|Mrs. May Reed circa 1868--the future Belle Starr.|
You have to admit Belle Starr was the perfect name for an outlaw queen. It emblazoned perfectly the covers of dime novels, titillated the readers of the original scandal sheet The Police Gazette, and set off fantasies of a bewitching bandit beauty celebrated in generations of movies, TV shows, and songs. The allure was so strong that in the back yard westerns we enacted every summer day in Cheyenne my cousin Linda was always Belle to my brother’s Roy Rogers and my Hopalong Cassidy. The stories we played out were just about as real as any associated with Starr.
Myra Maybelle Shirley doesn’t quite cut the same ice. But that was her name at birth on a farm near Carthage, Missouri on February 5, 1848. Her father was a prosperous farmer. Her mother was a member of the Virginia (later West Virginia) Hatfield clan. But it would be a mistake to read too much into that—Hatfield-McCoy feud did not break out until after the Civil War and the family was not particularly then identified with violence.
Myra got a quite proper upbringing for a young lady of her class. She was a graduate of the Carthage Female Academy, a finishing school by her father where she learned a little Latin, how to play the piano, and all of the social graces.
About the time Myra graduated, all hell was breaking loose along the Kansas-Missouri Border. The well-to-do Shirleys were slave owners. Her father and uncles may have ridden with the Border Ruffians or Bushwhackers who attacked Free Soil settlers in Bloody Kansas. The family was close to other pro-slavery clans in the area of south eastern Missouri including the James and Younger families. Myra was said to be particularly close to the Younger boys.
After the war broke out Confederate Missouri Guard forces under Governor Claiborne F. Jackson and General Sterling Price whipped a Union force under the command of Colonel Franz Sigel, in the First Battle of Carthage, the first important engagement in the West which gave control of most of the state south and west of St. Louis to the Rebels. The Shirley family decided to sell the farm and move to Carthage which was becoming a major regional hub for the Confederacy. John Shirley opened an inn and livery stable on the town square.
It was probably during this period when young Myra mastered the difficult use of the side saddle which was becoming the “proper” way for a young gentlewoman to ride. The saddle accommodated the voluminous skirts and petticoats of the day by allowing a lady wrap one leg around a pommel draping both to the same side of the horse. The seat was not as secure as a conventional saddle ridden with legs astride the horse. It took a skilled horsewoman to do much more than amble along at a walk in such a contraption. Myra could reportedly keep in the saddle at a full gallop. She continued to use the side saddle almost exclusively the rest of her life.
In 1863 the tide of war turned in the region at the Second Battle of Carthage, a smaller but significant skirmish in which Union forces repulsed an advancing force sending them scurrying back to Arkansas. Yankee troops occupied the town. Myra’s brother John A. M. “Bud” Shirley joined the partisan irregulars harassing Union troops. He became a Captain of his own band of Bushwhackers. He may have ridden when partisans attacked the occupied town in September 1864 and burned the Courthouse and much of the Square. With a Yankee price on his head, Captain Shirley was ambushed and killed as he ate at a sympathizer’s house in near-by Sarcoxie soon after.
The Shirley family became refugees. They fled the area and made their way to Scyene, Texas near Dallas where other Missouri guerillas, including the Younger Brothers and Frank and Jesse James also settled.
In 1866 Myra, now generally called May, married James Reed, a young man from back home in Carthage on whom she once had a teen age crush. No contemporary accounts remark on her beauty, although once or twice she was called handsome. What May might have lacked in conventional attractiveness, she made up with a sense of style, even when they young family struggled on a farm near town. She cut a swath in riding habits and plumed hats when she rode into town.
James did not take much to sod busting and his wife’s taste in finery compelled him to find extra income. He fell in with her old chums the Younger Brothers and began to ride with their gang. He may also occasionally have ridden with the James Gang—the two groups were friendly and often shared personnel. All were former Confederate guerillas and at least at first considered their robberies as an extension of the war.
May took to the life style. She soon added a pair of Colt revolvers to here riding gear and was known to display her marksmanship to admiring locals.
Scyene served as a safe haven and base for the outlaw gangs’ far flung raids, bank, and train robberies. Reed would be gone for weeks at a time, return, and resume what looked like an ordinary life on the farm. May gave birth to the couple’s first child, Rosie Lee who they called Pearl in 1868.
Outlawry was dangerous work and was apt to disrupt family life sooner or later. In 1871 Reed was charged with robbery and murder in Arkansas and wanted posters with a price on his head began to circulate in Texas—a sure invitation to some greedy or ambitious neighbor to turn him in. The couple fled to California where a son, James Edwin—Eddie—was born.
When things cooled off, they returned to Texas. Reed soon fell in with a new gang, the Starrs, a Cherokee clan based in Indian Territory who specialized in running whiskey to the tribes, cattle rustling, and horse thievery. Strong arm robbery, Reed’s specialty was a side line.
It is unclear if Mrs. Reed actively took part in the commission of her husband’s crimes during these years, or was merely an accomplice. But her continued show of being an armed and her swagger did nothing to discourage a notion that she was an active participant. In April 1874 that supposition was enough despite a lack of any evidence placing her on the scene, to get a warrant issued along with her husband and members of the Starr gang for a Stagecoach robbery.
The Reeds shifted their base of operations to Paris, Texas where James was shot and killed that August.
A widow with two children and no means of support, May continued her association with her old outlaw pals, many of whom evidently helped support the family. She may have become more directly involved in some of their operations, particularly the sale of rustled cattle and horses. She was evidently spared the fallback occupation of many a widow in her position—prostitution.
