The “female Jesse James”…the “bandit queen”…..all names associated with one person, Belle Starr. Belle began her life on February 5, 1848 as Myra Maybelle Shirley in Carthage, Missouri. Her father, John Shirley, was a successful farmer and owner/operator of the Carthage Hotel. Belle was an educated woman who attended the Carthage Female Academy.
Belle’s family moved to Texas, after Belle’s brother was killed during the Civil War riding as a Southern guerrilla. Her family traveled to Texas in two Conestoga wagons. Belle, only 16 at the time drove one of those wagons.
After the war, in 1866 Belle married a family acquaintance from Missouri named Jim Reed. A year after their marriage, they moved to Bates County, Missouri. In 1868, Belle gave birth to a daughter she named Rosie Lee, but Belle always called her Pearl.
Jim Reed was not as successful with farming as Belle’s father. Jim’s interests were horse racing and gambling. So, he joined a gang of rustlers.
Needless to say, Jim at this point was up to no good, rustling, whiskey running, and a killing or two. Warrants went out for Jim, so he, Belle and Pearl fled to California. While there in 1871, Belle gave birth to her son James Edwin.
They did not stay long in California. Jim was charged with passing counterfeit currency. They left California and went back to Texas, with Belle and the two babies in toe.
Belle and her family landed at a farm set up by her father in Bosque County. However, geography could not change Jim’s bad “habits”. From 1873 until Jim’s death in 1874 Jim cheated on his wife, robbed, held up a stagecoach and was finally killed near Paris, Texas.
In 1876, Belle found herself in Indian Territory. While there she married a Cherokee, named Sam Starr. He was a handsome man who was 4 years younger. Sam built a log cabin on a timbered knoll in Cherokee Nation called “Younger’s Bend”. Belle called it Younger’s Bend, because outlaw Cole Younger frequently hid there.
Cole Younger's Mug Shot
Along with Cole Younger, outlaw Jesse James would hide out at Younger’s Bend. Belle would complain, “My home became known as an outlaw ranch”. Many of the society women spoke poorly of her and would spread horrible rumors because if this “association” with outlaws.
Belle would lead a solitary life. She would wander off with a pillow and books for a day of reading, or would happily sit at her piano for hours.
The Hanging Judge, Isaac Parker
In 1882 or 1883 Belle and Sam Starr were arrested for the theft of two horses. She faced the court of the famous “Hanging Judge”, Isaac Parker. During her trial she was branded the “queen” of a band of horse thieves, because of her previous marriage to a criminal and Jesse James presence at her home. Her and Sam were found guilty. Judge Parker sentenced Belle and Sam to one year in the House of Corrections in Detroit. After nine months Belle and Sam were released. They returned to Younger’s Bend and Belle became even more withdrawn from society.
From 1885 to 1886 Belle’s second husband followed the same criminal path as her first husband. On December 17, 1886 Sam Starr was killed while at a Christmas dance. So, once again Belle was a widow.
Belle wasted no time in finding a third companion, a Creek Indian named Jim July, an outlaw who was 15 years her junior. In 1889, July was arrested for robbery and summoned to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to face charges. Belle accompanied her young lover for part of the journey, but turned back before reaching Fort Smith. On her way home, someone ambushed and fatally wounded her with two shotgun blasts to her back. Jim July believed the murderer was a neighbor with whom the couple had been feuding, but no one was ever convicted of the crime.
Belle Starr ‘s life was filled with crime, some her own doing and some because of whom she married. She once wrote, “It seems as if I have more trouble than any other person.” She may have been known as the “bandit queen” and the “female Jesse James”, but it seems to me she was quite a lonely and secluded woman.