Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

America's First Serial Killers

H.H. Homes
H.H. Homes

Although many true crime writers have claimed that America's first serial killer is H.H. Homes from the late nineteenth century, in fact, there were several operating before him — as early as one hundred years before. The first documented rogues of this type were Micajah and Wiley Harpe, who slaughtered for fun and profit. Apparently the first account of their deeds came from James Hall, a judge in Shawneetown, who in 1828 wrote about how they spread death around Tennessee and Kentucky for about nine months. "Their history is wonderful," he penned, "as well from the number and variety, as the incredible ferocity of their adventures." Then in 1855, T. Marshall Smith offered stories about their pre-rampage years.

Outlaws of Cave-in Rock, by Otto Rothert
Outlaws of Cave-in Rock, by Otto Rothert

The primary sources for information today, all of which contradict the others on various points, include Life as it Is, by Charles Breazeale, and accounts of the Natchez Parkway itself, especially Outlaws of Cave-in Rock, by Otto Rothert, who collected all extant sources on the Harpes. Reportedly, Rothert's book contains the most comprehensive account of the Harpe brothers, and even served as a script for a documentary. Breazeale admits that there were contemporaneous accounts that differed from his own, but insists that he derived his from a man who personally witnessed part of the tale.

Little is known of the Harpes' early history, but even as young men their presence signaled terror to ordinary folk. While most modern sources refer to them as the Harpes, with an 'e,' the earliest documentation drops it, because they themselves did so when they changed their first names. We shall adopt the most common usage, Harpe, to present their tale of carnage and bloodshed, noting that one historian referred to them as "the most brutal monsters of the human race."

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