Belle Starr the Bandit Queen: How a Southern Girl Became a Legendary Western Outlaw - Atlas Obscura
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Belle Starr the Bandit Queen: How a Southern Girl Became a Legendary Western Outlaw

Every place in the Atlas also represents a piece of someone’s story. In this article we take Younger’s Bend and dive deep into the story of the woman who is buried there. Meet Belle Starr the Bandit Queen. 

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Two pistols strapped on a black velvet skirt flowing over a riding saddle down to boots polished to a gleam, Belle Starr cut a dramatic figure as she rode through the Old West towns and Great Plains.

The “Bandit Queen,” started her life in 1848 as the charming Southern girl Myra Maybelle Shirley, but grew into a rebellious spirit who guarded her fierce independence at a time when few women could. She mingled with notorious outlaws and was herself convicted of horse theft. Now her name is swept up with such a whirlwind of legends that it’s hard to tell who exactly this tough woman was. Or who murdered her.

The name Belle Starr doesn’t have the weight it used to. It was once as recognizable as that of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, thanks largely to the dime novels that came out after her death. Publisher Richard K. Knox built an empire on outlandish stories of the lives of Western outlaws and circulated thousands of volumes of the amply titled dime novel: Bella Starr, The Bandit Queen, or The Female Jesse James. A Full and Authentic History of the Dashing Female Highwayman, with Copious Extracts from Her Journal. Handsomely and Profusely Illustrated.

The book was first published in 1889, the same year she was mysteriously murdered. Creative license added more romance to Belle Starr’s past and extended to her story. Much of it was a complete fabrication, including invented texts from “her journal.” Here is an excerpt that captures the grandiose tone:

“She was more amorous than Anthony’s [sic] mistress; more relentless than Pharaoh’s daughter, and braver than Joan of Arc.”

Although now it’s almost impossible to find a copy, the book was wildly popular. Its tall tales were subsequently published as fact in many a history of Belle Starr, and spurred a trail of high-tempered plays, poems, and films well into the 20th century.

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All the myths, loose biographical books, country ballads, the 1941 film starring Gene Tierney, all boil down to a real woman who was reckless while still presenting herself as a genteel lady. She drank whiskey and would gallop her horse Venus (named for the goddess of love and victory) at breakneck speeds, but always while riding sidesaddle and sporting a tight black jacket. She knew Greek, Hebrew, and Latin and could daintily play piano, but wore a rawhide necklace of rattlesnake rattles and an Ostrich plumed man’s Stetson hat when she went out on the town. Men who didn’t treat her with respect, such as the cowboy in one story who didn’t bend to pick up her dropped hat, were threatened with the barrel of her six-shooter.

Her roughness with the law started when she was still a young girl in her homestate of Missouri. Born on February 5, 1848 to John and Elizabeth Shirley (whose maiden name was Hatfield, a member of the family that feuded with the McCoys), she was the fourth of six children, all boys except her, and grew up as the center of attention in her family’s hotel in Carthage. Myra attended Missouri’s Carthage Female Academy, studying languages, music, and deportment, yet early on she had a tinderbox nature, easily provoked to fights with both boys and girls. She loved to read, and her imagination was most captured by the novels of William Gilmore Simms, whose depictions of the South often featured dramatic heroines. She was best friends with her older brother John Allison, nicknamed Bud, with whom she would trek over the Jasper County Hills on horseback, where she became a sharp-shot with a pistol and rifle.

The lives of the Shirleys were caught in the tumult of the Civil War that consumed Missouri, then a slave state, and Bud became a bushwacker, participating in guerrilla attacks on Union soldiers along the Kansas-Missouri border. Not wanting to be left out and riled by how their way of life was being destroyed, the teenaged Belle volunteered to spy on the troops through her social circles and the Jasper Hills and return the information to her brother with the guerrillas. Also fighting with Bud was Jim Reed, Belle’s sweetheart, who she would go on to marry. Bud was killed in 1864 at the age of 21 when surrounded by federal militia in Sarcoxie, Missouri, shot with a bullet that likely shaped Belle’s attitude towards the government and the law. Although she vowed to avenge him, it’s unclear whether she extracted any sort of direct revenge.

