Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

Biting the Hand that Feeds

One day late in August 1799, the killing cousins came into the Stegall homestead, headed by Moses Stegall, a man of "bad character" who had settled in the thinly populated area of Henderson County. He'd associated superficially with the Harpes and tolerated them to some extent, but was uninterested in too many dealings. Nevertheless, the Harpe wives got to know Mrs. Stegall, and according to the Gleaner account, they alerted their men to the fact that the woman kept a sum of $40, hidden in the cabin. (Rothert tells another story: foiled by dogs in their attempted murder of Stegall's neighbor, they came into Stegall's yard.)

When Stegall was away, the Harpes arrived and asked Mrs. Stegall to fix them a meal. She told them that she was attending to her infant, just four months old, and they'd have to wait. (Another account say that they requested lodging for the night and were put in the barn with a man named Major William Love, whom they killed during the night  because he snored too loudly. They had actually warned him that outlaws were prowling the area.)

In Breazeale's account, whether or not they stayed the night, it was morning when the Harpes suggested that Mrs. Stegall put her child in its cradle so they could look after it while she cooked the food. She agreed to the arrangement, going off to the kitchen. Her baby quieted right away, which pleased her. In fact, throughout the entire time she was making breakfast, she did not hear a single cry from the child. That surprised her. She brought the meal to serve the men and then went to check on the babe.

A laborer named Williams, in the field with a couple of women who were breaking flax, witnessed what happened next. As Mrs. Stegall stood over the cradle, she stopped short and let out a piecing scream. The Harpes caught her and stabbed her to death with a butcher knife — the same one they had used, it turned out, to cut the throat of her child to keep it quiet. They then entered the cabin, apparently found the stash of money (no one reports if they did), set fire to the house and ran.

Williams ran, too, fetching the women nearby to protect them and alerting other people in the area. Moses soon heard about the incident and came running to find his slaughtered wife and child. Although in shock, he called for some men to help him, including Captain John Leiper, and seven of them went in pursuit of the Harpes, traveling the rest of the day and into the next. One man in the posse possessed a rifle filled with powder given to him by Micajah when he and Wiley had come to his home earlier, posing as preachers.

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