The Murderers and Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock

Writing in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, dated September 22, 1932, Howard asks him if he heard any stories about a certain notorious Illinois landmark and the desperados who frequented it when he was on a recent visit down south:

While you were in the South on your recent visit, did you hear any legends of the Cave-in-the-Rock gang? That’s a bit of scenery I’ve always wanted to visit. A friend of mine [Clyde Smith] saw it a year or so ago, and said it’s really impressive. It certainly harbored a desperate horde. Foremost of these were the Harps, who to my mind were the most terrible outlaws that ever cursed this Continent, not even excluding Boone Helm, from whom Zane Grey apparently drew his hellish “Gulden” of The Border Legion, and who on one occasion, finding himself snowed in with a companion in the mountains of British Columbia, and out of food, murdered the companion, partly devoured his body, and took up his journey again, carrying a leg along for supplies on the way; who, when strung up along with the rest of Plummer gang by the Vigilantes, standing on a wagon with a rope around his neck, asked if he was expected to jump off, or be pushed off. On being told that he could do as he liked, he replied, “Every man to his own principles! Three cheers for Jeff Davis and the Confederacy! Hurrah for hell! Let her rip!” — and jumped off.

The “Cave-in-Rock” landmark Howard mentions is located in southern Illinois and overlooks the Ohio River, just across from Kentucky. The massive cave has a fifty-five foot wide entrance and a one hundred foot vertical fissure leading to a top entrance – this fissure provides the cavern with a natural chimney, thus making it inhabitable. The cave was carved out of the limestone rock by water thousands of years ago and was originally discovered by French explorer M. de Lery, who in 1729 called it caverne dans Le Roc. Today the cave and surrounding area is a state park.

Samuel Mason, a former soldier in the Revolutionary War, found Cave-in-Rock in 1797 shortly after running into some trouble with the law in Virginia. He and his family fled to the southern Illinois and western Kentucky area and the cave became the headquarters and a trap for his large-scale river piracy operation. Mason put up a sign on the bank of the river near the cave that read “Liquor Vault and House of Entertainment.” It was difficult for anyone traveling along the river to avoid noticing the signs, and many captains, crews, and passengers on boats were lured to it. Many disreputable people were attracted to the tavern as well. From this group of men, Mason recruited a band of criminals that terrorized that stretch of the Ohio River for years.

Mason took advantage of the fear that travelers had of hitting the rocks and shallow spots in the river and being grounded. The earliest travelers used small, clumsy boats that were propelled by small paddles or oars, making travel difficult in rough stretches of the river. Boaters, even before Mason had arrived in the area, were advised by people who had traveled the river to pay a man to pilot their vessel through a dangerous channel that ran from about two miles below the cave and extended six miles past it. Playing off this need for pilots, Mason and his pirates passed themselves off as trustworthy local pilots who could steer boats through this area. One pirate stationed himself around ten miles from Cave-in-Rock, and when employed, he would ground the boat at Cave-in-Rock. If he failed to get the job done, another person at Cave-in-Rock would take over and pilot the boat for the next stretch of river. If he was successful, he landed the boat at Hurricane Island. This was another station for the pirates along the Ohio. Boats with too much protection or an unprofitable cargo were allowed to pass through the channel. Another tactic Mason used was to have a young, attractive woman pretend to be stranded. She would station herself at Diamond Island, below Cave-in-Rock and attempt to get picked up by passing vessels. She then had the boat drop her off at Cave-in-Rock where the boat and crew fell into Mason’s trap. Once Mason had the boats in his clutches, he would murder the crew and replace it with his own men. They would then take the cargo down to New Orleans where it would be sold. The bodies of the murdered crew members were disposed of by slitting them open, filling them with rocks, and sinking them in the Ohio River.

In addition to the cave and its outlaw inhabitants, Howard also mentions in his letter to HPL the Harps or Harpes, who were the nation’s first serial killers. Though often referred to as the Harpe Brothers, they were actually cousins who often passed themselves off as brothers. Both of their fathers were Scottish immigrants who had settled in Orange County, North Carolina. Micajah Harpe was born to John Harpe and his wife, while Wiley Harpe, who was actually named Joshua, was born to John’s brother, William and his wife. Soon after the arrival of the Harpes in America, they changed the spelling of their original name from “Harpe” to “Harp.”

