The land of Tennessee and Kentucky with all its caves and valleys has always been a place where the law has a harder team getting around. With the chaos of a new country called the United States of America busy building itself after its long revolution the frontier was a place where you basically were on your own and left to your own grit and wits. It’s this place of isolation and seclusion that made it a prime hunting ground for the Harpe brothers.

The dense woods of Kentucky were perfect for the Harpes to hide in.

Not much is really certain about where the Harpes came from. Some speculate they came from North Carolina and others Scotland, some claim they were actually cousins rather than brothers. What we do know is that they fought for the loyalists in a raiding gang during the revolutionary war and sometime after changed their names. Originally they were Joshua and William Harper but after the war they became Micajah “big” Harpe and Wiley “little” Harpe. They made their new lives as highwaymen and horse thieves but in reality this was just to sustain their blood lust. By 1797 they were hunting unlucky frontiersmen in the wilderness outside of Knoxville, we know this because they were run out-of-town when it was discovered they were horse thieves and the body of a local man was found split open and weighted down by rocks on the edge of the nearby river.

A year later they would a kill again this time a man staying at a local inn. But unlike last time the law caught up to them and they arrested and sent to Danville to await trail in spring but before they could make it to a courtroom they escaped leaving their wives behind and made their way to place called Cave In The Rock on what would be the Kentucky Illinois border. While there they took up raiding river boats on the Ohio River. But the law never forgot about them issuing a 300 dollar bounty equaling 4400 dollars today as well as sending a dedicated team of investigators to track them down. Realizing they were being hunted they took to living in the homes of anyone kind enough to let them stay.

Cave In the Rock a common hideout for crooks.

It at this time they committed their most gruesome crime. In the August of 1799 Finding out the Stegall family who they were staying with had a large number of silver stashed away they slaughtered Major Love another man staying at the home and then Misses Stegall after she found the body of her infant son. The Harpe brothers then tried to burn the home down but were caught in the act by two men Hudgens and Gilmore coming back from collecting salt. The two tried to arrest the Harpe brothers but in the ensuing fight Micajah shot and killed Gilmore while Wiley clubbed unconscious Hudgens. The two then took off back into the wildness.

When Moses Stegall got back to his cabin and saw the carnage he was brought to furry and a posse was formed to hunt down the murderous Harpe’s . The Posse tracked down Micajah down and a shootout occurred eventually a man named John Leiper shot Micajah and wounded him enough that he could no longer escape. By most accounts as Maicjah lay dying he was unremorseful for all his killings. When Moses Stegall revealed that it was his wife and son that they killed in that cabin Stegall was in such a rage that he decapitated Harpe and took his head back where his home use to be placing it on a pike.

A 1795 musket similar to guns the Harpes Would have used.

As for Wiley Harpe as his name suggests he got away. He eventually made it back to the river boat pirate gang lead by Captain Mason who he eventually killed in order to collect the bounty on Masons head. The only problem was that when he went to collect the bounty someone recognized him and he was tracked down and captured. He was sentenced in January 1804 to the noose and then like his brother His head was cut off and placed on a pike to serve as warning to outlaws that while Kentucky might seem like a good place for criminals to hide, justice in the frontier was a different type and you didn’t want it catching up with you. In all it’s estimated that the Harpe Brothers killed at least 39 people. With all that death and fear it’s no wonder why people still find the woods in Kentucky a little bit eerie, after all its possible the ghosts of the Harpe brothers still call it home.


The Vicious Harpes – First American Serial Killers