According to Old West fiction, she was a beautiful female “Robin Hood” who led a band of desperate men fighting for their personal independence and against the oppression of the law. But her true story is somewhat less romantic.
Before leaving Missouri, however, Belle Shirley had made a lifelong friendship with Cole Younger (and his three brothers) and Jesse James and Frank James. After the war, these men turned to lawlessness - robbing banks, trains, stagecoaches, and people across the west. They sometimes hid out at the Shirley farm in Texas, and Belle became very close with their gangs. Their influence was the major reason why Belle herself would turn to a life of crime. Belle was less than five feet tall and weighed about 90 pounds. She had a narrow, pinched face, an oversize nose, and a recessed chin. She was no beauty as fictionalized later.
A few years later, Jim Reed robbed a wealthy man of $30,000 in gold coins, and a reward was posted for his capture. The law caught up with him, and he was shot to
while trying to escape from custody. Belle was named an accomplice but there
was no evidence to prosecute her. She went off to Dallas and allegedly lived
off the stolen money. She wore buckskins and moccasins, black velvet skirts,
high topped boots, a man’s Stetson hat with an ostrich plume, and a pair of
holstered pistols. Belle spent most of her time in saloons, drinking and
gambling. At times she would ride her horse through the streets shooting off
her pistols. But truth and fiction may have been blurred by this time.
In order to remain on Indian land, which gave her some protection, Belle married a relative of Sam Starr, named Jim July Starr. In her later years, Belle Starr displayed severe mental problems. She was well known around Ft. Smith, Arkansas. With a long-barrel Colt strapped to her side, she strutted through the streets, proclaiming to all who would listen that she was the leader of an outlaw band.
A down-on-his-luck writer named Alton Meyers happened to read Belle’s four line obituary. He asked people on the street about her and was told that she was just some nutty old woman who thought she was a famous outlaw. That was good enough for Meyers. He promptly contacted the publishers of the National Police Gazette who hired him to write her story. He wrote, “Of all the women of the Cleopatra type since the days of the Egyptian Queen herself, none are more remarkable than Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen. She was more amorous than Antony’s mistress, more relentless than Pharaoh’s daughter, braver than Joan of Arc.”
The epitaph on her headstone does little to challenge the legend, it reads:
“Shed not for her the bitter tear,Nor give the heart to vain regret;
‘Tis but a casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.”