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by Pat Rodgers

Across the horizon and through the dark streets of Dallas, gallops the most beautiful, the most daring, the most exciting female outlaw ever to ride into American folklore! In 1889, after reading Belle Starr’s obituary, the dime novelist Richard K. Fox seized an opportunity to create a legend and sell cheap novels to Americans across the country. For more than 130 years, writers have been drawn to that legendary woman outlaw, Belle Starr. The Queen of the Bandits, as she was called, was spiteful, reckless, headstrong, somewhat beautiful, as dangerous as any of the desperadoes she loved. She was a fiery, demanding figure of royalty in a desperado empire.

Belle Starr cut a dramatic figure. She wore two pistols strapped onto a black velvet skirt flowing over a riding saddle; She polished her boots until they gleamed.

Writers eager to sell their dime novels about Belle, sensationalized and romanticized her life. They fabricated

her personal journal and quoted from it liberally. Together, let’s separate the truths, the lies, and the legends and find the real Belle Starr.

The “Bandit Queen” began her life on February 5, 1848 as a charming girl, Myra Maybelle Shirley. She was born near Carthage, Missouri to John and Elizabeth Shirley. She was the fourth of six children, all boys except her. She grew up as the center of attention in her family’s hotel in Carthage. Myra attended Missouri’s Carthage Female Academy, studying languages, music, and deportment. Even as a young girl she had a tinderbox nature, easily provoked to fights with both boys and girls. She loved to read, and her imagination was captured by the novels that depicted Southern dramatic heroines. Her best friend was her older brother, John, nicknamed “Bud”, with whom she would trek over the hills on horseback. She became a sharp-shot with a pistol and rifle.

The Shirley’s were caught in the tumult of the Civil War. It consumed Missouri, a border- slave state. Bud became a guerrilla soldier under the infamous William C. Quantrill and participated in attacks on Union soldiers fighting along the Missouri-Kansas border. The teenaged Belle volunteered to spy on the Union troops and return the information to her brother with Quantrill’s Raiders.

Belle’s future husband, Jim Reed, fought along-side Bud, who was killed at age 21 in 1864. Her brother’s death likely hardened her life-long attitude toward the law.

The raids had taken their toll on Shirley’s businesses, and after Bud’s death, the “Judge”, Belle’s father, sold his Missouri property and moved his family to a farm near Scyene, Texas. Scyene was a small town southeast of Dallas and it was there that Belle met the outlaw Cole Younger. Cole was tall, handsome, and dangerous enough to appeal to the adventurous young Belle. The James-Younger Gang also included Jesse and Frank James, as well as Bob and John Younger.

This outlaw gang needed a place to hide following their first bank robbery in Liberty, Missouri. They fled with $60,000 in cash and bonds and headed to Texas to the Shirley’s farm. They were familiar with the Shirley’s from their Confederate guerrilla fighting days in Missouri. Belle would not forget the dashing outlaw, Cole Younger, and later she would name her ranch, Younger’s Bend, after him.

However, Belle married Jim Reed, the outlaw, in a McKinney ceremony on horseback in 1866. She and her husband welcomed a daughter, Pearl, in 1868 and her brother Edwin in 1871. The couple moved back to Missouri, but Jim continued racing horses, gambling, and committing criminal vigilante-murder.

Legend has it that Belle joined her husband’s nefarious activities, but there is little evidence to suggest that she did. Stories portraying Belle participating in robberies dressed as a man swirled around her. She is best known for planning robberies, selling stolen livestock and negotiating the release of jailed gang members. We know she definitely supported her husband, and in 1874 she was wanted for stagecoach robbery. Her husband Jim became involved with another woman. Belle would not tolerate infidelity and she broke off the marriage.

Jim, the ex-husband, continued to rob stagecoaches, steal horses, cattle, and gamble until he was tracked down in August of 1874, shot and killed. Was it the law or a member of his gang who killed him? The answer is lost to history. He is buried today in Pecan Grove Cemetery in McKinney.

Belle spent much of her time in Dallas, a boomtown in the 1870’s as a railroad center and portal for cattle herds. It was about that time that Belle became an outlaw. She operated a livery stable in Dallas which became a front for selling stolen livestock. The outlaw friends, Frank and Jesse James and the Youngers, ran their stolen horses through the stable.

Legend reports that she also ran a very profitable “madams house” in Dallas. She rustled cattle, horses, raided small banks and held up stagecoaches.

In 1878 she was accused of horse stealing; the law chased her into Oklahoma and she drifted into Indian Territory, In 1880, Belle wed Sam Starr, who was Cherokee and part of the Starr gang. Together, they lived on Cherokee land, harboring criminals like Frank and Jesse James at their home. In 1883, Belle and Sam were convicted of stealing horses on federal land. As a result, she became the first woman to be tried and convicted for a major crime of horse stealing. They both spent nine months in jail and then returned to Indian Territory. By this time, Belle was a felon, with her notoriety growing over suspicion for previous crimes. She reputedly carried one or two fine pistols and a handsome rifle. Belle was arrested twice more; but she was never convicted again. Sam Starr was killed in 1886, and Belle went on to live with Bill July on Cherokee land. She allegedly reformed, refusing to shelter criminals in her home. When July (whom she called July Starr) was arrested for horse theft, she did not defend him. Belle Starr was shot to death on February 3, 1889, near Fort Smith, Arkansas just before her 41st birthday. She made many enemies over the years, including her farmland tenant, Edgar Watson.

Edgar Watson was a fugitive wanted for murder, and Belle kicked him off her land once she discovered his dark past. Although authorities believed Watson ambushed Belle, he was never convicted of the act. He was eventually released as there was no witnesses to the crime. Belle was buried with her favorite six shooter in her hand at Younger Bend near Eufala, Oklahoma. Her daughter, Pearl, wrote the following inscription on her tombstone:

“Shed not for her the bitter tear

Nor give the heart to vain regret.

Tis but the casket that lies here,

The gem that fills it sparkles yet!

Today, Belle’s grave site sits amidst a hardwood forest with a slow river running past it and mountains to the south. It has been lovingly restored and is frequented by many visitors each year.

Youngers Bend is a convergence of history where so many historical figures passed through, from Civil War soldiers, outlaws and lawmen, to explorers mapping the Western frontier.

It is also the story of Belle - a woman who lived and died with a gun on her hip and a fast horse beneath her.

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