Belle Starr

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For the film, see Belle Starr (film). For the 80s girl group, see The Belle Stars.
Belle Starr
Belle Starr full.jpg
Studio portrait of Belle Starr, "Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws"
Born Myra Maybelle Shirley
(1848-02-05)February 5, 1848
Carthage, Missouri
Died February 3, 1889(1889-02-03) (aged 40)
near King Creek, Indian Territory

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. Her story was popularized by novelist Richard Fox and later became a popular character in television and movies.

Early life[edit]

Belle Starr was born as Myra Maybelle Shirley on her father's farm near Carthage, Missouri. Her family called her May. Her father was John Shirley.[1] Her mother, Eliza Hatfield, was related to the Hatfields of the famous family feud.[2] In the 1860s her father sold the farm and moved the family to Carthage, where he bought an inn and livery stable 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.[3]

During the Civil War[edit]

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 Youngers. In fact, she knew the Younger brothers 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 bushwackers by Union sympathizers. Bud Shirley was killed in 1864 in Sarcoxie, Missouri, while he and another scout were being fed at the home of a Confederate sympathizer. Union troops surrounded the house and when Bud attempted to escape, he was shot and killed.[4]

After the Civil War[edit]

Following the war, the Reed family also moved to Scyene and May Shirley married Jim Reed in 1866, after having had an earlier 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 would feed 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.[3] Jim 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, Jim Reed was involved with several criminal gangs. While Jim 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. Jim Reed was killed in August of that year in Paris, Texas, where he had settled down with his family.

Marriage to Sam Starr[edit]

Belle Starr, Fort Smith, Arkansas, 1886

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. In 1880 she did marry 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 charged with horse theft and tried before "The Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker's Federal District Court 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, while Sam was more incorrigible and was assigned to hard labor.

In 1886, she escaped conviction on another theft charge, but on December 17, Sam Starr was involved in a gunfight with Officer Frank West.[5] Both men were killed, while Belle's life as an outlaw queen—and what had been the happiest relationship of her life—abruptly ended with her husband's death.

Unsolved murder[edit]

Statue of Belle Starr in Woolaroc, Oklahoma.

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 her junior.

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.[3]

There were no witnesses and no one was ever 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,[6] 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.[7]

Story becomes popularized[edit]

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. Fox 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 is still often cited as a historical reference. It was the first of many popular stories that used her name.

Children[edit]

Belle's son, Eddie Reed, was convicted of horse theft and receiving stolen property in July 1889. Judge Parker sent him to prison in Columbus, Ohio. Belle's daughter, Rosie Reed, also known as Pearl Starr, became a prostitute to raise funds for Eddie's release. She did eventually obtain a presidential pardon in 1893. Ironically, Eddie became a deputy in Fort Smith and[8] killed two outlaw brothers named Crittenden in 1895,[9][10] and was himself killed in a saloon in Claremore, Oklahoma on December 14, 1896.[8][10][11][12]

Pearl operated several bordellos in Van Buren and Fort Smith, Arkansas, from the 1890s to World War I.

Appearances in the arts[edit]

Belle Star, "A Wild Western Amazon", as depicted in the National Police Gazette

Movies and television series[edit]

Literature and music[edit]

  • Woody Guthrie composed a song entitled "Belle Starr."[15]
  • Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler's 2006 collaboration All the Roadrunning features a track entitled "Belle Starr," penned by Harris.[16]
  • The 'ghost of Belle Starr' is mentioned in Tombstone Blues, on Bob Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited (1965). Belle Starr is also mentioned by Dylan in the lyrics of "Seeing The Real You At Last," on the album Empire Burlesque (1985).
  • Belle Starr (1979) was the first novel of American author and editor Speer Morgan.
  • The Legend of Belle Starr (1979) was a historical novel by Stoney Hardcastle.[17]
  • The unsolved murder of Belle Starr is the basis for the Douglas C. Jones novel, The Search for Temperance Moon (1991). A character based on Pearl Starr, Belle's daughter, is also featured as a bordello owner in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
  • Pulp western author J. T. Edson featured Belle Starr in several of his Floating Outfit series of novels, as the love interest of one of the three lead protagonists in the series, Mark Counter. Edson's novel Guns in the Night features Belle Starr's being murdered when pregnant with Mark Counter's child, after which the Floating Outfit teaming up to catch her murderer.
  • One of the more distinctive adaptations of the legend of Belle Starr was made by the Japanese manga artist Akihiro Ito, who in 1993 created a manga known as Belle Starr Bandits, loosely based on historical figures, facts and events. She had an appearance in the manga Gun Blaze West from Nobuhiro Watsuki, as one of J.J.'s (Jesse James) Gangmembers. ISBN 3-89885-759-X
  • Belle Starr appeared as a caricature in the 1995 Belle Starr album of the Lucky Luke comics series, illustrated by Morris and written by Xavier Fauche.
  • The 2009 historical novel, The Branch and the Scaffold by Loren D. Estleman, deals in part with Belle Starr's life in the Indian Nations as her path crossed that of Judge Isaac Parker.
  • Peter Mattheissen's historical fiction (The Killing of Mr. Watson Trilogy, and now Shadow Country) incorporates the story of E.J. Watson murdering Belle Starr.
  • American rock band Rival Sons composed a song entitled "Belle Starr" in their latest album Great Western Valkyrie.

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Shirley, Glenn. Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts and the Legends. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982, ISBN 0-8061-2276-5.

External links[edit]