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The Bloody Harpes: Part III


Previous columns in this series: The Bloody Harpes, Part I | The Bloody Harpes, Part II

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.

On their way to join their wives, when the Harpes had arrived near Steuben's Lick, in the present county of Hopkins, they stopped for the mid-day meal at the residence of a pioneer, whose name was James Tompkins. Since our first acquaintance with them, they had become very much improved in personal appearance. Each of them now wore a black cloth coat and pretended to be a Methodist preacher.

One of them, very reverently, returned thanks before the commencement of the meal. They were armed with rifles and each had a pair of holsters at his saddle.


As this armament did not altogether comport with the habits of a man of God, they excused themselves and assigned as the reason for it, the extreme wildness of the region and the frequency of lawless characters.

During the conversation between them and their host, they learned that he did not have any powder and, for that reason, was prevented from indulging in the hunting of deer; when they, with apparent generosity, furnished him with a supply. The Big Harpe [could not] have contemplated that within a few days he would be slain by a bullet propelled by the powder which he was bestowing upon their host. The Harpes proceeded from the dwelling of Tompkins to the residence of their wives. When John Ellis, who was Colonel Daniel Trabue's messenger, arrived at the residence of General Hopkins with the information that the Harpes were again in the state and would, in all probability, come to the place of their wives, General Hopkins set a number of men to watch the cabin for the purpose of capturing or killing the Harpes if they should come there. After about 10 days, however, the men became weary of their vigil and to the conclusion that it was not worthwhile to longer guard the place, and dispersed, the result being that the Harpes were not molested at their cabin. They, at once, however, packed their effects and left the house with the evident purpose of departing from the country. As they were proceeding to leave, and when near Deer Creek, they met with one Moses Stigall, who was on a journey to Robinson's Lick, which was on the north side of the Ohio River, for the purpose of securing a supply of salt. He owed one of the women the sum of one dollar. Learning that the Harpes were leaving the country, he told the women to stop at his dwelling and tell his wife to pay the dollar which he owed. He said to them that his wife did not know where the money was and gave them directions, to be delivered by them to his wife, to enable her to find the money. One or more of the women went to the dwelling of Stigall and conveyed to Stigall's wife the message of her husband. She got the money and paid the dollar which Stigall owed. The women, at the same time, discovered that there was quite a little quantity of money in the purse. It contained 40 dollars in silver. Upon their return, they informed their husbands of the money.

The evening following, the Harpes went into camp in the neighborhood of Stigall's home. They knew that Stigall was absent from his home. Leaving their wives in the camp, under the guise of Methodist preachers, they repaired to the home of Stigall and sought a night's lodging. The wife of Stigall, with her infant child, was at her home, along with an acquaintance by the name of Love, who was spending the night. One account says that this was a Major Love who was awaiting at the house for the return of Stigall, who had undertaken to secure a certain horse of Love's. The necessities as well as the hospitalities of the wilderness of that day insured all a welcome at the home of the pioneers. The simple and devoted life of the Methodist preacher of that day and of that country made him doubly welcome, as he would at least read a chapter form his well-worn copy of the Holy Writ, sing one or more sour-inspiring hymns and, upon bended knees, raise his voice in a simple hear-touched prayer to the Giver of all good and worthy gifts. These devoted preachers were not expected to be apparelled very elegantly, as their means were limited and scant. They were rich in grace, but poor in purse. They did not hesitate to perform the functions of their holy office in the humblest abode of the poor and lowly, or in the rudest hovels and structures, or under the shades of the trees of the forests, which were "God's first temples." With eyes for no carnal thing, they preached the simple story of Christ and Him crucified, from improvised pulpits or no pulpits at all, to the brave and simple-hearted men and women of the wilderness. They solemnized the matrimonial rites of the sons and daughters of the land and, kneeling upon puncheon floors, or if need be, the bare ground, they prayed the good Lord to always have them in His sacred keeping. They brought the consolation of the Christian's hope to the sick and afflicted and made the hard, dying pillows as soft as down. They were received joyfully by the men and women of the wilderness of that day. Thus it was that the Harpes, falsely pretending to be Methodist preachers, were made welcome at the humble home of Stigall; and Mrs. Stigall was only too glad to share the plain fare and the shelter of her home with these supposed men of God.

