Legendary American outlaw Belle Starr (1848–1889) developed a reputation as a "Bandit Queen" of the Old West. Though she was an expert rider who could handle a gun, and who was associated with famous outlaws such as Frank and Jesse James, many accounts of her life contain more legend than fact. She has been credited with a long list of spectacular crimes, but it appears she did little more than steal some horses and harbor some fugitive friends.
Her popular image, generated by unreliable biographies and motion pictures, was that of an attractive, amorous and ruthless female gang leader—a female Jesse James, as she was often called, usually by those who knew little about her life. The reality of the woman, however, is rather different. "Belle's true life was one without glamour," author Richard D. Arnott wrote in Wild West magazine in 1997. "The so-called Bandit Queen was actually an unfortunate woman hardened by her times and associates…. In her later years, she really was a companion to known thieves and felons, but it is doubtful she ever did more than steal horses and provide a haven for fugitives."
Starr was born as Myra Maybelle Shirley on February 5, 1848, in Jasper County, Missouri, near Carthage. Her parents were John Shirley and Eliza (Pennington) Shirley, who called their daughter Belle. John Shirley, married three times, was the black sheep of an affluent Virginia family. Pennington, his third wife, came from the Hatfield family of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud. In 1839, Shirley moved his family to southwest Missouri, where he became wealthy raising wheat, corn, horses, and livestock.
In 1856, Shirley sold his land and moved his growing family—now including the eight-year-old Belle—to Carthage. He used the money to buy property in the prospering city and to build a tavern, livery stable and blacksmith shop. Wealthy and well-respected, he sent his only daughter to the Carthage Female Academy. There, Starr, who became an excellent student, studied music and classical languages in addition to the standard academic curriculum.
Starr had four brothers, but she spent much of her time outdoors with her older brother, Bud, who taught her how to ride horses and shoot guns. In town, she enjoyed playing the role of a little rich girl. However, her family's fortunes were about to fall sharply.
Civil War Ruined Family
During events leading to the Civil War, as well as in the actual conflict, John Shirley was a Southern sympathizer, and he especially admired William Clarke Quantrill, the ruthless leader of the marauding guerilla band "Quantrill's Raiders." So he was fiercely proud when Bud joined with Quantrill to serve as a scout. However, the Raiders were marked men in the eyes of the Federal troops, and tragedy struck the family when, in 1864, Union soldiers killed Bud.
Shirley also saw his town and, in turn, his businesses destroyed. Grief-stricken and desperate, he sold his property, loaded his family and belongings in a wagon, and went south to Scyene, Texas, a move that represented a big step down. At the time, Texas was an open territory that provided a haven for outlaws and a last-chance refuge for the rootless and destitute.
Scyene was a small settlement southeast of Dallas, and Shirley obtained 800 acres through a land grant. At first, his family had to live in a crude makeshift abode while he constructed a modest clapboard house. On the farm, Shirley grew corn, sorghum, oxen, horses, milk cows, and hogs; and he raised money through horse trades and stud fees.
During this period, newspapers published reports of the criminal activities of notable outlaws such as James and the Younger brothers, former Confederates who, like the late Bud Shirley, had ridden with Quantrill. Sometimes, the Shirley's opened their farm to these outlaws, providing them a hiding place. Thus, Starr became close with members of the James-Younger gang. In fact, one of the famed outlaws, Cole Younger, had been one of her childhood friends in Missouri. This later led to rumors and the myth that Cole Younger had once been Starr's lover.
Married Jim Reed
In Texas, however, Starr actually fell in love with James C. "Jim" Reed. She also knew Reed from her Missouri days, as the Reed and Shirley families were friends. Now, Reed was riding with the Youngers, and he and Starr became reacquainted one night when the gang sought refuge on the Shirley farm. That led to a romance, and Starr and Reed were married on November 1, 1866.
According to legend, Starr's parents objected to the relationship, forcing the couple to elope. In a rather colorful account, Starr and Reed supposedly rode off with a gang of outlaws and were married on horseback. But this was just another Starr myth. The truth is, her parents did not object at all to Reed. In fact, Reed moved in with the Shirley family and helped with the farming.
