Belle Starr - The Bandit
was called the Bandit Queen.
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"I regard myself as a woman who has seen
much of life."
- Belle Starr stated to the The Fort
Smith Elevator about one year prior to her death.
Belle Starr was born Myra Belle
Shirley in a log cabin near
February 5, 1848 to "Judge” John Shirley and his third wife, Elizabeth
Pennington. Her father was the black sheep of a well-to-do Virginia
family who had moved west to Indiana, where he married and divorced twice.
His third wife, Eliza, was on the Hatfield side of the feuding Hatfield
and McCoy families.
they married, the Shirleys moved to Missouri in
1839, where John prospered raising wheat, corn, hogs and horses in
Jasper County. Myra’s older brother, John Allison "Bud” was born
to the Shirleys in 1842, and a younger son, Edwin, in 1850. The
next ten years were a financial success for the Shirleys who had two
In 1856, they sold
their land and moved to Carthage, Missouri
where they built an inn, a tavern, livery stable and blacksmith
shop—their businesses taking up almost an entire city block. John
Shirley had become a respected member of the burgeoning county seat of
first, Myra Belle lived the life of a spoiled, rich girl, attending
Female Academy, where in addition to the basics, she was taught music
and classical languages. She was a bright student, with polite
manners, and a talent for playing the piano. However, she also
liked to flaunt her status a "rich girl” and liked having an audience. She also loved the outdoors, where she spent many a day roaming the
countryside with her older brother Bud, who taught her how to ride a
horse and handle a gun.
However, her life changed dramatically
when the Kansas-Missouri Border War broke out. Jasper County watched both armies pass through time and again, forcing
residents to take sides, and making neighbors into bitter enemies.
Irregular bands of "Jayhawkers" and "Red Legs" laid waste to
Missouri communities in support of the Union.
When son Bud joined
Quantrill’s Raiders, John Shirley was a proud father. Bud, who
knew the area and the people well, served admirably as a scout,
quickly attaining a captain’s rank.
But in June 1864 Bud was killed in
Sarcoxie, Missouri. The raids had taken their toll on Shirley’s businesses and after
Bud’s death, the "Judge” gave up, sold his Missouri
property and moved his family to a farm near Scyene,
a small settlement southeast of Dallas.
robbed their first bank in Liberty,
and fled with $6,000 in cash and bonds. Splitting up,
Frank James, along with the
Youngers, fled to
where they met up with Myra Shirley. Soon, Myra became smitten by
quickly becoming a member of their "gang.”
bands, seeking refuge, stayed at the Shirley house one night. Belle
later stated that it was there that she became reacquainted with the first
man she ever loved. His name was
Jim Reed, and she had first met him back in
Reed and Shirley families had been friends. The romance blossomed in
Jim married on November 1, 1866.
The Shirleys had no objection to the marriage, as
Jim Reed was not yet a wanted
moved into the Shirley household near Scyene and shared the farm chores.
Later, he became a salesman for a Dallas saddle and bridle maker. By late
1867, though, he and
Belle were living on the Reed
Missouri. Early in September 1868,
Belle gave birth to her first
child, Rosie Lee.
Belle adored the baby and
referred to her as her "Pearl." The nickname stuck.
The presence of
at the Shirley residence has led to the fiction that he seduced
and she bore his illegitimate daughter. Younger admitted that he did
visit the Shirleys in
but in 1864, not 1866. He stated that the next time he saw
Belle was at the Reed
in 1868. She was six months pregnant with her first child. Some
authors insist this denial was the response of a "Southern gentleman,"
but a manuscript compiled by Richard Reed, younger brother of
husband, supports Younger's story.
Jim and Belle moved to
Reed was a wanted man, allegedly for murdering a man named Shannon. The two fled to
California with their young daughter Pearl and before long a second
child came along who they named Edward.
1869 Belle, Reed and two other
outlaws rode to the North Canadian river country, where they tortured
an old Creek
until he told them where he had hidden $30,000 in gold. With their share
of the loot,
Belle returned to
where she played the role of "Bandit Queen" to the hilt.
