Belle Starr gained notoriety as an outlaw on the western edge of the United States in the mid-1800s. While she did consort with infamous characters, historians suggest her renegade reputation surpasses her actual criminal activity.
Born in 1848, Belle Starr was known as an infamous outlaw in the Wild West—the western edge of the expanding United States in the second half of the 1800s. She associated with famous outlaws, like Frank and Jesse James, and was arrested several times. In recent years, however, historians have gathered data that suggests that she committed far fewer criminal acts than her legend would suggest, with the men in her life being the main purveyors of illicit acts. Belle Starr was killed in 1889, with her murderer having never been brought to justice.
Early Life and Family History
Myra Maybelle "Belle" Shirley, who later became known as Belle Starr upon her marriage to Sam Starr, was born on Feb. 5, 1848, in Carthage, Missouri. She was the daughter of John Shirley and his third wife, Elizabeth Hatfield Shirley. A pianist, Belle grew up in a household with her parents and their other children, including much older half-siblings from her father’s first marriages. Her elder brother John Addison—called Bud—influenced her greatly, as did the fact that she grew up in the years leading up to the Civil War in the contested Missouri territory. Though Belle received her education from a girl's academy, Bud taught her to use guns and ride horses, and it is believed that she joined him—unofficially—as he tried to subvert the Union’s efforts in Missouri. (The Shirley family supported the Confederacy.)
Bud died in 1864, and the Shirley family moved to the Scyene area of Texas. There, Belle met Jim Reed, marrying him in 1866. In 1868, she gave birth to her first child, whom she called Pearl. A second child, Eddie, was born in 1871.
The Legend of Belle Starr
Throughout her adult life, Belle regularly consorted with criminals. Reed and his family fled from the law numerous times before he was killed in 1874. Legend has it that Belle joined in on her husband’s nefarious activities, but there is little evidence to suggest that she did. Rather, some historians suggest that she wanted to live a life of quiet domesticity. Before Reed's death, Belle had returned to her parent's farm, leaving the marriage.
In 1880, Belle wed Sam Starr, who was Cherokee and part of the Starr gang. Together, they lived on Cherokee land, harboring criminals like Frank and Jesse James at their home. In 1883, Belle and Sam were convicted of stealing horses. Each spent nine months in jail in Detroit, then returned to Indian Territory. By this time, Belle was known as a felon, with her notoriety growing over suspicion for later crimes. She reputedly carried one or two pistols and wore gold earrings and a man’s hat with feathers, though some have argued that she lived more of a home-based life while Sam engaged in illicit activity.
Belle was arrested twice more, but was never convicted again. Sam Starr was killed in 1886, and Belle went on to live with Bill July on Cherokee land. She allegedly reformed, refusing to shelter criminals in her home. When July (whom she called July Starr) was arrested for horse theft, she did not defend him.
Death and Ensuing Mystery
Belle Starr was shot to death on February 3, 1889, near Fort Smith, Arkansas just before her 41st birthday. She had cultivated some enemies over the years—including her son Eddie and daughter Pearl, with a farmland tenant being viewed as the murder's primary suspect.
Edgar Watson, who rented land from Belle, was a fugitive wanted for murder whom she kicked off her land once she discovered his history. Authorities believed that Watson might have ambushed Belle and he was thus arrested on suspicion that he'd committed the act. Yet he was eventually released as there were no witnesses to the crime.
In addition to a number of works inspired by Belle's life, including the 1941 film Belle Star, starring Gene Tierney, a noted biography on the Western icon was written by Glenn Shirley—Belle Star and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends.