Throughout the last quarter of the 19th century, Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr — best known simply as Belle Starr — stormed America’s Old West both as part of the notorious James-Younger Gang and as the pistol-packing, shotgun-pumping partner of her two outlaw husbands, Jim Reed and Sam Starr.
In time, Belle also went on to lead her own gangs and amass a fortune in ill-gotten money, land, and power.
Astride her powerful mare Venus, and bedecked in velvet skirts, gold earrings, and fanciful, feather-plumed hats, Belle played up her role as the “Bandit Queen,” much to the consternation of law enforcement and perhaps even more so to the delight of the public, who followed her adventures in “scandal sheet” newspapers and pulpy magazines.In fact, Belle Starr was very much a living legend right up to February 3, 1889. On that date, just two days shy of her 41st birthday, an unknown assailant ambushed the Bandit Queen with a shotgun and blasted her fatally in the back, neck, shoulders, and face.
Starr’s death, of course, only contributed to her legendary stature. So, too, has the fact that her killer never got captured or even, after all this time, positively identified.
The child who would become Belle Star was born in 1848 to a well-heeled family in Carthage, Missouri. She grew up a daughter of privilege, attending the Carthage Female Academy, where she developed her etiquette skills and a talent for playing piano.
Following the devastation of the Kansas-Missouri Border War, Belle’s family relocated in 1864 to Scyene, Texas.
Two years later, members of the James-Younger Gang holed up in town after a major bank robbery. Belle fell in with the boys, was accepted as a full-fledged gang member and, in 1868, she married gunman Jim Reed.
The lawfully wedded, decidedly unlawful couple rustled livestock, robbed businesses, bootlegged alcohol, and once tortured an Indian chief into revealing where he had hidden $30,000 in gold.
Reed died in an August 1874 gunfight, after which Belle fell in love with and married Sam Starr, a full-blooded Cherokee and fully committed lifetime criminal.
Belle and Sam Starr are said to have profited hugely through their illegal activities. The only real threat to their operations didn’t occur until 1886, when an arrest for horse theft brought them before Judge Isaac C. Parker, an officer of the court so merciless it was for him that the term “hanging judge” was coined. Still, the Starrs beat the rap — and the hangman’s noose — for lack of evidence.Related: 9 Things We Learned About Execution By Hanging From Amanda Howard’s Rope: The History Of The Hanged
Throughout her storied run, Belle did do some time in and out of prison. She also performed for a bit as an outlaw in a traveling Wild West show.
In 1886, Sam Starr died in a mutually lethal gunfight with Frank West, one of his old rivals. Belle married once more, in 1889, to Jim July, a younger man she reportedly referred to as “July Starr.”
The woman who had lived so colorfully by the gun, then died, alone, by the gun on February 3.
Specifics regarding the murder of Belle Starr are just about as plentiful and contradictory as there are people accused of doing it. By some accounts, she was riding home from a friend’s house and may have simply been robbed. Other versions say Belle had been at a dance, where she spurned a drunken admirer who then followed her outside.High among the plentiful list of suspects are Jim July, who reportedly offered someone $200 to kill his wife just days earlier; Edgar J. Watson, a fugitive employee of Belle’s who was concerned she’d turn him in for reward money; and her son Eddie Reed, whom she is said to have recently beaten with a bullwhip for mishandling her horse.
By the time of her final ride, Belle Starr had achieved celebrity status by way of sensationalized reports on her activities.
Shortly after her death, Richard K. Fox, publisher of the tawdry, supremely popular proto-men’s-magazine The National Police Gazette, forever canonized the Old West’s most celebrated anti-heroine by authoring Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen or the Female Jesse James. Fox’s “pocket novel” version of Belle’s biography sold millions upon millions of copies all over the planet.
Since then, Belle Starr has been the subject of countless other books, poems, songs, plays, films, paintings, sculptures, statues, and TV shows — and so, too, has been the mystery figure who, in bringing her down, elevated the Bandit Queen to immortality.
Main image: Belle Starr [WikiMedia Commons]