From Southern Belle to Belle of the Outlaws
Belle Starr was a blazing star in the dark world of outlaws in the 1800s. And, in the twilight of her life, the law put an astronomical bounty on her head for the time--$10,000—dead or alive. She was famous, first because she was a woman, but also because she was smart, stylish, and brazen. She once said defiantly, “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.” And she made good on her word. She was a friend to many outlaws, including Jesse James, Cole Younger and the Younger brothers, Blue Duck, and others. And she was an outlaw in her own right, as well, who had crossed paths with Wild West iconic lawmen like “Pistol Pete” (Frank Eaton), “The Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker, and W. H. H. Clayton, the famous prosecuting U.S. Attorney.
Belle was born into a well-to-do Southern family but perhaps with a genetic quirk that would presage her criminal tendency. Her father came from a prominent and wealthy Virginia family, but was regarded as the black sheep of the family. Her mother’s heritage, too, brought with it a tinge of notoriety: her maiden name was Hatfield of the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud fame. Her father and mother moved to Missouri and made a prosperous life for their family of six children, five boys and Belle. Her father was a successful business owner of a hotel, livery, and blacksmith.
Belle was born Myra Maybelle Shirley, a name more apropos for a dainty kitten than the cougar she would become. She grew up the center of attention at her father’s hotel and her five brothers. She got a rigorous classical education at Missouri’s prestigious Carthage Female Academy where she studied language, music, deportment and the classics. She was a talented pianist and learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew, and read voraciously. She especially loved novels with dramatic heroines and wrote stories herself in grandiose prose. One of her passages read:
“She was more amorous than Anthony’s mistress,
More relentless than Pharoah’s daughter,
And braver than Joan of Arc.”
But she had a wild streak that no school of etiquette could control. She learned to drink whiskey with her brothers, she became a sharp-shot with both pistol and rifle, and could ride better than any boy or man in the county. She wore a rawhide necklace with rattlesnake rattles and a Stetson hat with an ostrich plume dashingly cocked, when she went riding. She was reckless and independent and had a fierce joie de vivre that was too big for the strict feminine mores of the day.
She adored her big brother, Bud, who was wild like her and they often made mischief together. Because the Shirley family had come from the South and sympathized with the Confederate cause, Bud became a bushwacker and joined in guerrilla attacks on Union soldiers along the Kansas-Missouri border. Belle volunteered, too, to spy on Union troops and report back to Bud’s guerilla fighters. Bud was killed in 1864 at age 21 when surrounded by Union militia at Sarcoxie, Missouri. Losing her beloved brother no doubt shaped Belle’s rebellious attitude toward government and the law.
The War ravaged Carthage and the Shirley family wealth and the family moved to Texas near the end of the War, Belle driving one of the wagons all the way to Scyene southeast of Dallas. It was a fortuitous move for Belle, for it was in Texas that she met Cole Younger and Jesse and Frank James. They had been Confederate guerillas and knew the Shirley family through Bud.
Belle had a teen crush on the tall, handsome and dangerous Cole Younger, but in 1868 she married gambler and petty criminal Jim Reed. That same year, Belle’s younger 16-year-old brother Edwin was killed by Texas Rangers after stealing a horse, another incident that hardened Belle against the law.
Belle’s husband got into trouble for a vigilante murder and the family fled, Belle now with a little daughter, to the Cherokee clan of Tom Starr. The clan was involved in whiskey smuggling and cattle rustling. Tom Starr was a towering man with long black hair, steel grey eyes, and wore a necklace of dried earlobes of men he had killed.
Belle’s husband racked up more crimes with his involvement with the Starrs in Indian country and the James-Younger gang in Texas. Belle supported her husband and participated in some criminal dealings, including a stagecoach robbery in 1874. That same year Belle’s husband was killed by a lawman.
Belle had started stealing horses and in 1878 was accused but talked her way out of the charge. In 1880, she married Sam Starr, the Cherokee son of Tom Starr in a tribal ceremony. They claimed a thousand acres near Fort Smith, Arkansas, and their ranch became a hideout for outlaws and the James and Younger gangs. In 1883, both Belle and Sam were arrested for horse theft, punishable by hanging. They were tried by notorious Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge” who had sentenced 88 people to the gallows. But Belle’s ladylike and well-spoken ways charmed the judge and both she and her husband were given light jail sentences.
In 1886, Sam got into a gun duel with lawman Frank West and both men simultaneously killed each other. Devastated by Sam’s death and knowing she couldn’t keep her farm on Cherokee land without him, she took up with outlaw Jack Spaniard. But that same year, he shot and killed a U.S. Marshall and fled the law.
Belle had tired of running and losing those she loved to the law, and she made a decision to try to extricate herself from the outlaw life. She settled down on a modest ranch nestled in the woods near Porum, Oklahoma. In 1888, she turned 40 and had achieved a quiet life and was liked by the local people. She was instantly recognized by all the locals riding on her beautiful Thoroughbred, Venus (named for the goddess of love and victory), and wearing a tailored black velvet riding jacket and a large plume in her hat.
Just short of her 41 birthday, she was riding home from visiting a neighbor when she was ambushed by a man hiding in the woods who shot her in the back. When she fell, she was shot again in the chest and killed. The murder was never solved but the most prevailing belief was an outlaw named Edgar Watson had killed her. He had been renting some of her land, and Belle had discovered he had a bounty over his head for murder. She threatened to tell authorities if he didn’t get off her land.
Shortly before her death, Belle Starr had been interviewed by the Dallas Morning News and was quoted as saying, “I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life.” The last couple of years of her short but exciting life, Belle had lived a quiet life in a rough-hewn, charming cabin of cedar logs with small windows. It was nestled back in a steep canyon bristling with forests. After her death, the canyon became known as Belle Starr Canyon and the purling brook that ran near the cabin became known as Belle Starr Creek.
About 20 feet from her cabin doorway, Belle Starr was buried. A rural stone-cutter, had cut a beautiful stone for Belle’s grave. It had a picture of Belle’s beloved horse, above its head a star, beneath a bell, and on its flank a BS brand. At the bottom of the stone a carved hand clasped a bouquet of flowers. On the headstone, inscribed in a graceful script were the words:
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.
Indeed, it still sparkles—in the annals of the American West and in our imaginations.
Posted February 29, 2020
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