“America’s first serial killers roamed Tennessee” is a chapter in my book “Forgotten Tales of Alabama,” excerpted below.
A kindly man who offered aid to a traveling family surely had nothing to fear from the two men and three pregnant women. Did he? Had he known the men were the notorious Harpe brothers, who had just passed through Tennessee’s Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, he might have hesitated to pay for the group’s breakfasts and ask them to accompany him along the Wilderness Trail.
His trust would be his downfall. The men would soon make the well-intentioned man the latest victim on their own trail, the Trail of Carnage.
Those who follow true crime stories often read that a man named Dr. Henry Howard Holmes was America’s first serial killer. Many of Holmes’ grisly crimes were committed in a hotel he opened in Chicago to lure travelers to the 1893 World’s Fair. He was finally captured and confessed to 27 murders — he is thought to have committed as many as 100 — and was executed in 1896.
But a century before Holmes’ capture, just as America was being founded, two brothers were committing horrific murders across Tennessee and Kentucky.
Tennessee historians have dubbed Micajah and Wiley Harpe as the nation’s true first serial killers. Micajah, called “Big Harpe,” and Wiley, called “Little Harpe,” were born in North Carolina — Micajah in 1768 and Wiley in 1770. When the boys were children, their family was persecuted because their father fought with the British during the American Revolution. Some say their bitterness drove them to lives of crime.
The Harpe brothers’ reign of terror took place mostly in the 1790s. Accounts of their exploits vary widely but they are credited with the murders of thirty-five to forty people. These accounts fit with the modern definition of “serial killer,” a person who commits three or more murders in a period of more than a month, with a break between each murder. These killers also are thought to kill for the purpose of psychological gratification rather than monetary gain or other motives. They differ from mass murderers, who commit multiple murders at one time, and spree killers, who commit murders in two or more locations in a short period of time.
One of the oft-repeated tales about the brothers is that the men traveled with three women: each brother had a wife, plus there was one “auxiliary wife.”
Micajah was married to Susan Roberts, while his brother married Sally Rice, a minister’s daughter from Tennessee. A woman who went by Betsey Roberts and said she was Susan’s sister, but who is thought to have been Maria Davidson, was the “extra” wife. The women accompanied the men on a crime spree that began in Knoxville, then the capitol of Tennessee, arriving between 1795 and 1797. The group was living on a farm near Beaver Creek when they hurriedly left in 1798 after being accused of stealing a neighbor’s horses.
At a tavern outside of Knoxville, the brothers murdered a man named Johnson, who may have been the one to tell the neighbor about the horse thefts. The man’s body was later floating in the Holstein River. The body was eviscerated and the cavity filled with stones, which would become known as a Harpe trademark.
The women accompanied the brothers on a rampage through Tennessee, killing and thieving, until the Cumberland Gap was discovered and pioneers began to enter Kentucky. According to several written accounts from the 1800s, it was in December of 1798 that the brothers entered the Gap, heading for Crab Orchard, a point where roads diverged to Louisville and Cincinnati. By this time, all three women were pregnant. The group entered John Farris’s tavern looking for food but were turned away because they had no money. Stephen Langford from Virginia took pity on the miserable-looking troupe and bought them breakfast.
He then asked if the party wanted to join him along the Wilderness Trail. Historians report that Langford’s remains, mutilated almost beyond recognition were soon found along the trail.
Eventually, the Harpes and the women were captured and taken to jail in Danville, Kentucky. The jail had to be reinforced, as the man had a reputation for escaping. Also, the jailers had to hire midwives for the three pregnant women and house them through a long, bitterly cold winter. True to their reputations, the brothers did escape, leaving behind the mothers of their children. Before the women came to trial, they gave birth: Betsy in February, Susan in March and Sally in April.
At their murder trial, motherhood earned them sympathy. Sally was acquitted, Betsy was found not guilty, while Susan was convicted. However, Susan’s conviction was later overturned. The three murder suspects, now free, were given clothes, money and a horse donated by townspeople so they could return to Tennessee. Instead, they joined the men in Kentucky, but their long, grisly crime spree soon would come to an end. Details vary on how the brothers met their ends, although most agree that Micajah was shot and beheaded in 1799. He was 31.
The brothers were being trailed by a posse that included Moses Stegall, whose wife and child had been killed by the Harpes. A member of the posse, John Leiper is said to have shot Micajah in the back, paralyzing him.
While Wiley escaped onto the Natchez Trace, Stegall reportedly used Harpe’s own knife to cut off the outlaw’s head. According to legend, Micajah’s head was nailed into the forks of a tree near what is now Dixon, Ky., leading the community to be called Harpe’s Head for many years.
Wiley was captured in 1803 and hanged a year later when he was 34. Some historians claim Wiley also was beheaded after the hanging.
Sally Rice returned to Tennessee and the home of her preacher father. She would later remarry. Betsey moved to Illinois, where the group had once gone on a short murderous spree, and remarried and raised a family. She is believed to have died in the 1860s. It is unknown is Susan remarried but she is said to be buried in Tennessee. She, too, likely died in the 1860s.