Cole Younger with sister
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But, it wasn’t long before the
outlaw life caught up
and on August 1874,
Reed was killed in a gunfight by a member of his own gang.
left her children with her mother while she rode the
Outlaw Trail. In
Territory (what is now
got involved with a flat-faced
outlaw who went by the name of "Blue
However, that affair was short lived when his place
was taken by Sam Starr, a tall, slim
honeymooners settled down on Sam's sixty-two acres on the north
side of the Canadian River, near Briartown. Belle
named the place Younger's Bend, reported in honor of Cole Younger.
The bandit couple formed a gang around
themselves and, from their hide-away on the Canadian River, entered
upon a life of rustling, horse stealing and bootlegging whiskey to
Indians. The brains behind these operations, carefully planning
each move, was the woman who was now known as Belle Starr.
herself told a story of how a slim man with blinking eyes once visited
her and Sam at Younger's Bend. Starr was suspicious of the cold and
silent man, but Belle
told him he was an "old friend from
Sam Starr never knew the blinking blue-eyed man was
Sam and Belle
found the bandit life very lucrative. She would use her money
liberally to bribe the freedom of any gang members who were captured.
Failing this, she would tempt the lawmen with her womanly charms,
almost always achieving her ends – the release of compatriots.
The nearest settlement to
gang’s operation was
The local Magistrate was the famed
Judge Isaac Parker – the hanging
Parker became determined to put
behind bars. Several times his Deputies had brought Belle
in to face various charges like rustling or bootlegging. Yet, each time
she was set free due to lack of evidence. In the fall of 1882, however,
Parker got lucky when Belle
was caught red handed as she attempted to steal a neighbor’s horse. After
a trial, he sentenced Belle to two consecutive six month prison terms and
Sam to one year in the Federal Prison in Detroit. After serving
their time, Belle
and Sam returned to Younger's Bend.
However, their time behind bars did nothing to change their lawless ways. Upon release they immediately returned to a life of rustling and
bootlegging. In 1886 Belle
and Sam were again arrested by United States marshals, who brought them to
Fort Smith on
charges of robbery and horse-stealing. The Starrs were arraigned the
following day before
but the hanging judge was forced to dismiss the charges for lack of
this time, Belle had become a celebrity. Richard Fox's Police Gazette had
turned her into a western folk hero, "a female Robin Hood and a
She was dubbed the "Bandit Queen." After she left prison,
briefly worked in a
show playing the part of an
bandit who held up a stagecoach.
friend's Christmas party in December 17, 1886, Sam Starr got into a
gunfight with an old nemesis Frank West. Both men hit their marks and died
of their wounds.
did not remain alone for long. In 1889 Belle
entered into her third marriage, with a much younger bandit by the name of
Jim July. This marriage, however, would be the death of her. The
relationship was particularly stormy. After one fierce quarrel, July was
reported to have offered an accomplice $200 to kill his wife. When the
offer was rejected, July screamed," Hell – I’ll kill the old hag myself
and spend the money for whiskey!” A few days later On February 3, 1889,
was shot to death from an ambush on a lonely country road. She was 41
years of age.
Belle Starr in Fort Smith, Arkansas 1886
with unidentified man on right.
An investigation was
made into her death and several suspects were questioned including a
neighbor she had quarreled with named Watson, her husband July, her son
Ed, and even her daughter Pearl. Apparently, Belle had
caught July fooling around with a young Cherokee
girl, which had led to much discord in the marriage. Belle was
estranged from her son Ed and rumors speculated she may have had an
incestuous relationship with him and that she routinely beat him with a
bullwhip. Even Pearl might have killed her mother because Belle had
interfered with Pearl's marriage to the father of her child.
Just a few weeks after Belle's
death, a deputy who was on July's trail mortally wounded him.
Belle was buried in the front yard of the cabin at Younger's Bend. Months
later Pearl hired a stonecutter to mount a monument over her mother's
grave. On top of the stone was carved and image of her favorite mare,
"Venus." On the stone was this inscription:
Shed not for her the
Nor give the heart to vain regret,
'Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that fills it sparkles yet.
From 1875 to 1880,
was the undisputed leader of a band of cattle and horse thieves who made
their headquarters in the
of America, updated April, 2015.
James-Younger Gang - Terror in the Heartland
Outlaws of the
Women in American
Old West Photo Print
had a short-lived affair with a
Indian outlaw named
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