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Monday, February 13, 2017

Belle Starr, Bandit Queen

Belle Starr
     Myra Belle Shirley was born in a log cabin near Carthage, Missouri on February 5, 1848 to "Judge” John Shirley and his third wife, Elizabeth Pennington. Her father was the black sheep of a well-to-do Virginia family who had moved west to Indiana, where he married and divorced twice. His third wife, Eliza, one of the Hatfields of the Hatfield and McCoy family feud
     After they married, the Shirleys moved to Missouri in 1839, where John was successful raising wheat, corn, hogs and horses in Jasper County. In 1856, the Shirley's sold their land and moved to Carthage, Missouri where they built an inn, a tavern, livery stable and blacksmith shop and John Shirley was a respected member of the community. 
     Myra Belle was a spoiled rich girl and attended the Carthage Female Academy where she was taught music and classical languages. A good student with polite manners and a talented piano player, she liked to flaunting her status in front an audience. Somewhat oddly, she also loved the outdoors and spent a lot of time roaming the countryside with her older brother who taught her how to ride and shoot. 
     Her life changed when the Kansas-Missouri Border War broke out. Jasper County was right in the center of it and as residents took sides, neighbors often became enimies. Her brother, with the approval of his fis father, joined Quantrill’s Raiders as a scout and quickly rose to the rank of captain. In June of 1864 Bud was killed in Sarcoxie, Missouri. The raids had taken their toll on Shirley’s businesses and after the death of his son, Shirley sold his Missouri property and moved to a farm near Scyene, Texas. 
     In 1866 the James-Younger Gang robbed their first bank of $6,000 in cash and bonds in Liberty, Missouri and Jesse and Frank James, along with the Youngers, fled to Texas. It was then that Myra Belle became enamored with Cole Younger and became a member of the gang. 
     Seeking refuge one night, a group of the gang members stayed at the Shirley house one night and Myra Belle became reacquainted with the first man she ever loved, a man named Jim Reed whom she had originally met back in Missouri where the Reed and Shirley families had been friends. 
     Myra Belle and Jim married on November 1, 1866. At the time Jim Reed was not a wanted man and the couple moved to a farm near Scyene. Reed became a salesman for a Dallas saddle and bridle maker and in late 1867 the Reeds were living on the Reed homestead in Missouri.  Cole Younger was hanging around the homestead and the story goes that he seduced Belle and she bore his illegitimate daughter, but that story is strong disputed and is probably untrue. 
     Eventually Jim and Myra Belle moved to Missouri and by then Reed was a wanted man, allegedly for murdering a man, so the two fled to California. In 1869 Myra Belle, Reed and two other outlaws rode to the North Canadian river country, where they tortured an old Creek Indian until he told them where he had hidden $30,000 in gold. With their share of the loot, Jim and Belle returned to Texas, where, still enjoying an audience, she played the role of the Bandit Queen. 
     Then in August of 1874, Reed was killed in a gunfight by a member of his own gang and Myra Belle left her children with her mother to ride the Outlaw Trail. In Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma,) she got involved with an Indian outlaw who went by the name of Blue Duck. Her affair with Blue Duck was short and ended when she met a Cherokee Indian named Sam Starr and they settled on Starr's ranch which she named Younger's Bend in honor of Cole Younger. 
     The newly married couple formed their own gang around themselves and rustled cattle, stole horses and bootlegged whiskey to the Indians. Thieving turned out to be very lucrative and she often used her money to bribe the freedom of any captured gang members and if money didn't work, she prostituted herself to the lawmen which usually worked. 
     The local authority was Hanging Judge Isaac Parker who became determined to put Myra Belle Starr behind bars. She was arrested several times, but always released due to lack of evidence. In the fall of 1882, however, Parker got lucky when Belle was caught red handed as she attempted to steal a neighbor’s horse. After a trial, he sentenced Belle to two consecutive six month prison terms and Sam to one year in the Federal Prison in Detroit. After serving their time, Belle and Sam returned home to a life of rustling and bootlegging. 
     In 1886 Belle and Sam were arrested by US Marshals on charges of robbery and horse-stealing. Hanging Judge Parker was the judge at their arraignment, but he had to dismiss the charges for lack of evidence. 
     By this time a publication named Richard Fox's Police Gazette had turned her into a western folk hero, "a female Robin Hood and a Jesse James" and the "Bandit Queen."
     During a friend's Christmas party in December 17, 1886, Sam Starr got into a gunfight with an old friend and both men died of their wounds. 
     In 1889 Myra Belle entered into her third marriage with a young bandit named Jim July. It was a stormy marriage and after one argument July offered an accomplice $200 to kill his wife. When the offer was rejected, July screamed," Hell, I’ll kill the old hag myself and spend the money for whiskey!” A few days later On February 3, 1889, Myra Belle Starr, at the age of 41, was killed in an ambush on a lonely country road. 
     An investigation was made into her death and several suspects were questioned: a neighbor she had fought, her husband July, her son Ed, and her daughter Pearl. 
     It came out that Myra Belle had caught her husband fooling around with a young Cherokee girl. It was also discovered that though Myra Belle was estranged from her son Ed there were rumors that she was having an incestuous relationship with him and that she routinely beat him with a bullwhip. Daughter Pearl also had a motive; her mother had interfered with Pearl's marriage to the father of her child. Just a few weeks after Belle's death, a deputy who was on July's trail killed him. 
     Belle Starr, as she was best known, was buried in the front yard of the cabin at Younger's Bend and her daughter hired a stonecutter to carve a monument for the grave. The grave is on private property and for a small fee one can pay it a visit. 

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