align themselves with a gang that was either numerous enough or notorious enough to deter those following them. The brothers needed to find a new Nickajack.
They needed to find Sam Mason.
Safe at Last
Sam Mason and his gang, known simply as the Sam Mason Gang, were river pirates who operated out of a natural rock formation, creatively named Cave-in-Rock. Imaginative naming may not have been their strong suit, but that didn’t take away from the fact that this
gang’s name carried the exact notoriety that the Harpes so desperately needed backing them.
With the posse closing in, the brothers arrived at the Ohio river, crossed it using canoes, and traveled along its northern bank until they stumbled across three men. They killed the men and disposed of their bodies in the usual manner: disembowel, fill with stones, sink in river.
Finally, after days of searching the area, the brothers gamble paid off. They were approached by a group of men on horses who they soon learned were members of the very gang they had been seeking.
The travel-weary and battered Harpe Family followed the men back to their hideout to meet with the famous pirate.
As far as cold-hearted murders go, Samuel Mason was a real stand-up fellow. He was unable to turn his back on a family with three young children seeking refuge, and the Harpes were permitted to stay within the camp and were given ample space on which to settle.
In addition to this, the Harpes learned that their plan had succeeded. Unwilling to tangle with Sam Mason and his seasoned crew of killers, the men pursuing them had stopped just short of crossing the Ohio and, soon after, disbanded.
It had taken everything they had, but the Harpes had finally done it. After over a year on the run, they could find sleep tight knowing that they were among friends.
However, not all was well. As the Harpes would soon discover, their new friends were not of the same caliber that they were used to. Sam Mason himself was unlike Micajah and Wiley in almost every way. While the brothers were dirty, crude, and downright ugly, Mason took pride in his appearance and was described as, “a fine looking, modest, and unassuming man.”
Furthermore, Mason did not harbor the same anti-American sentiment that the Harpes had vehemently clung to for their entire lives. In fact, Mason had been captain of the Ohio County Militia during the Revolutionary War, fighting alongside colonial forces.
The final and most divisive difference between the two, were that Mason and his crew absolutely did not take pleasure in killing.
Sure, killing was an expected part of the job and they had killed hundreds of innocent people over the years, but not a one among them took the same sick pleasure that the brothers did. They never killed without reason and often would take and release hostages, so long as they surrendered peacefully.
The first sign of trouble was when the Harpes met and murdered a group of innocent travelers for the simple pleasure of it. This senseless act drove a wedge between the Harpes and Mason, who was being pressured by those under him to expel the Harpes from their camp. They believed that the Harpes could not be trusted and that it was only a matter of time before they turned on the Gang.
Mason began to think of the Harpes as brutes and butchers, while the Harpes grew to despise Mason and his gutless crew, perhaps even hate them, however, even they were smart enough to resist further agitating those who outnumbered them twenty-to-one. Reluctantly, the brothers agreed to respect Mason’s wishes by agreeing to keep the killing to a bare minimum.
And now we arrive back at where our story began. Perhaps now after knowing exactly who the Bloody Harpes actually are, you might be able to fully appreciate the situation the riverboat Captain found himself in.
As I said, he stands and watches as the Sam Mason gang tear happily into his cargo. He holds his tongue as they carelessly step on the bodies of his men. He looks up to the Harpes on either side of him. The one to his right towers over him, while the left presses the tip of a dagger painfully into his side.
The Brothers may be silent, but, on the inside, Micajah was fuming. Mason had no right to call him off. He hated Mason for it and wanted nothing more than to crush the man’s pretty, little neck. He looks to Wiley and gives a nod. This wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.
After the captain had been transported back to Cave-in-Rock and the goods from the raft safely unloaded, the gang took on the laborious task of disassembling the flatboat. Once that was done, the men returned to the cave to commence with the celebration. Food had been prepared and alcohol was being passed around freely. The crew wasted no time. Before the sun had even fully set, Sam Mason, along with his entire crew, were drunk on the spoils of their victory. They sang songs and toasted to each other’s health.
The Harpes, uninterested in anything but the man who had cheated death, stood on the clearing above the cave cursing Sam Mason’s name.
Beside them sat their prisoner, hogtied and starving. They ate and drank in front of him, taunting the man as they did.
The more Micajah drank, the angrier he felt. Eventually that anger grew until it could no longer be contained. Micajah and Wiley untied the captain and ordered him to remove his clothes. At first, he resisted, but, with the threat of a knife, he was eventually persuaded to comply. The brothers shoved the captain to the ground and urinated on him. They fetched a horse from the camp’s stable and ordered the captain into the saddle.
Once the naked captain was firmly seated, Micajah bound his hands to the reins while Wiley covered the horse’s eyes. The brothers wished the man a safe journey before whipping the horse’s hind end.
The horse, blind and terrified, kicked wildly behind it. It let out a loud yelp before taking off at full speed toward the bluff in front of it.
Sam Mason and his gang heard the commotion from above and ran to investigate. They exited the cave just in time to hear the horse cry out as it felt the ground beneath it disappear. They scrambled out of its way as the captain and his steed tumbled violently down the face of the rocks above them, before landing right at the entrance of their hideout. Both died immediately on impact.
The entire gang stood in silence at the horror they had just witnessed. From above them, they could hear the Harpes laughing maniacally.
It was at that moment that Sam Mason realized it would probably be best if he asked the Harpes to leave.
