Thanks to tons of sloppily researched listicles and YouTube videos, most people think H.H. Holmes was America’s first serial killer. Far from it; by the time Holmes took his first victim, there had already been at least 10 earlier serial killers.
In fact, the first known serial killers in the U.S. were a pair of men known as the Harpe Brothers, and their crimes — some of the most brutal and psychopathic in American history — spanned decades.
Micajah and Wiley Harpe weren’t actually brothers; they were cousins. The older of the two, Micajah, was born around 1748; the younger, named Joshua but who would go by Wiley, was born about two years later.
It was right around the time of Wiley’s birth that their parents immigrated to America from Scotland. They settled in Orange County, North Carolina, but thanks to their British Loyalist views, were none too popular with their neighbors.
Growing up, the cousins were inseparable, leading many to think they were, in fact, brothers. Micajah, being taller and more muscular, was nicknamed “Big Harpe.” Wiley, who was smaller (and had a head of flaming red hair) was nicknamed “Little Harpe” and was considered the smarter of the two.
According to some sources, the two witnessed their families being attacked and lynched by their Patriot (pro-independence) neighbors, and from that day, swore revenge.
Little else is known about their upbringing. However, they must have had a cruel streak early, as they stole a neighbor’s horse in 1775 to move to Virginia, hoping to find work “overseeing” plantation slaves.
But the outbreak of the Revolutionary War put their career aspirations on hold. Raised as Loyalists, the Harpes joined the British as “irregulars,” or guerrillas, who weren’t officially members of the armed forces.
Now, in the chaos of war, the Harpes were free to unleash their violent urges. They fought in a few actual battles, but mostly they engaged in raids where they would kill, rape, steal, and burn down the property of known or suspected Patriots.
After the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, the Revolutionary War was officially over, but the fighting between Loyalists and Patriots continued — and provided cover for plenty of non-political crime as well.
The Harpes were taken in by the Chickamauga Cherokees (who had also fought alongside the British) and lived with them in their village of Nickajack, Tennessee. The Harpes and the Chickamaugans continued raiding white settlements in Tennessee and Kentucky, stealing food or other valuable items, killing families, and raping women. It was likely during this time that Micajah — now over six feet tall — developed a preference for using a tomahawk to split his victims’ skulls in one blow.
During a couple of these raids, the Harpes kidnapped two women, Maria Davidson and Susan Wood, to take as “wives.” During the time they lived Nickajack, Davidson and Wood were each impregnated twice, and each time they gave birth, the Harpes would murder the newborn infants.
Then, in 1794, the Americans tracked down the source of the raids and planned an ambush of Nickajack. Somehow, the Harpes got wind of the attack and fled the village with their wives beforehand.
For a while, the Harpes lived in a camp in the woods, foraging and hunting for food. They continued raiding nearby towns and farms for food and other necessities, but also for the sheer joy of destruction and killing.
However, that nomadic lifestyle couldn’t last long. In 1797, the Harpes and their wives moved to a cabin outside of Knoxville. At the time, Knoxville was a frontier town — rowdy and violent.
Yet the Harpes appeared to be trying to go straight. They settled down and started farming hogs. Wiley married a minister’s daughter, Susan Rice. Micajah legally married Susan and also took in Maria as a not-so-secret second wife.
But the Harpes couldn’t suppress their criminal urges for long. Soon they began stealing livestock. If anyone dared to accuse them or demand their animals back, the Harpes would kill them in retaliation.
This is the fate that befell a man named Johnson. According to some sources, Johnson confronted the Harpes while they were in a tavern. They fought, and Johnson stabbed Wiley, though not severely.
So the Harpes waited outside the tavern for Johnson; when he finally left, they ambushed him, dragged him into the woods, and killed him. In what would become known as the Harpes’ gruesome M.O., Johnson’s urine-soaked body was later found in the river, disemboweled, his body stuffed with rocks.
