History of Henderson County, Kentucky



Readers of this article will recall the blood-curdling stories told them of the Harpes, who, in the early settlement of Henderson County, were the terror of the pioneer. Many person in this and adjoining counties remember how, in their childhood, these stories awakened the keenest sense of fear, and were the occasion of almost agonizing sensations as they passed along the wilderness roads, ever on the lookout to be accosted by these terrible men. Their deeds of daring and desperate designs placed them at the head of all early desperadoes. Their history in this portion of Kentucky has long ago and repeatedly found its way into the histories of Kentucky and other States, in pamphlets and the newspapers of the country, and at one time even dramatized for the American stage. But it was so desperate and appalling to all rational sensibilities that it was abandoned by the drama.

In giving a history of these desperately wicked men, I shall be as brief as possible, knowing full well that only a faint idea can be given in the brief space allotted. The Harpes, consisting of "Big" Harpe and his two wives, came into Kentucky from East Tennessee in the year 1798. They had lived in Tennessee, and at one time were confined in the Knoxville jail on suspicion of crime, when they were innocent. Upon being released they declared war against all mankind, and determined to rob and murder until they themselves were killed. Their appearance was wild and rude in the extreme. Big Harpe was above the ordinary stature, bony and muscular, his clothes dirty and shabby, distinguishing him as a man wholly unused to the courtesies of civilized life. his countenance was so repulsive that every indication of villainy was plainly marked thereon. He wore no covering on his head, so the natural protection of thick, coarse hair, of a fiery red, uncombed and matted, gave evidence of the rudest exposure. He was armed with a rifle, knife and tomahawk. He was a veritable outlaw, destitute of every touch of human nature, and prepared, at all points, for assault and defense.

Little Harpe was a smaller man, but, in other respects, the counterpart of his co-worker in crime, and with him frequently engaged in riotous drunkenness and debauchery. Their travel through the wilderness roads of Kentucky was marked by human blood. They were captured and confined in the jail at Danville, but soon after made their escape, and started en route for the mouth of Green River, marking their path by robberies and murders of the most horrible and brutal character. The district they traveled was wild and thinly populated, and for this reason their outrages went unpunished. They seems inspired with the deadliest hatred against the whole human race, and such was their implacable misanthropy that they were known to kill where there was no temptation to rob. one of their victims was a little girl, found at some distance form her home, whose tender age, and helplessness, would have been a protection against any but incarnate fiends. Every human met by them prior to their arrival at Green River became a victim to their implacable thirst for blood. The Harpe women had preceded their husbands to Henderson County, and had settled about six miles from the town, in the direction of Madisonville, where they lived during the winter of 1798, '99, and passed themselves as widows. Micajah, or Big Harpe, and Wiley, or Little Harpe, pushed their way on into Henderson County, where they soon after rejoined their wives, and started in the direction of Tennessee. They remained some time in what is now known as Hopkins County. This county, at that time, was a wilderness, with but a few scattered settlers. The Harpes rode good horses, and at that time dressed well, in the clothes of their murdered victims. They were all the time heavily armed, and the condition of the country was their apology for such equipments. The following is a condensed history of their devilish deeds done in Henderson County, as narrated by Mr. John B. Ruby to Judge Underwood, many years ago:

While passing along the road, presumable en route South, the Harpes stopped for dinner at the house of a settler named James Tompkins, near Steuben's Lick, and while there passed themselves for Methodist preachers, and one of them actually said grace at the table.

The conversation turned on the general character of the country. One of them asked Mr. Tompkins if he hunted much, who replied that he did when he had the ammunition, but for some time he had been without powder and notwithstanding deer was so plenty, he never had any venison to eat. Thereupon the Harpes, with affected generosity, made a liberal division of their stock of powder with Mr. Tompkins. It will be seen in the sequel, that by a most singular providence, Big Harpe was mortally wounded by his own powder thus given to Mr. Tompkins.

After dinner they resumed their journey. The first cabin passed was that of Moses Stigall, then occupied by his wife and little child, Stigall being from home. This cabin was five miles from Tompkins, The next settlement was Peter Ruby's, eleven miles from Stigall's. John B. Ruby was at Peter Ruby's and saw the Harpes pass. They camped for the night a few miles from Stigall's, who, it is claimed, owed one of the Harpe women a dollar. Stigall met the party in the flats of Deer Creek as he was going to Robinsin's Lick for salt and was told of the owing dollar. He told the Harpe woman to call upon his wife in passing, giving explicit directions where his wife could find the money. The women went to Mrs. Stigalls and told her what her husband had said. She found his purse, containing about $40.00 in silver, out of which she paid the claimed dollar. The wives then told their husbands how much money Mrs. Stigall seemd to have, and this led to the perpetration during the following night of the last dreadful act of barbarity in the long list of horrible tragedies of which the Harpers were guilty.

