Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

Petty Crimes

Eventually the Harpes decided that military life wasn't much to their liking (not to mention that they were much too young to be soldiers), so just before the war ended, when things were looking bad for the British, they deserted. When the colonies won and established their independence, the Harpes became outlaws. They now had little to lose, so rather than return home, they rode with gangs to plunder and steal, and then pushed their way west.

Map showing Tennessee's Knox County
Map showing Tennessee's Knox County

Along the way, Micajah kidnapped Maria Davidson to be his wife, then grabbed Susan Wood (some sources give their names as Betsy and Sally, because they used aliases). The men sufficiently brutalized the women to put the fear of God into them so they wouldn't think of running off — and perhaps just because they liked to exert their will. They apparently came into Tennessee's Knox County some time between 1795 and 1797, settling close to a place called Beaver's Creek. By this time, says Doris Lane, they had killed five times — including four of their own children. 

Wiley legally married a woman from Knoxville named Sarah Rice (another source calls her Susanna). Not much is know about how these women adjusted to their new husbands, but it's likely that the men did not much care. In fact, Big Harpe lived with both Betsy and Sally as common-law wives. These men clearly weren't seeking a way to start families to perpetuate their line, because they often slaughtered their own progeny. Apparently, it was sex slaves they wanted, as Musgrave says that both Harpes killed two children each (although some accounts claim that later on they did have children in their familial entourage — as many as three).

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