Carthage and the Shirley family were wrecked after the Civil War, so they left for Texas, Belle driving one of their wagons all the way to Scyene southeast of Dallas. It was there in 1866 that Belle met the outlaw Cole Younger, who arrived with the James-Younger Gang, which included Jesse and Frank James, as well as Bob and John Younger. The gang was looking for a place to hide out following a recent robbery, and the Younger brothers and the James were acquainted with the family from Missouri where they had also been Confederate guerrilla fighters. Cole Younger and was tall, handsome, and dangerous enough to appeal to the adventurous young Belle. Although Younger would later deny their love affair, Belle obviously kept him in her heart, eventually giving her ranch in Indian Territory the name Younger’s Flats.

However, it was Jim Reed who Belle would marry, and she gave birth to a daughter Rosie Lee in 1868. She called Rosie her “pearl,” with the pet name sticking to Pearl Reed for her whole life. That same year, Belle’s brother Edwin, a 16-year-old horse thief, was killed by Texas officers, another blow to the Shirley family by way of a violent confrontation with the authorities.

The couple moved back to Missouri with their young daughter, but soon Jim Reed was restless and rarely at home, racing horses and gambling in Indian Territory, particularly with Tom Starr’s clan. Starr was the leader of a Cherokee family involved in whiskey smuggling and cattle rustling, and a formidable and towering man with long black hair and gray eyes with the lashes plucked. He’s said to have worn a necklace studded with the dried earlobes of men he had killed.

In addition to his gambling habits, Jim Reed got into plenty of other trouble, culminating when he carried out vigilante murder on the accidental killer of his brother. Now a wanted man, he collected Belle and Pearl from Missouri and the family sheltered with Tom Starr before moving all the way to Los Angeles in 1869, where Belle had a son called James Edwin in 1871. That year Reed was arrested in California for trying to use counterfeit cash, and the police discovered his murder charge. He jumped bail, and the family headed back east where, with the assistance of Cole Younger, they settled in Texas. Their farm was soon a popular place for outlaws and horse thieves to lay low. Reed didn’t stop his criminal ways either, mingling again with the Starrs in Indian Territory and other gangs in Texas, including the James-Youngers.

In 1873, Belle and Jim fled to Indian Territory. The most notorious of Jim’s crimes occurred later that year, when he and two robbers tortured the farmer Watt Grayson and his wife, hanging them from a tree until they told him where they were hiding their $30,000 in gold coins. Although there are stories of Belle participating in robberies dressed as a man, it’s unclear how involved she was in her husbands misdeeds. She definitely supported him, and at least in 1874 was wanted under a warrant for stagecoach robbery.

There was one thing she would not stand with Jim Reed and that was another woman. When he got involved with a lady named Rosa McCommas, she broke off their marriage. Reed continued robbing stagecoaches, stealing horses and cattle, and gambling, until he was tracked down by the lawman John Morris, a former friend of Reed who had unbeknownst to him become a deputy. Morris shot and killed Reed in Paris, Texas in August of 1874.

article-imageBelle Starr and Blue Duck (via Wikimedia)

Belle spent much of her time in Dallas, a boomtown in the 1870s as a railroad center and portal for cattle herds, and even without Reed she still got into some trouble, being accused of horse stealing in 1878. After too many complaints were filed against her she was told by Collin County to leave the state. She sold the ranch and rode up to the Oklahoma panhandle with a group of outlaws. The lovers of the “Wild Western Amazon” as one newspaper called her are said to have included the outlaws Jack Spaniard, Jim French, Blue Duck, Bruce Younger, and John Middleton, although all of these are skeptical as she also spent much of her time quietly with her family in Missouri.

She married Sam Starr, a son of Tom Starr, in a tribal ceremony in 1880. The couple claimed a thousand acres of land west of Fort Smith, Arkansas, which Belle called Younger’s Bend, named, she was later quoted as saying, for her “first and one true love.” With their friends always getting into some sort of trouble with robbery or gunfights, Belle’s home again became a hideout for such guests as Jesse James. She would even sit in on their planning meetings, and she also committed some horse stealing herself, but she mostly stuck to organizing the thieving and bootlegging from behind-the-scenes. She said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News that she was “a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.” Lawmen eventually came around to Younger’s Bend, arresting Belle and Sam for horse theft and transporting them to Fort Smith for the trial in 1883.

