Belle Starr, Wild West Outlaw Queen

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The infamous Belle Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley in 1848, though everyone just called her May. The Shirleys lived in Missouri, where May’s father John owned a successful farm on the outskirts of Carthage. Her mother Eliza was John’s third wife. Eliza is nowadays most often described as “a member of the Hatfield clan in the Hatfield-McCoy feud”, but the height of that feud was still thirty years in the future when May was born. When she was eight years old her father sold the farm and moved into town, where he owned a store, a tavern, and several other successful businesses. He helped found a girl’s academy in town, where May received her education. She was a good student, who read classical literature and played the piano. She also had a tomboyish streak, and her older brother Bud (who she worshiped) taught her to ride a horse and shoot a pistol. She seemed headed for a respectable middle-class life. Then the war came, and everything changed.

Legend has it that one of May’s young playmates was a boy named Jesse James. There’s some credence to that, for like the James family (and unlike 75% of Missouri), the Shirleys were die-hard Confederate supporters (and proud slave-owners, of course). When war broke out Missouri became a battle ground, and after the Union drove the Confederate army south families like the Shirleys felt that they were living in occupied territory. Like Jesse James’ brother Frank, Bud Shirley joined the guerrilla forces of Quantrill’s Bushwhackers, irregular partisans who attacked both Union supply lines and any civilians who seemed too enthusiastic in their support for the northern government. Bud was one of those who took part in the infamous massacre of the town of Lawrence, where two hundred men, women and children were killed in retaliation for deaths in the Union prisoner of war camps. As a result he was a hunted man, and in June of 1864 the hunt caught up with him. While taking a meal in the home of a sympathizer, Bud was discovered by a group of Union soldiers. He tried to run and was shot down. Disheartened by this, John Shirley decided to take the family south to Texas. No sooner had he left Carthage, though, than disaster struck. A fire (ironically, one set by Confederate guerrillas) tore through Carthage, leveling the town. John Shirley’s business empire went up in smoke.

Belle Starr - headstuff.org

Belle as a teenager. Source

The Shirley family didn’t take well to their reduced circumstances. John Shirley had grown up in a respectably wealthy family, and though he had estranged himself from them his success in Missouri had meant the family had never known hardship. But with the financial blow caused by the ruin of Carthage, John’s plan to build a hotel in Dallas (at that point just a small town) never came to pass. If it had, he’d have been ideally placed to ride the post-war cattle boom to riches, but as it was the family were forced to live in a small four-room shack and farm for a living. The locals never liked them – they thought they put on airs. May found the local school far less advanced than she was used to, and through acting out from boredom she gained a reputation as a troublemaker. Still, the family managed to survive, and when the Reed family from Missouri moved to town they even had friends. May had even more – she’d always had a crush on Jim Reed, her brother’s friend who had also joined Quantrill’s Bushwhackers. When the two were reunited, with May (who now called herself Belle) a grown woman, sparks flew. In November of 1866 the eighteen year old Belle married the twenty year old Jim.

Like many ex-guerrillas, Jim had trouble settling down to civilian life. He tried working on the Shirley family farm, and he tried his hand at selling saddles in Texas, but none of it ever really settled him. Belle, on the other hand, found married life – or rather, motherhood – much to her liking. In 1868 she gave birth to a daughter who was officially named Rosie Lee. Belle, though, called the child her “little pearl”, and the nickname of Pearl stuck. The same year further tragedy struck the Shirleys when Ed, another of Belle’s brothers, was killed in a gunfight. The rumour was that he was trying to steal a horse at the time, and the stigma stuck to the family. It didn’t help that Jim Reed was now hanging with a very disreputable crowd, including a local gang leader of Cherokee descent called Tom Starr. The Starr clan made their money smuggling whiskey to Indians, and Jim soon began to run with them. The loose moral code of the outlaws meant that when his brother Scott was killed in an argument over a horse race, it seemed perfectly natural to Jim to hunt down and murder the man who killed him. Society begged to differ though, and Jim Reed found himself a wanted man.

Jim Reed, hisband of Belle Starr - headstuff.org

Jim Reed, Belle’s first husband.

The Reeds headed to Los Angeles to lay low, and legend has it that here is where they first became involved with the infamous Younger gang. [1] Of course, legends also have it that she began running with the gang as a teenager, that Cole Younger (leader of the gang) [2] was the father of her daughter Pearl, that Cole Younger was the one who performed Jim and Belle’s wedding ceremony and other even wilder tales. It’s true that Cole Younger had previously visited the Shirley family, but that was in 1868 while Belle was already six months pregnant. He had ridden with Quantrill’s Bushwhackers and had come to pay his respects to Bud’s parents while he was in town. It’s also doubtful whether Jim Reed rode with him in LA, as Cole always denied having taken part in the stagecoach robbery near Sand Diego that was their supposed collaboration. Jim might have been involved, though. Outwardly he supported his family (which grew to include a baby boy) through professional gambling, until he got in trouble for passing counterfeit money. Whether he was involved in the counterfeiting or whether he just got stuck with it in a poker game was a moot point – a man facing a murder rap couldn’t stick around to explain himself. So the Reeds moved back to Texas. Jim traveled across the wilds, while Belle disguised Pearl as a boy in case anyone was looking for them and went by coach.

Back in Texas, Belle convinced her family to give her some farmland and did her best to settle down and raise her children. Jim however got drawn completely into the life of an outlaw, rustling livestock and robbing farmhouses with his brother Sol. The pair went too far though when they dealt with an informant named Wheeler by murdering him and cutting out his tongue. This led to a reward being offered for the pair by the governor of Texas, and led to Belle leaving her children with her parents before fleeing with Jim into Indian Territory in Arkansas, where the lawmen had no jurisdiction. However Belle soon decided that enough was enough, and she headed back to her parents while Jim hooked up with another woman, named Rosa McCommas. Unfortunately for Jim the reward on his head finally grew large enough for him to be worth more to his “friends” dead than alive, and a man named John Morris put a bullet in his back and made Belle a widow.

Belle Starr - headstuff.org

Belle as a young woman. Source

Belle’s father died in 1876 and his widow Eliza sold the family farm, but there’s no record of Belle again until 1880. (There’s a story that she married Cole Younger in the meantime, or possibly his uncle Bruce, but no actual evidence to back that up.) The 1880 record is of a wedding, between Belle and Sam Starr. Sam was the son of Tom Starr, Jim’s old whiskey-smuggling partner, and at the age of twenty three he was nine years younger than Belle (though she cut five years from her age on the marriage license). The pair lived in a cabin near a river on a stretch of land they named Younger’s Bend (in honour of Cole Younger, of course). The land was, not coincidentally, highly defensible and it soon gained a reputation as a place where men on the run could lay low for a while. They paid for their lodging in kind, something which became a problem in 1882 when the Starrs sold a herd of horses that included several which were identified as stolen property. This was a serious crime, but the pair were lucky enough to receive a fairly light sentence of a year in a low-security jail in Detroit.

The Starrs returned to Younger’s Bend in 1883, and despite their run-in with the law they continued to shelter outlaws on occasion. One of these outlaws was a man named John Middleton, but he turned out to have some serious heat coming after him. (Some stories say that he persuaded the Starrs to join him in robbing the treasuries of the Seminole and Creek Indians, which would explain how the lawmen were able to chase him into Indian Territory.) The ranch was raided looking for him, and though Middleton managed to hide it was clear that he would have to be smuggled out. The original idea was for him to hide in a covered wagon driven by Belle’s son Eddie, and once they were clear of the area he would borrow Pearl’s horse [3] and ride off. (Later, once he’d managed to get his own horse, they’d retrieve it.) However something caused an argument between Middleton (who had a reputation as a ladies man) and the seventeen year old Pearl, so she refused to let him borrow her horse. Belle also refused to give up her horse so Eddie Reed had to go and try to buy a horse. The horse he came back with was a sorry nag, but she was the best they could find. So they put Pearl’s saddle on her and Middleton headed off with Belle’s revolver for protection

