The 13th Floor

“They Filled Their Victims’ Bodies with Rocks”: The Grisly History of America’s 1st Serial Killers, The Harpe Brothers

In 1776, America had declared itself a new nation. Just twenty years later, the Harpe brothers would become America’s first serial killers. The Harpe brothers, Micajah and Wiley, were born around 1760 to Scottish immigrant parents in Orange County, North Carolina. For the most part, the Harpe brothers are a thing of legend. Although not widely known today, their actions were the topic of many conversations and newspapers during the early days of America.

Their father was a loyalist during the revolution and fought on the side of English during the early days of the war. Later on, older brother Micajah along with younger brother Wiley would also join on the side of the British as part of a brutal Tory gang. As part of the gang, the Harpe Brothers conducted raids on the homes of patriots, looting and murdering as they stormed through the countryside. After the war, the brothers joined up with a Cherokee tribe which continued raiding Patriot settlements.

Eventually, the Harpes left the company of the Cherokee and struck out on their own, shortly before soldiers caught up with the tribe and decimated them. Even on their own, Micajah and Wiley proved to be ruthless, effective killers and thieves. They became notorious for the brutal ways by which they killed and dismembered their victims.  In Knoxville, they killed a man during the course of robbing him. He was found at the bottom of a river. His chest cavity had been ripped open and stuffed with rocks while he was still alive. They were also pitiless when it came to murder, one woman claimed that Micajah swung her baby by the feet headfirst into a tree killing it instantly. Micajah was said to only be annoyed by the child’s crying.

The Harpe brothers traveled with three women, known as the “Harpe wives”. This grisly family moved throughout Kentucky robbing to survive and murdering for their own amusement. In Green River, they murdered a man by the name of Langford for no reason at all. They were arrested in Danville for the crime, but eventually escaped. Soon afterward, they murdered a millboy in Adair County followed by three more men as they traveled to western Kentucky. Then in July of 1799 came the murder of the entire Stigal family. All the men, women, and children of the Stigal family along one of their house guests were killed just before the Harpe brothers set the home on fire.

After the Stigal slaying, a posse was organized to bring the brothers to justice. The posse’s organizer, John Leiper, managed get the drop on Micajah by shooting and wounding him. Not ready to give up, Micajah fought off his attackers with a tomahawk until he was eventually overpowered and decapitated. His head was then hung in the branches of a tree where it remained for ten years, a spot in Webster County, Kentucky now known as Harpe’s Head Road. Wiley escaped justice that day and ran off to join Samuel Mason, a river pirate operating near Cave-in-Rock, Illinois. He was eventually captured and executed along with his fellow pirates.

Despite their heinous acts and notoriety as America’s first serial killers, the Harpe brothers don’t make many appearances in film or literature. Despite a few books on their deeds, they are mostly seen in the background. In the 1955 television series WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY ,they made an appearance in the episode DAVY CROCKETT AND THE RIVER PIRATES. In the film THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941), they were called on to be part of the Devil’s jury. By the end of their reign of terror, the brothers would confess to murdering 39 individuals, although many believe the number to be over 50.