Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers


Micajah Harpe's body was left in the wilderness for the animals to fight over, while his head was placed in a bag, to be carried to an appropriate spot. The company also carried some roasting corn in the same bag for their supper. (Nash says that they actually boiled Micajah's head and consumed the flesh, leaving the skull on a tree, but this story is not consistent with other accounts.)

They returned to where the women had been tied to the trees. (The Gleaner indicates that there were three children as well.) They were still standing after many hours, but obviously weary and frightened. They were taken to a court in Russellville and interrogated as to their reasons for being joined to such monstrous men as the Harpes. In the spirit of many mates of serial killers, some truthful and others not, the wives claimed that they had not known of the Harpes' bad character when they first joined with them. But once they did have an inkling, they feared that leaving the men would endanger their own lives, as well as the lives of their families. They had seen the potential when the men had murdered their own children as infants.

One of them, Sarah, claimed that she had tried to leave several times, but was forced to remain with them. When asked what they knew about the various murders to which Micajah had confessed, they corroborated many of the details. They indicated that the motive for murder was an injustice done to the men. They said that Big Harpe had wanted to kill the three remaining children after the Stegall slaughter so that they could escape with no hindrances.

Historical marker telling a short version of Harpe's head
Historical marker telling a short version of Harpe's head

It came time to decide what to do with the women, and the officials ultimately decided that they had been more or less coerced to cohabit with the outlaws, so they could not be held responsible for any part in the atrocities. Thus, they were released and allowed to make their own way in the world. One can only wonder what scars they suffered watching their children be murdered and fearing each day for their lives. In fact, they walked away knowing that Little Harpe was still out there.

They sought protection from other residents in Kentucky, and Wiley's wife, Sarah, was welcomed back into her father's home. (Breazeale claims that because she was pretty and the others were not, she was able to secure protection more readily.) The other two stayed in the area and reformed their lives. Maria (Betsy) remarried, had a family and moved to Illinois. Sarah, too, remarried and went west. Susan died single, still in Tennessee, although she had a daughter living with her.

To formally establish that justice had been meted out to Big Harpe, the hunters took his head to a justice of the peace. They made affidavits of what had occurred, satisfying the official, and then decided what they should do with their gruesome trophy. They decided to put it on public display, placing it on the end of a pointed stick that was rooted into the ground. (Other accounts say they stuck it on a tree.)

Travelers passing by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County saw the head for themselves, even years after it was first placed there and transformed into a hollow-eyed, grinning skull. They told stories about this outlaw to entertain themselves but also to serve as a warning to others that bad things can happen to even the worst of men. The place gained the name Harpe's Head, and the road, Harpe's Head Road.

For his bravery, Leiper was granted a reward of $250. Others who hoped to cash in went looking for Little Harpe, but he remained on the loose for several more years. There was little comfort in those parts from knowing that only one of these monsters was safely dead, but people took what they could get.

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