Research Publications

Harpe Brothers - Harpe Update

Harpe Update

        Since the publication of Wilderness of Tigers: A Novel of the Harpe Brothers and Frontier Violence, I have been contacted by persons who have special interest in the Harpe Brothers as well as those who are related to the brothers. Some of these people have informed me of tales, traditions, and speculations about the brothers that have been handed down. I here include a listing of and discussion of some items of intriguing information, including some of my own.

        ROBERT ALLEN, of Madisonville, Tennessee, who formerly taught at Murray State but now teaches at Hiwassee, reports that he is related to Stephan Langford (a.k.a. Thomas Langford), who was murdered by the Harpes near Crab Orchard, Kentucky. Langford, of course, befriended the Harpe band at an inn, paid for their breakfast, but made the mistake of setting out with the Harpes and their women. Langford was never seen again.

        According to Robert, “As to the victim of the Harp brothers…the relative of mine who was killed was Stephen Langford whose wife was a Singleton.  His wife's brother, William Singleton, was my great grandfather. Tradition has it that Langford was a Tory and had to leave Brunswick Co. VA, after the Revolution. (Most of her kin, including my ancestor, were pro-Revolution, and another brother was Richard Singleton, the hero of the Battle of Kings Mountain, in NC)  Langford was killed by the Harpes en route to Crab Orchard, KY in 1798.  I understand his family still has descendants living around Crab Orchard.”

        E. DON HARPE, formerly of Nashville, now of Georgia, is a songwriter, poet, and novelist. He has had a varied career, and his occupations include having been an engineer for a major appliance firm, and a songwriter who has seen many of his songs recorded and who for years ran his own music publishing company. Now retired, E. Don Harpe devotes his time to writing fiction. Currently he is at work on a series of novels about the Harpe brothers. Born Wolf, Die Wolf, The Last Rampage of the Terrible Harpes appeared in February, 2006. The next installment, Resurrection, Rebirth of the Terrible Harpes, appeared in 2006.  Don injects an element of the supernatural into his novels. In his story Micajah Harpe is possessed by wolf spirit of Native American folklore. Resurrection deals with the unleashing of this same spirit in our contemporary world.

        E. Don Harpe is also the author of a series of humorous short stories concerning the adventures of an alien named JorG and his earthling friend Billy Joe White, who attempts to guide him over the confusing terrain of contemporary southern culture. These stories are in progress and are being published as part of the Amazon Shorts program. The first of these tales is “Redneck Rivier.” You might check these out. They are indeed entertaining.

        E. Don Harpe tells me that, according to tradition, he is part of the same family branch that included Micajah and Wiley. For several generations his family preferred to remain silent about this topic, not mentioning it to outsiders, and only passing along the family connection to other members of the family.

        DONNA SHEARER of Danville, Kentucky, was formerly married to a Harp. She was particularly struck by the disclosure in Wilderness that Wiley had webbed toes. (An historical fact uncovered in my research for the novel.) For webbed toes was a dominant hereditary trait of the Harp men in her former husband’s family. She wrote the following: “It has always been a family "joke" that in the Harp (they do not use the "e") family many individuals are born with "webbed" toes.”

        EMBER TAPP, a student at Murray State University, grew up in Webster country, near to the historical marker indicating the place were Micajah Harpe's head was supposedly mounted. She has also heard the rumor that the actual spot was further along the road.

        I, KENNETH TUCKER, am able to add a bit of intriguing speculation. In the summer 2004, before Wilderness was published, I drove to Dixon, Kentucky, to check up on local lore and to visit the roadside spot where Micajah’s head was mounted. An historical marker indicates the place. After I had photographed the marker, a resident of Dixon informed me that according to a local tradition, the marker has been erroneously placed. Historically, Stegall mounted the head at a place were several crossroads joined. He hoped to warn to any wandering outlaw of a similar fate. No crossroads currently exist near the bisecting highway where the marker stands (although they could have existed in the past). Some people of Dixon hold that the historical spot is a few miles northward along the highway, where several roads do intersect. Who is right? Perhaps an energetic historian will solve the puzzle. (Photos of theses possible sites are displayed elsewhere the webpage.)

        MARGARET VAUGHN of Murray, Kentucky, grew up near Dixon, Kentucky, in Webster County. She told me that when she was in high school during the fifties, a local tradition was for teenagers to go alone, on Halloween night, to the site where Micajah Harpe’s head was displayed. Presumably anyone undertaking this teenage rite of passage was required to leave some trinket or personal object as proof of the owner’s courage in venturing upon the eerie spot. I do not know whether this tradition teenage derring-do survives.

        AMY BURNS WILLIAMS of Mesa, Arizona, wrote: "My great-aunt married a Harp (no e) and one of her three children (my mother's first cousins) has determined that it is indeed the same lot. Of course my great-aunt wouldn't hear of it. She always cut a very elegant figure and has traveled a lot. She once visited me in St. Thomas when she was on a cruise that went through the Panama Canal.

        This same great-aunt, Edmonia Harp, was a secretary in the Deptartment of Agriculture and to Murray State University president Ralph Woods from the mid-40s to the mid-50s until the entire family moved to southern California.My great-aunt then worked for the board of education in the Los Angeles County school district until died around 2 p.m. February 25. She was exactly 97 years and two months old. Her birthday was on Christmas (as was her sister's--my grandmother). She would most likely have been the oldest living former secretary to an MSU president.

        Both my great aunt and grandmother (whose family name was Sexton) began attending Murray State Teachers' College/Normal School during its first few years and got their teaching certificates. They had gone to and finished high school in Coshocton, Ohio, although their family is from Livingston County (my great-grandfather moved the family to Ohio for a number of years and worked in a steel mill/factory there). They both finished high school early (they were a year or two apart), and so they were young when they went to enroll in college back in Murray.

        Their pictures can be found in the early Murray State yearbooks. They each both taught for several years in Livingston County one-room schools.

        One member of the Harpe family informed me of a tradition that the father of the two brothers was named John. Furthermore, the mother of Wiley was John’s wife, but Micajah was sired upon a black slave woman. If this rumor is true, it would tend to confirm the contemporary rumors that Micajah had black kinky hair and mulatto characteristics. Although one account suggests that both brothers had dark hair, Wiley was generally described as red-headed.

        Both brothers make a cinematic appearance in 1941’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka, All That Money Can Buy). If you have seen the film, directed by William Dieterle and scripted by Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benet, you may recall that Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) speaks before a jury of the damned to save the soul of Jabez Stone (James Craig), who has foolishly made a deal with the devil (Mr. Scratch), played by Walter Houston. The Harpes are summoned from hell to serve as jurors. Neither character speaks; both appear amid shadowy specters, who emerge from darkness to take their places upon the jury. Neither Harpe is mentioned, however, in the corresponding scene of the movie’s source, Benet’s classic short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”