Studio portrait of Belle Starr, "Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws"
Myra Maybelle Shirley
February 5, 1848
|Died||February 3, 1889 (aged 40)|
|Cause of death||Gunshot wounds|
|Nationality||United States/Confederate States|
|Criminal charge||Horse theft|
James C. Reed
Jim July Starr
Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr (February 5, 1848 - February 3, 1889), better known as Belle Starr, was a notorious American outlaw.
Belle associated with the James-Younger Gang and other outlaws. She was convicted of horse theft in 1883. She was fatally shot in 1889 in a case that is still officially unsolved. Her story was popularized by Richard K. Fox--editor and publisher of the National Police Gazette--and she later became a popular character in television and movies.
Belle Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley on her father's farm near Carthage, Missouri, on February 5, 1848. Most of her family members called her May. Her father, John Shirley, prospered raising wheat, corn, hogs and horses, though he was considered to be the "black sheep" of a well-to-do Virginia family which had moved west to Indiana, where he married and divorced twice. Her mother, Elizabeth "Eliza" Hatfield Shirley, was John Shirley's third wife and a distant relative to the Hatfields of the famous family feud. In the 1860s, Belle's father sold the farm and moved the family to Carthage, where he bought an inn, livery stable and blacksmith shop on the town square.
May Shirley received a classical education and learned piano, while graduating from Missouri's Carthage Female Academy, a private institution that her father had helped to found.
After a Union attack on Carthage in 1864, the Shirleys moved to Scyene, Texas. According to legend, it was at Scyene that the Shirleys became associated with a number of Missouri-born criminals, including Jesse James and the Younger brothers. In fact, she knew the Youngers and the James boys because she had grown up with them in Missouri. Her brother, John A.M. "Bud" Shirley, was called Captain Shirley by local Confederate sympathizers. He does not appear on any list of Quantrill's Raiders, but rode with a group who were called partisans by some and bushwhackers by Union sympathizers. Bud Shirley was killed in 1864 in Sarcoxie, Missouri while he and another scout were eating at the home of a Confederate sympathizer. Union troops surrounded the house, and when Bud attempted to escape, he was shot and killed.
Following the war, the Reed family also moved to Scyene and May Shirley married Jim Reed in 1866, after having had a crush on him as a teen. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, Rosie Lee (nicknamed Pearl). Belle always harbored a strong sense of style, which fed into her later legend. A crack shot, she used to ride sidesaddle while dressed in a black velvet riding habit and a plumed hat, carrying two pistols, with cartridge belts across her hips. Reed turned to crime and was wanted for murder in Arkansas, which caused the family to move to California, where their second child, James Edwin (Eddie), was born in 1871.
Later returning to Texas, Reed was involved with several criminal gangs. While Reed initially tried his hand at farming, he would grow restless and fell in with bad company--the Starr clan, a Cherokee Indian family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), as well as his wife's old friends the James and Younger gangs. In April 1874, despite a lack of any evidence, a warrant was issued for her arrest for a stagecoach robbery by her husband and others. Reed was killed in August of that year in Paris, Texas, where he had settled down with his family.
Allegedly, Belle was briefly married for three weeks to Charles Younger, uncle of Cole Younger in 1878, but this is not substantiated by any evidence. There are numerous claims that Belle's daughter Pearl Reed was actually Pearl Younger, but in Cole Younger's autobiography (quoted in Glen Shirley's "Belle Starr and her times"), he discounted that as rubbish and stated what he knew truly of Belle.
In 1880, she married a Cherokee man named Sam Starr and settled with the Starr family in the Indian Territory. There, she learned ways of organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers, as well as harboring them from the law. Belle's illegal enterprises proved lucrative enough for her to employ bribery to free her cohorts from the law whenever they were caught.
In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested by Bass Reeves, charged with horse theft and tried before "The Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas; the prosecutor was United States Attorney W.H.H. Clayton. She was found guilty and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Detroit, Michigan. Belle proved to be a model prisoner, and during her time in jail, she won the respect of the prison matron. In contrast, Sam was incorrigible and assigned to hard labor.
In 1886, she eluded conviction on another theft charge, but on December 17, Sam Starr was involved in a gunfight with Officer Frank West. Both men were killed, and Belle's life as an outlaw queen--and what had been the happiest relationship of her life--abruptly ended with her husband's death.
For the last two-plus years of her life, gossips and scandal sheets linked her to a series of men with colorful names, including Jack Spaniard, Jim French and Blue Duck, after which, in order to keep her residence on Indian land, she married a relative of Sam Starr, Jim July Starr, who was some 15 years younger than she was.
On February 3, 1889, two days before her 41st birthday, she was killed. She was riding home from a neighbor's house in Eufaula, Oklahoma when she was ambushed. After she fell off her horse, she was shot again to make sure she was dead. Her death resulted from shotgun wounds to the back and neck and in the shoulder and face. Legend says she was shot with her own double barrel shotgun.
According to Frank "Pistol Pete" Eaton, her death was due to different circumstances. She had been attending a dance. Frank Eaton had been the last person to dance with Belle Starr when Edgar Watson, clearly intoxicated, had asked to dance with her. When Belle Starr declined, he later followed her. When on the way home, she stopped to give her horse a drink at a creek, he shot and killed her. According to Frank Eaton, Watson was tried, convicted and executed by hanging for the murder.
However, another story says that there were no witnesses and that no one ever was convicted of the murder. Suspects with apparent motive included her new husband and both of her children as well as Edgar J. Watson, one of her sharecroppers because he was afraid she was going to turn him in to the authorities as an escaped murderer from Florida with a price on his head. Watson, who was killed in 1910, was tried for her murder, but was acquitted, and the ambush has entered Western lore as "unsolved".
One source suggests her son, whom she had allegedly beaten for mistreating her horse, may have been her killer.
Although an obscure figure outside Texas throughout most of her life, Belle's story was picked up by the dime novel and National Police Gazette publisher Richard K. Fox, who made her name famous with his novel Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, published in 1889 (the year of her murder). This novel still is cited as a historical reference. It was the first of many popular stories that used her name.
Eddie Reed, Belle's son, was convicted of horse theft and receiving stolen property in July 1889. Judge Parker sent him to prison in Columbus, Ohio. Rosie Reed, Belle's daughter, also known as Pearl Starr, became a prostitute to raise funds for Eddie's release. She eventually obtained a presidential pardon in 1893. Eddie became a deputy in Fort Smith and killed two outlaw brothers named Crittenden in 1895, and was himself killed in a saloon in Claremore, Oklahoma on December 14, 1896.
Pearl operated several bordellos in Van Buren and Fort Smith, Arkansas, from the 1890s to World War I.