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Wild Western Women: Belle Starr

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 2 2

The Bandit Queen

“I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life.”
– Belle Starr

The Old American West: the frontier, the last bastion of the rough-and-tumble.  Many myths and larger-than-life characters spun from the Western plains’ dust and the gold fields of California. The tornadic world of the lawless Old West (not actually as “lawless” as myth-makers like to put forth) spawned enduring characters still revisited in modern times.  Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid: all are iconic. 

But in a tough land in tough times, the frontier women of the era likewise had to be tough.  Many have read and treasured Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series (originally called Pioneer Girl when she first wrote in longhand the novella draft).  The true story of her life was much harsher than what her books portrayed.  And, one has to look at her mother, Caroline Ingalls, as just as hardy and rugged as her husband, Charles.  In addition to the travelling and establishing of new homesteads, Caroline Ingalls raised the children, tended the stock, handled the cooking (which meant killing chickens and not reaching into a freezer), fending off Indian home invasions, and doing the family’s laundry.  She was every bit as tough as Charles.

Annie Oakley, the girl sharpshooter, was a tough woman, too.  Annie, a truly remarkable and gifted sharpshooter and exhibitionist, was a rustic from Ohio whose skills were learned at an early age to put food on the family table.  Later when she traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, she lived outdoors in a tent that she fixed up with such Victorian niceties as doilies and area rugs.  Caroline Ingalls and Annie Oakley – these were the law-abiding women.

There were women who straddled the thin line between civil society and lawlessness.  One of the more notorious in the California gold rush days was the exotic dancer, courtesan, and adventuress Lola Montez.  Her antics, while not criminal, were salacious and scandalous to the earthier Westerners, and tended to shock the established prudery wherever she ventured. 

Calamity Jane, while not a true criminal, was a hard case with a tough constitution as a rough riding, hard-drinking Western woman (whose “calamity” may have been gonorrhea). As a 16-year-old, she became the head of the household when both of her parents died within a year of each other.  She uprooted her five brothers and sisters and they moved to Wyoming (from Salt Lake City) where Jane did anything she could to earn a buck to feed them (including waitressing and part-time prostitution for a local wealthy hog farmer’s ranch hands).

Finally, there were the real renegades, the women who worked the wrong side of the law.  Cattle rustlers, horse thieves, gold-diggers, prostitutes, con artists – the West was full of such women.  Despite the short time she lived on the earth (only 40 years) Belle Starr has endured as one of the more memorable of the bad women of the Badlands.

Baby Belle
The self-styled “Bandit Queen” was born on February 5, 1848, into relative affluence on a farm near Carthage, Missouri.  Carthage was a small westbound jumping-off point for settlers in

Belle Starr redux
Missouri’s southwestern corner near the Kansas border. Her full name was Myra Maybelle Shirley; her family called her “May”.  Her parents were John Shirley and Eliza Hatfield (who was related to the same Hatfield clan of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy Feud that would start almost two decades later).  May had an older brother named John A. Shirley, nicknamed “Bud”.

The Shirley farm was a few miles outside the town of Carthage.  They lived close enough to the Missouri/Kansas border to be aware of, and possible victims of, the skirmishing over Kansas’ entry into the Union (known as “Bleeding Kansas”).  At issue was the Kansas Territory’s decision whether to enter the Union as a “Free” or “Slave” state.  It was up to the settlers to vote the matter for themselves.  Missouri raiders and gangs of influence peddlers and murderers ranged along the Kansas border extorting and otherwise threatening the Kansans to vote “pro-slavery” when the time came. The “Border Ruffians”, as they were known, were a scourge for the locals.

In the early 1860s, although Kansas had finally voted itself a Free State and was admitted to the Union in 1861 as the 34th state, John Shirley sold off his farming operation and moved his family into the town proper of Carthage, probably for the security of other people in the face of continuing border raiding after the start of the Civil War. He bought an inn as well as a livery stable on the town square, a very desirable place.  The daughter upon whom John Shirley doted received the best he could afford for her.  In a time when few women were afforded any education, the girl May received classical schooling and she learned piano from a tutor.  She also graduated from an institution her father had helped found, the Carthage Female Academy (more of a finishing school, but still a remarkable feat for frontier girls). [In contrast, Belle’s contemporary, Calamity Jane, had received no formal education and was illiterate].

