Wild West history: Belle Starr and the James Gang
Was Belle Starr a myth like so many American Wild West legends from 19th-century dime store novels? Or was the pistol-toting lady gang member a victim, someone outlaws like the James Gang took advantage of? The truth is probably somewhere in between. Though she started life as a wealthy man’s daughter, it’s a fact that she consorted with many criminals in both Texas and Missouri after the Civil War. She was arrested more than once and went to jail with her second husband. But the rest of her “legend” might be overblown, according to modern historians. Aside from that lone horse theft incident, she was never convicted after an arrest. Her level of involvement in crimes committed by her kin or three husbands is still hotly debated. With that said, here’s what we know about Belle Star and the James Gang:
The early life of the Bandit Queen
The Wild West outlaw started life with the name Myra Maybelle Shirley. She was born in Missouri February 5, 1848, and started living in Carthage, Missouri when she was two. Her parents were affluent and owned an inn and a tavern. Belle’s formal education included classical languages. So it wasn’t a foregone conclusion she’d end up hanging out with bandits in the border states. One of her relatives who may have led her astray was an older brother, Bud. He was one of the “bushwhackers,” small bands of renegades who hid in the Missouri backcountry to resist the Union army’s occupation. As the name implies, they would jump out of hiding to torment and steal from the locals, many of them Union-sympathizing farmers. Sometimes the bushwhackers killed their victims and any time they interacted with the Union infantry the motto was “take no prisoners.” Other warrior bandits who began the terrorist life as bushwhackers included Frank and Jesse James.
Bud was killed in 1864, and it was a turning point for his sister and the rest of the family. The Union also burned their town, Carthage, as part of an effort to remove everyone from the border areas, no matter which side they took in the Civil War. This drove the Shirley family to Texas, where their daughter would become a legendary outlaw.
Belle Star, meet the James Gang
The Shirley farm in Texas was an ideal outlaw hideout. In 1866, the James brothers and Cole Younger gangs fled Missouri after robbing their first bank. Jim Reed, a childhood friend of the Shirley family, came with them to hole up at the Shirley’s Texas spread. He and Belle fell in love and married in November 1866. From there, things happened pretty quickly for Myra Maybelle. She became part of the gang, mostly as a tagalong. Her husband, though, was a wanted criminal. She did leave him behind and move back with her parents before he was killed in a gunfight in 1874. But her very next partner was also a warrior bandit. It took her just six years to get hitched to Sam Starr and start running with the Starr gang. This was the only time an arrest led to a conviction for Belle (for that’s what she was called by then.) Both she and her hubs did time in prison for horse theft. The pair also offered shelter to the James Gang members in times of need.
Sam Starr was shot to death in 1886. Belle never married again, but she wasn’t through with bad, bad men. She became common-law wife to Billy July, who also had outlaw leanings. Still, she settled down a bit in her years with July and also refused to harbor criminals any longer. But when dime-store novels were written about her after her death, this calm period was not the focus. Instead, they created a persona of Belle Starr as a pistol-toting “Bandit Queen” instead of a mostly-reformed outlaw.
Belle Starr becomes a movie
The romantic legend of Belle Starr got a further boost in 1941. That year, 20th Century Fox brought a dramatic Western very loosely based on her life to the big screen. According to Rotten Tomatoes, “20th Century-Fox mixed together elements of its own Jesse James and Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, and the resultant brew was Belle Starr. Looking precisely nothing like the real Belle, Gene Tierney plays the title role, whom the screenplay suggests was the daughter of a Southern aristocrat.” From there, the plot has Belle seeking revenge for the fall of her Southern society. The movie version of Belle marries a Confederate guerilla and becomes an outlaw herself, though the poor literary character quickly comes to realize that marriage on the lam is not all it’s cracked up to be. A fatal flaw of the movie, according to Rotten Tomatoes: “For reasons best known to the studio, Belle Starr is overloaded with offensive African American stereotypes, including the faithful old ex-slave (George Reed) who narrates the story.”
The unsolved mystery of Starr’s death
The end of Starr’s life, though, would have played better as a mystery. Starr was shot and killed in 1889 at age 40. To this day no one is sure who fired the shot. Not that there aren’t plenty of possibilities. One enemy was her own daughter with Jim Reed, Rose Pearl Reed. Pearl became a well-known bordello owner on Fort Smith’s waterfront after Belle’s murder. A more likely suspect is probably Edgar Watson, who rented land from Belle. The reformed Starr evicted Watson when she learned he was a fugitive murderer. He was arrested for her murder but the charges didn’t stick because there weren’t any witnesses. Just like the precise level of her involvement in the crimes perpetrated by each of her outlaw husbands, Starr’s death remains an unsolved mystery.