Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Feb. 5: “A Wild Western Amazon…”

Do you know who this is?
-She was nicknamed the “Outlaw Queen”
-She studied music and was an accomplished pianist
-She had three successive husbands: the first two died violent deaths, the third survived her violent death.

Books have been written and movies have been made about a true legend of the old West: the flamboyant ‘Outlaw Queen’, Belle Starr. Belle was born on February 5, 1848, in Carthage, Missouri. Her birth name was Myra Maybelle Shirley, and she was the only daughter of a prosperous innkeeper named John Shirley and his wife, Elizabeth "Eliza" Hatfield Shirley, who was related to the famous Hatfield family of Hatfield-McCoy feud fame. Young Belle would attend the Carthage Female Academy, where she excelled in reading, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, deportment, as well as languages such as Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. She also studied music, learning to play the piano. She also enjoyed outdoor activities, and became a better horsewoman than many of her contemporaries. 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, Missouri.

Belle was a teenager during the Civil War and would report the positions of Union troops to her contacts in the Confederacy, and would associate with members of the Confederate guerrilla movement. One of her childhood friends was Cole Younger – a member of Quantrill’s Raiders. After the war, Younger – with other Quantrill veterans such as Jessie and Frank James – would turn to robbing banks, trains, and stagecoaches, and would on occasion hide on the Shirley farm. In 1866, she would marry a former guerrilla and childhood friend, James C. “Jim” Reed. They had a daughter (Rosie Lee “Pearl”) and a son (James Edwin “Ed”).

Reed would be unsuccessful at farming, and would join the Starr clan, a Cherokee Indian family living in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) that was infamous for whiskey, cattle, and horse theft. He would also again work with Younger and the James brothers. Soon a price was put on Reed’s head, and the family began moving and hiding, winding up in Texas. The law caught up with him near Paris, Texas on Aug. 6, 1874, when Reed was shot to death while trying to escape from the custody of a deputy sheriff.

Belle, a young widow of 26, put her two children in the care of relatives, left Texas, and joined the Starr clan, immersing herself in the role of outlaw. She became involved in planning, organizing, fencing stolen goods, as well as hiding outlaws from the law. She said: “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.” She would either use bribery or seduction to free her companions when they were caught by the law. She would marry Samuel Starr in 1880. He would be shot to death in 1886.

Belle would be arrested a number of times on charges of robbery, but would usually be released for lack of evidence. She was only convicted once, spending 9 months in the House of Correction, Detroit, Michigan.

With the death of Sam Starr, Belle left the outlaw trade and settled down. In order to keep her residence in Indian Territory, she married a Cherokee named Jim July Starr.

Belle would meet her end on February 3, 1889 – just two days before her 41st birthday. While riding back from the general store to her ranch near Eufaula, Oklahoma, Belle was killed by a shotgun blast to the back. The murderer was never identified. That same year, Belle’s name was popularized in the dime novels of the day, as well as the National Police Gazette, and fictionalized accounts of her life became accepted as factual.

Belle was buried in the front yard of the cabin at Younger's Bend. Months later Pearl hired a stonecutter to mount a monument over her mother's grave. On top of the stone was carved and image of her favorite mare, "Venus." On the stone was this inscription:

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
Over the years legend and real life have merged to create a unique, bigger than life figure from the heyday of the American West: Belle Starr.


Corinne J. Naden: Belle Starr and the Wild West (Juvenile)
The History Channel: The Real West: Wild Women, Calamity Jane, Belle Starr, Annie Oakley (Video Recording)
Deborah Camp: Belle Starr: a Novel of the Old West

1886 Newspaper Article:
Frontier Times:
History Net
Legends of America
Outlaw Women
The Wild West

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