In 1867, the couple went to live with Reed's mother on the Reed homestead in Missouri. Early in September of 1868, Starr gave birth to their first child, Rosie Lee, who was later nicknamed "Pearl." Another widely circulated Starr myth involved the daughter's birth. Pearl was said to be the illegitimate daughter of Cole Younger, but this rumor has been discredited. Belle and Reed also had a son, James Edwin "Ed," born in 1871. This domestic tranquility was short-lived, as Reed would become increasingly involved in criminal activity.
Lived life on the Run
After several years of marriage, Reed began to get restless. He began spending less time at home and more time with notorious horse thief Tom Starr. His own Cherokee tribe spurned Tom Starr because of his viciousness. In avenging his father's murder, he reportedly killed more than 20 people. Together, Reed and Tom Starr sold whiskey and rustled cattle in Cherokee territory, an area that became Oklahoma. Reed also re-established contact with his friends in the James-Younger gang.
In 1869, Reed shot a man who supposedly killed his brother, forcing him to flee with his family to California. In 1871, after Reed was accused of passing counterfeit money, the family had to flee again, this time moving back to Texas. For the next two years, Reed became involved in livestock rustling and murder with his outlaw associates. When warrants were issued for his arrest, Reed hid out in Choctaw territory, taking Belle Starr with him but leaving the children with the Shirley's in Texas.
After Reed and his gang robbed the Grayson family of about $30,000 in gold coins, in an 1873 incident notorious for its cruel details, Reed went back to Texas with Starr, who was identified as an accomplice in the crime (supposedly, she took part while dressed as a man), even though there was little evidence she was involved. Apparently, during the robbery, the outlaws hung Grayson and his wife from a tree until they revealed the location of the gold.
Back in Texas, Starr left Reed to live with her parents. She had enough of the fugitive life and her husband's criminal activities. Further, she found out that Reed had been seeing another woman.
Death and Destitution Followed
After the separation from his wife, Reed continued robbing stagecoaches and stealing cattle. For a while, he stayed one step ahead of lawmen. Eventually, former friend John Morris, who had been deputized to capture Reed, shot and killed him in Texas.
The next few years seemed quiet and sad for Starr. Her father died in 1876. Her mother sold the family farm and moved to Dallas. But early biographers embellished these quiet years. According to the Belle Starr legend, Starr moved to Dallas with her children and lived off the money from the Grayson robbery, affecting a rather flamboyant lifestyle, dressing in fancy clothes, boots, and hats and wearing twin-holstered pistols. Supposedly, she spent a lot of time gambling and drinking in saloons and often rode through the streets shooting her pistols.
According to other unreliable accounts, she went on a criminal spree that included burning down a store, robbing a bank while dressed as a man, and robbing a poker game at gunpoint. In addition, she was supposed to have led a ring of horse thieves. But the public record, including newspaper accounts and court documents, did not bear out any of these claims.
The reality was much more mundane. Starr had never financially benefited from her husband's crimes, and after he was killed in 1874, she was broke. Starr sold the farm that she and Reed had bought and, for awhile, lived at the Reed homestead in Missouri.
Married Sam Starr
Local gossip had it that Starr, after Reed's death, lived with Bruce Younger for a short time in Kansas. Bruce was related to Cole Younger, and Starr supposedly married him in 1880. Actually, on June 5 of that year, Belle Shirley officially became Belle Starr when she married Sam Starr, the son of her late husband's former partner in crime Tom Starr. Legal records indicated that Sam was twenty-three while Belle was twenty-seven (she was actually thirty-two).
They settled near the Canadian River on land owned by Tom Starr and called Youngers' Bend, in honor of the Younger gang. As it was located in so-called "Indian Territory," it was in the midst of "outlaw country," and many fugitives, including Jesse James, often sought refuge on the property. Starr, however, wanted only to live in peace, but peaceful periods would be fleeting.
