Research Publications

Harpe Brothers - Kentucky


2. Kentucky

         The Harpes rejoined their three female companions at the corner of Virgina in the Cumberlands and then ventured into Kentucky. Along the way they murdered a solitary peddler named Peyton. The Harpe gang's next victim was Stephen (aka Thomas) Langford. The outlaws and their female followers entered an inn along the Wilderness Trail. When asked if they wished breakfast, they told the inn keeper that they had no money. Langford, who was then eating, decided to be a Good Samaritan--much to his own peril. He bought the group breakfast and left the inn with what he assumed were new friends. A few days later his body was discovered in the forest by some drovers, whose cattle were upset by the smell of blood.

         The next two victims were Bates and Paca, two Marylanders traveling into Kentucky to purchase land. The Harpes seemingly befriended them in the wilderness but led them to slaughter, despoiling the bodies.

         The Harpes, described by persons at the inn, were immediately suspected of Langford's death. Captain Joseph Ballenger, a seasoned Indian fighter, gathered a band of regulators and caught up with the brothers and their female followers. Strangely the brothers seemed passive and surrendered without threats. They and the women were eventually jailed in Danville, Kentucky, to await their trials. All five were to be tried for Stephen Langford's murder.

         On the night of March 16, 1779, brothers escaped from the jail, leaving the women behind. A band of regulators set off after them; but, strangely enough, most of its members fled when they came upon the no longer passive Harpes. Soon after followed one of the grimmest episodes of the Harpes' bloody history. Johnny Trabue, the son of Daniel Trabue, a well-known land owner and former soldier, was accosted by the Harpes, brutally mutilated, and killed. Their apparent motive was to steal a bag of flour the lad was carrying homeward from a mill. The Harpes vanished into the wilderness.

         On April 15, the trials of the three women began in Danville for the murder of Stephen Langford. The homely Susan was found guilty, but her sister Betsy and Sally Rice Harpe were set free. Since all were tried on the same evidence, the court reconsidered Susan's conviction and overturned it. Proclaiming that they would never again join the brothers, the three female renegades then won the sympathy of the good citizens of Danville, who supplied them with food, clothing, and a horse for their proposed return to Knoxville. However, the women changed course to rejoin the brothers. The women's trek was more arduous than earlier ones, for during their confinements, each had given birth to a child.