Mrs. Stigall was a young woman with only one child. A man by the name of Love was staying that night at the house. The two Harpes left their camp, and went to the house of Stigall, got the money, murdered his wife and child and Mr. Love, then set fire to the house of Stigall and burnt up the murdered bodies and all that was in the house. Two men named Hudgens and Gillmore, were returning from the lick with their packs of salt and camped for the night not far from Stigall's. About daylight the Harpes went to their camp and arrested them under pretense that they had committed robbery, murder and arson at the house of Stigall. They shot Gillmore, who died on the spot. Hudgens broke and ran, but was overtaken by the Harpes and put to death. These things were stated by the women after Big Harpe's death.

News of these murders spread through the scattered population with rapidity. Stigall returned to find no wife to welcome him, no home to receive him. Distracted with grief and rage he turned his horse's head from the smouldering ruins and repaired to the house of Captain John Leeper, who was one of the most powerful men of his day, and as fearless as powerful. Alarm and excitement pervaded every heart, men assembled at the call of Stigall and Leeper to consult and to act. The conclusion was universal that these crimes were the deeds of the Harpes. Large rewards for their heads, dead or alive, had been publicly offered, and the pioneers of the wilderness were determined upon their capture. A company was formed, consisting of John Leeper, James Tompkins, Silas Magby, Neville Lindsey, Matthew Christian, Robert Robertson and the infuriated Moses Stigall. If there were any others, their names have been forgotten. These men, armed with rifles, got on the trail of the Harpes and overtook them at their camp upon the waters of Pond River.

About a quarter of a mile from camp, the pursuing party saw Little Harpe and a man named Smith, who had been hunting horses in the range, conversing near a branch of water. Little Harpe charged Smith with being a horse thief, and blew in his charger, (a small instrument with which the hunter measures his powder in loading his gun). The shrill sound, their usual signal for danger, soon brought Big Harpe arrived at the branch in opposite directions, at nearly the same time. Big Harpe came mounted on a fine gray mare, the property of the murdered Love, which he had appropriated. The pursuers, not doubting the guilt of those whom they had overtaken, without warning fired upon them, badly wounding Smith, but not hitting either of the Harpes. Big Harpe was in the act of shooting Smith as those in front among the pursuers fired. He had already cocked his gun and told Smith he must die. But surprised by the volley and by the rushing up of the persons, he reserved his fire, whirled Love's mare around and galloped off to his camp. Little Harpe ran off on foot to a thicket and was not seen afterwards.

On reaching Smith, the pursuers were detained listening to his explanation. He was regarded as an accomplice of the Harpes, but soon demonstrated his innocence and his life was spared. The pursuers hastened towards the camp and saw Big Harpe hastily saddling the horses and preparing to take the women off with him. Seeing their rapid approach, he mounted Love's mare, armed with rifle and pistols, and darted off, leaving the women and children to provide for themselves. They were made prisoners, and Magby, a large, fat man, unfitted for the chase, and one other were left to guard them. Love's mare was large and strong and carried the two-hundred weight of her rider, Big Harpe, with much ease, and he seemed to call on her to expend all her strength in his behalf. Tompkins, rather a small man, rode a thorough-bred, full-blooded bay mare of the best Virginia stock, and led in the pursuit. He had chased thieves before, and the only account he gave of one of them was "that he would never steal another horse." Nance, his mare, exhibited both speed and bottom in this race of life or death. The other horses were nothing like equal to Nance or to the Love mare, or their riders being large men, Big Harpe might entertain hopes of escape.

In the first two or three miles, he kept far ahead, no one trailing in sight except Tompkins. There was no difficulty in following through the rich, mellow soil of the wilderness, the tracks made by the horses of Harpe and Tompkins. Leeper was second in the chase and the others followed as rapidly as possible. As the race progressed, Big Harpe drove into a think forest of large trees upon a creek bottom. Here he was overhauled by Tompkins. Each reined up his foaming steed and stopped. Neither attempted to fire. Tompkins told Harpe that escape was impossible and he had better surrender. "Never!" was the quick reply. At that moment Leeper was in sight. Harpe again dashed off at full speed, while Tompkins tarried for Leeper. As soon as he came up he said, "Why didn't you shoot?" Tompkins replied that his mare was so fiery he could not make a safe shot upon her and he would not fire unless he was sure of execution. Leeper had fired upon the Harpes and Smith at the branch, and finding that his ramrod could not be withdrawn in consequence of its having got wet, told Tompkins he could not reload, that his horse was fast failing, and that Harpe would escape unless "Nance" could catch him. Tompkins replied, "that she could run over Harpe's Mare on any part of the ground." Leeper said, "Let's exchange horses and give me your gun and shot pouch and I'll bring hin down if I can overtake him." They dismounted and exchanged horses and arms and Leeper dashed forward after Big Harpe. The noble mare proved her ability to "run over him upon any part of the ground."

