Updated: Mar 16
Why hello there Creeps!!! I’m your host Malia Miglino, recording this episode from my hotel room in good ol’ Nashville, Tennessee. I had the good fortune to be able to come out here and tour a bunch of historic homes, plantations and cemeteries and there is no shortage of horror out here, let me tell ya.
Now I figured it only makes sense to tell a tale that has some roots here in Tennessee. I decided I wanted to stay away from any of the horrific acts committed by slave owners so instead, i’m bringin you guys the macabre family tale of the Harpe Brothers, who were actually cousins but we’ll get into that. Essentially, these dudes were the fucking worst and like a bajillion others, have the title of America’s first serial killers.
So without further ado, it’s time to pour a glass of whiskey or sweet tea, whatever your poison is, and do some time travelin’.
We’re in the late 1700s in North Carolina. If you’ve ever read the books or watched the show “Outlander” one of my personal faves, it’s basically historical porn, you will know that a shit ton of Scottish immigrants settled in that area, that is actually historically true. Amongst these Scottish immigrants are the Harpe family. John Harpe had a son named Micajah and William Harpe had Joshua who would later go by Wiley. So to clarify, two brothers had sons, making them cousins and those COUSINS would later become the Bloody Harpe's. Also, because this was the 1770s and historical people loved cheeky nick names, Micajah would be referred as Big Harpe and Wiley, who apparently was much smaller, was Little Harpe. I don’t know about you guys but personally, calling yourself a big or little anything takes away your badassery like, real quick.
So these fools decided they’ve had enough of North Carolina and they can make a killing, pun intended as slave overseers in Virginia. For the record, slave overseers tended to be the most brutal on plantations because their entire job was making sure the slaves were productive, doing their job, not trying to gain freedom yadda yadda yadda, and were often the ones handing out punishments because the slave owners or master, was too busy enjoying the fruits of all of that free labor. But a little thing called the Revolutionary War came in the way of their big career plans and here is where I start being very confused by these two. So they’re first generation Scottish, their parents theoretically came to the New World to escape the British persecution that had ravaged their country for like ever, so it’s safe to say, the Scotts kinda hate the English yet these mother fuckers ARE LOYALISTS and side with the Crown and fight on behalf of the British.
Now heres the most likely reason why they did this - it’s very likely they only sided with the British because the red coats were the ones raping women, burning villages and straight up stealing from American patriots.
Some of the British had moral codes however so when Little Harpe was attempting to rape a little girl, Captain James Wood shot him, like, "hey mother fucker, raping kids just because they’re your size doesn’t make it right, i’m gonna shoot you, go away you Scottish asshole."
Sadly, Little Harpe survives and is naturally super bitter about being shot so he’s like, "you know what, fuck these guys, lets go rape and pillage with some other British dudes." They do some more fighting against the Americans and then decide to totally switch it up because they’re still uber bitter Little Harpe was shot by Captain James Wood so they join up with the Cherokee in Tennessee in a fight against the Captain and that obviously wasn’t enough for these guys so they say, "hey, we should probably steal his daughter Susan and hey, while we’re at it, lets take this Maria Davidson as well."
I’m sure you can imagine the Harpes did not treat these girls well. They would end up taking them as "wives", and I say it like that because I don’t believe there was any actual marriage ceremony performed. They beat em up pretty good and when they decided to find a place in Tennessee to settle with their wives and four other dudes who for whatever reason followed these fools, one of the guys, Moses Doss spoke up and was like, “yo, these girls don’t look good, maybe you should treat em better?” And of course the Harpes killed him because ya know, they’re the worst. For 12 years, the Harpes and their “wives” live in the Cherokee-Chichamagua village at Nickajack which on todays map would put them somewhere in the region of modern day Chattanooga.
It’s during these 12 years we start to see the full monsters come out because both Susan and Maria become pregnant twice, thats four babies. That’s four babies that the Harpe’s kill because they can’t stand the sound of the babies cry. First of all, thats horrific, the worst, BUT it’s also fascinating to hear about men doing this because you will find A LOT of stories of women smothering their babies or drowning them because they can’t stand the noise. Now thats a complicated situation usually having something to do with postpartum depression which for sure was not known back then and still is barely talked about today. Of course those women could have also just been mental..... but I digress.
I also just want to add the detail that it appears they killed the babies by smashing their heads with rocks. Subtle.
