Belle Starr: An American Female Outlaw

Belle Starr was an American outlaw born Myra Maybelle Shirley on her family’s farm on 5 February 1848 near Carthage, Missouri. Her father was John Shirley, and her mother was his third wife, Elizabeth Hatfield.* john Shirley was a prosperous farmer but also the “black sheep” of a well-to-do Virginia family. In 1860, he sold his farm and moved his family to Carthage, Indiana where he bought a livery stable and blacksmith shop.

Belle Starr

Drawing of Belle Starr 1889. Author’s collection.

Known as May to her family, Belle received a classical education for females in Carthage. As she was going to school and taking piano lessons, her older brother, John A.M. “Bud” Shirley, associated himself with the Jasper County irregular forces known as bushwhackers. These were guerilla bands organized to resist federal troops by compelling Missouri to join the war against the Confederacy. Belle supported her brother’s activities and supposedly may have even worked as a spy. Unfortunately, Bud was killed by federal troops in late June 1864. Belle’s father was so upset over his son’s `death, he disposed of his property, packed his family up, and relocated them to a small settlement ten miles southeast of Dallas known as Scyene, Texas.

Also relocating to the same area was the Reed family. Belle became acquainted with them and married James C. Reed on 1 November 1866. Just like Bud, Reed had joined with a group of bushwhackers but among the group Reed joined was the soon-to-be infamous outlaw Jesse James and his brother Frank. So, having been a bushwhacker it probably was no surprise to anyone that after the war Reed embraced a life of crime.

Once he became a criminal, nothing checked his illegal behavior. Marrying Belle did not stop him nor did them having two children — their first was a girl named Rosie Lee “Pearl” born in 1868 and their second was a son they named James Edwin “Eddie.” He was born in 1871 after they moved to California. Between 1870 and 1871, while living in California, Reed continued his criminal ways and it was reported:

“[H]e robbed a man of a large sum of money, left the State, and … [bought] a farm on Cook Creek, Bosque county, where for a while his generous manners won the esteem of his neighbors. Soon, however, ugly rumors floated through the neighborhood, … stock disappeared in that section, and he drew around him the worst class of men, and his place became a rendezvous for horse thieves, and desperados. … In February 1873, Dick Cravey, living sixteen miles from Meridian, was called from his bed and murdered. Four men were engaged in this cold-blood killing … [and] it has since been learned that James and Sol Reed, his brother, were two of the four murderers.

In August of the same year, these two brothers murdered a man named Wheeler, who had been a confederate … but had become alarmed at the attitude assumed toward the Reed gang by the citizens, and had disclosed some things, and for this, and to prevent further disclosures, his life was taken, and his tongue cut out. … Reed then moved to Scyene, and bought property … He floated though the country, always mounted, sometimes in company with the Younger and James brothers and other noted highwaymen.”[1]  

Jesse and Frank James in 1872. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In April of 1874, despite a lack of evidence, Belle Starr was blamed for a stagecoach robbery committed by her husband and others. A warrant was then issued for her arrest. More misfortune followed when Reed was killed by a lawman in Paris, Texas that same year.

In 1878, the same year that Mark Twain visited Zermatt, Switzerland and climbed the Riffleberg Mountain, allegations were lodged against Belle Starr that she had been briefly married to Charles Younger, uncle of Cole Younger. There was no verifiable information of this fact. In addition, during the last two years of her life, scandal sheets linked her to various men that included Jack Spaniard (a Cherokee man raised in the Cherokee Nation with a violent criminal past), Jim French (a mysterious man who was large, powerful, and variously said to be either half-Native American or half-black), and Blue Duck (an outlaw who operated in the Oklahoma Territory and is alleged to have committed armed robberies and cattle rustling.)

