Belle Starr, Outlaw Queen of the American Wild West

A photograph of a young Belle Starr
A photograph of a young Belle Starr

Belle Starr was an infamous fugitive in the American “Wild West” of the late 1800’s. She was connected with such famous outlaws as Jesse and Frank James, and was arrested several times herself.  She’s been credited with a long list of crimes, but was she truly the Bandit Queen as the newspapers made her out to be?  Or were the many criminal men in her life the true perpetrators and was she guilty by association?  Starr was killed in 1889 at only 41 and her murderer was never brought to justice.  The suspects included her associates, her husband, even own her son and daughter.  What kind of tumultuous life brought Belle Starr to such an early death?

Myra Maybelle “Belle” Shirley, was born in 1848 on a large farm outside Carthage, Missouri. She was the daughter of John Shirley and his third wife, Elizabeth Hatfield. The Shirleys had become well-off raising grain, horses and hogs, and owned an inn, tavern and blacksmith shop in Carthage. Young Belle received an excellent education at the Carthage Female Academy. There, she excelled in classical languages and even became an accomplished pianist. She lived the life of a spoiled, pampered, rich girl who very much liked having an audience with all the attention centered on her.

Belle also fell in love with the outdoors, where she spent her days outside school riding the countryside with her older half-brother John ‘Bud’ Shirley.  He taught her how to ride a horse and shoot both a pistol and rifle. With his help, she became a crack shot and an expert horsewoman.

Belle grew up prior to the U.S. Civil War, in the contested Missouri territory, with her family being Confederate sympathizers.  Jasper County saw both Union and Confederate armies pass through during the war. Southern sympathizers like the Shirley’s often provided the Confederate army with support.  Her brother Bud led a small band of Confederate guerrillas, and later became a scout with William Quantrill, the leader of the ruthless marauders known as ‘Quantrill’s Raiders.

15-year-old Belle idolized Quantrill’s Raiders as heroes of the South.

One of her childhood friends, Cole Younger, served under Quantrill, along with a young Frank and Jesse James. But in 1863, while Bud was at the home of a Confederate sympathizer, Union troops surrounded the house. When Bud attempted to escape, he was shot and killed. The next year, Confederates burned to the ground most of Carthage, including John Shirley’s businesses. A devastated Shirley family left and moved to a farm in Scyene, Texas, just southwest of Dallas.

After the war, the James-Younger Gang became notorious outlaws – robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches. In their run from the law, they fled to Texas, where they met up again with the Shirleys, often taking refuge on the family farm. Belle became smitten by a member of the gang, the first man she ever loved.  His name was Jim Reed. The romance blossomed and Belle and Jim married in 1866.  She was 18.

As Jim Reed was not yet a wanted man, they moved into the Shirley household. He left the James-Younger Gang and became a saddle and bridle maker. By 1867, Belle became pregnant and the couple went to live with Reed’s mother back in Missouri. Belle gave birth to the first of two children, a daughter named Rosie Lee, whom Belle nicknamed ‘Pearl.’ Everything seemed idyllic for young Belle.

The couple then moved to Oklahoma, where Jim Reed fell back on his outlaw ways. Her husband became involved with notorious horse thief and whiskey smuggler Tom Starr. Reed began spending less time at home and more time riding with Starr’s gang. Starr, who was Cherokee, sold whiskey to the Indians while rustling cattle in their territory. 

When Belle became pregnant again, Reed took his wife and daughter back to his mother’s home in Missouri. A second child came along in 1781, who they named Edward. Her husband then left his family again and rejoined Starr’s gang of cattle rustlers. He killed a member of a rival gang and warrants were issued for his arrest.

Reed hid out in Choctaw territory, and Belle had apparently had enough.

She had little money to show from her husband’s exploits and was flat broke. In 1873, she left her husband and took her two children to live with her parents in Texas.  After they separated, it wasn’t long before Reed’s outlaw life finally caught up with him.  A former gang member, now a deputy, shot and killed Reed in a gunfight in Paris, Texas in 1874.  Belle now found herself a single mother.

In 1880, a lonely Belle sought comfort and companionship again.  She married Sam Starr, a tall, handsome Cherokee, son of Tom Starr, her former husband’s old partner. Sam was 23 and Belle was now 32.  The couple settled on Sam’s ranch, Younger’s Bend, in Cherokee territory on the Canadian River, near Briartown, Oklahoma.  The place was in the middle of ‘Indian/Outlaw Country,’ and many fugitives, often sought refuge there.

The couple formed their own gang and started a life of cattle rustling, horse stealing, and bootlegging whiskey.  This time, the intelligent Belle became the brains behind the operation. She fell back on the shooting and horsemanship skills her brother had taught her back in Missouri. This was when she began to be known as The Outlaw Queen.

She reputedly carried two pistols, wore a man’s hat with feathers in the brim and solid gold earrings. She vowed never again to be hard up for money. Sam and Belle found the outlaw life very lucrative and never wanted for cash. She could now afford to take her two children back, now 12 and 9, from her mother in Texas. 

The nearest settlement to Youngers Bend was Fort Smith, Arkansas. The local judge there was the famous Hanging Judge, Isaac Parker. Parker was determined to put Belle Starr and her husband behind bars. In 1882, Parker got lucky when Belle and Sam were caught red-handed as they attempted to steal horses from a neighboring ranch.

The Starrs were arrested by U.S. Marshals and taken to Fort Smith to face justice.

Their trial took place in 1883 and both were found guilty by a jury. Hanging Judge Parker, however, went easy on them, citing that it was the first conviction for both. He sentenced Belle to two consecutive six-month terms and Sam to one year in the Federal Prison in Detroit. Her two children went back to live with her parents in Texas.

After serving their time, Belle and Sam returned to Oklahoma Indian Territory. By this time, Belle’s Starr’s notoriety had only grown and Belle had become quite a celebrity. Newspapers had turned her into a western folk hero, “The Bandit Queen,” they called her.  She still loved being the center of attention. Belle gladly spoke with newspaper reporters after she returned home from prison.

Outlaw Queen Belle Starr posing for reporters
Outlaw Queen Belle Starr posing for reporters

They immediately returned to their life of rustling and bootlegging. In 1886, Sam Starr got arrested again for horse theft. Belle hired the best lawyers in Fort Smith and paid his bail. In December, at a Christmas party, Sam was killed in a shootout with an old nemesis. Both men hit their marks and died of their wounds. Belle’s life as an outlaw queen, and the happiest marriage of her life, abruptly ended.

More bad luck followed when the Cherokee tribal council told her that her claim to Younger’s Bend ended with Sam’s death.  She was now in danger of losing her home. She solved that problem by quickly marrying Jim July, a half Creek, half Cherokee, who was more than a decade younger than Belle. The Cherokee leaders told her she could keep the land as long as she remained married and stopped her outlaw ways.

Belle allegedly reformed at this point, no longer rustling and refusing to shelter criminals at Youngers Bend. Life with her new young husband, however, was particularly stormy. The marriage was also unpopular with Belle’s son Ed and daughter Pearl.  Both disliked and resented the caustic Jim July.

This was the start of Belle’s problems with her two children. Pearl became pregnant by a married man she had been seeing. Belle tried to convince her daughter to visit Fort Smith for an abortion, but Pearl refused. Belle then shipped her off to her grandmother to have the baby. On her return to Youngers Bend, Pearl took up prostitution, infuriating her mother further.

While Pearl was away, young Ed was also arrested for horse theft like his father. Belle hired lawyers, but Ed was sentenced to prison. A few months later, Belle was able to win him a pardon and he returned to his mother’s ranch. But Belle had taken to whiplashing the boy as punishment, and an angry Ed soon moved out.

Then on February 3, 1889, while riding home from a neighbor, a shotgun blast hit her in the back, knocking her off her horse. As she tried to get up, another shot hit her in the neck.  Belle’s horse Venus ran off towards home. When the horse and its bloodied saddle reached the cabin, Pearl knew what must have happened.  She ran down the trail to where a man who heard the shots had found her.

Belle died in her Pearl’s arms; two days short of her 41st birthday.

An investigation began and several suspects came to light, including a renter she’d quarreled with named Edgar Watson. Belle had rented some of her land to Watson, a neighbor. Starr later learned he was wanted for murder in Florida. Afraid of losing her land, she cancelled the agreement, but Watson refused to leave and they argued. Watson shouted how often the law seemed to be at Belle’s ranch. She shouted back, saying the same law would be interested in knowing Watson’s whereabouts.

Then there was Belle’s estranged son Ed. The law felt he had a motive as well. Young Ed’s anger at his frequent bullwhip beatings by his mother had been smoldering since the incidents. He had expressed his rage to several people and some thought he was capable of killing Belle.

Even Pearl was a suspect. Belle had interfered with Pearl’s abortion attempt, and later with a marriage to the father of her child. This was a long-standing grudge between the two women. She had the opportunity since she was still living at Youngers Bend when Belle was killed.

Finally, her husband Jim July had also been indicted for horse theft. July intended to turn himself in at the jail in Fort Smith. Belle however had caught July fooling around with a young Cherokee girl. She told him she had no intention of paying his bail OR his lawyers, thus infuriating July as well.

When Watson’s house was searched, his shotgun was found with both barrels recently discharged, but he denied having anything to do with the murder. Watson told a deputy that Jim July had come by his house the afternoon of Belle’s death to borrow his shotgun, supposedly to kill a coyote. He said July returned the shotgun later that day with both barrels empty.

A hearing was held at Ft. Smith and Watson’s neighbors testified he was hard working, well liked, and caused no troubles. It was discovered that the rumors about Watson being wanted for murder in Florida were false. The Commissioner ordered Watson released and a deputy Marshall to continue investigating.

Deputy Hutchins interviewed Milo Hoyt, the man who found Belle shot, and learned that Jim July had offered him $100 to kill Belle. When Hoyt refused, July supposedly yelled, “Hell, I’ll kill the old hag myself and spend the money on whiskey!” Hutchins caught up with Jim July and when July reached for his gun, Hutchins fired first. Jim July later died in the Ft. Smith jail from his wounds.

After her death, Belle Starr’s legend only grew, and she would have surely enjoyed the attention.  Newspapers proclaimed her The Bandit Queen or The Female Jesse James.  Dime-novel westerns were written about her exploits both true and not-so-true. Decades later, a 1941 Hollywood film was made about her early life – Belle Star, starring Gene Tierney; and a 1980 TV movie of the same name, starring Elizabeth Montgomery.

Belle was buried in the family plot at Younger’s Bend. Pearl paid for a monument over her mother’s grave. On top was carved an image of her favorite horse, Venus. On the stone Pearl left the following inscription:

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

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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