During the evening, the Harpes discoursed freely and made inquiries if anything had been heard of the Harpes, who, they said, were reported to be prowling in the country. After they and the others had retired for the night and all had become still in sleep, they arose, secured the small purse of silver and, with an axe, dispatched Mrs. Stigall and her child and the man, Major Love. They then set fire to the dwelling house, which was entirely consumed by it, and with it the bodies of the three murdered persons, in great part. Love was the possessor of a very large, fleet and powerful gray mare, which the Harpes appropriated to their use after the burning of the house.13

Upon the same night which Mrs. Stigall, her child and Love were murdered, two men, whose names were Gilmore and Hudgens, respectively, spent the night in an improvised camp a short distance from the Stigall cabin. They had previously gone to the Robinson Lick to procure salt and, returned toward their home, when they were overtaken by the darkness and spent the night in the open as the men of the wilderness of that day did not hesitate to do when necessity or convenience required it. The Harpes had information on the evening before of these wayfaring men and their place of their encampment, and early the next morning, about the break of day, they repaired to the place of the encampment while Hudgens and Gilmore were yet asleep and put them under arrest, and at the same time charged them with being guilty of the crimes of murder and arson, by the burning of the Stigall home and the murder of its occupants. Whatever the Harpes may have intended to do, when they at the first made the arrest of these men, in a very minutes they determined to murder them, and shot and killed Gilmore. Hudgens broke away and attempted to save himself by flight, but the Harpes pursued and overtook him in a short distance and killed him.

When Stigall returned home on the following day, he found it in ashes and the charred remains of his wife and child in the debris. Infuriated with grief and rage, he sought assistance and advise of Captain John Leeper, a neighbor and who was a man of great physical prowess as well as of great courage and determination. The scattered neighbors met for consultation and for action. All were convinced that the Harpes were the perpetrators of the crimes. Leeper readily proffered his assistance in hunting down and taking vengeance upon them.

James Tompkins, of whom we have spoken before, Robert Robertson, Matthew Christie, Silas Magby, and Nevil Lindsey, likewise, offered their assistance. They were all hardy men of the wilderness. Mounted and armed, the little band went in pursuit of the Harpes along the silent ways of the forest. It was arranged between them that Captain Leeper should attack Big Harpe and Stigall should attack Little Harpe, and the others would render assistance as might be needed.

When near the Pond River, about thirty miles from Henderson, the Harpes were overtaken. Before the arrival of Leeper and his party, Big Harpe, apprehensive of pursuit, suggested that the children of the women encumbered them and impeded their movements and that in order to travel more rapidly to insure escape, the children should be killed. The wives of Big Harpe reluctantly consented to the killing of their children, but the wife of Little Harpe, taking her child with her, withdrew a short distance from the camp to a place near the bank of a stream where there was a rock, which extended out of the ground leaving space between it and the ground underneath. Under this rock she placed her child and stretched her body alongside of it, so as to protect it, and determined to resist its being slain with her own life, if necessary. When it was determined to kill the children, Little Harpe started to go to where the wife was to inform her of their resolution, and to dispatch the child. At that moment, a man by the name of Smith, who was engaged in hunting for his horses, which had strayed, suddenly came upon the scene and Little Harpe immediately accused him of being a horse thief and blew a shrill whistle upon his "charger." This charger was a small receptacle used by the old-time riflemen to measure the powder necessary for the charge of a gun. The sound of the whistle brought Big Harpe from his camp to the scene, immediately. He raised his rifle and informed Smith that he must die.

Just at that moment, Leeper and his company came in sight and saw the three men engaged in conversation and, supposing that all three were of the party that they were seeking, some of the party fired upon them and Smith was dangerously wounded, but both of the Harpes fled into a thicket upon foot and Leeper and his party saw Little Harpe no more. Big Harpe mounted upon the gray mare, which he had appropriated after the killing of Love. He fled to his camp and engaged in attempting to saddle the horse for the women to escape upon. Leeper and his party were detained for a short while, receiving the explanation of Smith whom they supposed to be an accomplice of the Harpes, and would have finished him but for his explanation as to why he was there.

When they approached the camp, Big Harpe left the women and children to their fate and fled upon Love's mare, armed with rifle and holsters. When the shooting occurred, the wife of Little Harpe returned to the camp with her child and was made a prisoner, along with the other women. Silas Magby, who on account of his flesh was unfitted for the chase, and one other were left to guard the women. The others went in pursuit of Big Harpe, with whom they exchanged some shots before he was beyond the carrying distance for a rifle. His mount was superior to any of the horses of the pursuers, except the one ridden by Tompkins. The big gray mare carried Big Harpe with ease and he urged her forward to the top of her speed and mettle; he soon outran all except Tompkins, who was a small man and rode a thoroughbred animal and was able to keep Harpe in sight. The others had no difficulty in following the trail made by Harpe and Tompkins through the soft earth of the forest.

