The Legend of Belle Starr

from Chick Allen

Belle Starr was born Myra Belle Shirley, February 5, 1848, at Carthage, Missouri, and her father was Judge John Shirley, former Kentuckian, who operated a hotel-tavern in Carthage [as well as] a blacksmith and livery stable business. Her mother was the former Eliza Hatfield, from the famous feuding mountaineer clan that fought it out with the McCoys. The judge and his wife were hot-blooded Southerners.

Bushwhackers and other outlaws used the judge's tavern as a hideout during the pre-Civil War days. Horse thieves used the livery stable as a trading station. Judge Shirley was in politics to establish himself as a "Southern Gentleman" but the riff-raff about the business did not help his ambitions along, even though he did become prosperous.

He wanted to bring Myra Belle up as a lady and sent her to the Elete Female Academy of Carthage. They tried to teach her the finer things of life, especially to play the piano, but this was as far as it went because her interests were with guns and horses rather than finery and education.

She learned to shoot with accuracy and the rough crowd around the stable taught her to ride like an old cowhand and cuss like the men. One of her first lovers was Quantrill who was later known as the bloodiest man in the history of crime. He and 450 guerillas murdered 182 persons at Lawrence, Kansas, while robbing the town in 1863. Her real love later was Cole Younger, a cousin to Frank and Jesse James. Cole rode off and left her broken-hearted.

Her big crime career came when her brother, Bud Shirley, headed a band of "Bushwhackers" and called himself "Captain." One day he was in a skirmish with the 15th Missouri Cavalry, stationed at Sarcoxie, at which time he was killed. The next day, Myra Belle rode to Sarcoxie with her maw and with fire in their eyes and the fighting Hatfield blood.

“She was gonna kill that dirty Yankee that killed Bud.”

Myra had two pistols strapped on her hips and her maw had a rifle. When they arrived at Sarcoxie, she said she was "gonna kill the dirty Yankee that killed Bud." They could not find the soldier and so she rode away cussing the commander and saying that in the future she would wage an endless war against the Union Army. She later became a Confederate spy, rode with Quantrill's raiders and personally shot four men by the time she was 18 years of age. In September, 1864, Carthage was burned by Federal troops during a raid and her father, Judge John Shirley, lost all of his holdings in the fire. He promptly left for Texas with his wife and daughter, Myra Belle.

A young horse thief named Jim Reed fell in love with Belle and wanted to marry her before the burning of Carthage but her father flatly said "no" to this. He still believed he could make a lady out of Belle and would not stand for her to marry a horse thief, and was glad to get her moved to Texas. Jim Reed was madly in love with Belle, so he saddled up and was off to Texas, and in 1866, induced Belle to elope with him. They were married by a fly-by-night preacher in the woods with a band of outlaws as witnesses. In 1869, Jim Reed killed a man named Shannon in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Reed and Belle fled to the Indian Territory which was then policed by only a few U.S. marshals.

They then moved on to California and returned to the Indian Territory in 1872, wanted for robbery and murder on the West Coast. They shipped their baby boy, Ed, to Missouri with her baby girl, Pearl Younger, and Belle and Reed went to Texas, where they killed a deputy sheriff and robbed a Creek Indian of $30,000. In 1875, Jim Reed was shot to death by a bounty hunter, John Morris, who hoped to collect a reward of $5,000 offered for Reed, dead or alive. Belle was called to identify her husband and said, "I ain't never seen this man before in my life, and you killed the wrong man, John Morris, you sneaking murderer."

“She tired of the pretense of being honest.”

Everyone agreed this was a way to avenge Morris and he could not get the reward. Reed was out of her life and Belle started to run a livery stable at Dallas. It was not long before she was tired of the pretense of being honest and she gathered together a band of riders and went into the outlaw business, in earnest.

Continued above right...

Riverside Bridge

plate 2. Belle Starr. Photo courtesy of John Fullerton.

Riverside Bridge

plate 1. These stories were first written and published by Chick Allen in 1975.

Pictured below, Allen is remembered as an Ozark historian and “root digger” a founding member of the Baldknobber Music Show, and, perhaps most importantly, as a deeply respected and loved father and grandfather.