For the first time in their long criminal careers, they faced the very real possibility of being arrested and hanged for murder. The Harpes, along with their wives, packed up a few belongings and fled into the wilderness.
Now back in the nomadic, untraceable lifestyle they had lived before, the Harpes went right back to their old ways — only now, they seemed to have an ever greater taste for murder.
Instead of raiding villages and towns — a much riskier endeavor now that the war was over — the Harpes began ambushing travelers along the Wilderness Road between Tennessee and Kentucky. Sometimes they would pretend to be fellow travelers, befriend their victims, then kill them with a blow from Micajah’s tomahawk.
Once they had stolen their victims’ money and possessions, they would slit their torsos open, disembowel them, and stuff their bodies with rocks. The corpses would then be tossed into a nearby river.
But the rough, nomadic life was difficult to sustain. One cold winter morning, the Harpes and their wives — all three of whom were visibly pregnant — walked into an inn in Kentucky.
Seeing their dirty, raggedy appearance, a traveler named John Langford who had been staying at the inn bought them all breakfast. The Harpes, sensing Langford had a good deal of money, befriended him, offering to escort him along the Wilderness Road. After all, they said, there are some very bad men on that road.
Langford left with the Harpes. The next time he was seen, he was a corpse, his torso stuffed with stones like so many of the others.
Fortunately, several witnesses saw Langford leave with the Harpes. The whole clan — including the pregnant women — was arrested on Christmas Day, 1798.
While they were awaiting trial, the three women gave birth in jail. Immediately afterwards, the Harpe brothers escaped.
A posse was organized to hunt for them. But before they could be found, the son of one of the posse members was found murdered, his body mutilated in the same fashion as the Harpes’ other victims.
The governor of Kentucky placed a $300 reward on their heads.
Meanwhile, the Harpes’ wives, now with newborn infants, were tried for their alleged involvement in the murders. The women pled not guilty and were acquitted. Taking pity on the destitute mothers, the city gave them a horse and told them to return to their families.
However, the women sold the horse and bought a canoe. With their infants, they floated down the Ohio River to a pre-arranged spot to meet their husbands.
This has led many to speculate that the women were actually involved in the Harpes’ crimes as willing accomplices. Others think the women may have suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, or they rightfully believed that as single mothers with infants to care for, they simply couldn’t have survived without their husbands.
Regardless, the Harpe clan was reunited and on the run from the law. They made their way north, killing another five people over the course of two weeks.
They finally made their way to southern Illinois, to a place named, quite logically, Cave-In-Rock. There, a gang of pirates led by Samuel Mason lived in the giant cave and preyed upon the steamboats and other traffic along the Ohio River. For whatever reason, the gang agreed to take them in.
While the Mason gang was renowned for its brutality, even they were shocked by the Harpes. Members of the gang would later report that the Harpes seemed to delight in torture and cruelty, devising ever more fiendish ways of killing. They began taking their victims to the top of a cliff, forcing them to strip naked, and pushing them to their deaths.
This was too much for even the Mason gang, and they forced the Harpes to leave Cave-In-Rock. The Harpes and their wives and children began to make their way back to Tennessee.
Despite being wanted outlaws, the Harpes seemed to accelerate the pace of killing. In the summer of 1798, after leaving Cave-In-Rock, they murdered at least a dozen more people, including children, in Tennessee and Kentucky. Some had their throats slit; others had their skulls sliced open with a tomahawk. And some had been disemboweled, stuffed with rocks, and tossed into a body of water.
One day at their camp, one of the babies started crying and wouldn’t stop. Annoyed, Micajah ripped the baby from Susan’s arms and dashed its head against a tree. He would later claim this was the only crime he ever felt remorse for.
In August of 1798, the Harpes brothers left their camp to pay a visit to Moses Stegall, who lived just outside of Dixon, Kentucky. Stegall owed them some money, and they meant to collect.
When they arrived at the Stegall farm, Moses wasn’t there. However, he had left his wife, Mary, the money he owed the Harpes.