This young woman had everything she needed to establish herself for a straight-and-narrow, law-abiding life.  She was educated, had a loving home and family life, and she was secure. This couldn’t last as the Civil War made its presence known in the area soon enough

Southern Belle
The American Civil War finally reached the remote corner of Missouri where the Shirley family lived.  Missouri was a slave-holding state with Southern sympathies although it was not in the

Belle Starr (young adult)
South but the Midwest.  In 1864, a Union assault on the town of Carthage spurred John Shirley to uproot and move as far away from the action as he could. [Doc Holliday’s family of Georgia gentility had done the same thing – they uprooted and moved close to the Georgia/Florida border to avoid getting caught up in any campaigns on their doorstep.  Holliday, a dentist by profession, later headed west for his tubercular lungs and spent the rest of his life as a professional gambler and gunslinger].

May’s brother Bud ranged with a group of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri.  Although he was called “Captain Shirley” he held no office, and he was not an enlisted soldier for the Confederacy.  His title probably stemmed from his being the only literate of the lot; he certainly had benefited from his father’s belief in formal education as did May. The Union Army, however, saw Captain Shirley and his men for what they were, mercenary pillagers (the same as Quantrill’s Raiders).  Bud was eating supper in Sarcoxie, Missouri (about 10 miles southeast of Carthage), with another of his scouts at the home of a crony Confederate sympathizer in 1864.  Union troops, alerted to his presence, surrounded the house and gunned him down when he tried to escape.

After the Union attack on Carthage and Bud's death in 1864, the Shirleys moved south to Scyene, Texas. In Civil War Texas many of the Border Ruffians and other Civil War guerillas, such as Quantrill’s Raiders, sought refuge from the law and Missouri.  Among this rabble were the James Brothers (Frank and Jesse) and the Youngers (of whom Cole Younger was the worst). Many of these outlaws were Missouri-born.  The Shirleys, as many dislocated people do in similar circumstances, met and became friendly with these hometown wanderers. 

The South surrendered to the North on April 9, 1865.  A Missouri family named Reed moved to the Texas town of Scyene where the Shirleys lived. A son in that family, Jim Reed, was a childhood crush of the 18-year-old May Shirley.  She and Reed married almost immediately.  About two years later in 1868 she gave birth to her first child, Rosie Lee Reed, whom May called “Pearl”.

Petty Crook Princess
Jim Reed, May’s new husband, for whatever reasons took to the criminal’s way of life.  This was probably due in no small part to the influence of the James brothers and the Youngers.  Easy money in raiding and stealing

Belle Starr
horses was certainly better than slaving in a mine or on a ranch under the scorching Texas sun.

The adult May, now using the sobriquet “Belle” (a truncation of her middle name  “Maybelle”), knew of her husband’s horse thieving, and she became a partner in his activities.  She developed a sense of outrageous style for a frontier woman. Not an attractive woman by any standard (she had a very coarse face bordering on masculine), she exuded a tremendous, charismatic élan.  She garnered much attention with her ostentatious garb of black or red velvet skirts and dresses and a hat with an exaggerated plume. She also wore buckskins and moccasins on occasion, but the velvet riding gear would become her trademark.   Belle was an excellent shot.  She

Belle Starr (in finery on horseback)
took to riding side-saddle in her velvets with bandoliers strapped across her hips with her sidearms.

In due course, Jim Reed was wanted for murder in Arkansas.  The family left Texas in haste to avoid Jim’s certain extradition, and set out for California.  Belle’s and Jim’s second child, James Edwin Reed (“Eddie”), was born there in 1871.  The family spent a cooling-off period in California, and then returned to Texas.  Once home, Jim Reed tried to follow a more legitimate path, and he took up farming.  He was neither a good farmer nor a particularly strong-willed man, and it took almost no time before he was engaged with several different local gangs in the easier, albeit riskier, work of cattle rustling and stealing horses.  His steadiest band of fellow crooks, however, was a clan of Native Americans residing in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) named Starr.

Ascent to the Bandit Queen Throne
The Starr family was Cherokee.  They engaged in the property crimes most profitable at the time.  Another family business was rifles and rotgut to the Native Americans; firewater sales

Belle Starr (vanity shot)
were brisk. The Starrs also associated with the James Gang and the Youngers, all cohorts of Jim Reed and well-known to Belle Reed.

