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The Bloody Harpes, Part II

Read the previous column: THE BLOODY HARPES

By Mike Watson

Judge Rollin T. Hurt, native of Adair County, attorney, businessman, judge, and historian, wrote a series of articles for the Adair County News early in the last century on the early history and people of the county. Several articles dealt with the Harpe Brothers. Several years ago these articles were edited and published as Hurt's History of Adair County, containing the following in the words of Judge Hurt, with footnotes by the editor.

The Rev. Jacob Young, an itinerant Methodist preacher, relates that in the year 1802, he approached a cabin in Russell County, which seemed to be pretty well filled with women and children. He took a position opposite to the door of the cabin, sang a hymn, read a chapter of the Holy Scriptures, prayed, and then delivered a sermon. Among his audience was a very remarkable appearing man, who stood and intently gazed upon the preacher.

He was a very large man with a very high forehead, and with an uncommon width between the eyes. His eye balls were large and showed an unusual amount of white. He wore no head gear of any kind, his hair was heavy and unkempt, and he had neither shoes nor moccasins upon his feet. If the preacher had not been accustomed to the rough men of the frontier, he would have been alarmed at the steadiness of the gaze and the remarkable physiognomy of the man.

While he was delivering the sermon, he observed the tears go trickling down the cheeks of the man. The preacher was convinced that he was one who had distinguished himself in some way and made inquiries in regard to him, and learned that he was a brother-in-law of Big Harpe, and had formerly been one of his associates and had participated in many of the desperate enterprises with him.

The preacher does not relate whether one of the wives of Big Harpe was his sister. The Rev. Young preached at the same cabin frequently afterward, and the brother-in-law of Big Harpe was persuaded to and did become a zealous Christian. The preacher furnished him with a spelling book and, with the aid of his wife, he soon became able to read and write and became a class leader in the church which was organized at the place by the Rev. Young. The man had his hair trimmed, procured himself a hat and wore, thereafter, very respectable clothes, and the last the preacher knew of him he was continuing in the ways of a Christian man. The preacher, doubtless, in his consideration for the man, in his account of it, does not give his name, and he has long since been forgotten as a kinsman of the Harpes in Russell County.

The Harpes made their way from the scene of the murder of Dooley through the present counties of Metcalfe and Barren in a northwest direction from the present city of Bowling Green and, on their way, either in the western portion of Adair County or in the eastern portion of Metcalfe County, for no assignable reason, they mercilessly slew a helpless little girl whom they met upon the road. History has not preserved nor does tradition reveal the name of this helpless child who was so ruthlessly sacrificed to the murderous instincts of these monsters in human form. Also, on the way they came in contact with an unsuspecting man, whose name was Stump, and who had just fired upon and killed a wild turkey. They shot and killed Stump and took his gun, which was an excellent one.

Another act in which the drama of murder of outrage [is] said to have been committed by the Harpes near this time has often been related. It is to the effect that they met a lone woman, who was bearing in her arms her infant child. They took forcible possession of her and mounted her upon the horse behind the saddle of one of them. The child cried, and the Harpes becoming annoyed at its crying, Big Harpe took it by the heels and dashed its brains against a tree which stood beside the road.

The truth of this circumstance is based upon tradition, and is doubtless mixed with another tradition which relates that it was Big Harpe's own child which he killed by dashing its brains out against a tree because it annoyed him with its crying. At the time, however, when the Harpes slew young Trabue, Dooley and Stump and the little girl, above mentioned, they were not accompanied by their wives, and if Big Harpe destroyed the life of his own infant child, it was upon some other occasion. The Harpes, upon the journey from Danville jail to the place where they murdered Stump, seem to have been upon foot. On this journey, they came from the Rolling Fork through Taylor and Green Counties, Adair, Metcalfe, and Barren, and if the murder of the infant ever occurred, it was at a later period.10

When the Harpes arrived near the Big Barren River, they murdered two men, whose names are not now remembered, and, securing a canoe, they went down that river to a point known in ancient times as the Yellow Banks. In this neighborhood, they hid themselves for while, and in the neighborhood of the present city of Henderson they erected a cabin. After hiding their money, and such things as they had which were not convenient to be carried, under a cliff, they went over into Tennessee into the country then inhabited by the Chickasaw Indians. The wives of the Harpes were left behind when they broke jail in Danville,11 but after the lapse of some time, and after the Harpes had taken their departure for the Chickasaw Indian country, the women made their way through the country to the cabin which the Harpes had built near Henderson. In what way the women learned the whereabouts of the cabin, or in what direction their husbands had gone from Danville, is not now remembered or known. It seems probable that a man, whose name was Tully, and who, during the next year, was himself slain by the Harpes, was in some way connected with the women finding their way to the cabin. Tully, however, lived in the Stockton Valley, in Clinton County, or at least lived there at the time he was killed; but in a chronicle of some portions of the history of the Harpes, which was written by Col. Daniel Trabue, he relates that Tully was acquainted with the wives of the Harpes, and he attributed the knowledge of the Harpes, to the fact that Tully had given them information upon that subject, probably at the time of his murder.12

