I’m always asked how I got interested in writing about crime. My stock answer is that I come by it “honestly”— I have a degree in criminal justice and I was a police reporter. But when I dig a little deeper into my criminal curiosity, I remember as a little kid seeing an old movie about Belle Starr with Randolph Scott as Sam Starr and Gene Tierney in the title role. I’ve always loved stories of bandits and gunslingers that galloped across the mountains and red dust of the Old West, gambling and drinking in saloons and shooting up Deadwood and Tombstone. I was fascinated with stories of Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid. So when I saw the story about the “Bandit Queen,” I was hooked on women criminals.
Dime novels and exaggerated newspaper accounts of the time romanticized Myra Maybelle Shirley’s violent life, so it’s not easy to discern fact from fiction 135 years later. Belle, as she liked to be called, played into the stories by wearing a long velvet riding habit in her favored black, topped off by one of the new Stetson hats, festooned with an ostrich plume. With a pair of six-shooters strapped to her waist, she rode side-saddle on her favorite mare, Venus.
Belle was born in Missouri, near on Carthage February 5, 1848. Her parents, John and Eliza, tried to raise her to be a lady, but it didn’t work out that way. Although educated at Carthage Female Academy and Craven, another private school, where she learned the piano and other cultured studies, she got into fights with girls and boys alike. She was an intelligent girl but she had a temper that could go unchecked and a mouth that would turn a mule skinner’s face scarlet.
The Shirleys were originally from Virginia. After they married, they moved to Missouri where John bred horses and became well-known for his fine stock. He also owned a tavern, and he and his wife, both Confederate sympathizers, often entertained the notorious Rebel guerilla, William Clarke Quantrill whose gang included such bandits as the James boys and the Younger brothers.
During one of Quantrill’s Raiders’ visits, a 15-year-old Belle met and fell in love with Cole Younger. There is a story that Belle and Younger married in a mock horseback ceremony with his gang as witnesses. Whether this was true or not, for certain Younger left Belle and rode off with his comrades to rob trains and banks and shoot up pioneer towns.
Legend has it that Belle was heartbroken at Younger’s departure, but the die was cast. She began a pattern of consorting with bad actors. After Younger, she moved on to a man named Jim Reed, another one of Quantrill’s band, and an outlaw in his own right. She married him, probably to get out from under her parents’ rule. The two settled near Dallas, Texas. At the age of twenty, she gave birth to a daughter and named her Rose Lee but called her Pearl. It was always speculated, but never confirmed, that Cole Younger was Pearl’s father. Although he was a frequent visitor to the Reed household, Younger denied paternity, and Belle never confirmed or denied the question. Three years later, a son, James Edwin, was born to Belle and Jim Reed.
Even though Belle had two children, she played poker and hired out as a singer and piano player in Dallas dance halls, and she learned to outdrink any cowboy. She was known to be an excellent horsewoman and ran a stable where she dealt in horses stolen by her husband.
Stories differ on exactly what happened to Jim Reed, but he and Belle robbed a man named Grayson of $30,000. Reed was recognized and was forced to flee. In another story he killed two men and made a run for it to California. Belle and the children followed.
The pair traipsed back and forth between California and Texas until Reed was shot down August 6, 1874, by either one of his own men or a deputy in Paris, Texas.
Belle’s next wedding ceremony to Bruce Younger, Cole’s cousin, was performed under the threat of her expert markmanship. Whether Belle was in love with Bruce or still pining for Cole, is anyone’s guess. The union lasted mere hours because Bruce took off and was never heard from again.
Not one to mourn for too long, Belle fell for a Cherokee Indian named Sam Starr, an infamous killer and horse thief. Some say he strung his victims’ dried earlobes on a cord to wear around his neck.
Belle and her new husband settled on a piece of land in Oklahoma Indian Territory on the Canadian River. She called their homestead Younger’s Bend. Her three-room cabin may have held a piano and walls covered with books, but it became a haven for horse thieves, robbers and killers, most of whom had ridden with Belle at one time.
There are no records to show that Belle was ever involved with any murders. Her main income came from stealing and selling horses. In 1882, she and Sam were arrested for horse theft and taken before the famous Hanging Judge Isaac Park. They got off light with a year each in a Detroit prison.
Belle was a model prisoner and taught music (believable) and French (if this can be believed) to the warden’s children. She supposedly wrote a book while behind bars, but if she did, it never saw the light of day. After six months, she was set free.
Her stint behind bars did little to change her attitude. “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw,” she told the Dallas News upon her return home.
As soon as Sam got out of prison, the two returned to Younger’s Bend and their criminal ways. Unfortunately for Sam, his banditry came to an end in 1886 during a shoot out with his lawman cousin Frank West. Both men fell dead.
Belle’s name was romantically connected to other outlaws, including Blue Duck, Jack Spaniard and Jim French, but a man named Jim July became her fourth and final husband. She married him because he was a Creek Indian and the marriage allowed her to keep her home on Indian land. Because she had become well-known under the name Starr, she forced the much younger July to change his last name to Starr. Belle treated him terribly.
On February 3, 1889, just two days shy of her forty-fifth birthday, an unknown person shot her in the back as she rode along a muddy road on her way home. The shotgun blast knocked her from her horse. The assailant then stood over her and fired another round of buckshot into her face and shoulder. Since Belle had many enemies, several names were bandied about as her possible killer. No one was ever arrested.
Pearl reached her moments before she died. Belle whispered something to her daughter, but the younger woman never repeated it.
The “Bandit Queen” was buried in her front yard in her favorite black velvet riding habit and jewelry. Fittingly, she was clasping a pearl-handled six-gun, a gift from Cole Younger. A star and a likeness of her horse, Venus was chiseled into her tombstone. A poem written by Pearl served as her epitaph:
Shed not for the bitter tear,
nor give the heart to vain regret,
Tis but a casket that lies here,
the gem that fills it sparkles yet.