The Harpe Brothers: America’s first serial killers

I_Took_You_For_an_IndianOne story claims they were brothers born on the dawn of the American Revolution—another they were cousins emigrated from Scotland years previous. Some claimed they killed out of disgust for their fellow man…others that they were driven to revenge the murder of their father. The stories of the Brothers’ Harpe are many and conflicted, and yet all agree that two men, Micajah “Big” Harpe and Wiley “Little” Harpe, waged a bloody rampage of murder against the people of the newly founded United States of America, a land that came to know them as its first serial killers.

Born sometime before 1770, Little and Big Harpe grew up in Orange County, North Carolina. Raised as Tories, or individuals loyal to the crown of England, they were forced to flee west when the war ended in 1783 and the constant threat of political persecution began knocking at their door. There they joined the Chickamauga Indian raids on American settlements and discovered their appetite for violence. Eventually they were joined by Susan Wood and Maria (Betsy) Davidson, either as prisoners of war or as Big’s willing wives, and the group ventured further west, a trail of bodies always following.

That trail continued until the fateful day they reached Knoxville, Tennessee. It was here that they committed one of their few acts recorded by the pen of history: on June 1, 1797, Little married Sarah (Sally) Rice. The group settled down and the murders stopped. Everything remained peaceful until the day in 1798 when the brothers re-declared their war on all living men and women. They set the town aflame, gutted those in their path, and set out on a nine-month killing spree forged forever in the fires of this nation.

It isn’t clear what caused the spark. Some historians believe the brothers were caught stealing livestock from their neighbors. Others wondered if the dullness of normal life was too much for them to bear. Whatever the case, no one was safe. From the wilderness of Tennessee to the mountains of Kentucky and the caves of Illinois, the bodies of over forty men, women and children were found torn open and weighed down with stones.

Finally, in July of 1799, the brothers’ storm came to an end. After the murder of his wife, Moses Stegall formed a posse of neighboring villagers and captured Big Harpe. Wounded and beaten, Big confessed to eighteen murders but claimed remorse for only one: the murder of an infant. Mr. Stegall shot Big through the heart and placed his head upon a spike as a warning to any and all outlaws that should come across it—a place now known as Harpe’s Head.

Little fled and took on the alias of John Setton. He was arrested in 1803 when he attempted to attain the bounty for the outlaw Samuel Mason. While the townspeople did recognize Mason’s severed head, they also recognized Little’s true identity. Little was tried and hanged for his crimes in 1804.

The Harpe women were arrested and released without charge. No one knows for certain what part they played in the murders. While they claimed innocence, witnesses said the women took as much pleasure in the murders as the Harpe brothers themselves. Whatever the case, Sally returned to her father’s home in Knoxville and later remarried. Betsy also found a new husband, while Susan lived out her days in Russellville in peace.


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