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The Bandits Mason & Harpe

 

 Among the incidents in the early history of the Mississippi Territory  was the violent death of the notorious robber Mason. This fearless bandit had become the terror of the routes from New Orleans and Natchez through the Indian nations. After the organization of the territorial government, and the opening of roads through the wilderness to Tennessee, the return of traders, supercargoes, and boatmen to the northern settlements, with the proceeds of their

voyage, was on foot and on horseback, in parties for mutual protection, through the Indian nations; and often rich treasures of specie were packed on mules and horses over (page 595) these long and toilsome journeys. Nor was it a matter of surprise, in a dreary wilderness, that

bandits should infest such a route.

 

It was in the year 1802, when all travel and intercourse from New Orleans and the Mississippi Territory was necessarily by way of this solitary trace, or by the slow-ascending barge and keel, that Mason made his appearance in the Mississippi Territory.  Long accustomed to

robbery and murder upon the Lower Ohio, during the Spanish dominion on the Mississippi, and pressed by the rapid approach of the American population, he deserted the “Cave in the Rock,” on the Ohio, and began to infest the great Natchez Trace, where the rich proceeds of the river

trade were the tempting prize, and where he soon become the terror of every peaceful traveler through the wilderness.

 

Associated with him were his two sons and a few other desperate miscreants; and the name of Mason and his band was known and dreaded from the morasses of the southern frontier to the silent shades of the Tennessee River. The outrages of Mason became more frequent

 and sanguinary.

One day found him marauding on the banks of the Pearl, against the life and fortune of the trader; and before pursuit was organized, the hunter, attracted by the descending sweep of the solitary vulture, learned the story of another robbery and murder on the remote shores of the

Mississippi. Their depredations became at last so frequent and daring, that the people of the territory were driven to adopt measures for their apprehension. But such was the knowledge of the wilderness possessed by the wily bandit, and such his untiring vigilance and activity, that for a time he baffled every attempt for his capture.

Treachery at last, however, effected what stratagem, enterprise and courage had in vain attempted. A citizen of great respectability, passing with his sons through the wilderness, was plundered by the bandits. Their lives were, however, spared, and they returned to the settlement.

Public feeling was now excited, and the Governor of the territory found it necessary to act. Governor Claiborne accordingly offered a liberal reward for the robber Mason, dead or alive!

 

The proclamation was widely distributed, and a copy of it reached Mason himself, who indulged in much merriment on the occasion. Two of his band, however, tempted by the large reward, concerted a plan by which they might obtain it. An opportunity soon occurred; and while Mason, in company with the two conspirators, was counting out some ill-gotten plunder, a tomahawk was buried in his brain. His head was severed from his body and borne in triumph to Washington, then the seat of the territorial government.


The head of Mason was recognized by many, and identified by all who read the proclamation, as the head entirely corresponded with the description given of certain scars and peculiar marks. Some delay, however, occurred in pitying over the reward, owing to the slender

state of the treasury. Meantime, a great assemblage from all the adjacent country had taken place, to view the grim and ghastly head of the robber chief. They were not less inspired with curiosity to see and converse with the individual whose prowess had delivered the country of so great a scourge. Among those spectators were the two young men, who, unfortunately for these traitors, recognized them as companions of Mason in the robbery of their father.

It is unnecessary to say that treachery met its just reward, and that justice was also satisfied. The reward was not only withheld, but the robbers were imprisoned, and, on the full evidence of their guilt, condemned and executed at Greenville, Jefferson County.

The band of Mason, being thus deprived of their leader and two of his most efficient men, dispersed and fled the country. Thus terminated the terrors which had infested the route through the Indian nations, known to travelers as the “Natchez and Nashville Trace.” (page 596)

 

The most notorious of the desperadoes who infested the settlements (My note: the Green River country of Kentucky) were two brother named Harpe, of whom Judge Hall, in his Western Sketches, has given this narrative:

In the fall of 1801 or 1802, a company consisting of two men and three women arrived in Lincoln county, Ky., and encamped about a mile from the present town of Stanford.  The  appearance of the individuals composing this party was wild and rude in the extreme.  The one who seemed to be the leader of the band, was above the ordinary stature of men.  His frame was bony and muscular, his breast broad, his limbs gigantic. His clothing was uncouth and shabby, his exterior, weather-beaten and dirty, indicating continual exposure to the elements, and designating him as one who dwelt far from the habitations of men, and mingled not in the courtesies of civilized life. His countenance was bold and ferocious and exceedingly impulsive, from its strongly marked expression of villainy. His face which was larger than ordinary, exhibited the lines of ungovernable passion, and the complexion announced that the ordinary feelings of the human breast were in him extinguished.

Instead of the healthy hue which indicates the social emotions, there was a livid unnatural redness, resembling that of a dried and lifeless skin. His eye was fearless and steady, but it was also artful and audacious, glaring upon the beholder with an unpleasant fixedness and brilliancy, like that of a ravenous animal gloating on its prey. He wore no covering on his head, and the natural protection of thick coarse hair, of a fiery redness, uncombed and matted, gave evidence of long exposure to the rudest visitations of the sunbeam and the tempest. He was armed with a rifle, and a broad leather belt, drawn closely around his waist, supported a knife and a tomahawk. He seemed, in short, all outlaw, destitute of all the nobler sympathies of human nature, and prepared at all points for assault or defense. The other man was smaller in size

than him who led the party, but similarly armed, having the same suspicious exterior, and a countenance equally fierce and sinister. The females were coarse, and wretchedly attired.

The men stated in answer to the inquiry of the inhabitants, that their names were Harpe, and that they were emigrants from North Carolina. They remained at their encampment the greater part of two days and a night, spending the time in rioting, drunkenness and debauchery.

When they left, they took the road leading to Green River.

 

The day succeeding their departure, a report reached the neighborhood that a young gentleman of wealth from Virginia, named Lankford, had been robbed and murdered on what was (page 74) then called, and is still known as the "Wilderness Road," which runs through the Rockcastle

hills. Suspicion immediately fixed upon the Harpes as the perpetrators, and Captain Ballenger, at the head of a few bold and resolute men, started in pursuit. They experienced great difficulty in following their trail, owing to a heavy fall of' snow, which had obliterated most of their tracks, but finally came upon them while encamped in a bottom on Green River, near the spot where the town of Liberty now stands. At first they made a show of resistance, but upon being informed that if they did not immediately surrender, they would be shot down, they

yielded themselves prisoners.

 

They were brought back to Stanford, and there examined. Among their effects were found some fine linen shirts, marked with the initials of Lankford. One had been pierced by a bullet and was stained with blood. They had also a considerable sum of money, in gold. It was afterward

ascertained that this was the kind of money Lankford had with him. The evidence against them being thus conclusive, they were confined in the Stanford jail, but were afterward sent for trial to Danville, where the district court was in session. Here they broke jail, and succeeded in making their escape.


They were next heard of in Adair county, near Columbia. In passing through that country, they met a small boy, the son of Colonel Trabue, with a pillow-case of meal or flour, an article they probably needed. This boy, it is supposed, they robbed and then murdered, as he was never afterward heard of.  Many years afterward, human bones, answering the size of Colonel Trabue's son at the time of his disappearance, were found in a sink hole near the place where

he was said to have been murdered.

 

The Harpes still shaped their course toward the mouth of Green River, marking their path by murders and robberies of the most horrible and brutal character.  The district of country through which they passed was at that time very thinly settled, and from this reason their outrages went unpunished They seemed inspired with the deadliest hatred against the whole human race, and such was their implacable misanthropy, that they were known to kill where there was no temptation to rob. One of their victims was a little girl, found at some distance from her home, whose tender age and helplessness would have been protection against

any but incarnate fiends. 

 

The last dreadful act of barbarity, which led to their punishment and expulsion from the country, exceeded in atrocity all the others.  Assuming the guise of Methodist preachers, they obtained lodgings one night at a solitary house on the road. Mr. Stagall, the master of the house, was absent, but they found his wife and children, and a stranger, who, like themselves, had stopped for the night.  Here they conversed, and made inquiries about the two noted Harpes, who were represented as prowling about the country. When they retired to rest, they contrived to secure an

ax, which they carried with them to their chamber. In the dead of night, they crept softly down stairs, and assassinated the whole family, together with the stranger, in their sleep and then setting fire to the house, made their escape.

 

When Stagall returned, he found no wife to welcome him; no home to receive him. Distracted with grief and rage, he turned his horse's head from the smoldering ruins, and repaired to the house of Captain John Leeper. Leeper was one of the most powerful men of his day, and

fearless as powerful. Collecting four or five other men well armed, they mounted and started in pursuit of vengeance. It was agreed that Leeper should attack "Big Harpe," leaving "Little Harpe" to be disposed of by Stagall. The others were to hold themselves in readiness to assist

Leeper and Stagall, as circumstance might require.

This party found the women belonging to the Harpes attending to their little camp by (page 75) the roadside; the men having gone aside into the woods to shoot an unfortunate traveler, of the name of Smith, who had fallen into their hands, and whom the women had begged might not be dispatched before their eyes. It was this halt that enabled the pursuers to overtake them. The women immediately gave the alarm, and the miscreants, mounting their horses, which were large, fleet and powerful, fled in separate directions. Leeper singled out the Big Harpe, and being better mounted than his companions, soon left them far behind. Little Harpe succeeded in escaping from Stagall, and he, with the rest of his companions, turned and followed the track of Leeper and Big Harpe. After a chase of about nine miles, Leeper came within gun shot of the

latter and fired. The ball entering his thigh, passed through it and penetrated his horse, and both fell. Harpe's gun escaped from his hand and rolled some eight or ten feet down the bank. Reloading his rifle Leeper ran to where the wounded outlaw lay weltering in his blood, and found himwith one thigh broken and the other crushed beneath his horse. Leeper rolled the horse a-way, and set Harpe in an easier position. The robber begged that he might not be killed. Leeper told him that he had nothing to fear from him, but that Stagall was coming up, and could not probably be restrained. Harpe appeared very much frightened at hearing this, and implored Leeper to protect him. In a few moments Stagall appeared, and without uttering a word, raised his rifle and shot Harpe through the head. They then severed the head from the body, and stuck it upon a, pole where the road crosses the creek, from which the place was then named

and is yet called Harpe's Head. Thus perished one of the boldest and most noted freebooters that has ever appeared in America. Save courage, he was without one redeeming quality, and his death freed the country from a terror which had long paralyzed its boldest spirits.

The Little Harpe afterward joined the band of Mason, and became one of his most valuable assistants in the dreadful trade of robbery and murder. He was one of the two bandits, that , tempted by the reward for their leader's head, murdered him, and eventually themselves suffered the penalty of the law as previously related. (page 76)

 

By John Warner Barber, All the Western States and Territories, from the Alleghenies to the Pacific, and from the Lakes to the Gulf, Containing Their History from the Earliest Times, published in 1867, Making of America, U of Michigan.

My note:  From “The Outlaw Years by Robert M. Coates, pages 163-164:

“They (Wiley Harpe and his co-conspirator May) escaped and were almost  immediately recaptured in the town of Greenville, some twenty miles north of Natchez, and there finally, they were convicted and hanged.  On February 8, 1804, they were taken from the jail and out through

the town to the “Gallows-Field” to be hanged….After the execution, their heads were cut off.  The head of Harpe was mounted on a pole along the Trace, a little north of the town; the head of Mays was mounted on a pole and placed a little south of the town, along the Trace.”

Contributed by Sue B. Moore  sbmoore@swbell.net

 

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