The Harpes made their way from the country of the Chickasaw Indians to Stone River in Tennessee, and thence to Knoxville, Tennessee. At Knoxville, they murdered a man whose name was Ballard and sank his body in the Clinch river by cutting it open and filling it with stones, which would cause it to sink. Thereafter, leaving Knoxville, they started to return to Kentucky across the Cumberland Mountains, and in a short distance from Knoxville, they encountered a young man who was the son of one Chesley Coffey. Young Coffey was on horseback and was on a mission to procure a fiddle. The Harpes slew him and smeared his brains upon a tree, with the pretense that young Coffey's horse had run against the tree and dashed out his brains, as the cause of his death.

On their way from Knoxville to the Kentucky line, they overtook, upon the road, two brothers, Robert Brassel and his brother, James. Robert was on horseback and unarmed, but James was upon foot and armed with a gun. The Harpes, pretending to be in a great hurry when they overtook the Brassels, said to them, "Gentlemen, what is the news?" One or the other of the Brassels replied, "I suppose you have heard of the murders of Ballard and Coffey?" and proceeded to relate the particulars. The Harpes replied, "Yes, we are in pursuit of the murderers and we suspect you are the men who committed these murders. We have more men behind, and you must stop until they come up." Big Harpe took James Brassel's gun from him and set it up by a tree, took out a large string and ordered him to hold his hands together, so that he might tie him. Robert Brassel said to his brother, "Don't be tired!" Little Harpe then threatened Robert Brassel with instant death if he resisted. Robert, suspecting the truth that the Harpes were the real murderers of Ballard and Coffey, sprang from his horse and attempted to secure his brother's gun, but the Harpes interfered and prevented him. He ran off and left Big Harpe tying his brother James.

Little Harpe pursued Robert and attempted to shoot him, but he escaped, leaving his brother and his horse behind. After some distance, he met a party of six men and a woman. One of the men bore the name of Dale, and had a gun with him. Robert Brassel tried to persuade the company to return with him to the place where he had left his brother. When they returned to that place, a short distance from the road, in they woods, they found the lifeless body of James Brassel, mutilated and his gun broken to pieces. The Harpes had gone from the place, but their tracks indicated that they had gone in the direction of Knoxville, from which direction they were coming when they overtook the Brassels. The men went on from the place of the murder of James Brassel toward Knoxville, but after a few miles they met the Harpes upon the road, the Big Harpe riding a large gray horse. The men were convinced that the Harpes were the murderers, but were afraid to molest them, as they were wholly unarmed except for the rifle which Dale had. The Harpes were heavily loaded with clothing and provisions and passed the party in silence, but scowling a them. They had hid their luggage, somewhere near the road, before meeting the Brassels, but after they had killed James Brassel and Robert Brassel had escaped, they went back for their effects. Robert Brassel complained bitterly of the conduct of the men with him because of their refusal to attack the Harpes, but the men were frightened and glad to escape them. The murder was committed somewhere upon the Cumberland Mountains between Knoxville and the Stockton Valley in Clinton County, Kentucky.

The Harpes were evidently intending to avoid the Wilderness Road and the counties of central Kentucky on account of the trouble in which they had been engaged during the year before and their purpose was to enter Kentucky at a great distance from Danville. When the Harpes arrived in the Stockton Valley, in Clinton County, they murdered Tully, who was mentioned heretofore, and hid his body under a log. The reason or motive for his murder is now forgotten, as Tully, according to Col. Daniel Trabue's chronicle, seems to have had prior acquaintance with the Harpes and their wives, and the motive for his murder was probably the knowledge that he had of them. Tully resided in Stockton Valley, and, thereafter, on the 18th day of December 1800, the General Assembly passed an act for the relief of his wife, Christiana Tully. The act recited that her husband had been assassinated by the Harpes and it directed that the time which she was allowed for the payment to the state of the price for two hundred acres of land, which her husband had contracted for previous to his death, be extended without the payment of any interest until December 1, 1810. It is probably that it was at this time that the Harpes came into Russell County as it adjoins Clinton County, and doubtless to visit the brother-in-law of Big Harpe, who was still residing in Russell County, three or four years afterward.