After the chase had continued for several miles, Big Harpe rode into a heavily wooded creek bottom. A large poplar which stood upon the margin of the creek had fallen away from the creek and its trunk lay at an angle of about forty degrees from the creek, and was too large for a horse to leap over. Big Harpe rode into the space between the tree and creek, but was unable to cross the creek because of its perpendicular banks, which necessitated his turning back and passing around the prostrate trunk of the tree. The loss of the time consumed in riding around the tree enabled Tompkins to come up within speaking distance, when both he and Harpe stopped and Tompkins said to Harpe that he had as well to surrender, because he could not possibly escape. Harpe's answer was, "never!" Neither attempted to fire upon the other.

Just at that moment Leeper came into view and Harpe dashed off, but Tompkins awaited the coming of Leeper. Leeper demanded of Tompkins to know why he had not fired upon Harpe and Tompkins said that his horse was so impetuous that he feared to shoot lest he should miss his aim and then Harpe would shoot and kill him.

Leeper was one of those who fired upon Smith and the Harpes near the Harpes' camp and the ram rod of his gun, having gotten wet, he couldn't reload. He said to Tompkins that his horse was already failing, and that unless Tompkins' horse could overtake Harpe, that Harpe would escape, but if Tompkins would exchange horses and guns with him, he would undertake to out ride Harpe and bring him down. Tompkins consented to the exchange, and Leeper, armed with Tompkins' rifle and mounted upon his horse, passed at a furious gate across the creek and through the thick woods and bottom, when he gained an open country and came in sight of Harpe. He was very soon within thirty yards of him. Harpe warned him that if he did not stand off that he would kill him. Leeper replied, "One of us must die and the hardest fend off."

Leeper put his mount to full speed and got within ten steps of Harpe when he sprang to the ground and immediately took aim and fired. Harpe instantly wheeled his gray mare around and leveled his rifle upon Leeper, but it snapped and failed to fire. Then he wheeled the mare, dropped his rifle and again went forward with all speed. Leeper remounted and followed and, when he came near again, Harpe threatened to use a pistol upon him, but in a moment he ceased to urge the mare forward and grasped the pommel of his saddle to save himself from falling to the ground. Leeper then dashed up to him and jerked him to the ground. The chase stretched over a distance of ten miles from the Harpe's camp. It is related that Big Harpe crossed Pond River in his flight at a place called Free Henry Ford, and was finally killed in Muhlenberg County, near Harpe's Hill.

An oak tree which stood on the bank of the Boat Yard Creek on the road leading from Harpe's Hill to Free Henry Ford, tradition says, to have been the scene of the death of Big Harpe. Harpe begged Leeper to spare his life, to protect him and to take him to the courts for a trial. Leeper assured him that he had nothing further to fear from him, but that Stigall was approaching and that he feared that Stigall could not be restrained. Harpe was apparently greatly perturbed at the information that Stigall was near at hand. Tompkins, Stigall and the others came up one by one in accordance with the fleetness of the steeds upon which they rode. Two rifle bullets had penetrated the back of Harpe and emerged near the breast bone. That one of these shots was fired by Leeper seems to be certain, but which of the pursuers fired the other has never been known. Col. Daniel Trabue's chronicle says that Col. William Christian fired one of the shots which wounded Harpe, but no other account of it has ever included the name of Christian as being of those who were present and engaged in the pursuit.

Upon the arrival of Stigall at the place where Harpe was lying upon the ground, he at once undertook to shoot Harpe through the head to finish him, but Harpe, by continuously moving his head backward and forward and sidewise, prevented him. Stigall then placed the muzzle of his rifle against the heart of the desperado and upon its discharge he died instantly.

The pleading of Harpe that his life be spared presents a singular phase of such a nature. Here was [a] human monster who had been utterly indifferent to the lives of others; whose practice and creed had been to show no mercy to a fellow being; who was preparing to murder his own infant children, but an hour before, and was only prevented from doing so by the timely arrival of the avengers; now, when presented with the same fate which he had meted out to so many others, becomes possessed with the fear of death and with hope enough of humanity to think it worth while to beseech mercy of men of a society which he had cruelly and unmercifully wronged.

Stigall removed the head of Harpe from his body and, as memorial to their abhorrence and detestation of the career and crimes of the men, and probably also of their vengeance upon him, Leeper and his associates fixed the head upon a pole which they erected at the intersection of the highways which connected Henderson, Hopkinsville and Morganfield. The skull and jaw bone remained for many years upon the pole, presenting a ghastly sight to the passersby.

The place of the erection of the pole was at the time a wild and lonely place and has since borne the name of Harpe's Head. It is about twenty miles from Henderson.14

Thus ended the career of the greatest villain who ever figured in the history of Kentucky, and well worthy of a place in the same gallery with the most unscrupulous and unconscionable villain of any age or country.