Belle Starr - headstuff.org

Belle Starr turning herself into the police in 1886. Note her famous pearl-handled revolver.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the next anyone heard of John Middleton was when he was found dead in a river, drowned trying to cross. The horse was found nearby, with Pearl’s saddle and Belle’s gun. Worse, it turned out the horse had been stolen before Eddie bought it. Belle wound up charged with larceny, and though she eventually cleared herself of horse theft by the time she got back to Younger’s Bend her husband Sam Starr was facing charges of his own. He’d robbed a mail delivery with two other men, and the marshals on his tail had managed to wound him in a gunfight. He’d made it back to the ranch, but it was clear to Belle that he couldn’t get away much longer. She persuaded himself to turn himself in, and he was released on his own recognizance to await trial. Unfortunately before the trial, at a party on the 17th December 1886 he encountered Officer John West. West was the lawman who had handled his case, and who was also responsible for sending Sam’s father to jail for whiskey smuggling. Words were exchanged, followed by gunfire. Both men were killed in the duel, and Belle Starr was a widow once again.

Sam’s death left Belle in a precarious situation. Cherokee law said that land was held in common among the tribe, but Belle wasn’t a member of the tribe. If she and Sam had children things might have been different, but as it was she faced being evicted from Younger’s Bend. To avoid this she married another of Sam Starr’s sons, this time an adopted son named Jim July Starr. He was only 24, and Belle’s two children (now 17 and 19) weren’t impressed with their new stepfather. The family dynamic had already been stressed the previous year when Pearl’s boyfriend proposed marriage, but Belle decided he wasn’t well off enough for her daughter. She tricked the boy into thinking Pearl had dumped him with a forged letter, but once he found out he began seeing Pearl in secret. Then around the time Belle remarried, Pearl told her she was pregnant. Belle told her daughter that she could either get an abortion or get out of Belle’s life. Pearl chose the latter, and went to live with her father’s parents, the Reeds.

Belle Starr and Bluford Duck - headstuff.org

Belle Starr posing with Bluford “Blue” Duck, an outlaw facing a death sentence. Belle was already a celebrity in Texas at this point, and Blue’s defense were trying (successfully) to get his sentence commuted.

Belle did her best to improve her reputation, no longer letting outlaws stay at Younger’s Bend, but this took a blow in July 1888 when Eddie was shot trying to steal a horse. Belle wrote to Pearl (who had refused to correspond to her) telling her that her brother was dying, but this turned out to be an exaggeration in order to trick Pearl into coming back. Worse, while Pearl was with her Belle wrote to Jim Reed’s sister and persuaded her to put Pearl’s daughter Flossie up for adoption. When Pearl found out she was furious, but despite her pleas she was unable to prevent it going through. She never forgave her mother. Belle was convinced she was doing the right thing, and she took the same tack with Eddie. Growing up he’d always faced the raw side of his mother’s temper, being beaten with a bullwhip for speaking out of turn, and she didn’t thaw towards him in his hour of need. She refused to help him with his legal fees or support him in court, telling him that he needed to face the consequences of his actions. It was left to Pearl to raise the money for Eddie’s lawyer by becoming a prostitute. Eddie’s trial date was set of March 1889 but by December 1888 he had left his mother’s house, swearing never to return and offering all kinds of threats.

Belle’s “good conduct” was motivated more by fear of eviction by the Cherokee Nation than by innate virtue, not least because her husband July was facing a horse theft charge of his own. This “good conduct” was tested again when a pair of settlers named Watson arrived in the area. They agreed to a “share-cropping” arrangement with Belle, where she’d let them farm some of her land in exchange for a cut of the profits. After the deal was agreed though, Belle found out from Mrs Watson that her husband Edgar had an outstanding murder warrant in Florida. Afraid that the tribe would think she was up to her old tricks she abruptly canceled the deal, and let slip to Edgar that she was on to his secret.

Pearl Starr, daughter of Belle Starr - headstuff.org

Pearl Reed (later Pearl Starr).