Sentenced to Prison
In July of 1882, the Starr's were accused of stealing horses. The charge came after a horse roundup on a neighbor's land. The Starr's received permission to pen the horses in the neighbor's corral until the horses could be sold. But the neighbor noticed that some of the horses actually belonged to other neighbors, and he informed the Starr's. But the Starr's sold the horses, anyway. They were indicted in November of 1882.
Their four-day trial took place in March of 1883, in the court of "Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker. Both were found guilty. Parker, however, went easy on the pair, explaining that it was the first conviction for both. Sam Starr received a twelve-month sentence while Belle received two six-month sentences.
The Starr's were sent to the House of Correction in Detroit, Michigan. Belle Starr reportedly was a model prisoner. After they each served nine months, they returned to Youngers' Bend. Belle Starr had put on weight in prison and appeared dowdy. When she was not busy planting, she liked to read and play the piano. Sam Starr, meanwhile, spent more time away from home, engaging in outlaw activities until he became a wanted fugitive. As such, he only returned home infrequently.
Belle Starr stood trial twice more in 1886. The first trial involved what appeared to be a case of mistaken identity. That year, three bandits had robbed some farms in the Youngers' Bend area, and two witnesses claimed Belle Starr was one of them. She stood trial at Fort Smith in June, but evidence was not enough to convict her. Three months later, she returned to Fort Smith to stand trial for horse theft, after she mistakenly sold a stolen horse to a friend. Again, she was found not guilty.
When she returned home after her second trial, she learned that her husband had been critically wounded after an Indian posse ambushed him. Despite his injuries, Sam Starr escaped and fled to his brother's home. Starr treated his wounds and convinced him to turn himself in. Sam Starr surrendered to authorities in October 1886 and was scheduled to stand trial in February 1887. But he never made it to court. In December of 1886, at a Christmas party that the Starr's attended at a friend's house, Sam Starr was killed in a shootout with his cousin, U.S. Deputy Indian Marshall Franklin West.
The death of her husband placed Belle Starr's claim on Youngers' Bend in the hands of Cherokee authorities. In an attempt to retain the land, she married Sam's adopted brother, Billy July, a member of the Creek tribe who was twenty-four years old. The Cherokee leaders told her she could keep the land as long as she remained married and as long as she stopped allowing fugitives to hide out on the property.
Starr Shot and Killed
Farmers were settling the land near Youngers' Bend, and Starr agreed to rent some of her land to Edgar A. Watson. Later, she learned Watson was wanted for murder in Florida. Not wanting to lose her land, she tried to cancel the rental arrangement. Watson, however, wouldn't leave. In response, Starr insinuated that she knew about his fugitive status and hinted that she'd reveal Watson's whereabouts to Florida authorities. The implied threat had the desired effect; Watson moved to another farm. Apparently, that was not her last encounter with Watson.
Starr was shot and killed on Sunday morning, February 3, 1889, and indications were strong that Watson murdered her. Starr had spent Saturday night with friends and was heading home to Youngers' Bend when she stopped at the home of a neighbor. Several other visitors were there, too, including Watson. When Starr entered, Watson left.
Starr ate and chatted for a while, then continued home. The part of the road she now traveled passed very close to Watson's new home. As she turned a bend in the road, she was blown out of her saddle by a shotgun blast. As she tried to get off the ground, she was shot again, in the face and shoulder. She died from her wounds.
Watson was the primary suspect. Investigators found his footprints near the shooting scene. Also, Watson owned a shotgun. There were no witnesses, however. Some neighbors heard shots but had seen nothing. Watson was arrested but acquitted. The evidence was considered too circumstantial.
After the acquittal, no attempt was made to determine just who shot Starr, although suspects included Starr's third husband and her two children. Her son, Ed, had threatened to kill her after she punished him with a bullwhip. Pearl Starr also was angry with her mother after Belle thwarted her wedding plans and helped get Pearl's own daughter placed in an orphanage. It is still widely believed that Watson committed the murder. He eventually moved back to Florida, where he was killed during a shootout with a posse.
