When my mom finished reading How Sweet the Sound, I asked her what she thought of it. She gave me several nice compliments, and then the tone of voice changed and she said:
“I’m beginning to wonder at the way your mind works. My goodness, Debbie, how did you ever come up with something so evil?”
She was genuinely creeped out. Like, what-demon-have-I-spawned? creeped out. She was referring to what happened to poor Benjamin Hoffman. (Husband of poor Anna Hoffman.) I told Mom that I didn’t make it up it, that it really happened. I’m not sure which horrified her more.
As always, I packed as much real history into How Sweet the Sound as I could. Other than the fictionalized dialogue, everything in the 1797 portion of the story really happened, at least according to the history books it did.
The Harpe brothers really did entertain themselves with that horrible “joke” perpetrated on the one survivor of a group of settlers the pirates had robbed. (my fictional Hoffman family) Afterward, they stood over the bodies, gloating over their “triumph over law and order.” (Rothert) Like my mom, Samuel Mason and the other pirates were horrified by the senseless cruelty of it, so much so that they banished the Harpes from the cave and from their gang.
Macajah and Wiley Harpe passed themselves off as brothers, but historians now believe they were cousins, sons of Scottish brothers who immigrated with their families to North Carolina. In any case, as Merri explains to Abby, they are considered by some to be America’s first serial killers. Their nine-month killing spree took the lives of at least 40 men, women, and children, beginning in Knoxville, Tennessee and ending in Henderson County, Kentucky, August 24, 1799. A month of that time period was spent at Cave-in-Rock, Illinois. I chose to write How Sweet the Sound about that short time when the Harpes crossed paths with Samuel Mason and his gang.
I did take creative license with one fact. The “bobbing” incident that the Harpe brothers tell so gleefully was one crime that cannot be truthfully laid at their feet. It was perpetrated by other pirates farther down the Ohio near Cairo, Illinois. Ronald D. Reed tells the story in his article “The Bobber” in The Springhouse. His uncle Fred Reed heard the story in 1910 from a man who lived on the river near where it happened. It was only one of a several horror stories told about river pirates infesting that stretch of the river.
The Harpes were absolutely heartless. When a young man named Langford generously shared his breakfast with them at a Kentucky inn near Big Rock-Castle River, the brothers paid his kindness back by murdering him later that day. This was the final straw for the settlers. They got a posse together and hunted them down. The Harpes and their three women were captured December 25, 1799. But the men escaped jail in March, leaving their pregnant women behind to give birth to their babies in jail. Meanwhile, the men continued to murder most of the people they met. Sometimes it was for their money or to acquire new clothes, sometimes just for the psychopathic pleasure it gave them. They often disposed of the corpses by splitting them open, filling them with stones, and tossing them in the river. In April, on the run from a posse determined to dispose of them, they arrived at Cave-in-Rock.
Meanwhile, their women were facing the music for their crimes. They received a degree of pity and lenience because of their pregnancies. Accounts of the women vary. In Legends of the War of Independence, Smith says that Big Harpe kidnapped his two wives (some say they were sisters), and that Little Harpe’s wife married him before knowing of his murderous ways. She tried on multiple occasions to escape but was always prevented from doing so. Smith describes them as “brutalized women” and tells of the Harpes murdering a man named Moses Doss near Nashville years before because of his concern over the women’s treatment. Smith also claims the men murdered several of their own children. Smith credits this information to stories old pioneers told him, and he gives many details that lends credence to his version of the women’s history.
Otto Rothert reports in The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock that after the women’s acquittal, Danville citizens felt sorry for them, believing the destitute women to be happily rid of their “barbarous masters.” They took up a collection of money and clothes and sent them on their way with an old mare. Their former jailer led them out of town and pointed to them to Tennessee. In spite of this and Smith’s claims they had been kidnapped, Rothert believed the women were willing accomplices to the Harpes.
About the time the three women were acquitted and released, their men were arriving in Cave-in-Rock. Instead of traveling on to safety in Tennessee, the women took their babies and joined up with them at Cave-in-rock. It is believed that a messenger brought word of where their “husbands” were.
It seems to support Rothert’s position. But it’s helpful to remember that back then, wife abuse was unremarkable. Battered wife syndrome was not recognized. Even today we have trouble understanding why abused wives stay with the men who assault them. Maybe the Harpe women’s decision to go back to their husbands was the warped thinking of battered wife syndrome. Or maybe, being cast out of society, they just had no other way to survive. Or maybe Rothert was right and they were complicit with their husband’s murdering ways.
The governor of Tennessee offered a $300 reward for the Harpes, and after a few more murders, including another of their own babies, Macajah, a.k.a. Big Harpe, aged 29, was captured and beheaded in Kentucky. Jon Musgrave says they put his head in a tree “where the road from Henderson forked in two directions, one to Marion and Eddyville and the other to Madisonville and Russellville. For years, the intersection took the name Harpe’s Head.”
Little Harpe was also beheaded when he was finally captured four years later. His head was placed on a stake along the Natchez Trace as a warning to other outlaws.
Read more about the Harpes by checking out the sources below. I’d start first with Jon Musgrave’s “Frontier Serial Killers.”
The Springhouse. Vol 2. No. 4. July/August 1985. [Contains a fascinating article by the descendent of one of the wives.]
The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock. Otto Rothert [Considered by many the authoritative book on the subject.]
“Frontier serial killers: the Harpes.” Jon Musgrave. Oct. 23, 1998. American Weekend. [A great summary]
Legends of the War of Independence. T. Marshall Smith. 1855. [This gives a lot of information about the Harpe’s early lives and why it might have contributed to their mental state.]
Letters from the West. James Hall [Shawneetown judge]. 1828. [for more about the capture and arrest]
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