On The Bricks

October 5, 2022

Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr, better known as Belle Starr, was a notorious American outlaw, part of Oklahoma’s history.

Belle associated with the James–Younger Gang and other outlaws. She was convicted of horse theft in 1883. She was fatally shot in 1889 in a case that is still officially unsolved. Her story was popularized by Richard K. Fox, editor and publisher of the National Police Gazette, and she later became a popular character in television and films.

Belle Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley on her father’s farm near Carthage, Mo., on Feb. 5, 1848. Most of her family members called her May. Her mother, Elizabeth “Eliza” Hatfield Shirley, was a distant relative to the Hatfields of the famous family feud. In the 1860s, Belle’s father sold the farm and moved the family to Carthage, where he bought an inn, livery stable and blacksmith shop on the town square.

After a Union attack on Carthage in 1864, the Shirleys moved to Scyene, Texas. According to legend, here the Shirleys became associated with Jesse James and the Younger brothers.

May Shirley (Belle) married Jim Reed in 1866. Two years later, she gave birth to Rosie Lee (nicknamed Pearl).  A crack shot, Belle 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. Her husband turned to crime and was wanted for murder in Arkansas, which caused the family to move to California, where James Edwin (Eddie), was born in 1871.

Later returning to Texas, Reed was involved with several criminal gangs, including 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 Belle’s arrest for a stagecoach robbery by her husband and others. Reed was killed in August of that year in Paris, Texas, where he had settled down with his family.

In 1880, May (Belle) married a Cherokee man named Sam Starr and settled with the Starr family in Indian Territory. There, she learned ways of 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 when they were caught.

In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested by Bass Reeves, charged with horse theft and tried before “The Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Ark. She was found guilty and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Detroit, Mich. Belle proved to be a model prisoner. In contrast, Sam was incorrigible and assigned to hard labor.

In 1886, Belle eluded conviction on another theft charge, but on Dec. 17, Sam Starr was involved in a gunfight with an officer of the law. Both men were killed and Belle’s life as an outlaw queen abruptly ended.

For the last couple years of her life, gossips and scandal sheets linked her to a series of men. In order to keep her residence on Indian land, she married a relative of Sam Starr, Jim July Starr, who was 15 years younger than she.

On Feb. 3, 1889, two days before her 41st birthday, Belle Starr was killed in an ambush riding home from a neighbor’s house in Eufaula, Okla.

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, who 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).

Made me laugh: You can tell a lot about a woman by her hands. Like if they’re around your throat, she probably isn’t happy with you.

Catch you on the bricks!