Micajah Harpe was otherwise known as Big Harpe. He was, according one account, a man “above ordinary stature” and, with his muscular structure, an imposing sight. He was further described as typically being “dirty and shabby,” the darkness of the grime offset by a thatch of “fiery red hair.” Big Harpe always carried a rifle, knife and tomahawk.

Wiley Harpe stood, literally, in the shadow of his larger cousin. Since he was smaller than Micajah, he went by the name of Little Harpe. Despite his smaller stature, he was every bit as dangerous as his partner in murder. In 1797 Little Harpe, who was in his late twenties or early thirties, married a pretty and delicate woman about 20 years old named Sarah “Sally” Rice. Not to be outdone, Big Harpe came home not with one wife, but two — his legal wife, Susannah Roberts, described as “rather tall, rawboned, dark hair and eyes and rather ugly” and his “subordinate” wife, Susannah’s sister Betsy, described as “rather handsome, light hair and blue eyes and a perfect contrast with her sister.” The five settled down together in a cabin outside of Knoxville.

Out of the blue, the “brothers” decided to go on a nine-month killing spree, which began in Knoxville, the early Tennessee state capital. The Harpes and their women arrived there sometime between the in the spring of 1797. They lived on a farm eight miles west of Knoxville on Beaver Creek until late 1798, when a neighbor rightfully accused the Harpes of stealing his horses. The Harpes fled, but the neighbors eventually caught up with them and the horses. As they made their way back to the capital, the Harpes escaped, with the neighbors in hot pursuit. But the posse lost the thieving pair and eventually gave up the chase.

Rather than hiding, that same night the Harpes visited a “rowdy groggery” operated by a man named Hughes a few miles west of Knoxville. The Harpes were regulars there and knew the owner. Inside they found a man they were looking for named Johnson. He may have been the man who informed the Harpes’ neighbors where their horses were hidden. The Harpes kidnapped and killed him – he was their first murder. Several days later, a passerby found Johnson’s body floating in the Holstein River, belly ripped open and filled with stones — a trademark the deadly duo would use again and again on their victims.

Looking for a hideout, the Harpes took their families and headed to Cave-in-Rock and joined Sam Mason and his river pirates in the trade of their craft, attacking heavily laden flatboats traveling downriver with goods. After one such successful attack, the pirates threw a celebration party inside the cave. Only one boatman had survived to tell the tale of the attack and he was taken captive and held in the cave. Suddenly, the Harpes came up with a fiendish idea for entertainment. With the others drunk in their revelry, the bloodthirsty pair took the survivor up to the top of the cliff. They stripped him naked, tied him to a horse, blindfolded the horse and ran it off the cliff.

The outlaws in the cave soon heard a commotion of hoof beats, terrified screams and the clatter of dislodged rocks. They ran out of the cave where they could see the horse’s neck extended, its legs galloping frantically against thin air, and tied to its back the naked, screaming prisoner, a look of stark horror on his face. In an instant horse and man were dashed against the rocks at the base of the cave opening.

The incident proved to be too much even for the deadly river pirates — the Harpes had to go. They ordered them to leave and take their women and children. The pirates’ rebuke had some temporary effect — the Harpes reign of terror quieted down for a few weeks. But by mid-summer they began their final death race toward fate. In quick succession they killed a farmer named Bradbury about 25 miles west of Knoxville and another man named Hardin about three miles downstream from that city.

Still in Eastern Tennessee, the Harpes continued their vicious murder spree in earnest. In just a few short weeks in June and July 1799, they added nine bodies to their ever-growing tally of death. All in all, it is believed over 40 people — men, women and children — lost their lives at the hands of the Harpes.