Some back and fourth goes on for awhile. After the battle of Yorktown, you’re no longer dealing with the Bristish buuuuut the Cherokees and other Indian Nations obviously aren’t done fighting with the Patriots. The Harpes, big fans of murder, help out as much as possible allllll with the plans on eventually turning on the Cherokee’s. When the Harpe’s get word of a planned attack on the Nickajack, instead of warning everyone else, they just pack up their wives and move to another little area closer to Knoxville and yes, everyone left at the village was killed.
It’s now 1797, and Little Harpe has decided to marry another woman, a ministers daughter, Sarah Rice which means Big Harpe now has TWO wives. Of course all this story needed was a little polgyamy.
Now, up until this point, you could argue that even though they’re awful, maybe they’re not worthy of the title serial killers but that will change.
The boys are gettin’ restless, I guess when you get a taste of blood it’s something you always crave so the Harpe’s decide to start free ballin it and here’s the thing, theres no actual motivation behind their killings. They’re not going not going to be targeting people for their money or their property, they’re literally just going to start killing JUST to kill. 1798 they kill two random men outside Knoxville, then another on the Wilderness trail. The two men and know three wives then move to Kentucky where they decide to kill two more dudes.
They also had a unique and fun way to dispose of the bodies too so for these guys, they would cut em open, disembowel them and then fill their cavities with rocks and sink em in the river. I feel like to them it was the same as playing with their food, just fun.
Kentucky would take notice of them though and when they decided to kill a traveler, an Inn keeper would tell the authorities, “hey, pretty sure it’s these creepy ass motherfuckers.” It was, and they were captured, and jailed but they escaped to the surprise of absolutely no body.
Unfortunately, things are about to get a hell of a lot worse.
The Kentucky Governor would put a bounty of $300 on each of their heads so they fled North with their 3 wives and now 3 kids. On this journey they would murder 5 more men until finally sheltering with the Samuel Mason Gang who were an ex American Patriot militia now turned river boat robbers and murders who despite the fact that they also killed, would eventually ask the Harpe posse to leave because they had a fondness for capturing men, taking them up to a bluff, stripping them naked and then pushing them off to their death.
These guys were on another trip.
The return to Tennessee where they kill 7 more men in every which way really. I’ll say this about the Harpes, they weren’t particular when it came to how they killed. They would slash throats, dismember, behead, shoot, stab, mutilate, I mean they really spanned the spectrum. Back in Kentucky, they’re just travelin ya know, they decide to kill a slave, behead a father and son, kill an entire family when they’re sleeping because why the hell not and then Big Harpe decided to bash his daughters head against a tree because she would not stop crying. By now we can safely say they were really awful house guests and that is proven in its worst form when they are taken in by a Mrs. Stegall after a man is found in the river disembowled, spoiler, it was them and they decided to kill another one of the house guests, Major William Love. It's then Mrs. Stegall’s baby boy starts to cry, they hate crying so they slit his throat, she screams because they just killed her fucking baby so naturally they then kill her,
At this point, these dudes are infamous and there is a major posse of people coming to get em, this time led by Moses Stegall who's family they just killed. They keep fleeing that is until the night of August 24th 1799. The posse finds them and they attempt to make a daring escape but Big Harpe is shot in the back and the leg and can’t get away. However, Little Harpe keeps on riding. Moses Stegall pulls Big Harpe off his horse and slowly saws off his head while he’s still alive WHILE he’s confessing to 20 murders. His head is then put on a pole at a crossroads near Henderson, Kentucky where for years afterwards, people would refer to that intersection as Harpe’s head.
Now what about Little Harpe? He takes on an alias of John Setton and somehow graces his way back in with the Samuel Mason gang where he chills out for 4 years.
WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THEIR WIVES AND THEIR CHILDREN? Well, when the guys ran off, they were captured, charged with being accomplices to murder but thankfully were later released and all three went on to marry proper men, have big happy families and the name Harpe started to disappear because family members did not want to be associated with the murderous duo.
If you’re wondering if justice came too Little Harpe, it did. Being the consistent backstabber he was, when he learned there was a bounty on the head of Samuel Mason, the dude who let him back in and helped keep him hidden, he cut off his head and turned it in for money not thinking the authorities would recognize HIM. They did, he was arrested, he escaped, he was recaptured and then promptly hung, fucking finally. His head was also put on a pole. People loved putting heads on poles, and it served as a warning for other outlaws.
It is speculated that the Harpe's killed over 40 men, women and children although I personally think the number was much higher than that.
What I find interesting about the Harpe's is that during a time in history where brutality was common, even they were seen as evil. If I’ve learned anything during my time here in Nashville wandering historic sites, it’s that humans are capable of unspeakable horrors and witnessing things like that changes a person forever.