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Monday, March 11, 2013


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.
She was born Myra Maybelle Shirley in Carthage, Missouri, in 1848. Her parents were well off, owning an inn and livery business. During the Civil War, Missouri was a dangerous place. The Union Army attacked the town, and her older brother Bud, a Confederate, was killed when the house he was hiding in was surrounded by soldiers. From that time on, she loathed the Union soldiers and reported their movements to southern leaders. To avoid more bloodshed, her family made arrangements to move to Texas.

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.

In 1866, Belle married Jim Reed, a former Confederate guerilla she knew in Missouri. Their daughter, Pearl, was born two years later, although many believe the girl’s father was really Cole Younger. Two years after that, her son Ed, was born. Her husband just couldn’t cope with the bland farm life and fell in with bad company in the form of the Starr Clan. They were a Cherokee Indian family infamous for cattle and horse thievery in Oklahoma, as well as good friends of the Younger and James gangs. Later, Jim Reed shot a man in cold blood and fled with Belle and the two children to California. While there, he was accused of passing counterfeit money, and fled once more back to Texas.

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 death 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 1880, Belle left her children with relatives and joined the Starr Clan in Arkansas. With them, she dedicated herself to crime. She organized, planned, and fenced for gangs of rustlers and bootleggers; and also hid them from the law. During this time, she married Sam Starr, a member of the clan - hence her most well known name “Belle Starr.” Belle and Sam were charged with horse theft, and a Ft. Smith judge, Isaac Parker (The Hanging Judge), was obsessed with bringing them to justice. The pair was caught and sentenced to a year in prison, but were released after nine months. They immediately returned to a life of crime. Sam was gunned down by an old enemy; and Belle held up a post office while dressed as a man. Belle reportedly said, “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.”

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.

In 1889, her lawless life came to a violent end; she was just forty years old. While riding home from the general store, Belle was killed by a shotgun blast. She was hit twice in the back. Her assailant, trying to make sure, shot her again at close range in the shoulder and face. The prime suspect was her own grown son who was so mentally deranged that he sometimes had to be chained like an animal. The identity of the murderer was never determined and no charges were ever issued.

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 rest is history. Belle Starr became a legend through the yellow journalism and dime novels of her day. Her fictionalized image was strengthened by Hollywood when several feature films were released, beginning with 1941’s “Belle Starr” which had little connection to history. Belle has been portrayed by Gene Tierney and Elizabeth Montgomery among other actresses. Today, her legend and her real life have become fused, prohibiting separation.

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.”

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