Reed’s known criminal behavior actually caused his death in relation to a crime he probably had not committed.  In April 1874 in the wake of a stagecoach robbery, both Belle Reed and her husband Jim (along with some other ad hoc members of their rustling gang) were wanted.  Authorities believed (erroneously) the Reeds had robbed the stage.  A warrant was issued for their arrest, though there was no evidence to tie them to this particular crime. In the face of the warrant, Belle and Jim tried to skip ahead of the law.  Jim Reed was gunned down four months later in Paris, Texas (in far northeast Texas near the Indian Territory border).  Belle took her children and fled to Missouri and lived with Reed’s family.

Belle maintained her ties with the criminal Starr family.  She also prostituted.  Despite her shortcomings in physical beauty she was somewhat successful as a prostitute.  Seeking some semblance of stability, in 1880 she married one of the Indian crime family members, Sam Starr.  She and her children settled in Indian Territory with his clan. Starr taught her how to handle the fencing of stolen goods received from local rustlers, horse thieves, and bootleggers.  Starr and she also provided material support and a hideout for any outlaw on the run who knew enough to come to their door. Belle raked in a good enough income from her fencing activities that she was able to pay off local authorities to keep Starr’s’ criminal friends out of jail when they were apprehended for some offense.

Belle and Sam Starr together were charged with horse theft in 1883.  Belle was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison; Sam Starr was likewise found guilty and sentenced to incarceration.  Belle did her time quietly.  She was apparently a model prisoner.  Sam Starr, in a separate prison, had no such easy time – he was difficult, and his incorrigibility led to his having to spend most of his short sentence at hard labor.

The criminal couple returned to their rackets once out of prison.  In 1886, Belle was charged with theft, but she was not convicted.  On December 17, 1886, Sam Starr engaged in a shoot-out with a law officer in which both men were killed.  Her taste for crime seemed to have vanished upon Sam Starr’s death. 

Queen in Repose
Belle took up residence in Indian Territory near Eufaula (in what is now Oklahoma).  Upon her “retirement” her flamboyant behavior and titillating past as a female villain kept her name in the tabloid press of the times.  As is done in today’s junk papers with celebrities, her name was bandied about, romantically connected with various well-known outlaws of the day, none of whom she knew. [In her most famous portrait, she is seen standing to the left of a seated Native American.  The seated man is an outlaw named Blue Duck.  The picture presents a hint of an intimate relationship between the two.  The simple truth is she had never met the man before nor did she ever see him again afterward – the photo was a publicity stunt].

Anyone residing on Indian lands did so at the pleasure of whatever tribe controlled that section.  Belle Starr was no different from any other interloper in that sense, and to keep her holdings and home within the borders of the Territory she married another man of the criminal Starr Cherokee tribe named Jim July Starr.  This was clearly a marriage of convenience for Belle.  Jim Starr was fifteen years younger than she, and while no historian doubts she truly loved Sam Starr perhaps more than any other man, her marriage to Jim Starr was simply to keep her from ejection.

Domestic tranquility was not meant for the retired Bandit Queen.  Two days before her 41st birthday on February 3, 1889, Belle Starr rode quietly toward her home after visiting a nearby neighbor in Eufaula.  An unknown assailant ambushed her, and when her body was discovered she had been shotgunned.  The spread pattern and locations of the wounds suggested she had been shot, had fallen off her horse, and then had been shot again as she lay on the ground to insure she was dead.  Wounds were noted to her back, neck, shoulder, and face.

Although there were no witnesses and no clear motive nor any evidence, speculation led to wild suspicions claiming either her husband or one of her own children (Pearl or Eddie) had killed Belle. Although it cannot be determined what possible motive Pearl (Belle’s 21-year-old prostitute daughter) or Belle’s young Indian husband would have for killing her, it was seriously surmised her killer might have been her 18-year-old son Eddie.  His motive, according to the rumor mill, was Belle had once beaten the boy (not known when or how severely) for allegedly mistreating her horse.

