Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

Wiley's Plan

Wiley Harpe had lucked out the day his cohort in crime was captured. The posse had chosen to let him go and he knew just how to elude capture. He had plenty of trails through the woods and in and out of caves, so he wasn't worried. However, when he heard about what had happened to his brother/cousin, he was determined that this would not happen to him. He traveled from there to Natchez, Mississippi, taking the name of Setton, and rather than lie low as a wise person might who has had such a close call, he apparently continued to murder people on his own. At least, that's how the legends portray his story. Daniels says that he seduced, battered, and murdered a young woman.

He came across a band of thieves, headed by Sam Mason or Meason (Breazeale was unsure of the spelling, but most sources refer to him as Mason), on whose own head a considerable reward of $2,000 had been placed. Wiley had known Mason from the Cave-in Rock pirate gang, operating the "Liquor Vault and House of Entertainment," so he probably had little trouble gaining entrée, despite his past atrocities.

Cave-in Rock
Cave-in Rock

Sifakis states that Mason, a former ranger and justice of the peace, terrorized the Mississippi around 1800, attracting a considerable gang of cutthroats who viewed him as their leader. After committing a crime, Mason often carved his presence on a tree, "Done by Mason of the Woods." He was captured early in 1803 but managed to escape during a storm to continue his plundering. Yet there were more than just decent folk who wanted him jailed or dead; always a predator, Wiley watched for his own opportunity to claim the reward. As often happens with two desperados, both of whom suffer no remorse, it's often a matter of which will do in the other one first.

Little Harpe dreamed of the money he would make bringing Mason in — dead or alive. His own preference was to kill the man, in keeping with the philosophy espoused by Micajah just prior to his own death. Finally, he saw the opportune moment and, with fellow gang member Sam Mays, killed Mason with a tomahawk. They removed his head and packed it in clay to transport it, knowing that Mason's unusually long wolf's tooth would be recognized by anyone familiar with him. The next task was to deliver the goods and claim the money, an act that carried its own risks. But Wiley was either too arrogant or too ignorant to realize how vulnerable he made himself when he brought the putrid head into Natchez. Mays accompanied him, probably to ensure that he'd get his own share. However, under suspicion of stealing horses, they were detained.

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