Ricky Harpole

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ricky Harpole: Balladier, raconteur extraodinaire.

Part 1 of 2

If this column reaches The Panolian on time for the Tuesday edition it will be an accident of circumstance. John Howell, our esteemed editor, publisher and grand poohbah of this accident (oops I meant newspaper) brought the bounty hunters to my attention last week. He seemed to be fairly certain that at least one small significant scrap of humor might be wrassled out of what normally is perceived to be a social catastrophe. So I did a little research on body snatchers.

Past and present. Here it is: If we stick to Mississippi history, the earliest snatch I can come up with is a murderer-trail robber and otherwise criminal of the worst order, although whether or not he was a Democrat or a Rebublican has not been established.

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His name was William Harpe. He was commonly known as “Big Harpe” because he had a younger brother who was smaller but just as ugly called “Little Harpe.” They made an industrious livelihood robbing travelers on the Natchez Trace. They had decided that “Dead Men Tell No Tales” and left few witnesses to testify.

Eventually of course their misdeeds caught up with them in the form of a professional man tracker who was not fast enough to catch “Little Harpe,” but managed to put a half ounce musket ball thru the heart of “Big Harpe.” The ball effectively ended “Big Harpe’s” career, but left the tracker with a problem. Consider, there were no Kodak nor Polaroid cameras in those days. The best you could hope for was a sketch artist and if you found one handy, the quality of his art might be so poor as to get the wrong man hung (or paid).

The chances of gain were limited to eyewitnesses who could make an “eyes on” identification and there would be no pay off without the positive I.D. The closest place to collect the bounty was Natchez Under the Hill, an eight-day ride with an over ripe corpse that might not be recognizable after a week of Mississippi August heat. A situation like that would stink without question.

Well, a bounty hunter that ain’t on television with a passel of script writers and tattoo artists with a sanctified wardrobe department has to make do with what he’s got.  

This is what he had. Salt, from one of several licks between Nashville and Mathiston. Sulfur from a nearby spring which may have been near Little Mountain and a bucket or two of white clay that can be found in almost any creek in the area.

The tracker, whose name may have been Marlin or Marshton, removed Harpe’s head, packed it in brine and sulfur for a few days and sealed it in a ball of clay. The bounty is rumored to have been $120 (gold).

The main difference in the way things would be done today is the authorities as well as the general public would be outraged, not so much about his treatment at the end of the musket but the treatment his corpse, not to mention the smell of the week he’d spent in transit with Mr. Marlin.

Now these days things work a little different. When a person posts bond, a bondsman accepts 10 percent of the total cost of the bond. If the bond is $100,000 the bondsman will receive $10,000 to keep for his services but if the client decides to break camp the bondsman is “de facto” responsible for he entire amount. It don’t take much imagination to figure out what the next step is.

Snatch ’em and quickly.

Because otherwise the poor old bondsman will be broke as a convict, and may well be a convict himself if he can’t raise the cash before situation comes to the attention of the judge or the prostituting attorney or prosecuting attorney (depending on what county had jurisdiction).

There is also a pretty good chance the snatchin’ crew will be shot or otherwise maimed for their trouble and if they are fortunate enough to earn a paycheck without a ride in a hearse or an ambulance there will be tons of paperwork and/or court appearances to explain why the rat catcher was too hard on the rats.

Well, while most people don’t cause much trouble some of them do so with vigor and ambition. Those are the ones that make the rat catcher earn his money.

Resting in Peace,

Ricky Harpole

For the rest of the story “Body Snatchers” read next Tuesday’s edition.