Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Deathday: Belle Star, Western Outlaw?

Saying Belle Starr was an outlaw is like saying Pamela Des Barres was a rock musician. Belle Starr liked to have sex with outlaws. She was an outlaw groupie.

Myra Belle Shirley was born in Cathage, Missouri on February 5, 1848 to town businessman "Judge" John Shirley and his third wife Elizabeth. She grew up living the life of a spoiled rich girl until the Civil War destroyed her world.

The Judge's business failed. Her beloved brother Bud was killed during the war, riding with Quantrill's Raiders, a guerilla militia group. Myra Belle began to find herself in the company of outlaw types.

The family moved to Texas. After the war in November 1866, she got married to Jim Reed, a guerilla soldier she had known in Missouri. In September 1868, they had a daughter they named Pearl.

Soon after, her other brother Ed was shot and killed for stealing horses. When Belle and Jim had their second child in February 1871, they named the boy after dead Ed.

Jim Reed began to engage in robbery and became involved with the Tom Starr rustling gang. Reed participated in the 1873 torture and murder robbery of Watt Grayson and his wife. Soon, Reed had a price on his head.

Reed turned out to be all scum. When Belle learned of his affair with Rosa McCommas, she moved home to her parents.

In August of 1874, Deputy Sheriff John T. Morris of Collin County, Texas identified and killed Jim Reed. Bell denied that the dead man was her husband in order to keep Morris from receiving the reward money.

Afterwards, Belle operated a livery stable in Dallas where she dealt in stolen horses. The "Judge" died in 1876. Belle had a string of lovers including her first love, Cole Younger, his uncle Bruce, and a mysterious outlaw figure with the alias of Blue Duck. Finally in 1870, she married Sam Starr, the handsome, half-Cherokee son of outlaw gang leader Tom Starr.

Belle and Sam settled into a cabin in Indian Territory, at a location they called "Younger's Bend," about 70 miles southwest of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Charges were brought against them for horse stealing in 1883. "Hanging Judge" Judge Parker found them guilty, but treated them with leniency. Sam was sentenced to a year in prison and Belle received only 6 months.

By this time, Belle had become a celebrity. Richard Fox's Police Gazette had turned her into a western folk hero, "a female Robin Hood and a Jesse James." She was dubbed the "Bandit Queen." After she left prison, Belle briefly worked in a Wild West show playing the part of an outlaw bandit who held up a stagecoach.

After Sam's release, they returned to Younger's Bend where Sam continued rustling and robbing. Around Christmas 1884, fugitive outlaw John Middleton began to hide out at the Starr cabin. While Starr was out robbing the west, Belle entertained Middleton. After an argument between Belle and Middleton, his horse was found riderless and later his drowned body was located. During a friend's Christmas party in December 17, 1886, Sam Starr got into a gunfight with an old nemesis Frank West. Both men hit their marks and both men died of their wounds.

The widow Starr returned to Younger's Bend and jumped into bed with notorious outlaw Jack Spaniard, who was shortly after arrested, tried for murder, found guilty and hanged.

In 1887, Belle took up with 24-year-old Bill July (alias Jim Starr, alias Jim July), a Creek Indian and an adopted son of Tom Starr, Sam's father. During this year, Belle's daughter Pearl became pregnant by a man Belle disapproved of. Belle didn't care too much about becoming a grandmother, as she demanded Pearl get an abortion. But Pearl moved in with her grandmother, Belle's mother, and gave birth to Flossie in April 1887.

Jim July was charged with larceny. Belle pointed out the case against him was rather weak and advised him to turn himself in to Judge Parker in Fort Smith. He listened to her. July was arrested, indicted and released on bail for horse stealing. In July 1888, her son Ed was arrested for horse theft and by December 1888, he had moved out.

Settlers were moving into the area near Younger's Bend. Belle agreed to rent some property to Edgar A. Watson and his wife. Later, Belle learned that Watson was wanted for murder in Florida. When she tried to back out of the lease agreement, Watson strongly objected. Belle threatened him with exposure to the authorities. This silenced Watson and he settled on another farm in the vicinity.

On Saturday morning, February 2, 1889, Belle and July left Younger's Bend. They spent the night with friends in San Bois before parting on Sunday morning. July headed to Fort Smith for his horse-stealing hearing. Belle went shopping in Eufaula, a small community nearby.

Afterwards, Belle stopped at the house of some neighbors, the Rowes, on Sunday afternoon, February 3, 1889. Jackson Rowe's home was a popular Sunday gathering place for members of the community. She had hoped to see her son Eddie, who had been staying there, but he had left before she arrived. There were a number of other visitors, one of whom was Edgar Watson. Soon after Belle's arrival, Watson left.

Belle ate and chatted with her friends. Eventually, she headed for Younger's Bend. The road home passed within several hundred yards of the Watson place. As Belle turned onto the river lane, a shotgun blast blew her from the saddle. She attempted to raise herself from the roadway, but a second shot boomed out, striking her in the face and shoulder. Her horse bolted and galloped home. Pearl, alarmed when Belle's horse showed up riderless, set out at once. Meanwhile, Belle had been discovered by a youth returning home.

Pearl and neighbors arrived at Belle's side before she died, but she was unable to utter any last words.

Investigations of the scene revealed tracks leading toward the Watson cabin, but the trail petered out within a hundred yards or so of the building. The footprints were Watson's size, and Watson owned a double-barreled shotgun. Several neighbors had heard the shots, but no one had seen anything. Neighbors and friends, including the Watsons, gathered at Belle's home to pay their last respects.
Belle was laid to rest on February 6, 1889 in front of the cabin at Younger's Bend.
July and Ed accused Watson of the slaying. Watson was arrested, but the charges were subsequently dropped, since all the evidence against him was circumstantial.

Other potential suspects included her husband July, her son Ed, and even her daughter Pearl.

Apparently, Belle had caught July fooling around with a young Cherokee girl. He could have killed Belle before resuming his trip to Fort Smith.

Belle was estranged from her son Ed. Rumors speculated Belle had an incestuous relationship with her son and routinely beat him with a bullwhip.

Even Pearl might have killed her mother. Belle had interfered with Pearl's marriage to the father of her child and tried to get Flossie put up for adoption.

Just a few weeks after Belle's death, a deputy who was on July's trail mortally wounded him.

Watson returned to Florida, where he was killed in a shootout with a posse.

Belle Starr's gravesite is near Eufair Lake, southeast of Porum, Oklahoma.

A horse was engraved on her tombstone, along with these words:

"Shed not for her the bitter tear,
Nor give the heart to vain regret,
'Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that fills it sparkles yet."
"I regard myself as a woman who has seen much of life."

- Belle Starr, The Fort Smith Elevator

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