They had the unfortunate luck to be tried by Isaac Parker, who had gotten the moniker of the “Hanging Judge” for sentencing 88 people to the gallows. However, due perhaps to Belle Starr’s ladylike charm, they each were let off lightly with short prison sentences instead of nooses, for which Belle served nine months in Michigan as a model prisoner. When released, Sam quickly got into trouble again for robbery and went into hiding, and Belle was accused of stealing horses just months later in 1886. At that trial she was able to produce a witness swearing she had bought the horse and she was released. Things after that were far from quiet, and one day Sam went riding on Venus, Belle’s best horse, and was confronted by a four man posse led by Sam’s old enemy Frank West. Venus was shot and killed, and a bullet grazed Sam’s head, after which he stole one of the officer’s guns and fled on another’s horse.

Belle made Sam turn himself in to the federal court, and she followed the lawmen all the way to Fort Smith with her pistols locked around her skirt, putting up his bail after they arrived. Later that year, just before Christmas, Belle and Sam were at a dance at a neighbor’s house when Sam was told that Frank West was outside. He went out to meet him, and in their duel both men drew their guns at once and simultaneously killed each other.

article-imageDevastated by the loss of Sam, and knowing she couldn’t keep her farm on Cherokee land without him, Belle is said to have taken up with the outlaw Jack Spaniard, but he shot and killed a US Marshal in 1886 and was then wanted for murder. Bill July (also known as Jim), an adopted son of Tom Starr, then moved in with Belle. She turned 40 in 1888, and perhaps weary of trouble, said that outlaws were no longer able to hide out on her farm. Instead she and Bill rented acreage to farmers. One of these renters, Edgar A. Watson, was discovered by Belle to be wanted for murder in Florida. When she tried to get him to leave, he refused. She said she would turn him in to the Florida authorities if he didn’t get out, which he finally did.

Watson didn’t forget how he was blackmailed by this unruly woman. On January 22, 1889, Belle and Bill July had gone to Fort Smith, she for shopping and he for a hearing on yet another horse stealing charge. When she stopped by a friend’s home after shopping, there was Edgar Watson, who stormed out. It was when she returned to Younger’s Bend on February 3 that she was thrown from her horse by a shotgun blast to the back. “The Petticoat Terror of the Plains” was shot again while on the ground, with wounds discovered on her back, neck, shoulder, and face. Her horse galloped home riderless, and Belle was found bloody and dead on the wintry road.

Her murder is unsolved, but it is highly likely Watson killed her, although evidence was too circumstantial for a conviction. It was also rumored that she was shot by her son Ed, who was angry after being beat by his mother for mistreating and riding her favorite horse.

A few weeks later, Bill July was mortally wounded by a deputy. Belle’s daughter Pearl, who had been sent to live with her grandparents in Missouri when she became pregnant at 19, giving birth to a daughter named Flossie in 1887, became a prostitute and later operated her own bordellos in Arkansas, achieving some of her own notoriety. She would finally marry the German musician Arthur Erbach in 1897, dying at an old age in 1925. She’s now buried under a marker with the name Rosa Reed. Her son Eddie was sentenced to prison in 1889 for horse theft, and then curiously became a Deputy in Fort Smith. He was killed in a saloon in Claremore, Oklahoma in 1896.. 

The headline of Belle Starr’s New York Times’ obituary proclaimed: “A Desperate Woman Killed.” She was buried near Eufair Lake, southeast of Porum, Oklahoma, at Younger’s Bend. On her tombstone, commissioned by Pearl with her bordello earnings, was engraved a bell, a horse, and a star, along this epitaph: “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.” Her grave was robbed and vandalized shortly after her burial, but it has been recently restored by the current landowner in 2010. Visitors are welcome to walk up to the burial site and ponder the passionate life lived of the woman who was anointed the “Bandit Queen,” and now rests beneath a quiet brick tomb.

 article-imageGrave of Belle Starr at Younger’s Bend (via Younger’s Bend)

THE BANDIT QUEEN: YOUNGER’S BEND, Porum, Oklahoma