Monday, August 23, 2010

King's Tavern- Murder & Hauntings On the Natchez Trace.

By Angela L MSSPI
Constructed of rough brick, hand hewn cypress and ship timbers, the 3 story structure known as King's Tavern was built before 1789 during the time of the Spaniard occupation in the Natchez territory. It is thought that the buildings were origianally part of a Spanish military outpost, but I was unable to confirm this for sure. The Tavern is considered to be the oldest building in Natchez if not the state of Mississippi that remains standing. The first US Mail to Natchez was reportedly delivered to the King's Tavern by an Indian carrier in the early 1800's

The first known owner of The King's Tavern was Ricardo King of Long Island New York, who's family gave the name to the Kingston settlement outside of Natchez.

The King's Tavern site is located at the end of the historic Natchez Trace Parkway. A stretch of historic road that runs from Natchez all the way to Nashville, Tn. To venture along the Natchez Traceway was to journey into a wilderness of darkness and sometimes death. For 500 miles the passageway twisted through matted forests, boggy swamps and broken valleys where dangerous animals, wilderness and most frightening of all bandits and wild Indians were encountered.

Crude taverns were erected sporadically along the Traceway, where one might find a greasy meal, a soggy cot or a lukewarm bath. Many preferred to rest in the open for fear of being robbed while they slept. Burying their money and belongings in the dirt, sleeping with their guns under their arms and lighting fires to ward off wild animals, hundreds of people died on the Traceway from exposure. Modern view of the Trace at right.

Bad weather and frequent flooding of small creeks and rivers turned into torrents and flooded the trails, turning open passages into soggy bog land. Frequently stalling horses and wagons in the muck.

But the greatest danger on the Traceway walked on two feet. The lonely roadway was a favorite for bandits and thieves. Bands of renigade Indians and Whites alike set up ambush along the Traceway looking to loot and plunder possessions, valuables and horses. Month after month, people disappeared on the Traceway, never to be seen or heard from again. It was not uncommon when a well known individual disappeared, that it was assumed or taken for granted that they had become a victim on the Traceway.

The most well known death along the “Trace” is the 11 October 1809 death of Meriwether Lewis, Governor of the United States Territory of Louisiana. This man, famous as co-leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition, allegedly committed suicide at Griner’s Stand. Lewis’s traveling companion, Major James Neely, arrived at the death scene a few hours after the event. Major Neely wrote this to Thomas Jefferson: “It is with extreme pain that I have to inform you of the death of His Excellency Meriwether Lewis, Governor of Upper Louisiana who died on the morning of the 11th Instant and I am sorry to say by Suicide.” Still, there are many today who question the suicide, believing instead that Lewis was probably murdered.Throughout the years skeletons have washed to the surface from shallow graves or hunting parties have come across nameless corpses rotting on the edges of the bogs.
At the King's Tavern, travelers told tales of ambush and horror on their journeys of the Trace. With drink in hand, new arrivals to the Tavern told stories of outrage and savagery , like stories of The Harpe Brothers, Mason and Murrell.

At the head of the tales was Little Wiley Harpe and his brother Big Macijah Harpe, ( aka: William and Joshua Harpe) ,Notorious murderers and theives, who had little regard for human life and frequently killed for pleasure. Their deeds were so outrageous that even their allies in crime detested them. Originally from North Carolina, the Harpe Brothers were sons of a Tory. Their father was rumored to have sided with the British during the Revolution and was a frequent victim of barn burning and retaliation. Musgrave says that they emigrated from Scotland as young children and were first cousins, the sons of John and William Harpe, who settled in Orange County, North Carolina (Breazeale says Georgia), but other sources indicate that they were born in America, and that it was their fathers who emigrated, around 1761. The families were seeking to run a plantation, and did so for a few years before the colonies entered a war. At some point as they grew older the boys changed their names, from William and Joshua to Micajah and Wiley, dropping the "e" and passing themselves off as brothers. Instead of becoming farmers, they fought in the war, but not on the side of the struggling young country. On the contrary, they were young Tories, loyal to Britain, and they happily participated in rampaging gangs that terrorized and plundered patriots. Sketch of Wiley Harpe at right.

The name Harpe aquired fame all along the Trace from the Tennessee Valley to the Natchez Bluffs. In the 1790's the Harpes also had a reputation as far north as Kentucky and were rumored to have used the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky as a hide out. They traveled with their women in tow, frequently enterchanged partners with each other when the mood struck. They joined with bands of Indian outlaws from time to time to burn farms, loot, murder and steal horses. The Harpes took lives for the sheer fun of it, sometimes killing their victims, gutting them and loading the abdomens with rocks in order to sink them in rivers and bogs. They moved from one state to the other, killing and robbing as they went. They not only killed for fun , but took great delight in torture and mutilation of their victims by cutting off fingers, poking out eyes with sticks and gutting their victims. They once tied a naked man to a horse and sent him reeling off a cliff to his death, for the fun of it.