Governor Garrard had, by proclamation, offered a reward of three hundred dollars for the arrest and delivery of Big Harpe to the authorities. Leeper and his associates were not able to secure the reward because, in their attempt to arrest him, they had been obliged to kill him. On December 16, 1799 the legislature of Kentucky came to the rescue of Leeper and his associates by passing an act directing that the three hundred dollars reward be paid to Leeper, notwithstanding the death of Harpe, in place of his capture and delivery to the authorities.

The murder of Mrs. Stigall and her child and Love occurred on the night of the 20th of August 1799, and the three thereafter on the 4th day of September 1799. The three wives of the Harpes were taken before an examining court. They were held for trial in the district court for Logan County and were, thereafter, removed to Russellville. They were tried at Russellville before Judge Stephen Ormsby upon the charge of being the accomplices of their husbands in the murders at the Stigall house, but the trial resulted in their acquittal. Moses Stigall, at the time of the arrest of the women, was upon the point of murdering them, but was deterred from doing so by the threats of the others who were present that they would not suffer the murder of the women in their presence; and at the trial at Russellville, Stigall and some of his associates were present and again sought to murder the women, when Judge Ormsby, realizing what would be their fate when the protection of the court should be removed, although the trial resulted in their acquittal, ordered them to be committed to the jail, which was done.

However, he directed Major William Stewart, who was the sheriff of Logan County, to remove the women after nightfall to a place of safety and to protect them by night from the jail and hide them, at the first in a depression in the ground, but afterwards in a cave where he had supplied them with food, and concealed them until Stigall and his associates had taken their departure. Nothing further of the wives of Big Harpe is remembered.

The energy and determination of Stigall in the pursuit [the murderers] of his wife and child are admirable, and his vengeance upon Big Harpe excusable, but the traditions of the country have described him as a bad and desperate character, and his attempt to murder the wives of the Harpes exhibits a trait which he had in common with the Harpes. Several years afterward, one Joshua Fleehart eloped with a young lady whose family name was Maddox, and Stigall assisted him in the elopement and accompanied him. A brother of the young lady and one Peak Fletcher pursued the elopers and overtook them in the state of Illinois. They were in a cabin at night, and the young lady was sitting upon Fleehart's knees with her arms encircling his neck. Young Maddox and Fletcher crept slightly up to the cabin and, taking deliberate aim through crevices in the wall, fired upon and killed Stigall and Fleehart.

Little Harpe, after escaping Leeper and his party, made his way into Tennessee where he attached himself to the celebrated freebooter, robber and murderer, Mason, who operated upon the Mississippi River and in the adjoining country of Tennessee and Mississippi. The depredations of Mason and his followers became so extensive and alarming that the governor of Mississippi offered a reward of five hundred dollars to anyone who could capture or kill Mason. Little Harpe determined to betray his leader and secure the reward. Shortly thereafter, while Mason was sitting in a cane brake counting the money he had secured from a robbery, Little Harpe shot and killed him, cut off his head and carried it to Washington, then the capital of Mississippi territory, and demanded the reward. He was there recognized by one who had suffered a robbery at the hands of Mason and his followers. He was further identified by a scar upon his body, and was taken, condemned and executed for one of his crimes. Another version of the end of the career of Little Harpe fixed New Orleans as the place of his detection, trial and execution.

There is neither history nor tradition regarding the wife of Little Harpe after her liberation from the Russellville jail and her escape from the vengeance of Stigall, until after the death of Little Harpe, when she became the wife of a planter in Mississippi and the mother of children who afterward occupied positions of respectability in society. It is not known whether she ever joined Little Harpe after his flight from Kentucky. The fact that the wife of Little Harpe married in the state of Mississippi was vouched for by Major William Stewart, the sheriff of Logan County in the year 1799, and who knew her well, but whose singularity of character and disposition was greatly noted; and he always refused to tell the name of her husband, and as a reason for it said that it would bring shame upon her children who were persons of respectability.

Captain John Leeper lived to great age in Hopkins County where he died. He was reputed to have been an excellent citizen, honest, brave and truthful. Those who assisted him in the pursuit of Harpe, with the exception of Stigall, were reputed to have been good citizens who did their respective parts to reduce the wilderness to the subjection of man, and make it blossom as the rose.



13 Otto Rothert gives a slightly different version of the Stigall and Love murders.

14 Rothert states Stigall cut the head off with a large knife and the men then traveled some distance to a crossroads. There they stripped the limbs from a sapling and stuck the head upon the sharpened end. The sapling continued to grow and eventually split the skull. This was located at a place now commonly called Harpe's Head, in Calloway County.


This story was posted on 2019-02-18 10:23:16
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