Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers


The Harpes became two of the most feared outlaws, hiding out for a time in a cavernous limestone formation in southern Illinois known as Cave-in Rock. This place, says Nash, was a "natural fortress honeycombed with subterranean passages so large that the Harpes hid herds of cattle and horses in them." Rothert's book provides a comprehensive history of the area and its changing inhabitants.

People traveling on flatboats
People traveling on flatboats

For several decades, a group of river pirates took over, and for a brief period the Harpes moved among them. Because Cave-in Rock was located on a cliff over the Ohio River, the pirates could easily ambush people traveling on flatboats. Or, posing as guides or boatmen, they would bring travelers with their goods to a vulnerable spot near the cave. Then other gang members jumped out to confiscate the goods. The goal was to enrich themselves, which they did quite well, but they intended no physical harm. However, the Harpes had other games in mind. In one incident, they bound a terrified flatboat passenger naked to a blindfolded horse and sent both over a cliff. The hapless man and animal landed hard on the rocks below. This incident shocked the pirates for its wanton cruelty, and they severed all ties with the Harpes, demanding that they leave. The pirates even referred to them as "men turned into wild wolves," although one of them would cross a Harpe's path again, to his detriment. More about that later.

In 1798, the Harpes went into Kentucky and began an intense campaign of violence. In one incident reported in The Gleaner, says Jenkins, they found a little girl at the mouth of the Green River. To send a message to area residents, they smashed the child's head against the bridge structure, killing her. Breazeale also describes an incident in which they murdered a boy named Coffey (or Trabue) who was on his way to a grist mill. This killing was followed by (or occurred after, depending on the account) the murder of an adult male named Johnson. (Musgrave says Johnson was their first victim and suggests that he got his due, by the Harpes' way of thinking, because he had alerted Tiel about who had stolen his horses). Apparently the Harpes came upon him on the road to or from Knoxville and shot him in the head. But they weren't content with that. They also ripped open his belly to fill his abdomen full of rocks. They may have been trying to hide their deed as they tossed the rock-filled body into the Holston River. Yet people discovered it because when it decomposed, the rocks fell out and the remains floated to the surface.

Another trick, which Rothert describes, was clearly psychopathic. The Harpes would ride along with someone they might encounter on the road, under the pose of gaining and giving protection — safety in numbers. Often their wives were with them. They would then drop back on the path until they had a good, clear shot, and kill their prey. In one case involving two male travelers from Maryland, the Harpes pretended they could not find a suitable place to camp for the night until it grew dark. Then they made their move, and both men died.

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