The body of Tully was discovered within a day or two and, about the same time, Robert Brassel arrived in the Stockton Valley, and bore with him the account of the murders which had been committed by the Harpes at Knoxville and while on their way from there to the Stockton.

Nathan Stockton and William Woods, who were two hardy young men residing in the Stockton Valley, started immediately upon foot and walked 50 miles to the residence of Col. Daniel Trabue, in Adair County, to give information of the fact that the Harpes were again in the state. Col. Trabue immediately called together his neighbors for consultation and assistance. One man was dispatched early in the night to the city of Frankfort to carry information to the governor of the state of the whereabouts of the Harpes, that he might make proclamation of the fact of their being again in the state. This man carried with him the affidavits of the young men, Stockton and Woods, with regard to the murder of Tully, and the statement of Robert Brassel which he laid before the governor. On the executive journal in the office of the Secretary of State is to be found the following memorandum which was made during the administration of Gov. James Garrard:

"Wiley and Micajah Harpe, who were charged with the murder of Langford, having with their three wives broke out of jail at Danville, the Governor authorizes Josh Ballenger to pursue them into the State of Tennessee and other states, and to apply to the executive authorities of such states to deliver them up." He also issued a proclamation offering a reward to those who would apprehend these inveterate enemies of human happiness, and on the 7th day of June following, he appointed Alexander McFarland and brother to take charge of them if they should be found in any adjacent state.

It is apparent that the above action has been taken by the Governor at some time previous to the time about which we now write, as Big Harpe seems to have been killed in the month of August 1799, which will appear from the facts we will hereafter relate.

Colonel Trabue, having already learned that the Harpes had erected a cabin in Henderson County during the previous year, and that their wives were then living in the cabin, suspected that they Harpes would endeavor to go in that direction. At the same time, he dispatched the courier to the Governor with information that the Harpes had entered the state again, he sent one John Ellis to bear the same tidings to General Samuel Hopkins who resided in the western portion of the state, and not a great distance from the cabin in which the wives of the Harpes were living.

Ellis rode a magnificent horse and traveled sixty to seventy miles per day, and spread the information in regard to the Harpes as he went. It was well for him that he traveled in such speed, since the Harpes, as they journeyed on in the same direction, heard of Ellis and pursued and tried to overtake him before he had completed his journey, but they were unable to do so.

Within three or four days after the Harpes had entered the Stockton Valley, they traveled down the Cumberland River to the vicinity of the present village of Marrowbone, in Cumberland County, where they sought and received the hospitality of a night's lodging of an old man, whose name was Graves. Graves and his son were the only persons at the place, as it was a new place, which Graves was preparing for a home to which he intended to remove his family when it was ready for occupancy. Before leaving Graves' place, the Harpes murdered him and his son and hid their bodies in the woods. The exact place of the murder of Graves and his son, tradition says, was at the location of the old Marrowbone Church.

From this place, they proceeded toward the mouth of Green River, where their wives were located, and in doing so, traversed the present counties of Metcalfe, Barren, Warren, Hopkins, Webster and Henderson. There is no record nor tradition which attributes any other acts of violence to them until they had gone to the cabin where their wives were, and had been joined by them. They were, however, intent upon murdering all the persons with whom they came in contact, and spared none except from fear of their own lives.

At the early time of these occurrences, the territory through which they traveled was a very sparsely inhabited wilderness, where very lately the red men had freely roamed and warred and hunted, and where the scream of the panther and the howl of the wolf after nightfall was still a familiar sound. The scattered woodsmen often times lived very far from each others habitations. The disappearance of an individual would be frequently unknown and could not, after a time, be accounted for. The population of the entire district could not have been more than a few hundred. The primeval forests in that region had been almost untouched except here and there was a hardy pioneer whose activities created the merest ripple upon the vast ocean of nature which lay silently and untroubled between the Cumberland and the Green. The sparseness of the population prevented both the apprehension and punishment of the murderers of the type of the Harpes.

10 Otto Rothert relates a similar story in his book, but in that story Big Harpe was supposed to have dashed an infant of his own, or that of his brother, and killed it when it cried too much as they were trying to elude pursuers.

11 While in the Danville jail all three of the women gave birth to babies that would have to make the journey with them. [Rothert]

12 Chester Raymond Young, in a footnote, states this is John Tully who possessed two hundred acres on Smith Creek in Cumberland County and was slain on 31 July. [Westward into Kentucky, p197]

This story was posted on 2019-02-10 12:25:51
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