Micajah "Big" 'Joshua Harper' Harpe

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Micajah "Big" 'Joshua Harper' Harpe

Also Known As: "William", "Micajah Roberts"
Birthplace: Orange County, North Carolina, United States
Death: August 24, 1799 (26-35)
Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, United States (Died by Decapitation when Caught by Posse)
Immediate Family:

Son of James Burton "John" Harp and Sarah Harp
Husband of Susan Wood, AKA "Susannah Roberts"
Partner of Maria 'Betsey & Betty' Elizabeth Huffstutler, AKA "Betsey Roberts"
Father of Lovey Harpe

Managed by: Private User
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About Micajah "Big" 'Joshua Harper' Harpe

First of all, the Harpes might not have really been brothers, but first cousins instead who emigrated (or whose parents did) from Scotland. One account says the Harpes were sons of a Revolutionary War soldier and a Negro slave. They may have been left on their own at a very young age, turned out from their homestead and into the forest and caves where they lived most of their lives.


Micajah "Big" Harpe (1768? To August 1799) and Wiley "Little" Harpe (1770? To February 8, 1804), pronounced (mickey) and (Why-lee), were murderers, highwaymen, and river pirates, who operated in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi in the late 18th century. Their crimes appear to have been motivated more by blood lust than financial gain and many historians have called them the America's first true "serial killers". The Harpes are said to have been brothers (though some sources say cousins), born in Orange County, North Carolina to Scottish parents. Their father or their uncles, were allegedly of Tory allegiance, who fought on the British side during the Revolutionary War. Big Harpe is known to have had two wives, sisters Susan and Betsey Roberts. Little Harpe married Sally Rice, daughter of a Baptist minister.

Disputed claims of early lives and involvement in Revolutionary War and Indian Wars

In Jon Musgrave's article of Oct. 23, 1998, in the southern Illinois newspaper, American Weekend, through thorough research, he cited the T. Marshall Smith 1855 book, Legends of the War of Independence, and of the Earlier Settlements in the West, that the Harpes were much older than most mainstream historians have acknowledged. Smith stated he had heard stories from his grandfather, older pioneers, and those who had interviewed two of the Harpe wives. One of his stories was that the Harpe brothers were actually cousins, William and Joshua Harper, who would sometime later take the alias Harpe, emigrated, in 1759 or 1760, at a young age, from Scotland. Their fathers were brothers, John and William Harper, who settled Orange County, North Carolina between 1761 and 1763. The Harper patriarchs were loyal to the British Crown and were known as Royalists, Kings Men, Loyalists, and Tories and may also, have been regulators involved in the North Carolina Regulator War. The anti-British Crown neighbors of the Harpers were known as Whigs, Rebels, and Patriots. Around April or May, 1775, the young Harper cousins left North Carolina and went to Virginia to find overseer jobs on a slave plantation.

At the outbreak of the American Revolution, little is known of the Harpes' whereabouts. According to Smith, from an eyewitness account from Captain James Wood, they joined a Tory rape gang in North Carolina and took part in the kidnapping of three teenage girls, with a fourth girl being rescued by Captain Wood. These gangs took advantage of the war by raping, stealing, and murdering, and burning and destroying the property, especially farms, of patriot colonists. In an interview Smith had with the Patriot soldier, Frank Wood, who was the son of Captain James Wood revealed that he was the older brother of Susan Wood Harpe, the later kidnapped wife of Micajah "Big" Harpe. Frank Wood claimed to have seen the Harpe brothers, serving "loosely" as Tory militia, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Legion, at the Battles of Blackstocks, November 20, 1780, and Cowpens, January 17, 1781. They also appeared in the same supporting role, at the Battle of King's Mountain, October 7, 1780, under British commander Major Patrick Ferguson. These battles that the Harpes supposedly participated in resulted in major Patriot victories. Following the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, the Harpes left North Carolina, dispersed with their Indian allies, the Chickamauga Cherokees, to Tennessee villages west of the Appalachian Mountains. On April 2, 1781, they joined war parties of four hundred Chickamauga Cherokee and attacked the Patriot frontier settlement of Bluff Station, at Fort Nashborough (now Nashville, Tennessee), which would again be assaulted by them, on either July 20, 1788, or April 9, 1793. A Captain James Leiper was killed in the 1781 attack on the fort and may have been related to the John Leiper, who was later involved in the killing of Micajah "Big" Harpe in Kentucky in 1799. On August 19, 1782, the Harpes accompanied a British-backed, Chickamauga Cherokee war party to Kentucky in the Battle of Blue Licks, where they helped to defeat an army of Patriot frontiersmen. During the Harpe brothers' early frontier period among the Chickamauga Cherokee, they lived in the village of Nickajack, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, for approximately twelve to thirteen years. During this span of time, they kidnapped Maria Davidson and later, Susan Wood and made them their women. In 1794, the Harpes and their women abandoned their Indian habitation, before the main Chickamauga Cherokee village of Nickajack, in eastern Tennessee, was destroyed in a raid by American settlers. They would later relocate to Powell's Valley, around Knoxville, Tennessee, where they stole food and supplies from local pioneers. The whereabouts of the Harpes were unknown between the summer of 1795 and spring of 1797, but by spring they were dwelling in a cabin on Beaver's Creek, near Knoxville. On June 1, 1797, Wiley Harpe married Sarah Rice, which was recorded in the Knox County, Tennessee marriage records. Sometime during 1797, the Harpes would begin their trail of death in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois.


