Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers


They arrived early in the morning, dirty and ragged from days on the trail, and demanded breakfast. A young man name Thomas Langford, on his way to Virginia, was already eating his repast. Pharris' wife served food to the Harpes, but after they had eaten, they haggled over the price, insisting that they would not pay.

Langford intervened to defend her, since her husband was not there to do it, and the Harpes turned their wrath on him. But he stood his ground, determined to do what was right.

"You have no cause to argue with a lady," Langford said. "If you're short on funds, I have plenty of money and I'll pay for the food." His aim was to make them desist in their abuse of Mrs. Pharris. He clearly did not realize that he'd just been scammed, as well as targeted for further treatment; he had revealed too much about himself and had become a tantalizing morsel. The Harpes, spotting his naiveté, accepted his offer and he paid the bill. They pretended to be reconciled and even suggested that Langford travel with their entourage as protection against the dangers on the road. He readily accepted.

After breakfast, they all set off together, traveling several miles until they were beyond anyone's view. In an instant, the Harpes set upon young Langford, killing him and taking his money. They tossed his corpse on the side of the road, covering it with some brush, and went their way.

There it lay, decomposing, until some cattle drivers happened along. The cattle smelled it first and the herd took off in diverse directions, bellowing as if a lion were at their tails. The cattle drovers were clueless about what had startled them so suddenly, but they had little time to ponder it. They ran to catch the stray cattle and herd them back together. While engaged in this task, one of them discovered Langford's body and called to his cohorts. Those with the courage to venture close looked through the corpse's effects for some indication of his identity. On his clothing, they found his name: Thomas Langford.

They used a blanket to gather up the remains and carried him to the nearest public house to try to get help. This happened to be the Pharris establishment. The family recognized him at once as their previous lodger, and they remembered that he had gone off with the bedraggled family who had raised such a row about the price of their food. It seemed clear to everyone what had happened: The Harpes had lured Langford away and then killed him for his money.

Map showing Lincoln County, KY
Map showing Lincoln County, KY

A posse gathered to go in pursuit of the family and soon came across them. Micajah and Wiley found themselves captured once again, on Christmas Day in 1798, and this time they could not escape so easily. They ended up locked into a prison in Danville, the seat of Lincoln County, to await a trial. However, their wits proved superior to the prison walls and they managed to get out and disappear into the wilderness. (Breazeale mentions that a jailor quit soon after and appeared to be quite wealthy, so suspicion mounted that the Harpes had bribed him with Langford's money and he'd accepted). Musgrave, who looks primarily to Rothbert as a source, says that the Harpe women were also imprisoned at this time and they did not escape, as all were pregnant. They gave birth in the prison, all within two months of the others. Once freed and able to move on to new lives, they went instead to Cave-in Rock to meet their husbands, as per instructions from a messenger. None attempted to go elsewhere to escape the men.

Now, says Breazeale, the Harpes stepped up their aggression, as if they could not get enough bloodshed.

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