My Day with Micajah Harpe’s Various Resting Places

I will say that, while there have been times when I have been embarrassed that my hobby is driving around looking at things, today is not that day. The dog and I drove up to Kentucky to look at the place where they stuck Big Harpe’s head and then the place where they threw his body, after cutting off the head in order to remove it to the place where they stuck it.

We went to look at Big Harpe’s head’s final resting place (well, final if you discount the stories of a witch grinding it up and feeding it to her nephew, which was the inspiration for “Sarah Clark.”) first because it was the farthest north, about five miles north of Dixon, Kentucky on 41A. The landscape is very hilly, but that is an old main thoroughfare (and the sign, which you can’t read because all the gold lettering is worn off says it used to be a crossroads. I couldn’t see anything in the landscape now that gave evidence to that.) so you can understand why, if they wanted to scare the shit out of other bad guys, they would have stuck the head there.

Where they threw his body isn’t too far away–about 35 miles, I’d say. Neither spot is especially far from Madisonville. But holy shit! To see it, you kind of understood exactly what was going on. The posse chasing the Harpes at that time is made up mostly of men from Kentucky and Tennessee. Speculation is that the Harpes were trying to escape to their hideout in Southern Illinois. So, where they were in Muhlenberg County, there’s this huge open flatland and then, to the east of this flatland there’s the hills–one of which is about to become famous as Harpe’s Hill. And north of the flat land is an enormous swamp. I mean, enormous. Like I can’t even tell you how big. It’s like, if you were crossing the Ohio just above river level, but it was only wetlands; the river never happened. So, like the Ohio and all the Ohio’s flood plain wide.

So, if the story is true, when the Harpes split up, Big Harpe headed toward the hills. So his brother and their “wives” had to have headed into the swamp. No other place for them to go.

And don’t get me wrong. The Harpes are some sick fucks. Big Harpe especially. But you have to appreciate how he must have judged the men who were following them. Who wants to chase into a swamp? You give the men something they can almost catch (or, sadly for him, catch) that’s headed for high ground, of course they’re going to chase it.

I read that Muhlenberg County has often been the biggest coal producing county in the world. I guess I thought that Kentucky Coal Country was farther east and more mountainous. But when I saw those swamps! Man it made sense that there’d be coal there. I mean, I know swamps today are no indication there were swamps there millions of years ago. Intellectually I know that. But my heart said “Oh!”

3 thoughts on “My Day with Micajah Harpe’s Various Resting Places

  1. “‘Oh, Daddy, won’t you take me
    Back to Muhlenberg County
    Across the Green River
    Where Paradise lay?’

    “‘I’m sorry, my boy,
    But you’re too late in asking
    Mr. Peabody’s coal train
    Has hauled it away.'”

    John Prine, “Paradise”

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