Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

Off with His Head

At the same time, troops arrived on their way from eastern Tennessee to take over the Louisiana and Mississippi territories. Some knew Harpe on sight (John Bowman is named by one source as the person who made the identification, and Captain Stump by another), and were aware of his fugitive status, so when he arrived with Mason's head in his hand, they grabbed him and put him into a prison. Bowman said that Harpe would have a scar under the left nipple, and indeed, he did. Mays went with him, but they escaped. Recaptured outside Greenville, Mississippi, they were brought back and held for execution.

On February 8, 1804, Harpe and Hays were hanged. Their heads were removed and placed on poles, Harpe to the north of town and Mays to the south, as a warning to other outlaws. (Nash erroneously states that Wiley was rumored to have been eaten by a wild wolf pack. He makes no report of the capture and execution in Mississippi.)

"Thus ended the lawless and bloody career of those incarnadine monsters," writes Breazeale, "whose ruthless, unnatural, and barbarous deeds must startle and astound the reader who has not hitherto heard the story of their more than brutal outrages."

It's likely that the Harpes had escaped recognition as classic serial killers because, unlike the compulsive fantasy-driven killers of today, who tend to be repetitive, the Harpes murdered people in a variety of ways, from shooting to stabbing to bludgeoning. Yet their lack of real motive and general sense of anger and disdain holds true. It's unlikely that anyone else before them will be nominated as America's first serial killers. They certainly deserve the title.

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