The Untold Truth Of Outlaw Belle Starr

Myra Maybelle "Belle" Shirley, who would later become known as the outlaw Belle Starr, was born in Carthage, Missouri, on February 5, 1848. The Shirleys were a successful and wealthy family who owned a blacksmith shop, an inn, a livery stable, and a tavern. As reported by Legends of America, the businesses they owned comprised "almost an entire city block" in Carthage.

As a child, Belle was described as "a bright student with polite manners," who enjoyed performing for others "and liked having an audience." Biography reports she attended a girl's academy, and excelled at playing the piano. Although she had a number of older half-siblings, she was particularly close to her half-brother John, whose nickname was Bud. Biography reports Belle was heavily influenced by Bud, who encouraged her to spend time outdoors. He also taught her how to ride horses and shoot guns.

Amid the Civil War, the entire Shirley family supported the Confederacy. However, Bud was specifically passionate about undermining the Union's efforts within the state of Missouri. Although she was not officially involved, Biography reports Belle joined her brother in his defense of the Confederacy.

Following Bud's death in 1864, Belle and her family moved to Texas, where she met outlaw Cole Younger. History reports Belle and Cole, who was a member of the notorious James-Younger Gang, developed a very close, but short-lived relationship. In 1866, she married another outlaw, Jim Reed, and reportedly "became his partner in crime."

Belle Starr was attracted to outlaws

As reported by History, the couple were reputed thieves, who reportedly traveled throughout Dallas and the surrounding region stealing livestock and cash. As reported by Legends of America, Belle and Jim Reed were accused of committing robbery, theft, and even torturing a older Native American man to learn where he hid an estimated $30,000 worth of gold.

In addition to gaining a reputation for her criminal activity, Belle was known for her elegant sense of style. While riding sidesaddle on her mare, Venus, Belle always wore long skirts, which were often made of black velvet. She was also known for her elaborately plumed hats.

Belle and Jim Reed had two children together: Pearl, who was born in 1868 and Eddie, who was born in 1871. However, as reported by Biography, Belle left her husband and moved back to her parents' farm shortly before his death in 1874. Legends of America reports Reed was ultimately shot to death by a member of his own gang.

Biography reports Belle's specific involvement in her former husband's criminal activities is a point of controversy, as "there is little evidence" proving she participated in any of the assaults, robberies, or thefts. Some historians believe there is more evidence suggesting she sought "to live a life of quiet domesticity." Whatever her intentions, Belle seemed to have a preference for men who were either known or rumored outlaws, and she was often implicated in assisting or participating in their nefarious endeavors.

Belle Starr was jailed for horse theft

In 1880, Belle married a Cherokee man named Sam Starr, who was a member of the notorious Starr gang. As reported by Biography, the Starr gang was infamous for providing refuge for accused criminals on Cherokee land. According to legend, the gang harbored some of America's most wanted fugitives, including Frank and Jesse James.

In 1883, Belle and Sam were both arrested, charged, and convicted of horse theft in Michigan. They were each subsequently sentenced to nine months in jail. Following their release, they both returned to Cherokee land. Biography reports Belle and Sam had both gained a reputation as outlaws. Legends of America reports Belle and Sam soon returned to their life of crime, including bootlegging and theft. Although they were both arrested for horse theft again in 1886, the charges were eventually dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Belle Starr's reputation as an outlaw gained national attention when she was featured in the Police Gazette. In addition to being referred to as the "Bandit Queen," she was often referred to as "a female Robin Hood." As reported by Legends of America, she essentially became a celebrity and even appeared in a Wild West show, where she portrayed an outlaw who overtook and robbed a stagecoach.

Although she was formally charged on at least two occasions, Belle's specific involvement in Sam's crimes remains a point of controversy, as some sources suggest she actually stayed home while her husband committed the crimes.

Belle Starr's criminal activity may have been exaggerated

As reported by Los Angeles Times, Belle Starr was only convicted of one crime, and it is entirely possible that her participation in criminal activities "was inflated by myth makers." Although she clearly had a close relationship with her brother Bud, and may have assisted him in his efforts to rebel against the Union, Los Angeles Times reports Bella focused heavily on her education and her piano playing. She also enjoyed cooking and often "traded recipes with neighbors."

Jim Reed and Sam Starr were known criminals. However, there are few records, with the exception of the conviction on charges of horse theft, linking Belle Starr to any crime. Atlas Obscura reports Belle was a "model prisoner" while she was incarcerated. As reported by HistoryNet, legend suggests Belle Starr participated in numerous armed robberies and even burned down a store. However, there are no verifiable records proving she committed any of those crimes. HistoryNet also reports that Belle did not encourage fugitives to seek refuge in Cherokee land; she simply did not report it.

Rumors about Belle's involvement in criminal activity seemed to stop after Sam was killed. On the evening of December 17, 1886, Belle and Sam Starr were attending a Christmas party when Sam got into a shootout with an old enemy named Frank West. HistoryNet reports both men were ultimately killed in the shootout. Belle reportedly had a romantic relationship with another outlaw, Jack Spaniard, shortly following Sam's death. 

Belle Starr's life changed after the death of her husband Sam

However, Spaniard was convicted of murder and executed by hanging soon after they met. As reported by HistoryNet, Belle Starr returned to her home on the Cherokee reservation, but her claim to the land was dissolved with her husband's death. She managed to remain on the land, however, when she married her late husband's adopted son, Jim Starr.

Although she did not face any further criminal charges, Belle had a number of issues with her children and her husband. Belle's daughter, Pearl, was impregnated by a man she was not married to, and who her mother did not approve of. Amid the resulting argument, Pearl left home and moved in with her grandparents. HistoryNet reports Belle's husband and her son, Eddie, were arrested and charged with horse theft. Shortly thereafter, Eddie left home and did not return.

In 1889, a man named Edgar A. Watson and his wife approached Belle to rent a parcel of land she owned on the Cherokee reservation. Although she initially agreed, HistoryNet reports she learned some disturbing things about Watson as she got to know his wife — including the fact that he was wanted for murder in Florida. As reported by HistoryNet, Starr attempted to renege on the rental agreement. However, the Watsons had already paid the rent and refused to leave. Starr responded by threatening to turn Edgar in to the authorities. 

Belle Star was murdered at the age of 40

Although the Watsons eventually accepted a refund for their rent, and moved elsewhere, they simply were not willing to let the incident go. On the morning of February 2, 1889, Belle and her husband Jim traveled out of town for Jim's trial for horse theft. Although Belle did not plan to attend the trial, HistoryNet reports she wanted to do some shopping and she hoped to spend some time with her son, who had been staying with friends in the area. However, when she arrived at the friends' home, her son had already left. Instead, she found Edgar Watson, who was still angry about her threats to turn him in. HistoryNet says that Watson left the house shortly after Starr arrived. However, authorities believe he waited outside and ambushed Starr when she was on her way home.

Starr was a only few hundred yards away from  her friends' home when she was shot, and subsequently fell off her horse. The assailant then shot her again once she hit the ground. When Starr's horse arrived home without her, her family and neighbors began searching the route she would have taken. They eventually found her, but she was unresponsive and died shortly thereafter.

Authorities found tracks from the site where Starr was killed leading toward Watson's home. Although Watson was arrested and charged in the murder, he was acquitted due to a lack of evidence.