Leeper crossed the creek and after passing through the thick, tall trees in the bottom, came in sight of the fleeing Harpe as he reached higher ground with its prairie grass and scattered trees. The gray mare (not) the better horse, Nance gradually gained upon her. When Leeper got up within thirty yards, Harpe warned him "to stand off or he would kill him." Leeper replied, "One of us has to die, and the hardest fend off."

As the woods became more open and interposed fewer obstructions, Leeper though he had a good chance. Suddenly putting "Nance" to her full speed, he rushed up within ten steps of Harpe, threw his leg over the mane, and the bridle over Nance's head and jumpred to the ground, took aim and fired. Harpe reined up, turned, presented his gun, and it snapped--all without dismounting. Leeper afterwards said: "If Harpe's gun had not snapped, the ball would not have passed within twenty yards of me, so badly was it aimed." Harpe then threw the gun down, wheeled the gray mare and pushed on his course. From these circumstances Leeper knew he had hit him. He caught and remounted Nance and soon overtook Harpe, who told him to keep off of he would shoot him with a pistol. In a few seconds Harpe ceased to urge the gray mare forward and put both his hands to the pommel of the saddle to hold on. Leeper rushed alongside and threw him to the ground. Two balls had entered near the back bone and came out near the breast bone. Harpe begged that he might be taken to justice and not be put to instant death. Leeper told him that his request was useless; that his wound was fatal and he must soon die.

He then asked for a drink of water. Leeper walked away to a branch close by, and, taking off one of his shoes, filled it with water and started on his return to the wounded outlaw. At this time James Tompkins, Stigall, and others, dashed up, and, without ceremony, Stigall dismounted, drew his knife, and severed Big Harpe's head from the body; and thus perished the most brutal of all brutal monsters. A tall young tree, growing by the side of the trail, or road, was selected, and trimmed of its lateral branches to the top, and then pointed. On this point the hear was fastened, the skull and jaw bones remaining there for many years, after all else had mingled with the dust. Near by stood a large tree in which was plainly cut the initials of the dead outlaw, "U.H.," which were plainly visible up to a few years since. The place where this tree grew is in the present County of Webster, at the intersection of the Henderson and Morganfield and Madisonville roads.

It will be remembered that the three Harpe women were left at the camp, prisoners, in charge of two of the Leeper party. Immediately after the killing of Big Harpe the women, with their children (each woman had a young child), were brought to the town of Henderson and confined in the little log dungeon, then located on the river bank, near the present bridge.

On the fourth day of September, 1799, a Court of Quarter Sessions was called for the examination of Susanna and Sally Harpe and Betsey Roberts, committed as parties to the murder of Mrs. Stigall, James Stigall, an infant, and William Love, a school teacher, on the twentieth day of August. The trial was held by Justices Samuel Hopkins and Abram Landers. They were found guilty and remanded to jail. Subsequently the women were taken, under order of the Court, by Andrew Rowan, Sheriff, and Amos Kuykendall, John Standley, Green Massey, Nevil Lindsay and Gibson Harden, to Russellville, Ky., there to await the action of the Grand Jury. They were tried at Russellville and cleared.

Nothing is known of the after life of Big Harpe's two wives, but the wife of Little Harpe, who was represented as being a young woman of great beauty, married a highly respectable man in Tennessee, and raised a large family of children, all esteemed for sobriety, honesty and industry. The name of the gentleman has ever been withheld, because a silly world might take occasion to reflect upon the children, in consequence of the mother's connection with the Harpes. Little Harpe escaped to Mississippi and was there hung for his devilment.

Moses Stigall, whose wife was killed by the Harpes, turned out to be himself a bad man. In less than one year after the murder of his wife and child he was married to Ellen Vane, and a short time after was himself killed for aiding Joshua Fleehart in running away with a Miss Maddox. Peak Fletcher and a brother of the young woman pursued the runaways and overtook them in the Territory of Illinois. They were found at night in a log cabin, which was cautiously and silently approached, and at a given signal Fletcher and Maddox fired through the chinks of the cabin and killed both Fleehart and Stigall. Miss Maddox was sitting at the time in the lap of her lover, with an arm around his neck.

On December 16th, 1799, by an Act of the Legislature of Kentucky, the reward of $300, offered by the Governor for the capture of the Harpes, was allowed to John Leeper, and thus ends the brief history of two of the boldest and most noted freebooters who have ever cursed America.

History of Henderson County, Kentucky
by Edmund L. Starling
p. 523-29
published in 1887
public domain material

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