Fleeing after one of their victims was found disemboweled near their camp on Highland Creek, they passed themselves off as Methodist ministers and were given shelter by the unsuspecting Stegall family in Webster County. The pair killed another overnight guest named Major William Love, as well as Mrs. Stegall’s four-month old baby boy, whose throat was slit when it cried. When Mrs. Stegall screamed at the sight of her infant being killed, she too, was murdered. When the man of the house returned from an overnight trip, he found his family dead and his home burned to the ground.

Their trail of killing continued as they fled west to avoid the posse, which included Moses Stegall, whose family the Harpes had killed earlier in the month. The posse finally caught up with them on August 24, 1799 while the pair was preparing to kill another settler named George Smith. Ignoring the posse’s demands to surrender, the two took off on horseback, but Big Harpe was shot in the leg and the back. The posse caught up with him and pulled him from his horse. As he lay dying, he confessed to 20 murders, including his own baby girl. When his infant daughter would not stop crying he bashed her head against a tree, killing her. When he was finished confessing, Stegall slowly cut off the outlaw’s head. Later it was stuck on a pole at a crossroads near Henderson, Kentucky. For years, the intersection where the pole stood was called Harpe’s Head.

Little Harpe managed to escape and quickly rejoined Mason’s gang of pirates at Cave-in-Rock. Four years later, Little Harpe was using the alias of John Setton when a large reward was offered for the head of their leader, Samuel Mason. Harpe, along with a fellow pirate named James May, murdered Mason and hacked off his head with hopes of collecting the reward money. However, when presented the head to the authorities, they were recognized as outlaws themselves and arrested. The outlaw duo soon escaped, but were quickly recaptured, tried, and sentenced to be hanged. In January of 1804, they were executed and their heads cut off and placed high on stakes along the Natchez Road as a warning to other outlaws.

The other murderous outlaw Howard mentions in his letter is one Boone Helm, the Kentucky Cannibal. He was born Levi Boone Helm on January 28, 1827 in Lincoln County, Kentucky to Joseph and Nancy Wilcox Helm. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to one of the newest settlements in Missouri. The rough pursuits of border life were agreeable to him and, as a young man, he became known for his great physical strength and bravado. He delighted in nothing more than any quarrel which would bring his prowess into full display. He also loved liquor and drank in excess, and when riled up, he would give way to all the evil passions of his nature. On one occasion, while the circuit court was in session, the sheriff attempted to arrest him. Helm resisted the officer, but urging his horse up the courthouse stairs into the courtroom, he astonished the judge by demanding with a stream of profanities what he wanted with him. It was not the last time he would pull this stunt. The book Howard references, The Border Legion, is one he had on his bookshelf. The Zane Grey novel features a character based on Helm.

In 1850, Boone was determined to move to California and join the gold rush. Littlebury Shoot, a neighbor and friend had promised to go with him. By some accounts, Shoot had made the promise to a drunken and disorderly Helm with the intent of pacifying him. When Helm learned that his friend was intending to stay in Missouri, he stormed up to Shoot’s house and confronted him. Upon hearing directly from his friend that he was not going to California with Helm, the latter pulled out his Bowie knife and plunged it into Shoot’s chest. Shoot died instantly and Boone fled to California.

Shoot’s brother rounded up a posse, pursued and quickly captured Helm. But he was acting insane in jail and his antics in soon landed him in an asylum for the mentally deranged. Upon entering the asylum, Helm became passive and talked his guard into taking him on walks through the woods. Soon these walks became routine and Helm was able to take advantage of the guard’s trust, deceive him, and escape to California.

While on the westward trail, Helm left a stack of bodies along the way. Traveling alone and sometimes joining up with small groups of men for protection from rampaging Indians, Helm nearly starved to death on several occasions in the snow filled mountain passes. At one point, a group of six men he was journeying with to Fort Hall, Idaho had dwindled to just Helm and a man named Burton.  The others fell prey to Indians or the harsh elements. Purportedly Burton, unable to continue on, shot himself. Helm promptly made a meal of one of Burton’s legs and wrapped-up the other one and took it with him to continue his trek toward Fort Hall, with the ultimate destination being Salt Lake City, Utah. Helm was not shy about his cannibalistic habits, even boasting, “Many’s the poor devil I’ve killed, at one time or another…and the time has been that I’ve been obligated to feed on some of ’em.”

