Micajah and Wiley Harpe: Part 3
Published 7:05 pm Thursday, March 23, 2023
By: Jadon Gibson
Word about the murderous Micajah and Wiley Harpe was passing swiftly throughout the borderland. Captain Joseph Ballenger and his Stanford, Kentucky posse knew they had the ‘luck of the Irish’ after they stumbled onto the notorious merrymakers while they were as drunk as skunks. The posse would have had their hands full otherwise.
Ballenger knew he had a serious problem because the Stanford jail was little more than a dog pound and he would have to keep them shackled and manacled. Efforts were made immediately to fortify the structure and secure the prisoners.
Wiley was the more talkative of the brothers. He tried to impress Captain Ballenger the following day that they weren’t Harpes at all but were Shelbys or Selbys. He couldn’t make up his mind what their name was.
The Harpes were surprised when various individuals started showing up at their barred window and peered in at them. As folks heard that the posse may have captured the dreaded pair and were being held in Stanford, they came by hoping to get a glimpse of them.
They both had hangovers and Micajah’s dander got aroused when some of the uninvited guests said disparaging things about him and his manhood. The older and larger of the Harpes ordered “Stay and I’ll offer the captain to let me whip any two of you able-bodied men in a fist-fight by himself.”
Captain Joseph Ballenger arrived at that time and heard Micajah’s offer to fight and whip any two men who stood against him. The unkempt man added the condition that if he beat the two men, he and his party would ‘get out of jail free.’
The idea was immediately nixed. The captain knew it would be tantamount to murder to turn them loose back into the general population. Ballenger determined that all available safety measures had to be taken to hold them secure including notifying Lexington to see if they would take charge of the prisoners. They had more manpower and their jail was more secure.
A few days later the Harpes saw an opportunity to escape and seized the chance, high-tailing it before dawn. All of the jail improvements and security measures were for naught.
The pioneers on the borderland had been scared and up in arms before but it was now multiplied tenfold. A “lynch law” was invoked and posses of regulators rode the early trails of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and those in southwest Virginia. They carried noosed ropes and planned to use them if the Harpes were apprehended.
A posse led by famed long-hunter Henry Scaggs happened upon the startled Harpe brothers a couple weeks later. They took to the brush as the horses were of less value then. After traipsing through the woods for several hours members of the posse said “they were needed at home.” Scaggs attempted to rekindle their spirit but they had all they could take and returned to their home area.
Scaggs was looking to find new recruits to search for the Harpes when he came upon the cabin of Colonel Trabue who was a veteran of the Indian Wars. He agreed to join Scaggs upon the return of his son who had gone to the neighbors for a brief visit. The boy never returned but his bloodied dog came to them whining and led them way to a sinkhole where they found young Trabue’s body covered by brush. He died a horrific death which had all the markings of the Harpes handiwork.
Scaggs and Trabue were diligent in their search for the Harpes but were unsuccessful in finding them. In the meanwhile, the Harpes were up to mischief. They killed a fisherman named Stump along the Barren River, filled his body with rocks and threw him in the river after disemboweling him. He was found a few days later. The buoyancy of the body enabled it to be found.
The body of a man named Dooley was found about this time not far from Edmonton in Metcalfe County. He was concealed by brush in order to give the Harpes time to escape before their victim was found.
There was talk of the Harpes everywhere among the settlers. With the murders continuing the opinion along the borderland was that the cut-throat murdering Harpes had to be stopped.
“Crude writings announcing three hundred dollars reward for anyone delivering Micajah Harpe to the Danville jail and a like amount for his brother Wiley Harpe,” were widely posted. “Funds will be paid out of the public treasury. Micajah is about six feet, has a stout build and is about 30 to 32 years old. He has a mean look, is downcast and has short, black, curly hair that is down to his forehead. He stands erect and is full-fleshed in the face. Wiley Harp is very meager in the face with short black hair. Although Wiley looks older, he is younger than his brother by a couple years. He likewise is downcast. Neither of the men can be trusted.”
Posses seemed to always be on the heels of the Harpes, who were steadily on the run. If they thought the posse was getting too close they would turn and retrace their travel on a parallel path. Their livelihood was through murder and thievery, their trails based on paths of least resistance. It was heart-wrenching to run upon the Harpes, while traveling on the wagon roads of early America.
Outlaws before them trekked westward to escape prosecution. The Harpes stayed diligent as more and more regulators hunted for them. They were having one close call after another and knew one slip-up could lead them to being the main guests at a hanging. The brothers knew about a band of outlaws operating in what is now southern Illinois and thought about joining them.
Some folks were interested in the Harpes reward money. Were they underestimating the Harpes? The Harpes had to kill to survive so they had a greater incentive. Killing was their modus operandi.
Editor’s note: Read more of Jadon’s story of the feared Harpes in an upcoming posting. Jadon Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings, From the Mountains, are both historical and nostalgic in nature. Don’t miss a single release. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.