Generations before Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or Garry Ridgway, there were the Harpe Brothers. Micajah “Big” Harpe (circa 1748 – 1799) and Wiley “Little” Harpe (circa 1750 – 1804) was born in Colonial America before the United States had even come into being. The brothers were highwaymen, river pirates, and sadists who went on a years long crime spree along the then-frontier west of the Appalachian Mountains. From at least the days of the American Revolution, they left a trail of mayhem, depravity, and terror, throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi.
By the time their crime spree ended, the Harpes had claimed the lives of over fifty people. The crime-prone siblings, who were British Loyalists during the American Revolution, fought for King George III as volunteer militia and irregulars. After their side lost the war, they became outlaws and took to robbing and killing settlers west of the Appalachians. They seem to have been driven by sheer bloody-mindedness and blood lust, rather than financial gain. That has led scholars to designate them as the country’s first documented “serial killers”.
7. These British Loyalists Went on a Vicious Crime Spree Against Patriots During the American Revolution
Wiley “Little” Harpe and his older brother Micajah “Big” Harpe were born in North Carolina to Scottish parents. Their father was a British Loyalist, who had fought in a Tory militia during the Regulator War (1765 – 1771) against local insurgents who rose up against corrupt colonial officials. When the War of American Independence began, their father tried to join the Patriots, but they rejected him because of his past record as a Tory. Instead, Patriot neighbors persecuted the Harpe family.
That drove Big and Little Harpe to seek revenge by fighting on the British side, and they joined a depraved Loyalist gang. Exploiting the wartime breakdown of law and order, the Harpes and their associates targeted Patriots with a depraved crime spree of robbery, arson, kidnapping, violation of women, and murder. At times, they fought alongside the British without pay, subsisting by looting battlefields. They were present at the battles of Kings Mountain and Blackstock in 1780, and the Battle of Cowpens in 1781.
6. The Harpes’ Unshakeable Predilection for Violence
When the British lost America’s War of Independence, Micajah and Wiley Harpe fled North Carolina. They eventually joined Cherokee Indians in attacking settler villages west of the Appalachians in Tennessee. Before doing so, they took revenge upon a Patriot Captain James Wood, who had wounded Little Harpe during the war. They kidnapped his daughter, Susan, and another girl named Maria Davidson. The women were forced to marry the brothers. One of their first Frontier killings occurred when a man named Moses Doss expressed concern over their brutalized women and was murdered for his troubles.
In 1782, the siblings accompanied a Cherokee war party that raided Kentucky and defeated a frontiersmen army led by Daniel Boone at the Battle of Blue Licks. They ended up living in the Indian village of Nicojack near Chattanooga, Tennessee, for about twelve years. Then in 1794, they got word of an impending American attack, and left just before the village was wiped out. By 1797, the Harpes had settled near Knoxville, Tennessee, when they were suspected of stealing hogs and horses. They were also accused of murdering a man and tossing his body into a river.
5. Big Harpe’s Most Depraved Crime Was Against His Own Infant Daughter
The Harpe Brothers were forced to flee to Kentucky, and began a lethal crime spree en route. They killed a peddler and stole his horse and goods, did in two travelers from Maryland, and slew a Virginian. They were pursued and captured but escaped the gallows by breaking out of the state prison in Danville, Kentucky. When a posse was sent after them, the Harpes retaliated by slaughtering a young son of a man who had helped the authorities pursue them. When Kentucky’s governor placed a $300 reward on their heads, the brothers fled northward to Illinois. Along the way, they slew five men.
The brothers eventually made their way to Cave-In-Rock, a cave in bluffs overlooking the Illinois bank of the Ohio River. It was the stronghold of a ruthless river pirate named Samuel Mason, and the Harpes joined his crew. However, the Harpes’ sadism appalled even cutthroats like river pirates. Among other things, the brothers enjoyed taking captives to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and kicking them off. So Mason forced them to leave. They returned to Tennessee and continued piling up the bodies. Among them was Big Harpe’s own infant daughter, whom he killed in August 1799, because her crying annoyed him.
