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Columns | "A Balloon In Cactus"

The Bandit Queen

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand

"I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life," said Belle Star to The Fort Smith Elevator in 1888, a year before she died.

If facts are to be believed, the myth of Belle Starr was a figment of her own imagination. If she lived today, she'd probably be creating auto commercials for television in a Madison Avenue ad agency, or president of a large public relations firm, or hosting a remake of the 70s game show, Liar's Club, since much of her legend was self-created.

It's not even certain that Belle Starr actually stayed awhile in Mesquite Texas, though legend puts her there. Like today's politicians, she was good at manufacturing "truth."

According to Kathy Weiser's article in Legends of America (August 2006), Myra Belle Shirley was born in a Missouri log cabin to "Judge" John Shirley, the black sheep of a wealthy Virginia family who later moved to Indiana, and his third wife, Eliza. Eliza Shirley's maiden name was Hatfield, of the famously feuding Hatfield and McCoy families.

The Shirley family raised wheat, corn, hogs, horses, and four sons, in addition to Myra Belle. They prospered for ten years, then sold their land and moved to Carthage Missouri where they built an inn, a tavern, livery stable and blacksmith shop, all of which took up almost an entire city block. John Shirley had become a respected member of the burgeoning county seat, and could easily afford to spoil his only daughter by sending her to the Carthage Female Academy where she was taught music and classical languages. She was smart, courteous, and a talented pianist. She "liked to flaunt her staus as a rich girl and liked having an audience," according to Legends of America.

Myra Belle also loved the outdoors and roaming the countryside with Bud, one of her brothers, who taught her how to ride a horse and become a crack shot. But then came the Kansas-Missouri Border War.

Belle Starr
Portrait of Belle Starr
Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Life wasn't the same for Myra Belle, as bands of "Jayhawkers" and "Red Legs" continually passed through Jasper County forcing residents to take sides and laying waste to Missouri towns in support of the Union. Brother Bud joined Quantrill's Raiders and was promoted to captain after serving as a scout. Other members of Quantill's Raiders were the Younger brothers, the James Boys, and Jim Reed. In June 1864, Bud was killed in Sarcoxie, Missouri, and "Judge" Shirley took it very hard. He sold his Missouri property and moved his family to a farm near Scyene, Texas, a small settlement southeast of Dallas.

In 1866, Legends of America tells us, the James-Younger Gang robbed their first bank in Liberty, Missouri, and fled with $6,000 in cash and bonds. Jesse and Frank James, along with Bob, Jim, and Cole Younger, fled to Texas where they "met up with Myra Shirley." Myra Belle was quickly smitten by Cole and became a member of the gang. Or so legend says.

History gets a little confusing at this point because another gang of outlaws stayed at the Shirley house one night and Myra Belle later stated she fell in love with gang member Jim Reed, whom she had known back in Missouri. Their romance blossomed in Texas and they married on November 1, 1866.

Jim Reed
Jim Reed
Photo courtesy Legends of America and Kathy Weiser

That makes for an awfully busy love life for Belle.

Since Jim Reed was not yet a wanted man, the Shirleys did not object to their marriage, and Jim moved into the Shirley house in Scyene and shared the farm chores. He later became a salesman for a Dallas saddle and bridle maker. By late 1867, he and Belle were living in Missouri where Belle gave birth to Rosie Lee, dubbed "Pearl," in 1868. They had moved back to Missouri because Reed had become a wanted man for murdering a man named Shannon. Some historians say they then fled to California with Pearl and subsequently had another child, Edward.

It appears to be one of Belle's later fictions that Cole Younger seduced her in Texas at the Shirley home, and that she bore his illegitimate daughter. Younger said he did visit the Shirleys in Texas, but in 1864, not 1866. He said that the next time he saw Belle was at the Reed home in Missouri in 1868 where she was six months pregnant with Pearl. Richard Reed, brother of Belle's husband Jim, supports Younger's story.

Cole Younger
Cole Younger 1883 Mugshot
Photo courtesy Wikipedia

In 1869, Belle, Jim Reed, and two other outlaws rode to the North Canadian river country where they allegedly tortured an old Creek Indian until he revealed his hiding place for $30,000 in gold. With their share, Jim and Belle returned to Texas and Belle, still lusting for attention, revelled in her new-found repuation as "Bandit Queen."

It might have been around this time that Bell famously uttered the words, "I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw." That is, if she actually uttered them at all.

In 1874, Jim Reed was killed in Paris, Texas, by a member of his own gang in a bloody gunfight. Having left her children with mama Shirley, Belle rode alone on the Outlaw Trail.

In Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Belle became "involved" with a flat-faced Indian outlaw called Blue Duck, though there are conflicting stories about the extent of this involvement. Some historians claim they were lovers, others claim they were just friends. In any event, Blue Duck didn't last long and was soon replaced by Sam Starr.

Belle Starr and Blue Duck
Belle Starr and Blue Duck
Photo courtesy Legends of America and Kathy Weiser

Sam Starr was a lanky Cherokee who made an honest woman of Belle by marrying her forthwith and settling down on his 62 acres on the north side of the Canadian River, near Briartown. Fickle Belle named their spread "Younger's Bend," after her first love, if you don't count her other first love, Jim Reed.

Sam and Belle formed a new outlaw gang, rustling horses and bootlegging whiskey to Indians. The mastermind of this gang was now the infamous Belle Starr.

Legends of America says that Belle 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 Missouri." Sam Starr never knew the blinking blue-eyed man was Jesse James.

Sam and Belle found the bandit life very lucrative. Belle learned to use both her newfound money and her feminine wiles to free captured gang members from the clutches of lawmen, who found both her cash and sex appeal most tempting. From 1875 to 1880, Belle was the undisputed leader of this band of cattle and horse thieves who made their headquarters in the Oklahoma Territory.

The nearest settlement to the Starr gang's operation was Fort Smith, Arkansas. The local Magistrate was the famed Judge Isaac Parker - the "Hanging Judge." Parker became determined to put Belle Starr behind bars. Several times his deputies had brought Belle in to face rustling or bootlegging charges. 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. He sentenced Belle to two consecutive six month prison terms at the Detroit House of Corrections and Sam to one year in the Federal Prison in Detroit. After serving their time, history gives us two choices: either Belle and Sam returned to Younger's Bend, or Belle worked briefly in a Wild West show playing the part of an outlaw bandit holding up a stagecoach.

Hanging Judge Isaac Parker
Judge Isaac Parker
Photo courtesy Legends of America and Kathy Weiser

Whichever version is true, if either, Sam and Belle were not rehabilitated by prison, and returned to a life of crime. In 1886, they were arrested by U. S. marshals, who brought them to Fort Smith on charges of robbery and horse stealing. However, Judge Parker was forced to dismiss the charges for lack of evidence.

In December 17, 1886 at a friend's Christmas party, Sam got into a drunken brawl and gunfight with his nemesis, Officer Frank West. Both men hit their marks and died of their wounds. Again, there's a conflict as some historians of the Old West say that only Starr was killed.

Belle did not remain alone for long. In 1889, she married a much younger bandit by the name of Jim July, a member of Sam Starr's extended family. This stormy marriage, however, would be the death of her. Literally, 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, Belle Starr was shot to death from an ambush on a lonely country road. She was 41 years old. Her death is still officially unsolved.

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.

Pearl Starr
Pearl Starr (Right)
Photo courtesy Wikipedia

It seems 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 unnatural relationship with him and that she routinely beat him with a bullwhip. Ed was later convicted of horse theft and receiving stolen property and Judge Parker sent him to prison in Columbus, Ohio. Daughter Pearl went into prostiution to raise funds for Ed's release, resulting in a presidential pardon in 1893. Ed eventually became a police officer and was killed in the line of duty in 1896. Pearl made a good living as a prostitute and eventually operated a chain of bordellos in Van Buren and Forth Smith, Arkansas, from the 1890s until World War I. It was speculated that she also might have killed her mother because Belle had interfered with Pearl's marriage to the father of her child. Talk about a dysfunctional family.

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 bitter tear
Nor give the heart to vain regret,
'Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that fills it sparkles yet.

Like Marilyn Monroe, Belle Starr's legend began soon after she died. She became more famous for the fantastic legend than for anything she could have ever genuinely done. Depending on which parts of the legend one reads and/or believes, she married no fewer than three of the Younger brothers, she had control over every cutthroat brigand, horse thief and bank robber in Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory, Arkansas and Texas. Every person she had any dealings with was on the wrong side of the law, including her father. She ran criminal gangs like a 19th century Ma Barker and even began her exploits during the Civil War where she was anything from a spy to a courier to female Confederate General, even though she was as young as 13 years old at the time. In truth, there exists no evidence to support any of this.

It would doubtless have pleased her to know that the luminous movie star, Gene Tierney, portrayed her in 1941's film, "Belle Starr," and in 1980, she was portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery in a television movie, "Belle Starr."

Her life may be more fiction than fact, and her death may still be unsolved, but the legend of Belle Starr and her exploits is destined to live forever.

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
February 1 , 2007 column
Email: maggie@maggievanostrand.com

Shirley, Glenn: Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts and the Legends, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982
Legends of America, August 2006

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