Starr was buried near Lake Eufala, which is just a couple of miles from her Youngers' Bend home, in what is now Porum, Oklahoma. The engraving on her tombstone reads: "Shed not for her the bitter tear, Nor give the heart to vain regret, 'Tis but the casket that lies here, The gem that filled it sparkles yet." Starr was buried with her six-shooters, which were stolen when her grave was vandalized. A protective fence now surrounds the site.
Soon after Starr died, her sensational but apocryphal legend began taking shape. The work most responsible for promulgating her myth was Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James: A Full and Authentic History of the Dashing Female Highwayman, an "authentic" biography written by Richard Fox, who wrote dime-novel westerns. The book contained more fiction than fact. But the inaccurate legends persisted until recent years, when scholars finally began piecing together the truth about Starr's life.
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Steele, Phillip W., Outlaws and Gunfighters of the Old West, Heritage Publishers, 1991.
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"Belle Starr," Women in History,, http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/star-bel.htm (January 12, 2006).
"Starr, Myra Maybelle Shirley," The Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/SS/fstbl_print.html (January 12, 2006).
Born February 5, 1848
Died February 3, 1889
Near King Creek, Indian Territory
Rancher and cattle rustler
Belle Starr, known also as the Bandit Queen, lived an exciting and interesting life, but her flamboyant personality fostered many untrue stories of her escapades in Texas.
Known as the Bandit Queen, Belle Starr is one of the most famous characters to come out of the Old West. Describing her as a female Robin Hood, stories recounted how she stole from the rich to give to the poor. Her flamboyant personality fostered exciting stories of her escapades in Texas. She reportedly rode through Dallas whooping and shooting her twin pistols, gave birth to the daughter of famous bandit Cole Younger, married her second husband on horseback while riding away from her disapproving parents, escaped from every jail she was put in, and led several outlaw gangs. Exciting though these tales may be, they are not entirely true. Like the lives of many western heroes and outlaws, an embellished version of Belle Starr's life has become a western legend.
Belle Starr: fact or fiction?
At the time of Starr's death, magazines and dime novels had become very popular, mainly because they printed stories of great adventure on the American frontier. The exploits of real-life frontiersmen were especially popular. Tales of frontiersmen Daniel Boone (1734–1820; see entry) and Kit Carson (1809–1868; see entry)—as well as outlaws Jesse James (1847–1882; see entry) and Billy the Kid—excited the imaginations of eager readers. Featuring gunfights, evil villains, and damsels in distress, the thrilling stories were often embellished and exaggerated to make them even more compelling to readers.
In Starr's case, a dime novel popularized a false—but thrilling—version of her life. When Richard K. Fox, a publisher of dime novels, read Starr's New York Times obituary, he dispatched the writer Alton B. Meyers to write a biographical novel based on her life. It is easy to see what piqued Fox's interest. On Wednesday, February 6, 1889, the New York Times reported:
Word has been received from Eufala, Indian Territory, that Belle Starr was killed there Sunday night. Belle was the wife of Cole Younger.... Jim Starr, her second husband, was shot down by the side of Belle less than two years ago.
Belle Starr was the most desperate woman that ever figured on the borders. She married Cole Younger directly after the war, but left him and joined a band of outlaws that operated in the Indian Territory. She had been arrested for murder and robbery a score of times, but always managed to escape.
The only fact in the entire obituary was the report of Starr's death. Yet excited by Starr's legend, Meyers began to research her life for his biographical novel. Unable to get the cooperation of Starr's family, he created his story from secondhand accounts of neighbors and acquaintances. The resulting novel, Belle Starr, The Bandit Queen, or The Female Jesse James, sold thousands of copies, but it told little truth. Meyers had made up diary entries and letters from Starr to make the story appear authentic. Other biographies of Starr soon followed. Though many books and stories recount what they call the "real" story of Starr's life, few leave out the thrilling fabrications of the earliest biographical account.
