The Harpe brothers

Taken from a Special Edition of "The Gleaner"
printed March 27, 1988
permissive use granted by Editor
newspaper provided by Vonette Shelton-Curtis

Fearsome twosome had a reign of terror in these parts

By Judy Jenkins
of The Gleaner staff

For years the weather-bleached skull hung on a branch of a tree at the intersection of the Morganfield, Henderson and Madisonville roads.

The hollow eye sockets, wide jaw bones and teeth sent shivers down many a spine as settlers on horseback and in buggies gazed at it, and remembered the grisly stories about the man to whom it belonged.

His name was Micajah Harpe, otherwise known as Big Harpe. Presumably people had started calling him Big Harpe in order to distinguish him from his smaller brother, Wiley. Appropriately, Wiley was "Little Harpe."

 Even if there hadn't been a diminuative brother, Micajah could have been called Big Harpe. He was, according to a 1926 Gleaner account, a man "above ordinary stature" and, with his muscular structure, an imposing sight. He was described as typically being "diry and shabby," the darkness of the grime offset by a thatch of "fiery red hair."

As if he didn't appear threatening enough already, Big Harpe usually carried a rifle, knife and tomahawk.

There's no question that he knew how to use all three, as did his brother. If the legends are accurate, the two were the very worst kinds of killers - those with no conscience whatsoever.

History doesn't tell us what kind of environment they grew up in or whether they'd been troublemakers from an early age. There is a sketchy account of their having been jailed in Knoxville for a crime they apparently didn't commit. The writer of that account speculated the incident so outraged the me that they "declared war on all mankind and determined to rob and murder until they themselves were killed."

It was 1798 when they crossed the border from Tennessee into Kentucky and began a reign of terror that had settlers laying bars across their doors and cautiously eyeing all strangers.

It didn't take them long to announce their intentions to the populace. They accomplished that by capturing a little girl near the mouth of the Green River and dashing her head against the bannisters of a bridge until the child was dead.

It's for certain the men were regarded as animals even by the outlaw element of that time. In her "Annals and Scandals of Henderson County," historian Maralea Arnett writes that the Harpes' thirst for blood had sickened the bandits at Cave-in - Rock on the Ohio River.

It was almost routine for the river pirates to rob and kill the hapless travelers who used the waterway for transportation, but they drew the line at the kind of cruelty practice by the Harpes.

The last straw came when Big Harpe stripped naked a man who'd been a flatboat passenger, tied him to the back of a blindfolded horse and then led the horse to the top of the high bluff above the famous cave.

Turning the frightened horse toward the river, he forced it forward until horse and rider sailed out into emptiness. They landed on the rocks below.

The pirates ordered the brothers to leave, and soon Kentucky Governor Gerrard was offering a reward of $300 for the Harpes' capture.

The Harpes, however, were in no hurry to depart the area. Their wives - Big Harpe had two and Little Harpe had one - had earlier moved into a cabin on what now is the Old Madisonville Road. Big Hare's wives, Sally and Betsy, evidently were rather plain, but Little Harpe's wife, Susanna, was siad to be a pretty woman.

It appears the women not only supported the deeds of the brothers, but at times conspired with them. That was the case when the women learned that Moses Stegall's wife kept the princely sum of $40 hidden in the Stegall cabin.

The wives promptly relayed that information to their husbands. Knowing that Stegall temporarily was away from the residence, the Harpe brothers went to the house five miles east of Dixon and asked if Mrs. Stegall, the mother of a 4-month-old baby, could put them up fro the night.

There was another lodger at the house, William Love, who is identified in some stories as a teacher and in others as a surveyor. All three men slept in the loft that night, and before dawn, Love was dead.

The next morning, the Harpes complained that the lodger had loudly snored all night long, depriving them of sleep. Mrs. Stegall, who had problems of her own with a fretful baby, advised them that breakfast would be a bit late.

The brothers offered to tend the infant for her, and, when breakfast at last was ready, the mother commented on how quiet the baby had become. Going to the cradle to check on it, she soon saw why the child had made no noise. Its throat had been slashed. Her screams ended when the Harpes cut her throat.

The Harpers, $40 richer, were gone when Stegall came home to find that he no longer had a family. Meanwhile, the brothers came across two men who were returning from a salt lick and robbed and killed them.

Stegall, beside himself with grief and fury, sought help from Captain John Lieper, who would become one of the first settlers of Cairo, Ky.

Lieper, considered "one of the most powerful men of his day," is credited with organizing the posse that brought the Harpes' mayhem to an end here.

Included in that posse were Stegall, Squire McBee, a settler named Tompkins, Marrhew Christian, Neville Lindsey and William Grissom. Tompkins carried a gun that was loaded with powder which, ironically, had been given him by the Harpes when they dined at his home and passed themselves off as preachers.

Soon, the posse came across Little Harpe, who was in the process of way-laying an intended victim. The thief had just blown on a whistle, signaling his brother to join him.

Upon spying the posse, Little Harpe dashed off into the thicket and apparently wasn't seen again until he much later, when he turned up as a bandit on the Natchez trail. Eventually, he was hanged for his deeds.

Big Harpe, riding the gray steed that had belonged to William Love, quickly abandoned his and Little Harpe's wives and total of three children and tried desperately to ride to freedom. The women later were jailed for awhile, but eventually were released and drifted off to parts unknown.

Big Harpe hadn't counted on Lieper's own swift horse, which soon brought him within 10 feet of Big Harpe. When Lieper's gun jammed, he quickly borrowed that of Tompkins - loaded with the Harpes' own powder - and shot the murderer in the back.

Lieper then overtook him and threw him to the ground. Here, accounts differ as to what happened next. One says Big Harpe begged for justice, but that Stegall, without a word, took his knife and sawed Big Harpe's head from his body.

Another story says that Big Harpe complained of thirst and was given water as the posse informed him they'd give him time to pray for forgiveness from his sins. AT that point, the killer supposedly confessed to 20 slayings, including that of his own baby.

One story has it that Stegall then began sawing off Harpe's head while the outlaw still was alive. Another says that Stegall first shot him near the heart and then twisted off the head "like wringing the neck of a chicken."

The head was placed on the sharpened branch of a tree at the intersection of the Henderson, Morganfield and Madisonville roads as a warning to other would-be outlaws that frontier justice could be swift and deadly.

transcribed by Tina Hall 8-13-2002

I highly recommend the reading of a book called "Devil's Backbone: Story of the Natchez Trace"  by Jonathan Daniels published in 1962. Publisher: McGraw-Hill. This book tells in detail about the Harpe brothers. It will leave you with a better picture of these two men as well as other outlaws of the same era who ran the Natchez Trace from KY to MS. Try your inter-library loan system.

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