Tag Archives: murders

“And, daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County?”

Whether you have a taste for Serial, My Favorite Murder, Last Podcast on the Left, Making a Murderer, Wormwood, The Keepers, The Jinx, or the trusted ol’ standby—Unsolved Mysteries—it comes as no surprise that the true crime market is saturated with grisly tales of ne’er-do-wells and their unsuspecting victims. Kentucky, of course, has seen its fair share of jilted lovers and bank robberies gone sour, and, if history is to be trusted, the ol’ Bluegrass State is home to the Harpe brothers or, as they’re known more salaciously, the first documented serial killers in the country.

In her 1971 paper titled “The Harpe Brothers” former folk studies student Karen Hart details the rise and fall of Micajah and Wiley Harpe, two outlaws born in the wild thicket of Muhlenberg County in the late 18th century. The brothers, whose real names were Joshua and William, were notorious highway robbers, murderers, and river pirates whose reputation for blood lust and revenge would ultimately leave more than 40 men, women, and children dead in their wake. Hart’s paper gathers together legends relating to the brotherly bandits from current residents of the Green River Valley. The tall tales conjure images of stolen herds of prized cattle, barns burned to ashes, buried treasure, secret hideouts, and shoot-outs with the law. Their path of destruction, which spanned from Illinois to Mississippi, left whole towns cowering in fear.

As always, though, the brothers reaped what they sowed. While Wiley managed to outlive his brother by nearly four years, they both appear to have met the same fate. Hart’s paper spares the ghastlier details, but a quick online search sums it up: severed heads and spiked poles. A fitting reminder that cooler heads always prevail.

An 1875 broadside promises a handsome reward for the arrest of a train robber

An 1875 broadside promises a handsome reward for the arrest of a train robber

The paper itself (FA 1186), located within WKU’s Manuscripts and Folklife Archives, contains photographs of participants, brief biographical sketches, and a reel-to-reel audio tape of Hart’s interviews with her informants.

For more information on Kentucky’s sordid past, visit TopSCHOLAR or browse through KenCat, a searchable database featuring manuscripts, photographs and other non-book objects housed in the Department of Library Special Collections!

Post written by WKU Folk Studies graduate student Delainey Bowers.

Comments Off on “And, daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County?”

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

Sadie and Susie

Max Nahm; the Nahm home, site of a murder

Max Nahm; the Nahm home, site of a murder

It was a domestic tragedy that devolved into a spat about domestic servants.  On June 7, 1945, Sadie Brown, the longtime African-American cook of prominent Bowling Green banker Max Nahm, was arguing with a male acquaintance in the kitchen of Nahm’s home at 14th and College Streets.  The argument ended when he grabbed a knife, slashed her throat, and fled.

From her State Street home a block away, Martha Potter wrote the news to her children.  For most of her life, Martha, who kept boarders in her home, relied heavily on African-American domestic servants, but the past few years had been a trial.  Susie Potter, her own longtime cook and maid with whom she shared a surname, had resigned in 1937, and recently the attraction of better-paying war work had made replacements scarce.

But now it was Max Nahm’s turn to experience a “servant problem.”  As the local African-American community reacted in shock to Sadie’s murder, Susie told Martha of their folk beliefs regarding violent death.  “Susie said that murder blood was hard to wash out and that if it wasn’t washed up before the victim’s death it never would come out,” Martha informed her children.  Sally, her current cook, had agreed, adding that “every time there is a thunderstorm that spot will come back.”

A few weeks later, Susie herself was cooking for Nahm, but his search for live-in help remained futile because no servant was willing to stay overnight in the house.  Then Susie became ill, and she and Martha made a secret pact: after Susie’s recovery, she would return to work for Martha, not for Nahm.

The conspiracy continued through the fall of 1946, with Martha confiding to her children that “Max still says she is coming to work for him.”  When Susie finally rejoined Martha’s household in spring 1947, Nahm “got mighty mad,” but Martha haughtily denied having “stolen” his cook.  Although he found a replacement, the 84-year-old banker nursed a grudge that Martha attributed solely to ego.  “Max is still pouting with me about Susie,” Martha wrote in June 1948–a full three years after Sadie Brown’s tragic death in his kitchen.

Martha Potter’s letters about the politics of domestic service are part of the Lissauer Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections of Bowling Green family papers, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Comments Off on Sadie and Susie

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives