I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Horse thief and cattle rustler she had a side gig in seducing bandits in the Wild West, Belle Starr was not a woman to be trifled with. However, it's difficult to tease out the facts of her life that have become entangled with the myths that have been created around her.
Belle Starr's Early Days
Myra Maybelle Shirley grew up in Missouri where he father had a livery stable, tavern, inn, and blacksmithing businesses. But, a Union attack in 1864 ruined the enterprises and the family decided to give life a new try in Texas when Belle was 16. “It is known that Texas, at that time, was a refuge for the dregs of society” (historynet.com).
The Shirley family had connections to some of the rougher elements of society. Belle's mother was distantly related to the Hatfields, who engaged in a legendary feud with the McCoys. Her father, John, came from a good Virginia family but was not thought highly of by his relatives.
While the Shirleys lived in Carthage, Missouri Belle received a good education and became an accomplished pianist. At the same time, she got acquainted with some very unsavoury characters, such as Jesse and Frank James. And, she learned some dark side skills, such as gun handling, from her brother Bud.
Belle Starr the Wife and Mother
The stories about Belle's romantic conquests are legendary and probably greatly embellished because one who failed to succumb to her charms is said to have described her as “bony and flat chested with a mean mouth; [a] hatchet-faced . . . tart.” An early paramour may have been the outlaw Cole Younger and that the romance perhaps produced a daughter, but the historical evidence for this is thin.
She did meet up with Younger when he and his gang arrived at the Shirley farm in Texas after holding up a bank in Missouri in 1866. A member of the Younger crew was Jim Reed. Apparently, Belle had fallen for Reed as a teenager, so they married when he arrived in Texas and just within an acceptable time a child, Pearl, was born.
Jim Reed was a violent person and, when he murdered a man in Arkansas in 1867, the family took off for California. In Los Angeles, Belle settled down to raise Pearl and another child, Eddie, who was born in 1871. However, Jim Reed operated on the edges of the law with gambling and counterfeiting and the authorities were after him. So, it was back to Missouri, but Jim vanished with another woman.
Cecilia Rasmussen in the Los Angeles Times writes the last chapter of Jim Reed's life: “He continued his life of crime with his pals, robbing and killing until a lawman caught up with him and killed him in 1874.”
Belle Starr Learns the Criminal Trade
Belle Starr was still hanging around with the Younger and James gangs and, in 1880, married Bruce Younger. This blessed union lasted all of three weeks before a more permanent arrangement occurred with Sam Starr (some say it was common law, some that it was a marriage).
Starr was a Cherokee Indian and his occupation was that of cattle rustler, bootlegger, and horse thief. Belle moved with her new spouse to live in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). It was here that she honed her skills in criminality by trading stolen cattle and horses and dabbling in the illicit whiskey trade. She made so much money that she was able to bribe officials into releasing her associates.
Belle cut quite the figure as she rode side saddle with her gang. She dressed in velvet skirts and wore plumed hats while packing a revolver with which she was a crack shot.
But, in 1882, the luck ran out for the Starrs. They were arrested, charged with horse theft, and convicted. They were both sentenced to nine months in federal prison and served their time in Detroit. But, jail did not have any rehabilitative effect on the couple as they went back to thieving as soon as they were released.
In 1886, the pair faced new charges of robbing a farmer, harbouring fugitives, and horse stealing. Because of a lack of solid evidence, they were acquitted, but the end was near. That December, Sam Starr was at a dance. Intoxicated, he got into an argument with his cousin Frank West, who was also a lawman. Guns were pulled and both men fatally wounded each other.
Belle shacked up with another felon called Jack Spaniard. She took him “to her bed almost before Sam’s body was cold. Belle’s new arrangement was cut short when Spaniard was arrested, tried for murder, found guilty and hanged” (historynet.com).
That was it for Belle Starr's law breaking; having lost her partners in crime she transgressed no more.
An Unsolved Murder
In February 1889, Belle Starr was riding home after visiting a friend. Somebody gave her two shotgun blasts, one in the back and the second in her face and shoulder.
There were plenty of suspects for Ms. Starr had a long list of people with whom she didn't get along too well; folks who had lost livestock or been robbed. Even her son and daughter came in for scrutiny.
Perhaps, the best candidate was a man called Edgar A. Watson who was wanted for murder in Florida. He and Belle had had a falling out, he lived near where Belle was killed, and he owned a double-barrelled shotgun. But, the evidence against him was all circumstantial so there was no conviction and the murder remains unsolved.
About a year before her death, Belle Starr spoke to a reporter for the Fort Smith Elevator newspaper. She almost related her epitaph by saying “I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life.”
- Belle Starr characters, either completely fictionalized or based very loosely on fact, have appeared in at least 20 movies.
- Belle's son, Eddie Reed, was convicted for horse stealing in 1889 and given a prison sentence. After release, he became a deputy in Fort Smith, Arkansas. A report in The San Francisco Call on December 16, 1896 notes that “While drunk and creating a disturbance here (Claremore, Oklahoma) last night in a saloon Ed Reed, who killed the Crittenden brothers a year ago, was shot and killed by a Deputy Sheriff.”
- Pearl Reed, Belle's daughter, took up prostitution and ran several brothels in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
- After her death Belle Starr's story was exaggerated beyond recognition and she has been given a criminal status far exceeding her actual deeds.
- “Truth Dims the Legend of Outlaw Queen Belle Starr.” Cecilia Rasmussen, Los Angeles Times, February 17, 2002.
- “Belle Starr Murdered in Oklahoma.” history.com, February 2, 2021.
- “Belle Starr.” Richard D. Arnott, historynet.com, undated.
- “Belle Starr – The Bandit Queen.” Kathy Weiser, legendsofamerica.com, December 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 08, 2021:
The wild west fascinates and you have done well to whet the appetite.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 08, 2021:
John - there's far more myth that factual history about the "Wild West." It's box office.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 08, 2021:
She was portrayed in an episode of Maverick, but I don't think Gunsmoke.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 08, 2021:
Another interesting read about a wild west personality. I have seen many fictionalised versions in movies and TV shows, so thank you for adding some possible fact to that.
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on September 08, 2021:
Interesting woman, Rupert. Wasn't Belle Starr also a character on Gunsmoke? Her name is very familiar to me, but I really didn't know anything about her until reading this.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 02, 2021:
Rupert, a very interesting read. Thanks.