The woman known in history as “Queen of the Bandits” was born Myra Belle Shirley in Carthage, Missouri on Feb 3, 1846. The only daughter of a Southern family, this brown-eyed, dark-haired girl was raised to be a lady. Instead she became a rebel who drank and swore and toted two guns.
Belle’s older brother Edwin was a Southern sympathizer. He joined up with a band of renegade headed by William C. Quantrill who raided towns in Missouri and Kansas who supported the northern cause. It was through this connection that, while in her teens, she became acquainted with Jesse and Frank James, and the Younger brothers, who were a part of Quantrill’s group.
After the war Myra went to Texas and bought a ranch where outlaw friends hid out. Some say the ranch was paid for by some of her unsavory companions so they would have a place to evade the law. It was about this time she started calling herself Belle instead of Myra.
Belle’s downfall was troubled men. She had a knack for choosing men she couldn’t rehabilitate and couldn’t bear to live without them. Cole Younger hid out at the ranch and it is believed the two had a love affair. Though Cole denied ever being romantically involved with Belle, when she was about twenty she gave birth to a baby girl which she named Pearl and which Cole is believed to be the father. Shortly after, another outlaw, Jim Reed, hid out at the ranch and he and Belle were married in 1866. Reed was an ex confederate soldier and a friend of the James brothers. Fearing his arrest for a bank robbery gone wrong, Belle and Jim left the ranch and she moved back to Texas. Another child, Ed, which belonged to Jim was born. Belle and Jim were married eight years, until Jim was killed by the law in 1874.
In 1878 Belle found herself facing arrest for horse theft. Shortly after, she sold the ranch and left Texas. She spent some time riding the ranges of Oklahoma and Texas with her bandit friends. By some accounts she participated in the crimes, others she simply rode along. On at least one occasion Belle was spotted, dressed as a man, aiding in a robbery.
In 1880 Belle married a second husband, a three-quarter Cherokee man by the name of Sam Starr. Starr was a member of the Cherokee Nation, and the couple settled on 1,000 acres of tribal land in Oklahoma. From this point on she would be known as Belle Starr.
Judge Isaac Parker, known as “The Hanging Judge”, had been after Belle and her gang for a long time, but was unable to incarcerate them for lack of evidence. Finally, their outlaw ways caught up with them and Parker sentenced both Belle and her husband to prison for horse stealing. While in prison, Belle was a model prisoner and for a time after her release appeared to make an effort go straight. But soon she and Sam returned to their criminal pursuits. Belle was also warned to quit harboring fugitives from the law. She proved to have an unrepentant attitude. She was quoted in a Dallas newspaper as saying “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.”
A lawman by the name of John West tracked down Sam Starr and during a shootout in a saloon they both drew at the same time and wound up killing each other.
Belle’s Later Years and Death
After Sam Starr’s death, in order to hold on to her claim, which was on tribal land, Belle married a 24 years old Cherokee named Jim July. July would be Belle’s last husband.
Belle’s life was soon fraught with domestic problems. Her son Ed, now nearly seventeen, sorely resented her marriage to Jim. Belle was also having difficulties with her daughter, Pearl, who became pregnant. Ironically, Belle kicked her out for a time. They reconciled after the birth of the baby.
Much to Judge Parker’s consternation, Belle continued to harbor and aid outlaws, despite severe warnings that she must quit this practice or risk losing her land. Belle provided legal counsel for Bluford “Blue Duck”, a Cherokee Indian believed to have been one of her lovers, when he was arrested on a murder charge. Because of Belle’s intervention, Blue Duck’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Belle’s son, Ed, also began to take on the outlaw life. In 1888 he was arrested for horse theft, but Parker’s seven-year prison sentence against Ed was overturned by President Cleveland and he gained a full pardon.
During the last few years of her life, Belle appeared to enjoy her notoriety and became somewhat of a local celebrity. However, she was never accepted by the other women in the community. Her outrageous behavior made the average pioneer woman turn her back on Belle, and the feeling was mutual. Belle had no use for genteel society and “regretted the world of women.” By this time, Belle’s hard life had taken its toll, and her lined face made her look much older than her forty years.
On Feb, 3 1889 at age 41, Belle was riding her horse near her home when she was shot and killed by an unknown gunman. A disgruntled neighbor, Edgar Watson, who had earlier accused her of horse theft, was first accused of the crime, but was acquitted when it was found he had an alibi. Some think Belle may have been killed by her own son, Ed, who was angry because she had recently whipped him. Her husband, Jim July was also a suspect.
Shortly after Belle’s murder, Jim July was arrested for horse theft and died in prison. Her son Ed continued a life of crime and was killed by an outlaw bullet, and Pearl became a prostitute.
Much of the gossip about Belle Starr is untrue. Though she is known as the most notorious female outlaw, she barely fits the title of “Queen of the Bandits”. Though she brandished two guns and was showy, Belle never did kill anyone. She was arrested and tried for minor crimes, mostly horse and cattle theft. However she never did reform, was a repeat offender, and for the duration of her life remained unrepentant of her crimes.