A feisty little lady with an accurate aim and a fondness for the company of outlaws, Belle Starr enjoyed her reputation as the “Bandit Queen.” Although she was well known in Texas, it wasn’t until after her death in 1889 that stories of her escapades sprouted up all over the country in newspapers and dime novels (which, by then, cost a quarter).
Belle’s involvement with questionable characters started early. Born Myra Maybelle Shirley in Missouri in 1848, Belle went to a private school where she learned to play the piano—and to fight. One of her classmates remembered her as “… a bright, intelligent girl but was of a fierce nature and would fight anyone, boy or girl, that she quarreled with.”
The Missouri home of Belle’s parents was a frequent stopping-off place for William Quantrill, a notorious criminal whose expert tutoring helped to shape the futures of Jesse and Frank James and a young outlaw named Cole Younger. At the age of 15, Belle fell head over heels in love with Younger and, according to some historians, irritated her parents by riding off and marrying him in an unofficial horseback ceremony witnessed by Younger’s outlaw comrades. Younger deserted her soon after the mock wedding to pursue a new interest in train robberies.
Belle’s parents, Confederate sympathizers, moved to Texas in 1863 and settled near Dallas, then a dirt-road town of about 2,000 people. In 1866, Belle legally married Jim Reed, a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders, and bore a daughter. Belle refused to identify the baby’s father, but she named the child Pearl Younger. Leaving the baby with her parents, she left for the Dallas dance-hall scene, making a fine living as a singer and piano player. In her spare time, she dealt and played poker and operated a stable where she sold horses that most likely were stolen by her husband, Jim. Never afraid to take a fashion risk, she dressed outlandishly. Her favorite outfit was a full-length black velvet gown she wore with a man’s Stetson hat ornamented with ostrich feathers. Around her waist hung a pair of highly polished pistols.
The romantic life of an outlaw called to Belle, and a few years after her marriage she joined her husband in a life of thievery. Dressed as a man, Belle and the other members of Reed’s gang relieved Watt Grayson, a wealthy Oklahoma Creek Indian, of $30,000 in gold. Reed was recognized and went into hiding, but Belle moved into the Planter’s Hotel in Dallas. The Dallas News described her as “… a dashing horsewoman, and exceedingly graceful in the saddle.” Never a wallflower, she was spotted at the circus, the horse races and the county fair, when she wasn’t off robbing stagecoaches with her husband. In time, Reed was killed as he attempted to escape from a deputy sheriff.
Without a husband to tie her down, Belle hooked up with a band of rustlers. The only member of the gang who could read and write, she planned the operations and fenced the stolen property. In 1880 she married Sam Starr, a Cherokee Indian, and took his last name. Along with her daughter and a son, Ed Reed, the couple settled in a log cabin in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. Ironically, Belle christened the new property “Younger’s Bend” in honor of her first love. The isolated cabin on the Canadian River allowed her to escape the company of women, whom she claimed to “thoroughly detest.” Belle complained that women never talked about anything but pumpkins and babies.
By 1882, Younger’s Bend had become a headquarters for roving gangs of horse thieves, most of whom were Belle’s former acquaintances. In 1883 her luck ran out, and Belle and Sam Starr were arrested and appeared in court before “Hanging” Judge Isaac Parker. The trial caused a sensation. It was the first time a woman had appeared before Judge Parker, who proved his lack of gender prejudice by sentencing each of them to a year in a Detroit prison.
Belle reportedly spent her time in prison writing a book, which never was published, and teaching music and French to the warden’s children. Upon her release, she was quoted in the Dallas News as saying, “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw …”
In 1886, Sam Starr met his end in a hail of bullets, and Belle, who was then 39, took up with 24-year-old Jim July, who moved in with her at Younger’s Bend. On February 3, 1889, she was killed by a shotgun blast to the back. Though there were many suspects, none was ever arrested. Belle was buried in her front yard wearing her favorite black velvet gown and clutching a six-shooter.
Martha Deeringer is a regular contributor to Footnotes in Texas History.