Recently I discovered several historical articles in the Henderson newspaper written by Miss Salibelle Royster about 1920. One reason these articles interest me is that they were written by a teacher at my high school and college ‘way back when. Miss Royster taught English at F.J. Reitz High School and Evansville College. Her teaching career spanned over 40 years before her death in 1975.
The following article appeared in the Daily Gleaner 3 October 1920 and, for brevity, it has been abstracted. Miss Royster interviewed an octogenarian friend, who related the terrible deeds of Big and Little Harpe in what is today Webster County, Kentucky. The friend had the information from his father, who, in turn, heard it from his father, who was one of the men in the party that captured and killed “the wickedest outlaw whose feet ever defiled the soil of western Kentucky.”
It seems the Harpes, who were unlike in appearance, the one being taller and more stalwart than ordinary men, the other stocky and short, came to Kentucky from Eastern Tennessee. They had been unjustly imprisoned there and upon being released, swore to wreck vengeance on mankind in general. They pledged themselves to kill and steal and plunder until they themselves should be killed.
They came into Kentucky over the old Wilderness road, robbing and murdering. The settlements were so widely scattered that their most dastardly deeds went unpunished. They feared neither God nor man.
There lived a family by the name of Stigall. Mr. Stigall, who was away from home, met the Harpe party in the woods, and told one of the Harpe women to stop at his home and ask his wife for a dollar he owed the Harpes, giving directions to where Mrs. Stigall should look for the money.
Big Harpe’s wife lost no time in obeying instructions. Seeing the apparently well-filled purse from which Mrs. Stigall paid the debts, she promptly reported the fact to her husband.
That night one of the bloodiest tragedies in the history of Kentucky occurred. The Harpes robbed and murdered Mrs. Stigall and her young child, as well as a young school teacher by the name of Love, who was spending the night at the Stigall home, and burned the house, together with the bodies of the victims – all for the paltry sum of $40.
In order to shift suspicion upon someone else, the Harpes arrested two men whom they met and accused these perfectly innocent strangers of their own crimes. One of the men was killed in the struggle.
Moses Stigall was well-nigh frantic with grief and rage when he learned the news. He immediately suspicioned the Harpes and lost no time in obtaining help from Captain John Leeper, one of the most fearless and powerful men in the country, in raising a party of 10 or 12 men who were resolved to win the reward offered for the capture of the Harpes, dead or alive.
The company started out, hot on the trail of Big and Little Harpe. Overtaking the outlaws, who were talking to a man named Smith near a stream, they fired and wounded Smith, but missed both the Harpes. Little Harpe fled into a thicket and was not seen again. The pursuers followed Big Harpe back to the camp, where he rushed to make hasty preparations for taking the women and children with him.
Big Harpe fled on his horse and the other party gave chase, but was finally overtaken in a creek bottom. Big Harpe was called to surrender. “Never” he yelled and dashed off again.
Again, Big Harpe was overtaken. “Stand off or I’ll kill you!” snarled Harpe as Leeper came within 30 yards of him. A skirmish followed and Harpe was mortally wounded, but he managed to get away on his horse. Leeper again overtook Harpe and threw him to the ground.
The rest of the party caught up with Leeper and the outlaw. The enraged Stigall whipped out his huge knife and severed Harpe’s head from his body. The head was fastened on top of a young tree trimmed for the purpose, where the fleshless bones were to remain for many a year as a gruesome reminder that the wages of sin is death. This tree grew near the intersection of what are now the Henderson, Morganfield and Madisonville roads.
No one knows what became of Little Harpe. As for his wife and the two wives of Big Harpe, they were captured and brought to Henderson, where they were imprisoned in a little log jail near the present site of the Henderson bridge. Upon trial, they were convicted as accomplices in the murder of Mrs. Stigall and her child, but were subsequently sent to Russellville, where they were cleared by the grand jury. It is said that Little Harpe’s wife afterward married a highly respectable man from Tennessee and she henceforth lived an honorable life.
[Buried in Piney Fork Cemetery, Crittenden County, is the wife of William Love, who was killed by the Harpes. The inscription on her tombstone reads as follows: “My name is Esther Love Daughter of Wm. & Nancy Calhoun of Abbeville South Carolina. Born Sept. 30, 1765, Died Mar. 2, 1844. My husband Wm. Love was killed by the Harpes.” The tombstone was photographed in 1990.]