Belle Starr (Gravesite and headstone detail)
 

Perhaps the only viable suspect was a killer named Edgar J. Watson.  He was a sharecropper on Belle’s Indian land.  He was an escaped murderer fleeing from Florida justice.  He also had a reward posted for his capture.  Belle knew this and, in her spirit of giving safe harbor to outlaws, allowed him to stay and work some farm land.  The alleged motive asserted Watson (for whatever reason) became afraid Belle would turn him in to authorities to collect the reward. Watson was actually brought to trial for her murder, but he was acquitted.  He was killed himself in 1910. Her murder is unsolved to this day; no other plausible suspects have arisen.

Rosie Lee Reed ("Pearl" -- Belle Starr's daughter)
Pearl Reed took to her mother’s trade of prostitution very well.  Later in life, learning the business of Madame, she opened several brothels in Van Buren and Fort Smith, Arkansas.  She operated these successfully from the 1890s up until about 1914.

Eddie Reed seemed to be following in his father’s criminal footsteps.  In July 1889 (five months after Belle’s murder), he was convicted of horse theft and receiving stolen property.  He was imprisoned in Columbus, Ohio. His sister Pearl used her prostitution earnings to raise funds on his behalf.  She finally got a presidential pardon for Eddie in 1893.  Eddie decided to straighten out his life upon his release.  He later became a police officer.  In December 1896, he was killed in the line of duty

Pop Starr
Belle Starr was a relatively unknown entity during most of her lifetime.  It was only in the last two years or so of her life she became fixed in the public eye as a celebrity.  Her general life story was fictionalized for a book that was printed in 1889 (rushed to press) called Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James [the incorrect name of “Bella” is what is on the book’s cover].  At twenty-five cents per book (around $4 in today’s money) it was a best seller although a bit pricier than the normal pulp fiction about outlaws.  Dozens of such books followed.

As with serial killer Belle Gunness and unsolved-murder victim Mary Cecilia Rogers, Belle Starr’s image in the wake of her death was glamourized to ridiculous lengths. Belle Gunness, a lumbering, Nordic woman pushing 300 pounds, was portrayed as a svelte, busty temptress in pulp fiction and tabloid papers.  In reality she was thick, powerfully built, and menacing.

Mary Cecilia Rogers (murdered 1841, in fact & fiction)

The sad case of Mary Cecilia Rogers carries extra tragedy.  The 21-year-old woman was found floating in the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1841.  She had been murdered, and her killer was never found.  Edgar Allan Poe incorporated elements of her case into his detective story, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, in 1842.  Mary Rogers’ murder case was renowned.  She was tagged “The Beautiful Cigar Girl” in the press (her last employer had been a New York tobacconist).  Both she and the shop in which she worked were very popular in New York City (notable literary figures James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving were regular customers and admirers of hers).  In etchings and later drawings she was portrayed tragically and beautifully.  The only extant life image of her (a daguerreotype taken some short time before her

Belle Starr in pop culture
murder) shows not a “beautiful” girl at all, but a rather plain, and haunted, looking one.

So, too, the homely Belle Starr got her press makeover and cheap dime novel upgrades.  In movies later in the 20th century she was played (sensationalized and very loose with facts) in films by screen queens such as Gene Tierney and the statuesque Jane Russell.

Belle Starr was uncharacteristically photographed many times during the course of her life in vanity pictures she had done and press photos taken by sensation seeking reporters.  Interest in her is such that any older photograph of a Victorian Era woman bearing even a passing resemblance to her is quickly hoped by the picture’s owner to be an undiscovered image of her. 

Great lengths to “prove” their photo is of Belle Starr are proposed.  In the examples given here, the far left photo (below) does look enough like Belle Starr to be her, but is not supported by evidence.  The genealogy of the woman seated in the right hand photo [not germane, but investigated] clearly precludes her from being Belle Starr despite a mild resemblance.

Questionable "Belle Starr" images

This prostitute, horse thief, rustler, ace shot, mother, bootlegger, wife, renegade, and farmer managed to cram more living in her roughly 20-year outlaw career than most.  She was one of the toughest of wild Western women.

***

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Comments

Jun 1, 2012 5:37pm
Etcetera
Fascinating story and wonderful photos.
Jun 1, 2012 6:38pm
vicdillinger
Thanks -- the pics were actually harder to authenticate than I thought (seems every amateur genealogist out there has a "family" pic with at least ONE unidentified female they insist is Belle Starr).
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