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Monday, February 10, 2020

Criminals of Early America: the Harpes

Replica of the old jail in Danville, Kentucky
When studying historical figures, it's always interesting to try to figure out why people made the decisions they did. Some leave a clear enough record of their thoughts and feelings to give us at least an educated guess on their motivations. Others simply, as I state elsewhere, rise from the mists of history with no real clue to either their origin or inner workings of their mind.

With some of those, we really wouldn't want to see inside their minds, based on what we know of their actions.

The notorious Harpes are two such examples, in my opinion, billed as America's first known serial killers. It's a toss-up whether their criminal activities fit the serial killer mold or are better described as a murder spree, but regardless of what you call it, their thirst for blood and cruelty cast fear over the frontier for the better part of a year. Revenge killings, robbery, torture--they did it all, with no respect to age or gender.

Referred to as the Harpe brothers, Micajah (pronunciation up for grabs, based on phonetic spellings: Mi-CAY-uh or Mick-uh-juh/jer) and Wiley (often spelled Willey, so was it short for William? we may never know) were more likely cousins. They were often known as "Big" and "Little," Micajah being the elder and, of course, bigger, though Wiley was tall enough in his own right. Early records show the spelling of their last name as Harp, which may be short for Harper, their suspected birth name. Tradition and legend pegs them as sons of a pair of brothers who immigrated from Scotland, staunch Tories who lived in the North Carolina backcountry and probably participated in the Battle of Kings Mountain. I've observed elsewhere that if the boys were as young as estimated, then it's very likely that the brutality of partisan warfare, both during that battle and afterward, did imprint them with the cruelty they're later recorded as having indulged in.

Regardless of the reasons why, the end result was horrifying--two men whose respect for God and Scripture appears nominal and capricious at best, whose actions were defined more by a demonic enjoyment of inflicting pain than greed or even need.

They didn't even fit the profile of your usual highway robbers--men like Mason and his gang who chose piracy but took obvious pride in having a certain code of ethics. Robbery accompanied some of their murders, but certainly not all. A simple Google search reveals two-dozen-some websites which sketch many details of their misadventures, and most of which I list under sources for my upcoming release, The Blue Cloak. This story is best described as historical suspense meets true crime, with a thread of romance in the form of a fictional couple thrown together by the Harpes' reign of terror.

A particular area of interest for me as I researched the story was the plight of the Harpe women--two who were verifiably wives by law, and a third. All three women were heavily pregnant when the family surfaces on the Wilderness Road near Hazel Patch, Kentucky, in December 1798, and all three later gave birth in jail in Danville, Kentucky. By August 1799, only two of the three babies still survived. Many have condemned the women for not trying harder to get out of their situation, but I understood all too well the level of intimidation they must have been subjected to, how they surely felt they had no options while both men still lived.

Over the next couple of months, I want to look not only at how the justice system of the time dealt with such situations, but the possible, surprising link between the Harpes and a revival known as America's Second Great Awakening.


To read more:


  1. This book sounds awesome and I can’t wait to read it. I grew up in the hollars of KY. 😊

  2. This book sounds so good! I love the book cover! Can't wait for the book!


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