In the late 1870’s she may have entered a brief relationship—some say a marriage—with Charles Younger, uncle of Cole. But this is unsubstantiated by any known records and may simply be rooted in gossip which took root in lore.
|Belle in full regalia at Ft. Smith Arkansas in 1886 after beating a horse theft rap.|
In 1880 she did marry Sam Starr and settled with him on a ranch, renamed Younger’s Bend, on the Canadian River near present-day Eufaula. It was there that she finally became something like the bandit queen of legend. She adopted the name of Belle, probably to obscure her identity, but perhaps as a pet name given to her by her new husband. In Texas she was still known as Mrs. Reed or May.
Belle turned out to be a woman of great organizational skill and was soon assuming a leadership position among the Starrs. She organized and directed cattle raids and planned robberies. She regularized the clan’s business dealings, cultivating markets and keeping lawmen on the payroll for protection. She was seen in her full regalia in company of the boys, her brace of pistols now upgraded to a nickel-plated, pearl handle horse pistol and a lighter .38. She kept a shotgun in a saddle boot. But whether she actually led any of the gang’s crimes is doubtful. No reliable witness ever put her on the scene.
But in 1883 Belle and Sam were found in possession of stolen horses by a Federal Marshall operating in Indian Territory. The pair was dragged before the notorious Hanging Judge Isaac Parker’s Federal Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Both were convicted. Belle was sent to the Detroit House of Corrections in Michigan because the Feds had no facilities for women. There she was regarded as a model prisoner, was made a Trustee, and won the admiration and affection of the supervising Matron. The rebellious Sam served harder time at hard labor, much of it on a chain gang and in the hole for various infractions.
Belle was released after nine months. Sam rejoined her in Indian Territory when his sentence was up. Then they were back in business.
In 1886 Belle was again hauled before Judge Parker on a theft charge but escaped conviction. While in Ft. Smith she posed on horseback fully armed for her most famous photograph. It was a triumphant moment, but Belle’s happiness was cut short when Sam and Indian Police Officer Frank West shot each other to death in a gunfight on December 17 of that year.
|Belle with lover Blue Duck who was manacled and being held for murder.|
Widowed once again, Belle was rumored to have had several short relationships with member of her outlaw circle—Blue Duck, Jack Spaniard, and Jim French. In order to be able to remain on her land in the Indian Nation, Belle married the much younger Jim Starr a/k/a Jim July.
Despite these relationships, her active leadership in the Starr gang had ended with Sam Starr’s death.
On February 3, 1889 just two days before her 41 birthday Belle was riding home from a visit to neighbors in Eufaula when she was ambushed. She was hit in the back and neck with a blast of buckshot from a shotgun. She was knocked off of her horse. He assailant turned her over on her back and finished her off with a second blast directly in the face, and act of such rage and savagery that suspicion was immediately drawn on those closest to her.
Those suspects included her husband, and her son. A tenant sharecropper named Edgar J. Watson, a Creek, was charged with her murder supposedly because Belle had threatened to turn him into the law on an outstanding murder charge in Florida. But Belle, who had harbored many outlaws at her ranch including Jesse James himself once for several months, would be unlikely to betray anyone. Evidence was slim to non-existence and the jury did not believe the prosecutor’s case. Watson lived until 1910 when he was shot and killed.
Jim Starr may not have been entirely happy in his marriage to a dominating older woman, but he had little motive to murder her since he had no claim on the land on which he was living comfortably. Most historians discount him as a suspect.
Eddy, however, had recently been beaten by his mother for abusing a horse and was known to be furious with her. The fact that the shotgun used in the murder probably belonged to Belle also linked him to the crime. But there was never enough evidence to charge him. Belle’s murder remains officially unsolved.
Eddie Reed was convicted of horse theft and receiving stolen property in July 1889 and the family nemesis Judge Parker sentenced him to prison in Columbus, Ohio. Like many former outlaws Eddie switched sides, becoming a lawman in Fort Smith. He was involved in a famous gun battle with two outlaw brothers named Crittenden in 1895 who he killed. He died in another shoot out in a Clairmont, Oklahoma saloon on December 14, 1898.
Pearl Starr turned to prostitution to raise money to try and secure her brother’s release from the 1889 prison sentence. Her efforts did earn him a pardon which opened the door to his law enforcement career. Pearl continued to ply her trade and operated brothels in Van Buren and Fort Smith, Arkansas, up to and through World War I.
At the time of her death Belle was locally notorious in Indian Territory, Texas, and Arkansas, but unknown in the rest of the country. Richard K. Fox, editor and publisher of the Police Gazette, always on the look-out for exciting yarns, picked up the story of Belle’s murder from the Western press. Intrigued he did a modicum of investigation into her life and launched a series of lurid articles in his magazine. These were consolidated and expanded into a Dime Novel, Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James published late in the year of her death. Some Western historians continue to cite the book as a source on her life although it is riddled with errors and exaggerations.
But it did prove popular. More Dime Novels followed along with the inevitable stage melodrama. Woody Guthrie was just one of those who immortalized her in song.
|Belle gets the Hollywood treatment.|
Belle has been portrayed, rarely very realistically, in dozens of films. Actresses portraying her included Betty Compton in 1928, Gene Tierney opposite Randolph Scott in 1941, Jane Russell in 1953, Elsa Martinelli in a spaghetti western with a feminist touch directed by Lina Wertmüller in 1968, Elizabeth Montgomery in a 1980 made-for-TV movie, and Pamela Reed in the same year’s The Long Riders.
Belle is commemorated in the former Indian Territory where she spent much of her life with a gun-toting life size statue at Woolaroc, Oklahoma.