4. The Harpe Brothers’ Violent Spree Ended When Violent Justice Caught Up With Them
In August, 1799, the Harpe Brothers also gutted a man. When the unwary Stegall family gave them shelter in Kentucky, they repaid the hospitality by slaying one of their house guests. In another crime against an infant, they also slew Mrs. Stegall’s four-month-old baby boy, because his crying annoyed them. When a horrified Mrs. Stegall screamed, the Harpe brothers did her in too. Those depravities led to the formation of a posse that included Moses Stegall, whose wife and baby the Harpes had slain. They caught up with the siblings on August 24th, 1799, just as they were about to kill another victim. The brothers tried to flee, but Micajah “Big” Harpe was shot in the leg and back.
While Big Harpe was still conscious, Moses Stegall slowly cut off his head, which was later spiked on a pole. Wiley “Little” Harpe escaped and rejoined Samuel Mason’s river pirate crew. Four years later, the Cave-In-Rock was raided, and Little Harpe escaped with Mason, who was wounded. Harpe, who was using an alias, killed Mason, cut off his head, and along with another escaped pirate, tried to claim a reward. While presenting Mason’s head, Harpe and his companion were recognized as outlaws and arrested. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The Harpe depravities ended in January, 1804, when Little Harpe was hanged.
3. The English Jailbird Who Went on a WWII Crime Spree
Career criminal Harold Cole (1906 – 1946) was an English jailbird who served during WWII in the British Army, the French Resistance – and double-crossed both by working for the Germans. Then he betrayed the Germans by working for the Americans at war’s end to hunt down Nazis. During his extraordinary wartime career, which combined espionage with crime, Cole lied and conned his way across France, joined the Nazis, and snitched on the Resistance, resulting in the arrest and execution of many.
By the time he was a teenager, Cole was already a burglar, check forger and embezzler. By 1939, he had served multiple stints behind bars in various prisons. When WWII began, he lied about his criminal history to enlist in the British Army and was sent to France. Promoted to sergeant, he was arrested for stealing money from the Sergeants’ Mess to spend on hookers. He became a POW in May 1940, when the Germans captured the guardhouse where he was jailed.
Harold Cole escaped from his German captors, and made his way to Lille, France. There, he got in touch with the French Resistance and falsely claimed that was a British intelligence agent sent to help stranded and escaped British military personnel. For some time, Cole actually did some positive work and escorted escaped personnel across Nazi-occupied territory to the relative safety of Vichy France. From there, the fugitives slipped into neighboring Spain, and secured berths on ships headed to Britain.
However, Cole was unable to shake his shady ways. He went back to the same kind of crime that had got him locked up in a British Army guardhouse, and embezzled from French Resistance, stealing from the funds intended to finance escape operations. Cole used the money to pay for a high society lifestyle of nightclubs, pricey restaurants, expensive champagne, fast cars, and faster girls. When his thefts came to light in 1941, the Resistance arrested and locked him up. While they deliberated what to do about him, Cole escaped.
1. This Crime Bird Betrayed the Resistance by Joining the Nazis, then Betrayed the Nazis by Helping the US Army Hunt Them Down
On the run from the French Resistance, Harold Cole turned himself in to the Germans. He gave them 30 pages of Resistance member names and addresses and became an agent of the SS’ Sicherheitdienst, or SD. In the ensuing roundup, over 150 Resistance members were arrested, of whom at least 50 were executed. Cole was present during the interrogation and torture of many of his former colleagues. When the war turned against the Germans and Allied armies neared Paris in 1944, Cole fled in a Gestapo uniform. In June 1945, he turned up in southern Germany, where he claimed to be a British undercover agent and offered his services to the American occupation forces.
Triple crossing, he turned against the Nazis, hunted and flushed them out of hiding, and murdered at least one of them. The British discovered Cole whereabouts and arrested him, but he escaped his military prison and headed to France. There, French police received a tip revealing his whereabouts in a central Paris apartment. On January 8th, 1946, they crept up a staircase to seize him. However, the cops’ heavy tread gave them away, and Cole met them at the doorway, pistol in hand. He was killed in the ensuing shootout after he was hit multiple times and bled to death.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading