Saturday, December 11, 2010

Harpes & King's Tavern: Micajah (Big) Harpe Was Never There

by Michael Chapman

Photo at Left: The old Natchez Trace

When N.A.P.S. conducted its full investigation into King's Tavern in the fall of 2010, we started by researching the history of the Tavern. In compiling the history that is regularly given for the Tavern as well as the stories behind it, we uncovered much that is simply not true. This did not surprise us. As is often the case, southern "history" contains much that is myth and folklore, and the history that is so often given for the Tavern is certainly no exception. One of the stories surrounding King's Tavern and the haunting of it, centers around the Harpe "brothers." In fact, during my research of the Harpes, I uncovered that it is not known for certain whether the Harpes were actually brothers. There are some historians in Kentucky, where the Harpes originated, that state that Micajah (Big Harpe) and Wiley (Little Harpe) were possibly cousins.

With regards to the haunting of King's Tavern, it is often stated as fact that Big Harpe slaughtered an infant there. This is given as the explanation of a phenomena whereby some have reported to have heard the crying of a baby. During my research of this psuedo-history, I came across website after website where this story is repeated. One example, given below, is from the website "" It is typical of the incorrect reporting of Micajah Harpe, and reads as follows:

Workers report hearing a baby crying in the restaurant - specifically, from rooms that were supposedly empty. The story behind the infant's cry goes back to the 1700s when the building was not only an inn, but also the post office and one of the centers of the city's commerce. A young mother was trying to comfort her fussy infant, when a man named Big Harpe - one of the notorious Harpe brothers - walked over from the bar. She thought that he was going to assist her, but instead, he grabbed the baby by its feet and slammed the infant against the wall. As the distraught mother crumpled to the floor to gather the child's lifeless body, Big Harpe strolled back to the bar and ordered another drink.

A factual look into the recorded history of Micajah Harpe reveals that while he certainly did kill children and in one instance a baby, the infant was most likely that of his own brother Wiley, a nine-month old daughter born to Wiley and Sally Roberts.  Furthermore, this happened far, far away from Natchez and King's Tavern, and actually occurred near Russellville, Kentucky. I explain the details of that story elsewhere, but I want to take a minute to speak about why such stories and folktales abound, where the truth is abandoned and lies are so easily spoken. In a cogent essay regarding the curious phenomena of folklore so often being accepted as truth, Henry Glassie states:

FOLKLORE and history make a pair, a contrastive pair. In the common language, folklore and history align in opposition to provide one of the antinomies we use to bring a little order into the mess. History is true. Folklore, an elder historian once told me with a smile, is "a pack of damned lies.' Folklore is a polite synonym for malarkey as in the phrase, "that's just a lot of folklore." Folklore is made of lies but not important ones. History is important; momentous events are "historic," while folklore is marginal, fetching but trivial. History is also gone. "One more out," the announcer intones in the bottom of the ninth, "and this game is history." By contrast, folklore is false, insignificant, and oddly vital. Folk history is an oxymoron: a false truth. Legend, the genre through which folk history claims life, was once defined as a falsehood believed to be true.'

There is much in southern culture that is folklore, and it is as pervasive as the Spanish moss that dangles from our live oaks. However, when one is doing historical research, it becomes quite a chore to separate historical fact from folklore and myth. I am personally amazed at how much we southerners accept our folklore as fact, without doubt...without question. It cuts against the grain, like trying to swim upstream against the flow of the mighty Mississippi itself, to try and convince some southerners that their long held belief and precious story is simply not true. As I stated earlier, the story of Big Harpe killing the baby has long been associated with the Natchez Trace and with King's Tavern. Another story that is sometimes given regarding the Tavern and Big Harpe is that he killed a man for snoring.  That story is also true, but also happened in Kentucky, near Dixon.

Using Kentucky's historical resources from four counties there that I identified as relevant to the Harpe boys (Muhlenberg, Henderson, Lincoln and Hopkins Counties), I was successful in discovering the amazing documentation of the very end of Micajah (Big) Harpe's life, as well as information on Wiley (Little) Harpe. I discovered that Micajah did most all of his killing in that State - Kentucky - and likely never even set foot in the territory (now State) of Mississippi. The Harpes are believed to be from Virginia or North Carolina, from the region near the border of Kentucky.  The stories have simply been "transported" to the Tavern, because it makes for a much more interesting story for the locals. The fact is, we know intimate details about Big Harpe's killing of a man for snoring, as well as the story of the infant, and can find them in recorded history far to the north - indeed in western Kentucky in Muhlenberg County. These factual accounts are not disputed and are very well documented.

It may be disappointing to some to read the truth - that Micajah's murders and infamous exploits occurred far from Natchez and King's Tavern.  However, it should be noted that his brother (or cousin), Wiley "Little" Harpe, did flee to Natchez via the Natchez Trace after Micajah's death and very likely was in the Tavern often.  There is a solid historical record of that.  However, it would be a mistake to then conclude that it was he (Wiley) that did the murdering at the Tavern.  Any historian will tell you that the stories surrounding Micajah, the slaughter of the infant, and the murder of the man for snoring did indeed happen, just not at the Tavern.  There is no evidence, not one shred of historical record, that any murder or violence happened at the Tavern itself.  

King's Tavern is an interesting place, and it has much interesting history, just not what is regularly presented as fact.  Any "haunted crying" that is reported to occur there is likely to be matrixing (thinking it is happening when it actually is not).  Auto suggestion is very powerful when expectations are combined with belief in folklore.  Natural explanations are also a distinct possibility, such as the whirring motors of a blender from the restaurant's kitchen or bar, and the crying or meowing of a feline.

Mississippi Department of Archives & History
A History of Muhlenberg County (Kentucky), by Otto A. Rothert
The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock, by Otto A. Rothert
A Way Through the Wilderness: The Natchez Trace and the Civilization of the Southern Frontier, by Davis
Natchez Under-the-Hill, by Moore
Natchez: The History and Mystery of the City on the Bluff, by Whitington
The Devil’s Backbone: The Story of the Natchez Trace, by Daniels
Natchez On the Mississippi, by Kane
Archives: Natchez Democrat
The Judge Armstrong Library

©  Copyright 2010, Natchez Area Paranormal Society.  All or parts may be used with permission, just cite your source.

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