Belle Starr, also known as the "Bandit Queen" and the subject of much speculation in innumerable stories and popular publications, was born Myra Maybelle (or Belle) Shirley on February 5, 1848, on a farm near Carthage, Missouri, one of six children and the only daughter of John and Elizabeth (or Eliza) (Hatfield) Shirley. Within a few years, the Shirleys moved into Carthage, where they were living when the Civil War started.
Young May, as the family called her, probably attended Carthage Female Academy and a private school, Cravens, in Carthage. Her father became a prosperous innkeeper and slaveholder.
Sympathizers with the southern cause and supporters of Confederate irregulars such as the raider William Clarke Quantrill, the Shirleys were apparently pleased when their oldest son, John (or Bud), joined a squad of bushwhackers in bloody reprisals along the Missouri-Kansas border.
Whether his death in this activity influenced Belle Shirley's direction in life, as some have speculated, is not certain. By 1864, after Carthage was burned, the family had migrated to Scyene, Texas, near Dallas. There in July 1866 Cole, Jim, Bob, and John Younger and Jesse James, Missouri outlaws who had ridden with Quantrill, used the Shirley home as a hideout. Belle Shirley's relationship with Cole Younger is the subject of many stories, some of which claim that her daughter Rosie Lee, often called Pearl Younger, was his child. He denied it; the likely father was a desperado named Jim Reed, whom Shirley had known in Missouri. She and Reed married on November 1, 1866. Rosie Lee was born in 1868.
For a while the Reeds lived in Indian Territory at the home of outlaw Tom Starr, a Cherokee. After Reed was charged with murder, they went to Los Angeles, probably where their son James Edwin (Ed) was born on February 22, 1871. They returned to Texas when Reed's murder charges caught up with him later that year. After their return, Reed became involved with the Younger, James, and Starr gangs, which killed and looted throughout Texas, Arkansas, and Indian Territory.
Accounts differ as to Belle Reed's participation in these activities. At least one claims that she disapproved of Reed's actions; more suggest that she operated a livery barn in Dallas where she sold the horses Reed stole. At one point, however, she more than likely moved her children to live with her relatives. There are apparently no records that Belle Reed was ever involved in murder, the robbery of trains, banks, or stagecoaches, or in cattle rustling. Reed robbed the Austin-San Antonio stage in April 1874, and though there is no evidence that Belle Reed participated, she was named as an accessory in the indictment. Jim Reed was killed by a deputy sheriff at Paris, Texas, in August 1874; the story that Belle refused to identify his body in order to prevent the sheriff from claiming the reward is apocryphal.
In 1878 Belle Reed appears to have married Bruce Younger, perhaps in Coffeyville, Kansas. If that relationship existed, it soured, and she married Sam Starr in the Cherokee Nation on June 5, 1880.
Belle and Sam Starr were later charged with horse stealing, a federal offense, and Belle received two six-month terms at the House of Correction in Detroit, Michigan. After this experience Belle Starr came to be known as the Bandit Queen. In 1886 she was again charged with horse theft.
This time, because of her legal skills, she was acquitted, but in the meantime her husband and an Indian policeman had shot each other to death. Belle Starr subsequently took several lovers, including Jim July (or Jim Starr), Blue Duck, Jack Spaniard, and Jim French. She survived all but two of the men she lived with. On February 3, 1889, while Starr was living in the Choctaw Nation, near the Canadian River, an unknown assassin killed her from ambush with a shotgun. Although many killers have been suggested, two men remain the primary suspects in the murder. One, Edgar Watson, could have killed her for threatening to turn him in to authorities for murder. The second was Belle Starr's son, Ed, whom she had recently beaten for mistreating her horse. No one was ever convicted. Belle Starr was largely unknown outside the Cherokee Nation, Dallas, and parts of Arkansas when she died. Soon, however, newspaper reports of her death were picked up by Richard K. Fox, the publisher of the National Police Gazette. When he published Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James (1889), a twenty-five-cent novel based loosely on her life, the legends began. Belle Starr was buried at Younger's Bend, a remote place on the Canadian River where she often lived. Her daughter later erected a headstone engraved with a bell, a star, and a horse, purchased with earnings she made in a brothel.
"Books, articles, poems, songs, and movies have described her as a 'bandit queen' or as a 'female Jesse James.' She was neither. In Belle Starr and Her Times, a book that is likely to become the standard reference on this subject, noted western writer Glenn Shirley examines the extensive popular literature surrounding Belle Starr and compares it to the historical record. Shirley does a good job of sorting out the numerous disagreements between the two. Belle Starr emerges from Shirley's detailed analysis as a tough, independent woman who lived in an unsettled and difficult time. She associated with western outlaws, and was herself convicted once of horse theft." -- Choice
The first paragraph of Belle Starr's story raises adult hackles as we are told that neighbors laughed "good humoredly" as this girl of ten galloped down the main street, "at intervals popping off bullets from the huge pistol she carried." Even a hundred and fifty years ago in the lawless West, sensible people did not "laugh good-humoredly" at behavior that endangered their lives. Moreover, life lived on the outskirts of the law begs an important question—how to make a law-breaker the protagonist in a young adult book without inviting young readers, in the midst of adolescent struggles with limits, to identify with her or find outlaws daring or admirable. The story needs a larger canvas to view its characters in context. Belle Starr deserves to be taken seriously, as a young woman from a violent and possibly abusive home. That her life ended miserably seems mainly the fault of her repeated floutings of the law as well as poor judgment in aiming for shortsighted goals. Belle ruined her daughter's life as well; Pearl became a prostitute. Despite an interesting bibliography and a narrative that grows stronger as it reaches its sad conclusion, the book fails to guide teens to view Belle as more than simply "headstrong" or "misunderstood," as hyped on the cover copy. 2001, Morgan Reynolds, $20.95. Ages 9 to 12. Reviewer: Nancy Tilly
Gr 5-9-Fascinating black-and-white illustrations and reproductions and informative sidebars are the highlights of this biography of the legendary female outlaw. The book covers Starr's life from her birth in 1848 on a farm near Carthage, MO, to her violent death in 1889. In between, discussions of her family, education, her initiation into a lawless life after the death of one of her brothers, her marriages and children, her relationships with other outlaws, and her criminal pursuits are intertwined with the story of America's westward expansion. In Starr's story, as with other notorious figures in our history, it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction.
However, in doing so, the authors introduce readers to the questions, sources, and techniques used by historians in their search for truth.-Patricia Ann Owens, Wabash Valley College, Mt. Carmel, IL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information