When she opened her purse to get their money, they saw she had quite a bit more. So they asked her if they could stay until morning — a common enough request in rural, isolated Kentucky. Mary agreed.
Micajah slept in the same room as another of the Stegall’s guests, Maj. William Love. During the night, annoyed by the major’s snoring, Micajah split his skull with the tomahawk.
The next morning, the Harpes woke up expecting breakfast. However, Mary told the Harpes she couldn’t cook, as her infant son was ill and wouldn’t stop crying. Micajah persuaded Mary to give him the baby to quiet him.
He took the boy to his crib, out of his mother’s eyesight. Soon the infant was quiet, so Mary made the Harpes a big breakfast.
Once they had been served, she went to check on her son. He was lying in his crib in a pool of blood. His throat had been slit.
When Mary saw her baby murdered, she screamed. The Harpes stabbed her to death, leaving Micajah’s knife buried deep in her body.
Then, they sat down and finished their breakfast. When they were done, they kicked over the wood stove, setting the house on fire.
When Moses Stegall returned to find his home burned to ashes and the bodies of his murdered wife and child inside, he was furious — and he knew exactly who was responsible.
A posse — including Moses — was immediately assembled and set out to find the Harpes. As they followed the murderers’ trail, they came across two more victims.
They also found the camp where the Harpe wives and children were. Susan was only too happy to point the posse in the direction of Micajah and Wiley.
On Aug. 24, 1799, the posse caught up with the Harpes just as they were about to kill yet another person, a settler named George Smith.
According to accounts, the posse ordered the Harpes to surrender, but the two fled. Wiley was nicked by a bullet, but still managed to escape.
Micajah was not as lucky. He was shot in the spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. When the posse approached him, he brandished his tomahawk, but he was quickly subdued. The men held Micajah down while Moses Stegall slowly cut off his head.
While he was dying, Micajah confessed to murdering 20 people.
Moses then took Micajah Harpe’s severed head home with him. He placed it in the crook of a tall tree at a crossroads near his cabin, where it grinned at travelers for years, earning the crossroads the nickname “Harpe’s Head.” The rest of Micajah’s corpse was left out to rot; the hill where it lay is still known as “Harpe’s Hill.”
But this was not the last decapitation in the Harpe Brothers story.
After escaping the Stegall posse, Wiley made his way back to Cave-In-Rock and talked the Mason gang into letting him rejoin them. He started going by the name John Sutton or Setton, and for four years, he was a free man, robbing and killing travelers along the Natchez Trace trail between Tennessee and Mississippi.
But while Wiley was keeping a low profile, the gang’s leader, Sam Mason, had become one of the most wanted criminals in the U.S. There was a $2,000 reward on his head, a princely sum in 1803.
Earlier, Sam and Wiley had barely escaped being arrested — though the authorities didn’t know who Wiley really was. Sam had been shot in the escape, and it’s not known if he died from that or if Wiley finished the job.
Either way, Wiley removed Sam’s head, and he and fellow gang member Peter Alston brought it to a court in Greenville, Mississippi, looking to collect the reward.
Once the identity of the severed head was confirmed, the two were handed the money. But at that moment, a man who he’d robbed in Kentucky shouted, “Why, that man’s Wiley Harpe!”
Harpe denied it, claiming to be John Sutton. But then, a relative of Johnson — the man they had murdered after he stabbed Wiley in a Knoxville tavern — stood up and said there was one way to tell if it was Wiley Harpe: there would be a scar beneath his left nipple from where he had been stabbed that night. Sure enough, the scar was there.
The two were arrested on the spot. They were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. The two escaped prison at one point, but were quickly recaptured.
On Feb. 8, 1804, Wiley Harpe and Peter Alston were hung by the neck until dead. After they were cut down from the gallows, their heads were removed and placed on poles along the Natchez Trace.
It will probably never be known just how many victims the Harpe brothers had. There are at least 39, but estimates go as high as more than 50 — making them not only the first serial killers in American history, but two of the deadliest.