Belle Starr with Blue Duck

Blue Duck and Belle Starr 24 May 1886.. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Even with rumors swirling about her and Charles Younger, Belle married a Cherokee man named Sam Starr in 1880 and they settled in Indian Territory with the Starr family. Sam’s family operated out of what is now Oklahoma and were notorious for stealing whiskey, cattle, and horses. After their marriage Belle Starr learned how rustling worked and began operating her own gang. She was reportedly highly successful in her criminal activities and reputedly became adept at harboring horse thieves and bootleggers. She was also successful enough that she was able to generously bribe law and city officials so that if any of her confederates were caught, she could quickly gain their freedom.

In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested by Bass Reeves, an American law enforcement official, historically noted as the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. The two outlaws were charged with horse theft and faced “the Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker in Fort Smith Arkansas. Belle gave an interview to a reporter of the Fort Wayne Daily Gazette:

“Belle denies with great spirit the crime of larceny … and says that the United States juries at Fort Smith are as ignorant as wild hogs. … She claims indeed to have never committed a crime … The reporter reminded her that she was credited by certain officials with being a member of the notorious Younger gang … The wiry and wily daughter of the border then said she had nothing to conceal of her connection with the Youngers, and would tell the story straight. She was through the war, after, and now a southerner and a vindicated one. A mere girl she had heard of the murder of the mother of the Younger boys … and she sympathized with them and became their friend. She rejoiced on their desperate deeds of revenge, … and she was always ready to render them any friendship or aid in her power. She was never one of their gang … Belle knowingly assured the reporter that she had seen her share of wild life and counted no end of tough characters among her acquaintances, but she had never shed human blood or been a party to any crime, newspaper or official reports to the contrary notwithstanding.”[2]

Bass Reeves. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite Belle’s insistence she was innocent she was found guilty, just like her husband. Both were sentenced to prison. She served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Michigan where she proved to be a model prisoner and won the respect of the prison matron. Her husband demonstrated just the opposite of cooperative behavior. In fact, he was deemed incorrigible and assigned to hard labor.

In 1886 Belle Starr was arrested again. Details about her illegal activities and arrest were published in Oswego’s Labette County Democrat shortly thereafter:

“On Friday, June 18th a stranger hired two horses and a buggy at J.M. Grant’s livery stable to drive … to Mr. Pearson’s … Not returning by the noon the next day, Grant sent out to Pearson’s to see if the man had been there. Learning that he had not… he at once concluded that the team had been stolen, and put Demps Ballwine and Myron Cook, who are familiar with the Indian Territory, on the trail … They traced them so far into the Canadian district as to be satisfied that they had been taken to the rendezvous of the notorious female desperado, Belle Starr … Officers have been working for some time to effect the capture of the gang, and by a special arrangement with the Choctaw authorities, succeeded … yesterday morning. The Choctaw authorities had about eighteen men and the Cherokee ten. They also arrested the noted Belle Starr, on the charge of harboring criminals … Starr will be brought here to morrow before Commissioner Tufts. The officers recovered some stolen goods, horses, harness, buggy, etc. belonging to parties in Oswego, Kans. This gang has been operating through the Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw Nations, stealing and striking terror to the people generally.”[3]

This time Deputy U.S. Marshal Charles Barnhill took her to Ft. Smith for arraignment. She was described in the following fashion at the time:

“In appearance she is of medium height and build, her eyes are jet black, and her features are almost as dark as a full blood Indian, and indeed she presents the appearance of an intelligent full blood Indian … She appears to be about 35, and is altogether rather attractive and comely.”[4]

Belle was lucky because she eluded conviction this time However, her husband was not so lucky a few months later. After having suffered a falling out with his cousin, law officer Frank West, the two men decided to settle their differences with a gun fight. It happened on 17 December 1886 as Belle stood nearby watching. Both men died with the details of their shoot out reported in The Ottawa Daily Republic:

“Sam Starr, the notorious outlaw … was killed Friday night near Oklahoma, at a dance. Sam met Frank West, whom he accused of having waylaid him some four months previous. The men went out into the yard. Both drew their pistols and, after facing each other a moment, Sam raised his weapon and fired. The shot took effect in West’s neck, but he immediately returned fire, catching Sam in the right side.