It is with great appreciation to John Fullerton — Chick Allen's great grandson and Branson historian — that this excerpt is published.

Belle Starr (Continued):

She was jailed in Dallas, being caught with a herd of stolen horses. In jail, she was able to talk a deputy sheriff into unlocking her cell and running away with her to Indian Territory. His infatuation soon cooled, so he returned to Dallas, leaving Belle a free woman. She then moved north to the roaring lead and zinc mining town of Galena, Kansas. There she met a cousin of her first real love, Cole Younger. His name was Bruce Younger.

They stayed in a Galena hotel and worked that town and Joplin, nearby in Missouri. A few months later, she left Bruce Younger and returned to Indian Territory, and took up with a wanted killer named Blue Duck.

He was later captured by U.S. marshals in 1884 and sentenced to hang by Judge Parker at Fort Smith. Belle went to his aid, hired a lawyer and managed to get his sentence reduced to life imprisonment. Two years later she was able to get him a pardon and freedom, though they no longer rode together.

During his absence, her affection turned to the Tom Starr Ranch on the Canadian River, 80 miles from Forth Smith. Old Tom was described as the worst Indian the Cherokee tribal government ever dealt with and ran a place that was a hangout for every kind of outlaw in the book.

“He had a handsome 20 year old son named Sam Starr and Belle fell in love.”

He had a handsome 20-year-old son named Sam Starr and Belle, although she was 10 years older, fell in love with him and asked him to marry her. Young Sam was a horse thief and Old Tom was "agin" their marriage, but Belle out-talked him and ended up with young Sam as her husband. The newlyweds settled in an old ranch house and Belle named it "Younger's Bend." She turned it into a hideout for bandits and thieves. In 1882, she and Sam were arrested for horse stealing and were taken to Hanging Judge Parker in Forth Smith.

Belle hired the same lawyer that she had to save Blue Duck from the gallows and got herself and Sam off with only a year in the House of Correction in Detroit, Michigan.

When the year was up and they were released, they returned to Younger's Bend. Sam promptly robbed a post office and had a gun battle with officers who tried to arrest him. He escaped them and a short time later was killed in a fight at a country dance. With Sam gone, Belle moved a new accomplice into Younger's Bend by the name of Jim July. He was wanted by Fort Smith marshals for a long string of crimes.

Belle sent for her 17-year old son Edward and her daughter, Pearl, asking them to come live with her. When they arrived, Belle found she had made a mistake. All they did was fight and argue. Her son had a mean streak and when she tried to whip him, he threatened to kill her. Her daughter Pearl hated Jim July and so bad feelings were shown at every turn.

“She came home swearing she would kill Watson for cheating her.”

One day, Belle had a quarrel with a neighbor horse thief named Watson. She came home swearing she would kill Watson for trying to cheat her out of some money from the sale of a herd of stolen horses. She was very angry with her son Ed Reed and Pearl took up for her brother; and July got a cussing for not siding with Belle. Very angry, Belle stomped from the house and jumped on her horse and galloped down the road. As she rounded the bend, the blast of a shotgun tore her from the saddle. She was dead, with a load of buckshot in her back, before she hit the ground.

The killer wanted to be sure it was a good job and came from hiding and fired another charge into her breast. Belle's daughter, Pearl Younger, heard the shots and rushed down the road and found the body of her mother.

It was February 3, 1889.

There were no tears shed over Belle's death but they all wondered who had killed her. Everyone was suspected. She could have been killed by some of the ones of her lurid past. The Ozark folks and the Indian Territory did not care so the murder was never solved. Watson and July were killed by marshals soon after Belle's death. Her son Ed turned policeman and was killed in a drunken brawl at Wagoner, Oklahoma.

Pearl Younger, in a bawdy-house in Fort Smith, established a reputation nearly as bad as that of her mother's. She died in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1925, but her mother will always be remembered as the Outlaw Queen of the Ozarks.

— pages 20-23, Allen, Chick, Autobiography of Chick Allen and Folklore of the Early Ozarks, 1975.

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