In the late 1800s, Belle Starr was a notorious female outlaw in America's Old West. Her close friends included the legendary American outlaws Cole Younger and Frank and Jesse James. Her reputation, the novelty of being a female outlaw, and her violent, mysterious death led to her being called "The Bandit Queen."
Belle Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley near Carthage, Mo., on Feb. 5, 1848. Her father was John R. Shirley, a farmer who later owned a local inn. Her mother, 20 years younger than her husband, was Eliza Hatfield Shirley, who was related to the Hatfield family of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud.
As a child, Myra Shirley attended Carthage Female Academy. She enjoyed the outdoors and horseback riding, becoming a better rider than most women of her time. Among Shirley's childhood friends in Missouri was Cole Younger, who after the Civil War joined neighbors Frank and Jesse James in robbing trains, stagecoaches and banks. Fleeing the law, they sometimes hid on the Shirley farm, and the teenage Shirley became influenced by their life of crime.
In 1866, she married another childhood acquaintance, James C. Reed, the son of Solomon Reed, a prosperous local farmer. James and Myra Reed had two children — daughter Rosie Lee, called "Pearl," and son James Edwin, called "Eddie." After trying unsuccessfully to become a farmer, her husband joined with the Starr clan, an outlaw Cherokee family in Indian Territory who stole horses, rustled cattle and bootlegged whiskey.
James Reed was accused of robbery in 1874, and Myra Reed was accused of being an accomplice. They fled to Texas and he was killed while trying to escape the authorities. After his death, Myra Reed joined the Starr clan and lived in Indian Territory west of Fort Smith. She married one of them, Samuel Starr, in 1880, at which point she began calling herself "Belle." She was said to act as a front for bootleggers and harbor fugitives.
With Fort Smith having the nearest court of law, she came to the attention of Judge Isaac Parker, who was known as the "Hanging Judge" for his severe sentences. On Nov. 9, 1882, she and Sam Starr were charged in the U.S. Commissioner's Court at Fort Smith with the larceny of two horses. On March 8, 1883, a jury returned a guilty verdict, and Judge Parker sentenced the Starrs to a year in prison. After arranging the care of her children with friends and relatives, they were transported from Fort Smith to Detroit on a railroad prison car, where Belle was the only woman among 19 other convicts. The good behavior of the Starrs in prison led to their release within nine months.
After the 1886 death of Sam Starr in a gunfight, Belle and one of his relatives, Jim July Starr (also known as Bill July), began living together and announced their common-law marriage under Cherokee custom. Some sources say Belle decided to do this to maintain ownership of her property on Cherokee land.
At first, she was suspected whenever neighbors' horses and cattle disappeared or when it was believed she was harboring criminals, but she was not convicted. She settled into a relatively quiet life, announcing that fugitives were no longer welcome at her home, and was known to help her neighbors when they were ill. She often visited Fort Smith, posed for one of her several photographs there, and told the Fort Smith Elevator newspaper, "I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life."
Starr's life ended when she was shot in the back as she returned from a general store to her ranch. She died on Feb. 3, 1889. Though suspects included an outlaw with whom she was feuding; a former lover; her husband and her own son, the killer of Belle Starr was never identified.
She was buried on her ranch near today's Eufaula Dam in Oklahoma. Her tombstone was engraved with a bell, a star and her horse as well as a poem attributed by some sources to her daughter Pearl, who lived much of the rest of her life in Fort Smith and Van Buren; however, the poem shows up on many tombstones in Arkansas. Starr became a legend in "dime novels," beginning in 1889 with "Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen: Or the Female Jesse James" by reporter Richard K. Fox. She was also the subject of films such as 1941's "Belle Starr" with Gene Tierney, 1952's "Montana Belle'' with Jane Russell and the 1980 television movie "Belle Starr" with Elizabeth Montgomery.
— Nancy Hendricks
This story is adapted by Guy Lancaster from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. Visit the site at encyclopediaofarkansas.net.