Research Publications

Harpe Brothers - Back to Tennessee

4.  Back to Tennessee

         The Harpe band returned to Tennessee and the Knoxville area--evidently seeking vengeance. Their intended victim was Hugh Dunlap. However, in the darkness outside Dunlap's home, the brothers erred and killed William Ballard. Again the brothers fled into Kentucky and returned to the western part of the state. During this ramble occurred one of the most savage episodes of the brothers' career. Evidently devoid of paternal instincts, the brothers had barely tolerated the crying infants. One night, Micajah Harpe, enraged by the tears of his own child by Sally Rice Harpe, seized the infant from her and murdered it, presumably by slinging its head against a tree.

         The Harpe band wound its way to the far western party of the state. Their motives in making this choice are obscure. Apparently they wished to murder a local justice of the peace, Silas Magby (aka McBee), presumably because this sturdy frontiersman had a reputation of being hard on criminals. The Harpes themselves apparently had no encounters with Magby.

         The downfall of the Harpe band began with their untimely visit to the cabin of Moses and Mary Stegall. Evidently the Harpes had known the Stegalls in Knoxville. Perhaps Moses Stegall had abetted their criminal activities. The relationship between these persons remains murky. The Stegalls might have put up the Harpe band for several nights at the cabin. If so, several nights later the brothers returned and asked for lodging. However, earlier that evening Mary Stegall had agreed to allow a Major Love, a surveyor, to spend the night. Her husband had evidently forgotten that the Major was to call that day upon business and had gone out into the woods to spend the night and set traps. No one can be certain how events unraveled that night, but the Harpes axed Major Love to death, killed the Stegall's infant son, while driving a knife so deeply into the body of his mother, Mary Stegall, that the flames of the cabin set on fire did not scorch the handle of the knife.

         Evidently a partial motivation for these crimes was to decoy Silas Magby into a trap. The brothers hid beside the road Magby would ride from his cabin to investigate the fire. However, Magby elected another route. The Harpe brothers vented their disappointment and frustration upon two men, Hutchens and Gilmore, who happened to travel down the dangerous road.