Born Myra Belle Shirley, February 5, 1848, on a farm outside of Carthage, MO, the legendary Belle Starr came into the world a farm girl and left it as a famous–or infamous–outlaw. Her father was a slaveholder who sympathized with the south, her mother was of the Hatfield clan, and Belle grew up with Cole Younger and several of Quantrill’s Raiders.
By 1864, after Carthage was burned by Union troops, the family moved to Scyene, Texas, a small town near Dallas. There, in July of 1866, the Younger brothers and Jesse James, all Missouri outlaws who rode with Quantrill, used her family’s home to hideout from the law.
That same year her older brother John “Bud” Shirley, who fought for the Confederacy with William C. Quantrill’s guerillas, was killed by Union troops in Sarcoxie, Mo. Some say this is the reason Belle took to crime – she went hunting for the Union officer who shot her brother and, though she never found him, she seems to have liked carrying a gun and stirring up trouble.
In 1866, Belle married James C. “Jim” Reed, a former guerilla whom she had known since her childhood in Carthage and had two children: Rosie Lee “Pearl” (who was later rumored to be Cole Younger’s child) in 1868; and James Edwin “Ed” in 1871. While Jim initially tried his hand at farming, he soon grew restless and fell in with the Starr clan, a Cherokee Indian family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery, as well as his wife’s old friends the James and Younger gangs.
When her husband and cohorts robbed Watt Grayson, a wealthy Creek Indian farmer of $30,000 in gold, Belle was accused as an accomplice. Though there was no proof, she fled back to her family in Scyene. Stories are told that she would ride into Dallas wearing buckskins and moccasins or tight black jackets, black velvet skirts, high-topped boots, a man’s Stetson hat with an ostrich plume, and twin holstered pistols, and spend her time in saloons, drinking and gambling at dice, cards, and roulette. At times she would ride her horse through the streets shooting off her pistols
On Aug. 6, 1874, the law caught up with Jim Reed near Paris, Texas. He was shot to death trying to escape from custody.
The young widow of an outlaw, Belle left her children with relatives and returned to Oklahoma Indian Territory and the Starr clan. Belle proved herself good at organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers. Belle’s enterprises provided her with more than enough money to use bribery to free her cohorts from the law whenever they were caught. And, if she couldn’t buy off the lawmen, she was known to seduce them into looking the other way.
“Next to a fine horse, I admire a fine pistol.”
Judge Isaac C. Parker, a.k.a., “The Hanging Judge,” of Fort Smith, Arkansas, became obsessed with bringing Belle Starr to justice, but she eluded him at every turn. Charges never seemed to stick, and if he managed to get her into his courtroom, she would appeal to friends in high places and receive a full pardon.
In 1880, at the age of 32, Belle fell in love with Sam Starr, the handsome 20-year-old son of the clan leader, and asked him to marry her. Old Tom disapproved, but Belle out-talked him and ended up with young Sam as her husband.
“After a more adventurous life than generally falls to the lot of woman, I settled permanently in the Indian Territory, selecting a place of picturesque beauty on the Canadian River. There, far from society, I hoped to pass the remainder of my life in peace and quietude. So long had I been estranged from the society of women, whom I thoroughly detest, that I thought I would find it irksome to live in their midst. So, I selected a place that but few have ever had the gratification of gossiping around…” Belle Starr
(June 7, 1886, Dallas Morning News, p. 4, col. 5-6)
Belle Starr’s ride came to a violent end on February 3, 1889, two days short of her forty-first birthday, when she was shot in the back while riding from the general store to her ranch near Eufaula, Oklahoma. Suspects included Edgar Watson, a fugitive with whom Belle had been feuding over the land he was renting from her, Jim July, her Cherokee lover, with whom she had recently had a quarrel, and her son Ed, with whom she had a rather strained relationship. The murderer of Belle Starr was never caught.
Belle was buried on her ranch. A marble headstone was erected over her grave on which was engraved a bell, her horse, a star and this epitaph written by her daughter Pearl:
“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.”
Leon C. Metz, “STARR, MYRA MAYBELLE SHIRLEY,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fstbl), accessed May 30, 2011. Published by the Texas State Historical Association
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