As West fell he fired twice more at Sam and then died. [Sam] threw his arms around a small tree and held himself on his feet till he died. … One of West’s shots [also] a twelve-year-old Indian boy named Folsom who was standing near.”[5]

Soon after Belle decided to remarry and this time she tied the knot with Sam Starr’s adopted brother, James July Star. He was 15 years her junior, reportedly spoke English, Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw, and described as being 5’9” tall, fair skinned, with black hair and weighing about 160 pounds. He was said to be a good rider and a “splendid shot” and there were stories that he had successfully escaped several harrowing life-ending incidents. One such incident happened when he was waylaid by eighteen Cherokees but escaped without a scratch despite seventy-five shots being fired at him.

Belle Starr husband James July Starr

Drawing of James July Starr. Author’s collection.

The marriage between James and Belle didn’t last long. On 3 February 1889, two days before she was to turn 41, she was killed. One version of her death is that she was riding home from a neighbor’s house and was ambushed. Wounds were found in her back, neck, shoulder, and face and after she fell off her horse, she was shot again. Moreover, legend says she was shot with her own double-barrel shotgun.

There are other versions about her death. For instance, according to Frank “Pistol Pete” Eaton after dancing with him, an intoxicated Edgar Watson asked her to dance. She declined and because he was mad at her rejection, he followed her home, and shot and killed her when she stopped to give her horse a drink. Eaton also claimed that Watson was tried, convicted, and executed.

Another story of what happened was reported shortly after her death in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. It stated that the editor of the paper went to her home to “learn the truth.” He maintained that he met her husband James July Starr and that he “had long black hair, falling on his shoulders, a cowboy hat set well back, a cartridge belt at his waist, [and] a Winchester in his hand.”[6] According to the editor, James maintained that his partner, Charles Acton (known as Bronco Charley), was nearby at the time of his wife’s death and that Acton could provide all the particulars.

He stated that Belle and her husband rode together to San Bois but split up because James was heading to Fort Smith, and she was returning home. On the way home, Belle stopped at Jack Roe’s and among the men there was Watson. She had some difficulty with him, and he left a few minutes after she arrived. After staying at Roe’s for a short time she left riding towards Younger’s Bend and fifteen or twenty minutes later two loud gunshots rang out.

“At this time … Acton was on the river in a ferryboat waiting for Belle to come that he might set her over, for she had told him … to be sure to wait for her at the river on Sunday. When … Acton got on the north side of the river with his boat he was met by Milo Hoyt, a Choctaw, who tied his horse, and both men then seated themselves in the boat, where they waited till the sun was nearly down. Suddenly, about 200 yards below them, Belle’s horse jumped in the river and swam across, but no rider was seen. … Acton, believing Belle’s horse had thrown her, told Hoyt to ride up the road and look for Belle. Hoyt only went as far as the house of a Mr. White, about a quarter of a mile off, when he was told the horse had come by riderless and on a dead run. Hoyt returned and … told … Acton, who insisted on Hoyt making a further search for Belle.

By this time James Cobb had caught Belle’s horse, and came down to the river. Acton called across for Cobb to get another horse, as Belle might be hurt, and Cobb did … and came down to the river with … Pearl Reed, Belle’s daughter. Acton crossed Cobb and Pearl over in the boat, taking their horses with them, and when all three reached the other bank they were met by Hoyt, who said he had found Belle lying in the road ahead of him, and that he believed she was dead. …

[They] went to where [she] … was lying. … Acton raised Belle up out of the mud, and laid her in Pearl’s lap, but all the life was gone. She never spoke. When found she was lying on her right side, in the road running alongside of the Hoyt farm, her face half buried in mud and water. The assassin had stood on the inside of the field when he fired the first shot, riddling her right shoulder, right hand, and the right side of her face with buckshot, and it was afterward found that three buck-shot had struck her right between the shoulders, causing instant death. She fell from her horse, and the assassin had got over a low place in the fence, stepped up close, and discharged his second load, filling the woman’s left side, shoulder, and face full of bird shot. …

