Number of victims
Date of murders
: 1797 - 1804
Method of murder
: Shooting / Stabbing
:Tennessee / Kentucky / Mississippi / Illinois
Generally considered to be America’s first serial killers, Micajah and Wiley Harpe were murderers, highwaymen, and river bandits who operated in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi in the late eighteenth century. The pair were not brothers but were actually cousins whose families emigrated from Scotland around 1760. During the American revolution, they served on the loyalist side, attacking the farms of Patriot colonists, committing rape and murder. Those experiences prepared them well for the carnage they would later commit.
In 1797, the Harpes were driven out of Knoxville, Tennessee after they were accused of killing a man named Johnson, ripping open his stomach and filling it with rocks before sinking him to the bottom of a river. They fled north into Kentucky, where they began preying on travelers along the Wilderness Road, committing so many murders that the Kentucky governor placed as $300 bounty on their heads.
That however, did nothing to slow the Harpes. With wives and children now in tow, they joined up with a river pirate named Samuel Mason and his gang and began preying on river traffic. But even this gang of cutthroats was appalled by the way the bloodthirsty Harpes treated their captives and the Harpes were forced to leave.
Micajah and Wiley showed up next in Eastern Tennessee, where they continued their vicious murder spree. Among their victims was Micajah Harpe’s own infant daughter, who’s head he bashed against a tree after he became annoyed by her crying.
The authorities, of course, had to respond and they did so by forming a posse led by John Leiper. The Harpes were eventually tracked down on August 24, 1799, with Micajah Harpe killed in the shootout. Wiley, however, managed to escape and remained at large until 1804 when he was finally captured in Jefferson County, Mississippi.
Tried and found guilty of murder, Wiley Harpe was hanged on February 8, 1804. Thereafter, his head was cut off and placed on a stake along the Natchez Trace as a warning to other outlaws.
Read the full, horrific story of Micajah & Wiley Harpe, plus 11 more serial killer cases in