The Harpes —Two Outlaws of Pioneer Times

Posted by | April 22, 2016

On April 22, 1799, the Governor of Kentucky issued a Proclamation offering a reward for the capture of either or both of the Harpe Brothers. Reports of killings in Kentucky were followed by others from southern Illinois, then from east Tennessee, then again from Kentucky. Among their victims was one of their own children. Declaring that Little Harpe’s crying infant would some day be the means of pursuers detecting their presence, Big Harpe slung the baby by the heels against a tree and literally burst its head into pieces.

The Harpe brothers and their 3 female traveling companions. Art by Lawrence Bjorklund for 'The Spawn of Evil', by Paul I. Wellman, Doubleday Books, 1964.

The Harpe brothers and their 3 female traveling companions. Art by Lawrence Bjorklund for ‘The Spawn of Evil’, by Paul I. Wellman, Doubleday Books, 1964.

During the first year of their unrestrained ferocity they had committed at least twenty murders. The whole of Kentucky and Tennessee had become terrorized by the possibility of the appearance of the Harpes at any hour in any locality.

The people of the lower Green River country, like settlers elsewhere, were on the lookout for them. In the early part of August, 1799, two suspicious newcomers were discovered prowling around some of the backwoods settlements in southern Henderson County. These strangers might be the Harpes. No one knew.

The Harpes, aware that they were being hunted—and at times seen and watched—had taken the precaution never to move in the open with their women. The fact that no woman had been seen with them led the watchers to conclude that the suspects were not the widely sought murderers.

One day the Harpes left Henderson County and started toward the hiding place of their women and children—twenty or more miles away. They rode good horses, and were well armed and fairly well dressed.

That evening they arrived at the home of James Tompkins, in what is now Webster County. They represented themselves as Methodist preachers. Their equipment aroused no suspicion, for the country was almost an unbroken wilderness, and preachers, as well as most other pioneers, often traveled well armed.

Tompkins invited them to supper, and Big Harpe, to ward off suspicion, said a long grace at table. After supper they bade their host farewell, saying they had an engagement elsewhere.

Late that night, August 20, they reached the house of Moses Stegall—about five miles east of what later became the town of Dixon. Stegall was absent, but his wife and their only child, a boy of four months, were at home and, a few hours before, had admitted Major William Love, a surveyor, who had come to see Stegall on business.

Mrs. Stegall, expressing an opinion that her husband would return that night, invited him to remain. He had climbed up a ladder outside the house to the loft above and was in bed when the new arrivals entered the cabin. He came down and met the two men. In the conversation that followed the murderers themselves inquired about the Harpes and, among other things, stated that, according to rumor, the two outlaws were then prowling around in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Stegall, having only the one spare bed in the loft, was obliged to assign it to the three men. After Major Love had fallen asleep, one of the Harpes took an axe, which he always carried in his belt and, with a single blow, dashed out the brains of the sleeping man.

The two villains then went down to Mrs. Stegall’s room. She, knowing nothing to the contrary, presumed Major Love was still asleep. Reprimanding her for assigning them to a bed with a man whose snoring kept them awake, they murdered her and her baby. Leaving the three bodies in the house, they set it afire.

The next morning five men returning from a salt lick found the Stegall house a smoldering ruin. Surroundings indicated that the disaster was still unknown in the neighborhood. The men proceeded to the home of Squire Silas McBee to notify him of their discovery. While they were discussing the subject with Squire McBee, Moses Stegall rode up, and for the first time heard what had happened to his family.

Then began the hunt for the Harpes. Mounted and equipped, and provisioned for a few days, Squire McBee’s troop of seven men started on their expedition against the murderers. They found and followed the trail until night. Early the next morning, after traveling only a few miles, they detected the Harpes standing on a distant hillside. Big Harpe was holding his horse; Little Harpe had no horse.

The pursuers at once started for the hill. In the meantime Big Harpe mounted and darted off in one direction, Little Harpe ran in another—and both were out of sight. In their efforts to find traces of the Harpes the pursuers discovered the Harpe camp. They found no one there except Little Harpe’s woman.

When questioned threateningly she said she did not know in what direction little Harpe had fled, but that Big Harpe had just been there, hurriedly placed each of his women on a good horse, and had ridden away with them. She was left under the care of one of the men, and the chase was resumed.

A few miles farther on, Big Harpe and his two women were seen on a ridge a short distance ahead. Realizing his danger he put spurs to his horse and dashed off alone, leaving his women behind. They made no attempt to follow him, but calmly awaited their captors, two of whom took them in charge.

The other men continued the chase. Each fired a shot at the fleeing outlaw, who again and again brandished his tomahawk in savage defiance. The wild ride continued through dense woods and over narrow trails for a few miles until the fugitive, slackening his pace, was overtaken. He had been mortally wounded by one of the shots. As he lay stretched upon the ground, he asked for water. A shoe was pulled off his foot and water was brought. Moses Stegall now stepped forward.

While reciting to Big Harpe how brutally he had murdered his wife and child, Stegall drew a knife, declaring he would cut off his enemy’s head. Then he pointed a gun at Harpe’s face.

The dying outlaw, conscious of the threat, jerked his head from side to side, hoping to dodge the threatened bullet. “Very well,” said Stegall, “I will not shoot you in the head, for I want to save it as a trophy.” Then, aiming at his heart, he shot him in the left side. And Big Harpe died without another struggle or groan.

With the knife he had so coldly exhibited, Stegall cut off the outlaw’s head. He placed it in one end of a bag, in the other end of which was a corresponding weight of provisions. The bag was slung across a horse, and the captors and their three captured women started on their return–some thirty-five miles–leaving the headless corpse to the wolves of Muhlenberg County.

The head was taken to the cross roads near where the Harpes had committed their last crime. It was there placed in the fork of a tree as a warning to others. The spot ever since has been known as Harpe’s Head, and the old road, now a modern highway, still bears the name of Harpe’s Head Road.


Adapted from: Rothert, Otto A. (July 1927). “The Harpes, Two Outlaws of Pioneer Times”, Filson Club Historical Quarterly , Vol. 1, No. 4

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