Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

Killing Ground

The border between Tennessee and Kentucky was newly settled, providing the Harpes with plenty of opportunities for killing — especially because the settlements were sparsely populated, resulting in many people being fairly isolated. One victim, Bradbury, was immortalized on the spot where he died: Bradbury's Ridge.

"They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction," remarks Breazeale, "not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood." When they did steal something from people, it was usually only for their immediate needs. For example, when they bashed a black boy's head against a tree to kill him, they left his horse and a bag of grain behind.

At this time, there was no Pinkerton agency, no FBI, and not even an organized police force in these parts. The federal marshals had been appointed in 1789, but found it difficult to do their jobs in wilderness areas with the limited resources they had. There was simply no precedent for the kind of killing the Harpes indulged, in terms of how to track and stop them.

Yet despite their retreat into Tennessee, the Harpes soon returned to Kentucky. Breazeale says they moved along the Kentucky trace, back into the Cumberland Mountains, and as they crossed the Emory River, they encountered two men. They killed one, smashing his rifle against a tree, but the other escaped to bring the news that the Harpes were back. After the discovery of the first man's body, the area became known as Brasil's Knob. The residents again took up their defense, determined to bring these killers to justice as well as free their community from the terror these killers instilled. They might be back, was the sentiment, but they were going to be stopped, once and for all.

To avoid capture, the Harpes continued to live in the woods and caves that were scattered throughout the mountains. Occasionally they would venture out to a home in which they knew some protection, and at one such place, their violent natures got the better of them. It was the beginning of the end of their spree, but not before several more people died.

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