The real Belle Starr did associate with criminals and flirt with lawlessness. Wearing fashionable velvet dresses and riding her horse sidesaddle, Starr rarely rode without her gun belt securely fastened around her waist. She hosted rough criminals in her home but presented herself in a ladylike manner. Yet her gracious manners did not prevent her from showing her temper, whipping her son, or aiming her gun at someone's face to make her point. Starr's early years explain her unusual combination of fashionable worldliness and criminal behavior.
A childhood in pre–Civil War Missouri
Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley near Carthage, Missouri, on February 5, 1848. At the age of eight, young "May," as her family called her, enrolled in the Carthage Female Academy, where she attended classes through the eighth grade. However, her education was disrupted as the area surrounding Carthage erupted in skirmishes between those living in the slave-holding state of Missouri and those in the free state of Kansas. Violence escalated throughout the region. When Kansas joined the Union as a free state in 1861, the battles grew ever more heated. Starr's brother joined the notorious William C. Quantrill raiding group and lost his life. After the death of Starr's brother, her father moved the family to Texas.
Descent into crime
The family prospered on a farm outside of Dallas. A smart young woman, Starr was bored in the local one-room schoolhouse and preferred spending time on the farm with her parents. In 1866 James C. Reed, a friend of Starr's in Missouri, moved with his family to Texas and became reacquainted with the young Belle. On November 1, 1866, they married. Within two years Starr had a baby girl she named Rosie Lee, whom she called "my pearl." Though she may have known the outlaw Cole Younger—he was a member of her late brother's raiding group in Missouri—she did not marry him and her first child was not his, contrary to what some stories say.
Jim Reed was a gambler and criminal who introduced Starr to criminal life. Although some stories suggest that Starr spent the late 1860s playing pianos in dance halls and frequenting gambling houses, she actually looked after her daughter and around 1870 or 1871 gave birth to a son, Edward, in Missouri. After Reed killed two men to avenge his brother's murder, he moved his family frequently to stay one step ahead of the law, ending up in California. Getting into
The Wild West
Belle Starr's life and the subsequent embellishment of it are products of the Wild West. Starr lived during a time when the West was a wild, unruly place. Gunfighters disrupted the life of growing towns with their seemingly random violence, and armed bandits sometimes made travel difficult and costly. Lawmen—like Sam Starr's nemesis, John West—attempted to keep the peace, but sometimes did so with violence of their own. Violence was a regular part of life, for westerners had few laws or authorities to enforce the law. However, this savage period in American history did not last very long. Prior to the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery), violence had never been perceived as an epidemic. After the Civil War, however, the cowboy era brought hundreds of young, aggressive men into the frontier, where they clashed with thousands of settlers who had begun moving out into the western territories. Conscientious, solid citizens found the lawlessness of cowboys and other western characters a real threat to the civilization that they were trying to build. For example, the Cheyenne, Wyoming, Daily Leader declared that "Morally, as a class, cowboys are foulmouthed, blasphemous, drunken, lecherous, utterly corrupt. Usually harmless on the plains when sober, they are dreaded in towns, for then liquor has an ascendancy over them." The Wild West existed from approximately 1866 to 1890; it seemed so wild because the rudeness and violence of the frontier began to clash with the sensibilities of an encroaching civilization. Indeed, Starr's life parallels these changes on the frontier. Running with bandits in the 1860s and 1870s, she later attempted to conform to a more civilized life.
By 1890 the forces of civilization had generally triumphed in the West. Towns across Kansas barred the cattle trade and rid themselves of the wild cowboys at the same time. No longer able to live the free life of the cowboy, many men returned to farms and to the civilizing influence of families. Railroads stretched across the continent, bringing settlers to areas once remote. With the settlers came churches, civic organizations, family life, and, perhaps most importantly, law and order. In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner noticed something that had probably become obvious to many: the frontier was closed, and the West was no longer wild. Yet the legendary characters of the Old West lived on in books and movies.
trouble by trying to pass counterfeit money, Reed and family soon fled California as well. In the early 1870s they sought refuge at the home of Reed's friend Tom Starr in Indian Territory, where Reed continued his criminal ways. In one robbery, Reed reportedly came away with about thirty thousand dollars. However, when Reed was killed in a gunfight in 1874, Starr was left in a "destitute condition," according to her sworn testimony for the U.S. commissioner in Dallas, which is quoted in Glenn Shirley's book Belle Starr and Her Times. She shipped her children to Missouri to live with relatives.
