Wiley “Little” Harpe and Micajah “Big” Harpe are dubiously referred to as America’s first serial killers, and they were vicious ones too. By some accounts, they killed at least 40 men, women and children.
The Harpes—either brothers or cousins—operated mostly in Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois in the late 1700s, at a time when that region was the frontier.
In 1798-1799, they went on a grotesque killing spree that’s been called one of the worst in American history. They murdered most folks who crossed their paths, sometimes mutilating the bodies. Three women, described as their wives, and several children, accompanied them on their journey. In one of the most chilling moments, Big Harpe killed one of his own babies, for crying, by bashing its head against some rocks.
These guys were so bad and bloodthirsty, they were kicked out of the pirate enclave of Cave-In-Rock, Illinois. The last straw: they took a captive, stripped him naked, tied him to the back of a blindfolded horse and ran it off a cliff. Both were dashed on the rocks below. The Harpes thought it was good fun.
A posse caught up with the Harpes on August 24, 1799. The outlaws made a run for it, but Big Harpe was shot in the leg and the back. As he lay dying, he reportedly confessed to many of his murders. One of the possemen cut the confession short by sawing off Big Harpe’s head while he was still alive. The head was nailed to a tree in Kentucky’s Webster County; the site is still known as Harpe’s Head.
Little Harpe escaped and ran with another gang along the Natchez Trace. His downfall came when he and a gang member cut off the head of leader Sam Mason in order to collect a reward. The scheme backfired when they were recognized and arrested. They were hanged in February 1804, and their heads were placed on poles along the Natchez road as a warning to other bad guys.
Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian. His latest book is Wyatt Earp: Showdown at Tombstone. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org