The next morning some persons went to the scene of the killing and found the assassin’s tracks. From the point … he was tracked about half-way up the mountain closely, and from there to … Watson’s field, where he got over the fence again, and when last seen the tracks were still running in the direction of Watson’s house. … The body was taken home that morning … Belle Starr’s son, arrived that day. February 5, James Starr received the delayed telegram notifying him of Belle Starr’s death, and at once started home.”[7]

Other colorful versions of her violent death provide numerous suspects. Among those claimed to have murdered Belle Starr were her new husband James, both of her children (her son allegedly wanted her dead because she mistreated her horse), a sharecropper (he was an escaped murderer and Belle was supposedly going to turn him in), and Watson, who some alleged was tried for her murder in 1910 but acquitted.

Whatever the truth about Belle Starr’s death, her husband James did not survive her by much. He died on 26 January 1890, in Fort Smith, Sebastian, Arkansas, at the age of 27. Attempts were made to arrest him. He was shot in the process and wounded by a deputy marshal. James later succumbed to his wounds after being transported to Fort Smith, in Sebastian, Arkansas, which is also where he was buried.

Despite starting out as an obscure figure in Texas Belle Starr’s reputation grew larger after marrying into the Starr family and despite her associations with the James-Younger gang, she would be forever linked to the Starr Clan. Her life was publicized in dime novels and dramatized in the National Police Gazette by publisher Richard K. Fox. After her death, he increased her infamy with his 1889 novel Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, which then gave rise to other legends about her and resulted in many popular and infamous stories using her name.

Belle Starr’s personality also aided in further establishing her legendary status. She had good fashion sense and a strong style that she displayed. In addition, she purportedly rode sidesaddle wearing a black velvet riding habit, sporting a plumed and ornamented hat, and carrying two pistols with the cartridge belts slung across her hips. Moreover, like Annie Oakley, she was reported to be a crack shot and was known for her superior horsemanship.

Belle Starr

Belle Starr, A Wild Western Amazon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Since Belle Starr’s death the entertainment world has also embraced her. Over the years, Hollywood spotlighted her in numerous movies and television shows with the first actress to depict her being Betty Compson in 1928 in the silent film Court Martial. Other actresses who have portrayed her include Jane Russell, Florence Henderson, and Elizabeth Montgomery. The literary and music world also noticed her and paid homage. Besides several historical novels written about her life, singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded a song titled “Belle Starr” and the band Rival Sons recorded their “Belle Starr” version as the eighth song on their 2014 album, Great Western Valkyrie.


*Elizabeth was a distant relative to the Hatfields of the famous Hatfield-McCoy family feud.
Jesse James did not become well known until 7 December 1869, when he (and most likely Frank) robbed the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. The robbery netted little money. Jesse is believed to have shot and killed the cashier, Captain John Sheets, mistakenly believing him to be Samuel P. Cox, the militia officer who had killed “Bloody Bill” Anderson during the Civil War. Their criminal activities accelerated from there. They robbed banks, stagecoaches, and a fair in Kansas City, often carrying out their crimes in front of crowds, and even hamming it up for the bystanders.

References:

  • [1] The Newberry Weekly Herald, “A Texas Dick Turpin,” October 7, 1874, p. 1.
  • [2] Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, “Notorious Belle Starr,” March 25, 1883, p. 6.
  • [3] Labette County Democrat, July 1, 1886, p. 1.
  • [4] The Harper Daily Sentinel, “The Notorious Belle Starr,” January 21, 1886, p. 1.
  • [5] The Ottawa Daily Republic, “Died in His Boots,” December 22, 1886, p. 3.
  • [6] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “Belle Starr’s Death,” April 7, 1889, p. 25.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Newberry Weekly Herald, p. 1.

2 Comments

  1. Don Nitkin on October 10, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    I saw a film about Belle Starr. Great B&W photos. I have not been on Twitter recently. I got tired of the nasty political comments. I am happy to receive your factual material though.

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