Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

Micajah's Head

Leiper pointed the weapon directly at Harpe's vulnerable chest, spotting the butcher knife in Harpe's hand, but saw no other weapon. He coaxed Harpe to surrender his weapon. When he felt certain that monstrous outlaw was no longer a threat, Breazeale says that Leiper asked, "Why did you do this? Why kill all those people?"

Harpe's response, readily given, was a classic answer, one that many future serial killers would echo. He said that he and his brother had grown disgusted with all mankind "and agreed with each other to destroy as many persons as they could." Harpe admitted that he knew he would one day pay the ultimate price, but he was determined to slaughter as many people as he could before that happened. By some accounts, they were angry over a wrong done to them, or a false arrest and imprisonment. Rothert indicates that Harpe identified a man named Baldwin as the source for all the misery.

While Micajah admitted to a number of murders (some sources say 17, others say 20 or 28 and a few claim as many as 40), he said that there was only one murder for which he bore remorse: the murder of his own child. He had killed it, he said, because its crying had annoyed him. (This may have been the baby he smashed into a tree.)

Leiper was aware of many of the killings that Micajah now related, but some unsolved murders to which he confessed had never been pinned on him. Leiper pressed Harpe to continue until he had told everything there was to tell. However, by this time, the others in the posse had caught up and were so full of rage that they cared little about Harpe's account. They wanted revenge. (The Gleaner indicates that Harpe was given water and time to pray. Musgrave says that the water was delivered to Harpe in his own shoe.)

Stegall in particular was burning to give Harpe a taste of his own medicine. He grabbed the butcher knife that Harpe had given to Leiper and ran at the outlaw, grabbing him by the hair and running the blade in a slow sawing motion across the back of his neck. Micajah definitely suffered, but Breazeale reports that he didn't cry out. Instead, he stared at Stegall "with a grim and fiendish countenance, exclaiming, 'You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.'" (Rothert indicates that they removed his head only after he'd been shot again and had expired.)

To continue with the first account, Stegall was likely annoyed by this defiance, so he finished the job by drawing the blade all the way around Harpe's neck, cutting deep to the bone until he had removed the head from the body. It was the same manner that a butcher would use with an animal. At the time of his death, Harpe was only 31 years old.

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