As young men, the Harpes lived with renegade Creek and Cherokee Indians who committed atrocities against white settlers and against their own tribes. By 1797 the Harpes were living near Knoxville, Tennessee. However, they were driven from the town after being charged with stealing hogs and horses. They were also accused of murdering a man named Johnson, whose body was found in a river, ripped open and weighted with stones. This became a characteristic of the Harpes' murders. They butchered anyone at the slightest provocation, even babies. R.E. Banta in The Ohio claims that Micajah Harpe even bashed his infant daughter's head against a tree because her constant crying annoyed him. This was the only crime for which he would later confess genuine remorse. From Knoxville they fled north into Kentucky. They entered the state on the Wilderness Road, near the Cumberland Gap. They are believed to have murdered a peddler named Peyton, taking his horse and some of his goods. They then murdered two travellers from Maryland.


In July 1799, John Leiper raised a posse to avenge the murder of Mrs. Stegal, including Moses Stegal, the victim's husband. Leiper reached Harpe first, and managed to shoot Big Harpe. After a scuffle with a tomahawk, Leiper overcame Harpe. When Stegal arrived, he decapitated Harpe and stuck his head on a pole, at a crossroads still known as "Harpe's Head" or Harpe's Head Road in Webster County, Kentucky. By the end of their reign of terror, the "Bloody Harpes" were responsible for the known murders of no less than 40 men, women, and children. Little Harpe eluded the authorities for some time, using the alias John Setton, until allegedly being caught in an effort to get a reward of his own on the head of an outlaw, Samuel Mason. He was captured in 1803, tried and hanged on February 8, 1804.

Harpe women

According to Jon Musgrave, the Harpe women, after cohabitation with the brothers, led relatively respectable and normal lives. Upon the death of Micajah "Big" Harpe in Kentucky, Wiley "Little" Harpe went into hiding and their women were apprehended and taken to the Russellville, Kentucky state courthouse and later released. Sally Rice Harpe went back to Knoxville, Tennessee to live in her father's house. For a time, Susan Wood Harpe and Maria Davidson (aka Betsey Roberts Harpe) lived in Russellville. Susan Wood remarried later, and died in Tennessee. According to Ralph Harrelson, a McLeansboro, Illinois historian, records show that on September 27, 1803, Betsey Roberts remarried, moved with her husband to Canada in 1828, had many children, and eventually the couple died in the 1860s. Cave-In-Rock historian, Otto A. Rothert, believed that Susan Wood died in Tennessee and her daughter went to Texas. According to the former sheriff of Hamilton County, Illinois, in 1820, Sally Rice, who had remarried, travelled with her husband and father to their new home in Illinois via the Cave-In-Rock ferry.


After the atrocities committed by the Harpes, many members bearing the family name changed their name, in some way, to hide the heritage of their infamous ancestors. The Harpes may have disguised their Tory past from their Patriot neighbors, by changing their original name of "Harper," which was a common Loyalist name in Revolutionary War-era North Carolina. Some went by "Harp" merely removing the final "E" in Harpe, but leaving the pronunciation the same. Others changed the name significantly. Wyatt Earp is a famous example said - though unconfirmed - to have been a member of the Harpe family. There are still descendants of the family today, including those who have changed their surname back to the original spelling.

Appearances in literature, stage, television, and film

The Harpe saga was explored in depth by noted historian Paul I. Wellman in his book Spawn of Evil, now no longer in print.

E. Don Harpe, perhaps the only Harpe descendant to openly acknowledge and write about the Harpe brothers, currently, has two books born wolf DIE WOLF The Last Rampage of the Terrible Harpes and Resurrection: Rebirth of the Terrible Harpes with a third book being written. His short work, The True Story of America's First Serial Killers, may be as close to the truth about the story of the Harpes, as has been written. A graphic novel was written in 2009 by Chad Kinkle and illustrated by Adam Show called Harpe America's First Serial Killers. The Harpe brothers, identified as "Big Harp" and "Little Harp" are among the characters in the stage musical The Robber Bridegroom, adapted by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman from the novel by Eudora Welty. In this musical, Big Harp has already been decapitated at the beginning of the story, but his disembodied head is still alive: the head is portrayed by an actor whose body is concealed behind the scenery. Robert Hayden's poem "Theory of Evil" takes the Harpe brothers' crimes, and Big Harpe's demise, as its explicit subject. In the 1941 film version of The Devil and Daniel Webster, both Harpes are among the jury the Devil calls, but do not appear in the original story. Big and Little Harpe appeared in Disneyland's Davy Crockett miniseries. Both Harpes and their decedents play a key role in the Silver John book The Voice Of The Mountain by Manly Wade Wellman, though their real-life accounts were fictionalize and morphed into more supernatural abilities. The Harpe brothers were the inspiration for Big and Little Drum in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife:Passage.

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Micajah "Big" 'Joshua Harper' Harpe's Timeline

Orange County, North Carolina, United States
August 24, 1799
Age 31
Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, United States
Danville, Boyle County, Kentucky, United States