May Reed becomes Belle Starr
Although stories suggest that Starr had several lovers, little is known about the next few years of her life. In 1880 she married again, this time to Sam Starr, the half-Cherokee son of her first husband's friend, Tom Starr. About this time, she took the first name Belle; she kept the Starr surname for the rest of her life. Settled in her new marriage, Belle sent for her daughter, renaming her Pearl Starr. Living in Indian Territory along the Canadian River, the family operated a ranch, which doubled as an outlaw hideout. They reportedly hosted Jesse James and other fugitives from the law.
In 1882 both Belle and her husband faced Judge Isaac Parker—called the "hanging judge"—on charges of horse theft. Belle was the first woman ever sentenced by the judge and received less than one year in prison. During her incarceration, Belle wrote to her daughter, referring to her as Pearl Younger. Biographer Glenn Shirley explains the name change as Belle's attempt to save her daughter from legal problems. Her first letter, quoted in Shirley's Belle Starr, illustrates her concern for her daughter: "I shall be away from you a few months baby, and have only this consolation to offer you, that never again will I be placed in such humiliating circumstances and that in the future your little tender heart shall never more ache, or a blush called to your cheek on your mother's account."
When Belle and her husband were set free, they returned to their ranch and were reunited with Pearl; a year later, Edward rejoined the family. In 1885 burglary charges were brought against Sam Starr, and he left the ranch to hide in the wilderness. While her husband was in hiding, Starr faced two charges of horse theft, for which she was acquitted. After reuniting for a short time, Belle and Sam were separated forever when Sam was killed in a gunfight with John West, a Cherokee police officer, in 1886.
After Sam's death, Starr stopped housing fugitives. Neighbors stopped complaining to the police about their horses and cattle disappearing. By 1889, the widow Starr made a common-law marriage with the twenty-four-year-old Jim July, the adopted son of Tom Starr, Sam's father. Marrying another Cherokee allowed Starr to keep her property in Indian Territory. When July was arrested for attempting to steal a horse, Starr reportedly chastised him publicly and refused to pay his bail. She seemed to want to protect her newfound respectability.
Respectability ... and death
Her peaceful life would not last long. Shortly after her third marriage, Starr died from a load of buckshot that blasted into her back; another load shattered her left shoulder and the side of her face. No one is sure who killed her—although there are several theories concerning her killer's motives and identity. Some commentators believe that an angry former lover was responsible for the killing. A few historians suspect Starr's eighteen-year-old son, Edward, who had a difficult relationship with his mother. Others speculate that the culprit was a neighbor named Edgar Watson, who had quarreled with her about land. Watson's criminal record, proximity to the killing, and his angry fight with Starr over a land lease prompt many historians to deem him the real killer. Although a neighbor found Starr before she died, Starr never named her killer.
Starr was buried at Younger's Bend, in a Cherokee ceremony: jewelry was laid in her coffin and a revolver was placed at her hand. Her daughter, Pearl, had a monument placed at the grave. It was inscribed with these words: "Shed not for her the bitter tear, / Nor give the heart to vain regret, / 'Tis but the casket that lies here, / The gem that fills it sparkles yet." Shortly after Starr was buried, her grave was robbed. To protect her mother's remains, Pearl had a two-foot rock vault built over Starr's grave.
For More Information
Green, Carl R., and William R. Sanford. Belle Starr: Outlaws and Lawmen of the Wild West. Hillsdale, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1992.
Horan, James. The Lawmen of the Authentic Wild West. New York: Crown, 1980.
Prassel, Frank Richard. The Great American Outlaw: A Legacy of Fact and Fiction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.
Ross, Stewart. Fact or Fiction: Cowboys. Surrey, British Columbia: Copper Beech, 1995.
Shirley, Glenn. Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.