In the late 1800s, Belle Starr was known as a notorious female outlaw in America’s “Old West.” As a resident of Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, she came under the jurisdiction of Judge Isaac C. Parker in Fort Smith (Sebastian County). Her close friends included the legendary American outlaws Cole Younger and Frank and Jesse James. Her reputation as an outlaw, the novelty of being a woman outlaw, and her violent, mysterious death led to her being called “The Bandit Queen.”
Belle Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley near Carthage, Missouri, on February 5, 1848. Her father was John R. Shirley, a farmer who later owned a local inn. Her mother, twenty years younger than her husband, was Elizabeth (Eliza) Hatfield Shirley, who was related to the Hatfield family of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud. As a child, Shirley attended Carthage Female Academy. She enjoyed the outdoors and horseback riding, becoming a better rider than most women of her time. Among Shirley’s childhood friends in Missouri was Cole Younger, who after the Civil War joined neighbors Frank and Jesse James in robbing trains, stagecoaches, and banks. Fleeing the law, they sometimes hid on the Shirley farm, and the teenage Shirley became influenced by their life of crime.
In 1866, she married another childhood acquaintance, James C. Reed, the son of Solomon Reed, a prosperous local farmer. James and Myra Reed had two children, daughter Rosie Lee, called “Pearl,” and son James Edwin, called “Eddie.” After trying unsuccessfully to become a farmer, her husband joined with the Starr clan, an outlaw Cherokee family in Indian Territory who stole horses, rustled cattle, and bootlegged whiskey. James Reed was accused of robbery in 1874, and Myra Reed was accused of being an accomplice. They fled to Texas, and in 1874, he was killed while trying to escape the authorities.
After his death, Myra Reed joined the Starr clan and lived in Indian Territory west of Fort Smith. She married one of them, Samuel Starr, in 1880, at which point she began calling herself “Belle.” She was said to act as a front for bootleggers and to harbor fugitives. With Fort Smith having the nearest court of law, she came to the attention of Judge Isaac Parker, who was known as the “Hanging Judge” for his severe sentences. On November 9, 1882, she and Sam Starr were charged in the U.S. Commissioner’s Court at Fort Smith with the larceny of two horses. On March 8, 1883, a jury returned a guilty verdict, and Judge Parker sentenced the Starrs to a year in prison. It was a surprisingly lenient sentence; Judge Parker was said to have taken into consideration the fact that it was the first conviction for both, and he expressed hope that they would “decide to become decent citizens.” After arranging the care of her children with friends and relatives, they were transported from Fort Smith to Detroit on a railroad prison car, where Belle was the only woman among nineteen other convicts. The good behavior of the Starrs in prison led to their release within nine months.
After the 1886 death of Sam Starr in a gunfight, Belle and one of his relatives, Jim July Starr (also known as Bill July), began living together and announced their common-law marriage under Cherokee custom. Some sources say Belle decided to do this to maintain ownership of her property on Cherokee land.
At first, she was suspected whenever neighbors’ horses and cattle turned up missing or when it was believed she was harboring criminals, but she was not convicted. She settled into a relatively quiet life, announcing that fugitives were no longer welcome at her home, and was known to help her neighbors when they were ill. She often visited Fort Smith, posed for one of her several photographs there, and told the Fort Smith Elevator, “I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life.”
Starr’s life of crime ended when she was shot in the back as she returned from a general store to her ranch. She died on February 3, 1889. Though suspects included an outlaw with whom she was feuding, a former lover, her husband, and her own son, the killer of Belle Starr was never identified.
She was buried on her ranch near today’s Eufaula Dam in Oklahoma. Her tombstone was engraved with a bell, a star, her horse, and a poem by her daughter, Pearl, who lived much of the rest of her life in Fort Smith and Van Buren (Crawford County). Starr became a legend in “dime novels,” beginning in 1889 with Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James by reporter Richard K. Fox. She was also the subject of films such as 1941’s Belle Starr with Gene Tierney and the 1980 television movie Belle Starr with Elizabeth Montgomery. While the facts of her life may have been embellished by legend, she was known in her time as a notorious female outlaw and a nemesis of Fort Smith’s Judge Parker.
For additional information:
Rascoe, Burton. Belle Starr: The Bandit Queen. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2004.
Shirley, Glenn. Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts and the Legends. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Steele, Phillip W. Starr Tracks: Belle and Pearl Starr. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1989.
Arkansas State University