The Harpes also were no strangers to child killings. In my research I read accounts of the Harpes having killed a small child by cutting them into one inch pieces, On one occassion Big M. Harpe, exasperated at the crying of his own child, grabbed the child by the ankles and proceeded to bash the childs head into a tree until it shattered. Big Harpe claimed it was the only murder he ever committed that he actually regretted.

On one occasion The Harpes were staying with friends. They were given a cot next to a mild mannered surveyor who snored to loudly while they slept, so they crushed in his head with a hatchet. Going down to breakfast, they offered to watch a woman's child so that she could get their breakfast made quicker, They quieted the child by slitting its throat in it's crib. When breakfast was served, the poor woman met her fate in the same way, with a butcher knife. After breakfast the Harpes burned the house down. Authorities offered a heavy reward for the pair, A vigilante group overtook Big Harpe, while Little Harpe managed an escape. Wounded and paralyzed Big Harpe was confronted by the husband of the woman and child they had savagely murdered. Big Harpe dieing to slowly for his taste was met with a butcherknife by the husband who slowly and methodically, cut and hacked at Big Harpes neck until he was decapitated. His head then stuck in the fork of a tree as a warning. It is said that the white skull of Big Harpe remained in the tree for many years.

Little Harpe eventually returned to Natchez and joined forces with another criminal by the name of Sam Mason. A Virginian of higher breeding and class, but also a notorious theif and murderer. He was organized and planned his crimes, unlike the spontanious , hot headed Harpes. He had served in the Continental Army and some claimed he was a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independance. Sam Mason was also a frequent patron of the King's Tavern, frequently meeting with his accomplices and discussing his plans over a drink at the Tavern. Cutthroats and criminals of all kinds were patrons of the The King's Tavern, from horse theives and pick pockets, to slave runners, to murderers and rapest, and con artists. The King's Tavern was known for it's wild and rowdy patrons.

It has been reported that Little Harpe was eventually captured and hung for his crimes on the Traceway.

The King family was also rumored to have their own skeletons in the closet, or the chimney as was later discovered. Mr. King was rumored to be having an affair with a barmaid in the tavern by the name of Madeline. Mrs. King was rumored to have found out about the affair. Madeline mysteriously disappeared. In 1930, the Tavern was undergoing renovations and repairs. It has been reported that 3 skeletons, one woman and two men, were found encased in the chimney of the downstairs fireplace. Not far from the fireplace a pearl handled dager was found, possibly the murder weapon. It was suspected that the skeletons were that of the missing Madeline, and either her killers, hired by Mrs King and later disposed of to cover herself, or two male slaves that Mrs. King had issues with.

The King Family sold the tavern in 1817 to The Postlewaite family, who owned the tavern for another 125 years.

There are numerous reports of paranormal activity in the tavern, sources report that scores of witnesses have seen images of a young female, believed to be the ghost of Madeline, the slain mistress. She appears at odd times and is sometimes a prankster, knocking jars off of shelves, pouring water on the brick floors, turning the lights on and off, and breaking glasses. Some have claimed to have witnessed tables vibrating, chains on the walls moving by themselves, Footsteps, when no one is there, water taps turning on by themselves, sounds of a baby crying in the attic room, maintained by the legend that Big Harpe had killed another baby in the upstairs room becasue he was annoyed by it's crying. There are also claims of seeing a man with no face wearing a red hat, hearing male voices talking when no one is there and the shadows and apparitions of both a large man and an Indian.

The King's Tavern is open to the public for dinner dining.

The MSSPI Founders had the pleasure of dining at the King's Tavern on our trip to Natchez on November 21, 2009. I have to say , it was the best prime rib I ever ate and well worth the trip. The staff was very hospitable and eager to share their paranormal experiences. We were given a brief tour of the Tavern and while we were in the upstairs bedroom quarters it was pointed out that there were wet footprints on the floor in the guest suite bathroom. Now the management claims that these footsteps appear frequently and that this is a paranormal event. Since we did not have a controlled enviroment in which to investigate these claims at the time, we cannot say one way or the other if this was a paranormal event, but we had a wonderful time hearing all the stories and eating at the fantastic King's Tavern. We encourage you to visit if you get the chance.

Natchez On The Mississippi by Harnett T. Kane

The Devil's Backbone- The Story of The Natchez Trace by Jonathan Daniels

Ghost's Personal Accounts of Modern Mississippi Hauntings by Sylvia Booth Hubbard

Photo by Dale Woolsley, Natchez Ms. 1997
Personal Interviews with the staff of King's Tavern

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