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Statue of Belle Starr, Woolaroc, Oklahoma
|Born||Myra Maybelle Shirley
February 5, 1848
|Died||February 3, 1889
Near King Creek, Indian Territory
Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr (February 5, 1848 – February 3, 1889), better known as Belle Starr, was a notorious American outlaw.
She was born Myra Maybelle Shirley (known as May to her family) on her father's farm near Carthage, Missouri. Her father was John Shirley. Her mother was Eliza Hatfield. In the 1860s her father sold the farm and moved the family to Carthage where he bought an inn and livery stable on the town square.
After a Union attack on Carthage in 1864, the Shirleys moved to Scyene, Texas. According to legend, it was at Scyene that the Shirleys became associated with a number of Missouri-born criminals, including Jesse James and the Youngers. In fact, she knew the Younger brothers and the James boys because she had grown up with them in Missouri. Her brother John A. Shirley was called Captain Shirley by local Confederate sympathizers. He does not appear on any list of Quantrill's Raiders, but rode with a group who were called partisans by some and bushwackers by Union sympathizers. Bud Shirley was killed in 1864 in Sarcoxie, Missouri, while he and another scout were being fed at the home of a Confederate sympathizer. Union troops surrounded the house and when Bud attempted to escape, he was shot and killed.
Following the war, the Reed family also moved to Scyene and May Shirley married Jim Reed in 1866, after having had an earlier crush on him as a teen. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, Rosie Lee (nicknamed Pearl). Belle always harbored a strong sense of style, which would feed into her later legend. A crack shot, she used to ride sidesaddle while dressed in a black velvet riding habit and a plumed hat, carrying two pistols, with cartridge belts across her hips. Jim turned to crime and was wanted for murder in Arkansas, which caused the family to move to California, where their second child, James Edwin (Eddie), was born in 1871.
Later returning to Texas, Jim Reed was involved with several criminal gangs. While Jim initially tried his hand at farming, he would grow restless and fell in with bad company: the Starr clan, a Cherokee Indian family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), as well as his wife's old friends the James and Younger gangs. In April 1874, despite a lack of any evidence, a warrant was issued for her arrest for a stagecoach robbery by her husband and others. Jim Reed was killed in Paris, Texas, in August of that year, while she settled down with his family .
Allegedly, Belle was briefly married for three weeks to Cole Younger in 1878, but this is not substantiated by any evidence. In 1880 she did marry a Cherokee Indian named Sam Starr and settled with the Starr family in the Indian Territory. There, she learned ways for organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers, as well as harboring them from the law. Belle's illegal enterprises proved lucrative enough for her to employ bribery to free her cohorts from the law whenever they were caught.
In 1883, Belle and Sam were charged with horse theft and tried before "The Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker's Federal District Court in Fort Smith, Arkansas; the prosecutor was United States Attorney W.H.H. Clayton. She was found guilty and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Detroit, Michigan. Belle proved to be a model prisoner and during her time in jail she won the respect of the prison matron, while Sam was more incorrigible and was assigned to hard labor.
In 1886, she escaped conviction on another theft charge, but on December 17, Sam Starr was involved in a gunfight with Officer Frank West. Both men were killed, while Belle's life as an outlaw queen (and what had been the happiest relationship of her life) abruptly ended with her husband's death.
For the last two-plus years of her life, gossips and scandal sheets linked her to a series of men with colorful names, including Jack Spaniard, Jim French and Blue Duck, after which, in order to keep her residence on Indian land, she married a relative of Sam Starr, Jim July Starr, who was some 15 years her junior.
On February 3, 1889, two days before her 41st birthday, she was killed. She was riding home from a neighbor's house in Eufaula, Oklahoma, when she was ambushed. After she fell off her horse, she was shot again to make sure she was dead. Her death resulted from shotgun wounds to the back and neck and in the shoulder and face.
There were no witnesses and no one was ever convicted of the murder. Suspects with apparent motive included her new husband and both of her children, as well as Edgar J. Watson, one of her sharecroppers, because he was afraid she was going to turn him in to the authorities as an escaped murderer from Florida with a price on his head. Watson, who was killed in 1910, was tried for her murder but was acquitted, and the ambush has entered Western lore as "unsolved".
Although an obscure figure outside Texas throughout most of her life, Belle's story was picked up by the dime novel and National Police Gazette publisher, Richard K. Fox. Fox made her name famous with his novel Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, published in 1889 (the year of her murder). This novel is still often cited as a historical reference. It was the first of many popular stories that used her name.
Belle's son Eddie was convicted of horse theft and receiving stolen property in July 1889. Judge Parker sent him to prison in Columbus, Ohio. Belle's daughter, Rosie Reed, also known as Pearl Starr, became a prostitute to raise funds for his release. She did eventually obtain a presidential pardon in 1893. Ironically, Eddie became a Fort Smith Deputy  killed two outlaw brothers named Crittenden in 1895, and was himself killed in a Claremore, Oklahoma, saloon on December 14, 1896.   
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