FULL NAME: Myra Belle Shirley
BIRTH DATE: Feb. 5, 1848.
BIRTHPLACE: Carthage, Mo.
EDUCATION: Attended the
Carthage Female Academy, where she excelled in reading, spelling, grammar,
arithmetic, deportment, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and music-learning to play
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Father
John Shirley was a wealthy Carthage innkeeper, mother Elizabeth "Eliza"
Hatfield Shirley was descended from the Hatfield end of the infamous Hatfield
and McCoy family feud in the West Virginia-Kentucky region. Belle moved
with her family to Sycene, Texas shortly before Carthage was burned to
the ground by Confederate guerillas during the Civil War in 1864. That
same year her older brother John "Bud" Shirley, who fought for
the Confederacy with William C. Quantrill's guerillas, was killed by Union
troops in Sarcoxie, Mo.
DESCRIPTION OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS:
In the legendary period of American history known as the Old West, the
law of the whole nation had yet to tame that frontier which was spottily
settled. This resulted in lawlessness seen in the personage of those known
as outlaws-lawbreakers whose notorious reputations often exceeded their
very person to mythical proportions. Belle Starr was one such outlaw.
From her association with outlaws such as Jesse James and the Younger
brothers, she reached a level of fantastic notoriety that today leaves
the facts of her life not always distinguishable from the fiction.
As a teenager during the Civil War, Belle Shirley reported the positions
of Union troops to Confederacy. One of her childhood friends in Missouri
was Cole Younger, who served in Quantrill's guerillas with Jesse and Frank
James. After the war these men (and later Cole's three brothers, among
others) turned to outlawry, primarily that of robbery of banks, trains,
stagecoaches, and people. In their flights from lawmen they would sometimes
hide out at the Shirley farm, through which Belle became very tight with
the James and Younger gangs. Their influence would be part of the reason
Belle would turn to crime herself.
In 1866, Belle married James C. "Jim" Reed, a former guerilla
whom she had known since her childhood in Carthage. Their daughter Rosie
Lee "Pearl" (who was later rumored to be Cole Younger's child)
was born in 1868 and their son James Edwin "Ed" was born in
1871. While Jim initially tried his hand at farming, he would grow restless
and fell in with bad company in that of the Starr clan, a Cherokee Indian
family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery in the Indian
Territory (now Oklahoma), as well as his wife's old friends the James
and Younger gangs. Then in 1869, Jim shot in cold blood the man who supposedly
accidentally shot his brother in a quarrel. Wanted by the law, he fled
to California with Belle and Pearl in tow. Here two years later Jim again
ran afoul of the law for passing counterfeit money and with Belle, Pearl,
and newborn son Ed fled to Texas.
In November 1873, Jim Reed with two other men robbed Watt Grayson, a wealthy
Creek Indian farmer in the Indian Territory, of $30,000 in gold coins.
Belle was named as an accomplice, however, there was very little proof
of her involvement. Nonetheless, they both went into hiding from the law
in Texas: Jim in the town of Paris and Belle and the children with her
family in Sycene. Allegedly, she took Pearl and Ed and went to Dallas,
where she lived off the gold from the Grayson robbery. She wore buckskins
and moccasins or tight black jackets, black velvet skirts, high-topped
boots, a man's Stetson hat with an ostrich plume, and twin holstered pistols.
She spent much her time in saloons, drinking and gambling at dice, cards,
and roulette. At times she would ride her horse through the streets shooting
off her pistols. This wild behavior was among what gave rise to her rather
exaggerated image as a pistol-wielding outlaw.
In April 1874, Jim held up the Austin-San Antonio stagecoach and robbed
the passengers of about $2,500. A price of $7,000 was placed on his head
and he went into hiding. The law caught up with him near Paris, Texas
on Aug. 6, 1874, when Jim Reed was shot to death while trying to escape
from the custody of a deputy sheriff.
The young widow of an outlaw, Belle left Texas, put her children in the
care of relatives, and took up with the Starr clan in the Indian Territory
west of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Here Belle immersed herself in outlawry:
organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers,
as well as harboring them from the law. Belle's illegal enterprises proved
lucrative enough for her to employ bribery to free her cohorts from the
law whenever they were caught. When she was unable to buy off the lawmen,
she was known to seduce them into looking the other way. All of the aforementioned
confirmed Belle's status as an outlaw and her reputation would supersede
her with the sensationalistic writing of the day. During this period she
married Samuel Starr, a member of the infamous Starr clan, in 1880.
Judge Isaac C. Parker, a.k.a., "The Hanging Judge," of Fort
Smith became obsessed with bringing Belle Starr to justice, but she eluded
him at every turn. Then in 1882, charges of horse theft were brought against
Belle and Sam by one of their neighbors in the Indian Territory. The jury
returned a guilty verdict for each and in March 1883, Judge Parker sentenced
Belle and Sam to a year in the House of Correction in Detroit, Mich. During
her prison term Belle proved to be a model prisoner and won the respect
of the prison matron, whereas Sam was more incorrigible and was assigned
to hard labor. Nevertheless, they were both released after nine months
and returned to the Indian Territory. In fact Belle proved not to have
been reformed at all by prison for she-as well as Sam-almost immediately
returned to their villainous ways. Belle's unrepentant attitude was best
expressed in a comment to a Dallas newspaper reporter: "I am a friend
to any brave and gallant outlaw."
Over the next several years Belle Starr would continue to find herself
arrested for charges of robbery, however, Judge Parker would be forced
to release her for lack of evidence. A particularly memorable such arrest
was in 1886, when Belle was charged with robbing a post office while dressed
as a man. That same year Sam Starr was killed by a longtime family nemesis.
Shortly afterward Belle provided the legal counsel for Bluford "Blue"
Duck, a Cherokee Indian indicted for murdering a farm hand. To Judge Parker's
ire, the death sentence he imposed was commuted to life imprisonment.
And in 1888, when her son Ed was arrested for horse theft, her lawyers
contacted President Grover Cleveland, who overturned Judge Parker's seven-year
prison sentence with a full pardon.
The notoriously unlawful life of Belle Starr came to a violent end on
Feb. 3, 1889, two days short of her forty-first birthday. While riding
from the general store to her ranch near Eufaula, Okla., Belle was killed
by a shotgun blast to the back. Suspects included Edgar Watson, with whom
Belle had been feuding over the land he was renting from her (Watson was
a fugitive and Belle had been told by the authorities that she would lose
all of her land if caught harboring fugitives and for once she was obeying),
her lover a Cherokee named Jim July with whom she had recently had a quarrel,
and her son Ed, with whom she had had a strained relationship. However,
the identity of the murderer of Belle Starr was never identified. Belle
Starr was buried on her ranch with a marble headstone on which was engraved
a bell, her horse, a star and the epitaph written by her daughter Pearl
"Shed not for her the bitter tear,
Nor give the heart to vain regret;
'Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet."
Even in her lifetime Belle Starr had become a legend through the yellow
journalism of her day. This status would be reinforced through the years
by-in addition to the press-dime novel literature and the Hollywood motion
picture industry. The result is that today historians continue attempting
to decipher the facts of Belle Starr's life from the fiction.
DATE OF DEATH: Feb. 3,
1889, age 40 (shot to death).
PLACE OF DEATH: near Eufaula,
-Lakewood Public Library