The Brothers Harpe
Having been expelled from Sam Mason’s Gang, The Harpes and their families found themselves in a truly desperate situation. They had run out of criminal connections, and it was only a matter of time until word spread that they were once again vulnerable.
With nowhere to go, the Harpes decided to return to familiar territory. They began the journey south, back to their homes in East Tennessee, continuing their crime spree the entire way.
In July, 1798 the Harpes killed a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey. After that, the bodies of
William Ballard and several others were discovered disemboweled and thrown into the Holston River. James Brassel and John Tully were discovered with their throats slashed.
As they moved into central Kentucky, the Harpes came across a family sleeping in their camp and killed them all. They scalped a man named John Graves and his teenage son, then they murdered a runaway slave girl and her captors.
The group arrived in Webster County and were given refuge at the home of a man named Moses Stegall. While there, the Harpes killed another of the Stegalls’ guests, Major Willaim Love, and, shortly after, cut the throat of Stegall’s four-month-old child because it would not stop crying. When Mrs. Stegall screamed at the sight of her butchered infant child, they killed her as well.
The Harpes fled west from the home after learning that Moses
Stegall was gathering a posse to take them down, but, fortunately, their luck was about to run out.
On the morning of August 24th, 1799, after leaving their families camped in a secluded area, Micajah and Wiley ventured in the direction of the home of a man named George Smith. They planned to murder Smith and use his home as a hideout until the heat died down.
However, while on route to Smith’s home, Stegall’s posse, under the command of a man named John Leiper, managed to cut them off at a crossroads. With rifles at the ready, they ordered the brothers to surrender.
The Harpes did not comply. Instead, the brothers attempted to flee, at which time, Micajah was shot in the leg and back. He tried desperately to keep up with Wiley, but he simply could not.
Leiper and Smith rode hard and to catch up, and the two were eventually able to pull the wounded man from his horse. Micajah attempted to swing at Leiper with a tomahawk, but he was quickly restrained.
Now, I’m not normally one to celebrate mob justice, but if there was ever a person more deserving of it, I can’t say that I heard of them.
It’s unknown if Wiley attempted to return to rescue his captured brother, but, regardless, it was too late. Micajah was in the hands of the mob.
As the men restrained him, Moses Stegall inflicted shallow cut, after shallow cut on the captured Harpe’s neck. A dull pocketknife was used to inflict as much pain as possible. Between cuts, Stegall would demand that Harpe confess his crimes and, in the end, he would admit to over 20 murders, although that number is now believed to be somewhere between 55 and 135.
Most of the information that we know about the Harpes’ crimes, specifically the ones committed after leaving Nickajack, comes from Micajah Harpe’s own mouth during this forced confession.
After hours of torture, Moses Steggell finally allowed his wife’s and child’s murderer to die. As a final act of retribution, Stegall finished removing the late Harpe’s head and mounted it at a crossroads near Henderson, Kentucky. The head remained there for decades, and the road, to this day, is still unofficially known as Harpe’s Head Road.
After narrowly escaping a fate similar, Wiley did not return to the campsite where his wife and children were staying out of fear of being captured. Instead, he again rode north to Cave-In-Rock where, after learning of his brother’s fate, Sam Mason allowed the younger Harpe to remain among his camp. Without the influence of his older brother and now going by the name John Setton, Wiley was able to abide by Sam Mason’s rules and live with him for at least four years.
In 1803, the US government decided to pour some actual resources into rounding up those pesky pirates, and the majority of Mason’s gang was captured in a raid.
However, Harpe, Mason, and a fellow gang member named Peter Alston, were able to escape.
The three fled to Mississippi but were eventually captured when
Harpe and Alston attempted to turn in Sam Mason’s severed head in order to collect his bounty. It’s not known whether Mason was killed by the two or died from injuries sustained during their escape, but it didn’t matter.
In January 1804, Wiley Harpe and Peter Alston were executed by hanging. Thus, ending the story of the bloody Harpes.
- Because this story takes place over 250 years ago, there is some level of uncertainty that surrounds almost every aspect of the Harpes’ Legacy. For instance, some later reports believe that the Harpe Brothers may have actually been the Harpe Cousins and that their crimes may have begun when they were in their thirties, as opposed to their teens. In instances like this, I simply had to make a judgment call based on which information seemed most reliable from the sources that I was able to find online. Most sources from the 18th century report them as brothers, so that’s what I chose to present to you. Other details such as specific dates and exact movements are also up for debate, but that is just the nature of a story that has been passed by word of mouth for over two centuries.
- Shortly after Micajah’s death in 1799, Susan Wood and Marie
Davidson were apprehended and taken to Russellville,
Kentucky to answer for their crimes. However, after the circumstances of their decade long imprisonment by the
Harpes were revealed, the women were released. Both women later remarried and changed their names to avoid being associated with the Harpes well known crime spree.
- It is believed that other women were held captive by the Harpes at various times throughout their lives, however, details about those women, including their names and eventual fates, are unknown. Because of this, I chose to focus on Susan and Maria, as the Harpes most likely considered them to be their real wives, while any others were simply sex slaves. One notable exception is a woman named Sally Rice who is believed to have been tricked into marrying Wiley in Knoxville, TN while the brothers lived in the area. She was unaware of the brothers, “living conditions,” until after the ceremony and, upon learning of the other women who shared her new Husband’s home and bed, attempted to escape. She was not able to, however, and instead continued to live with them until Micajah’s death, at which time she returned to her father’s house in Knoxville. She is believed to have given birth to a single Harpe child during this time.