Helm was found by a man named John W. Powell, who soon realized Helm was as hard a character as he had ever run across. Nonetheless, he took care of the cold and hungry Helm, giving him food and clothes, and taking him to the settlements around Salt Lake. Helm had a bag with him containing over $1,400.00 in gold coins, which he had carried across the divide through all his hardships. Powell would take no pay from Helm, and the latter never even thanked him for his kindness, but left him as soon as he reached the Mormon settlements.

When Helm was in Salt Lake City, he bragged about his man killing exploits and recklessly spent his money. A group of Mormons hired Helm to kill a couple of men they wanted taken out of the picture, which he did without so much as a blink of an eye. But, once the dastardly deeds were done, the Mormons also wanted him to disappear.

Soon he was forced to leave Salt Lake City and move back to California where he killed a man who had taken him in and given him shelter. While there he also brutally murdered an unarmed gunfighter known as Dutch Fred in cold blood. Forced again he was forced to flee into the wilderness again, where he is alleged to have murdered and eaten a traveling companion.

Once again on the lam with lawmen in pursuit, Helm robbed and killed a rancher who had taken in and befriended him. After leaving the dead rancher’s place, Helm was ambushed and taken prisoner by a group of Blackfoot warriors. The Blackfoot planned to sell him to the Crow, his mortal enemies, for a high price. He was stripped to the waist, tied up with leather thongs and placed in a teepee. A young brave was tasked with watching the wily cannibal. The ever resourceful Helm gnawed through his restraints, knocked out his young guard with a single punch, took his knife and scalped him and finished by cutting off one of his legs. He fled into the forest and survived on the Blackfoot’s leg until he reached the cabin of Del Que, his trapping partner, after trekking nearly 200 miles. It was around this time when Helm entertained thoughts of going to Texas to join the Confederacy, urged on my his brother who wanted to see Helm change his murderous ways. But, in the end, Helm decided against the idea.

Still hoping to make a fresh start, Helm found his way to British Columbia, settling in the town of Victoria in the fall of 1862. But soon he went back to his robbing and killing lifestyle. Indeed, British Columbia had never seen the likes of Helm, a vicious and depraved outlaw and cold-blooded killer. After he robbed and murdered three prospectors, $700 was raised by the locals and a posse was hired. He was soon captured, but managed to escape. According to newspaper accounts, he was then arrested by British authorities at Fort Yale on the Frazer River after being found exhausted and nearly frozen. During this period Helm was known to be traveling with a man named Dirty Harris. When asked what became of Harris, Helm replied “Why, do you suppose that I’m a – fool enough to starve to death when I can help it? I ate him up, of course.”

Helm was transported from Fort Yale to Victoria, then to Port Townsend where he purportedly tunneled out of the city jail and made his escape to Bannock, Montana. Once there, he teamed up with the notorious Henry Plummer, who was sheriff of Bannock and a thief and murderer on the side. Many believe the gang was responsible for up to 100 deaths. Helm and his friends soon raised the ire of the local communities of Bannock and Virginia City to the point where a vigilante committee was formed to deal with the public menace.

The well organized group known as the Montana Vigilantes had enough of Plummer and his outlaws and rounded the whole lot of them up in January of 1864. After capturing five of the gang-leaders, Helm amongst them, a group of vigilantes known as the “Committee” tried the men in secret and sentenced them to death by hanging. So, in Virginia City on January 14, 1864, the hangings commenced, held in a partially construction building while a crowd of over 6,000 spectators looked on.

Upon watching a friend next to him hanged, Helm reportedly remarked “Kick away old fellow. My turn next. I’ll be in Hell with you in a minute.” When it was his turn, Helm allegedly yelled “Every man for his principles! Hurrah for Jeff Davis! Let ‘er rip!” and then jumped off of the hangman’s box before the hangman could kick it away.

Helm is buried in Virginia City’s Boot Hill Cemetery. We will never know how many men Helm may have murdered and/or eaten. One thing for sure, he certainly had an appetite for his fellow man.