On February 2nd 1889 Belle and July rode for Fort Smith, the local capital, where July had to attend his hearing. Belle went part of the way with him as she had an errand at a store on the route. With that settled she turned back for home. On the afternoon of the 3rd she stopped at an eating house run by a man named Jackson Rowe, hoping that Eddie would be there. He wasn’t there, but Edgar Watson was. He left rather than talk to her, so Belle caught up with some friends and then headed for home. While she was riding along, somebody rode up behind her and shot her in the back with a shotgun. She fell from her horse and into the mud, where the murderer shot her again. Her horse bolted for home, where Pearl (who had nowhere to stay but with her mother) saw the beast and immediately rode back up the trail. Her mother had by then been found by a local boy, and brought into a farmhouse. She died shortly after Pearl arrived, never regaining consciousness.

The murder of Belle Starr remains officially unsolved to this day. Both Eddie and Pearl had their own reasons to want their mother dead, but most historians point the finger of blame at Edgar Watson. Not only had he a motive, but he owned a shotgun that could have been the murder weapon, and a trail left by the killer led off in the direction of his cabin. He was arrested and charged, but the only person who knew about the murder warrant he was fleeing was Pearl. She had overheard his argument with her mother, but whether out of some desire for revenge or otherwise she didn’t tell anyone about this damning motive. As a result Edgar Watson was acquitted. He and his wife fled the state, never to be seen again. Belle was buried at Younger’s Bend, with a tombstone paid for by Pearl.

A woodcut of Belle Starr - headstuff.org

A woodcut of Belle’s adventures in the National Police Gazette.

Belle Starr was already a well-known Texas character, but it was her death that propelled her into the realm of legend. Richard K Fox, owner of the popular men’s magazine National Police Gazette, read her obituary in the New York Times and saw an opportunity. Belle’s exploits (and perhaps equally her fantastic name) had already seen her featured in the Gazette, and her mysterious death was perfect fodder for Fox’s myth-making machine. The obituary in the Times was already highly sensationalised, but Fox took it to another level. He decided not to put his article on Belle in the Gazette, but instead published it as a paperback. Belle Starr: The Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James bore little relation to the reality of Belle’s life – but the public ate it up. Her association with Cole Younger soon saw her appearing as his love interest in Exploits of the Younger Brothers, Missouri’s Most Daring Outlaws. Belle soon became a staple of the fictionalised lists of “The West’s Most Dangerous Outlaws”, and fiction soon became accepted as fact. It must be true, after all – it’s in a book.

Pearl cashed in on her mother’s fame, changing her name to Pearl Starr and opening a brothel in Fort Smith. She raised enough money to get her brother a defense team that got him a presidential pardon. Eddie went on to become a deputy sheriff, before being killed in a gunfight. Pearl continued to trade on her mother’s name and soon owned an entire chain of bordellos across the state up until 1916 when Arkansas outlawed prostitution. She died in 1925 in Arizona, three years before the character of Belle Starr first made her appearance in a Western movie – Court-Martial. She was played by Betty Compson, and encounters Abraham Lincoln during the film. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most accurate depiction of her life. Belle went on to become as much a staple character of Western movies as she had books, and with about as much of a level of accuracy. To this day, the name Belle Starr evokes the Western mythos – gunfights, smooth-talking outlaws, and a dangerous woman with a deadly six-shooter. In that light, the lines Pearl wrote on her tombstone seem almost prophetic:

Shed not for her the bitter tear,
Nor give the heart to vain regret
Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.

Images via wikimedia except where stated.

[1] Later better known as the James-Younger gang, with Jesse James as the face of the gang and Cole Younger as the actual leader. However Jesse and Frank James hadn’t joined the gang yet.

[2] Cole Younger actually had very little to do with Belle’s life, but his shadow looms large. Briefly, he was one of the most feared of Quantrill’s Bushwhackers during the Confederate guerrilla days, and then went on to become one of the most successful and well-known gang leaders in post-war America. He was smart enough to recruit Jesse James to his gang in order to win public support, which made laying low after jobs a lot easier. Cole was captured after a bank job gone wrong in 1876 but managed to avoid a death sentence, spending twenty five years in jail before being released in 1901 and joining a traveling Wild West show.

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Ciaran Conliffe

Ciaran lives in Belfast, where he programs professionally and writes compulsively. See more of his writing and blogging at www.dailyscribbling.com or follow him on Twitter as @shinyemptyhead.