Of all the major figures in the history and folklore of Old West outlaws, perhaps the most little-known and poorly understood is Belle Starr, "the bandit queen." Amid the floods of sensationalist popular articles and dime novels which began appearing in her lifetime, only one serious biography has seen the light of day since her violent death in 1889.
And among the obscurest parts of her story is her tenuous link to Vernon County.
Myra Maybelle (variously spelled) Shirley was born on a Jasper County, Mo., farm in 1848. She was 8 when her father, John Shirley, moved the family into Carthage where he opened a combination livery stable, blacksmith shop, and inn. He became prosperous, and prominent in local politics as "Judge Shirley." His daughter attended the Carthage Female Academy, "and was given every chance to grow up to be a nice little girl." "But her overpowering interests were horses and guns." Her brother Ed, known as Bud, was inspired by Quantrill, and formed his own Bushwhacker band. "When he was killed and the town razed by Federal troops in the summer of 1863, Myra Belle flew into a rage, strapped two pistols about her waist and rode off to join the guerrillas." Their home burned, her father moved the family to Texas, near Dallas, where he farmed and raised horses, and put his daughter back in school "and tried to cure her of her flamboyant ways"; but Belle "entered the saloon life of Dallas. For a while she sang in the dance halls, dealt monte, faro, and poker. She dressed 'spectacularly,' but 'within the conventions,' and did very well financially." Respectable women, of course, didn't behave anything like that in those days. Darkening a saloon's door was social suicide for any woman.
Then, "in 1866, dark, handsome, 24-year-old Cole Younger rode into the Shirley ranch with his three brothers and Frank and Jesse James, fresh from their first bank job. When the outlaw rode back with his gang to Missouri in 1867, he left her pregnant with a child." Cole always denied being the child's father, and the story becomes especially obscure at this point. Myra's affections gravitated to Jim Reed, a young horse-thief from Vernon County. Whether or not Jim legally married her is much disputed, but in any case, over the father's "violent opposition" he took her back to Missouri, where she lived with the Reeds while giving birth to daughter Rose Pearl, whom she persistently called Pearl Younger.
Solomon and Samuel Reed (sometimes Read) and their father had settled on, and given their name to, Reed's Creek, east of presentday Metz, in 1842. Curiously, the Reeds somehow were related to Jesse and Frank James. Burton Rascoe, author of the only serious biography of Belle Starr, accepts as authentic a would-be autobiography of Frank James, written in his final years. "Jim Reed and my father were brothers," he wrote. Before the Jameses left for Missouri, "my mother promised to be married secretly to a man named Edd Reed. He was killed before I was born, and to save the disgrace my mother married Robert James and then moved to Missouri. So the people of this old world did not know that Frank and Jesse James were only half brothers." To this writer, this isn't exactly clear; but "if it is true," a historian comments, "Belle (Starr) thus became Frank James' aunt by common-law marriage." "It somehow rings true," the historian adds. "It would account for many things: the sudden arrival of Robert James and his wife in western Missouri, interrupting his theological studies; the birth of the first son to Zereida shortly after; the utter difference in appearance, personality, disposition, even thinking of Frank and Jesse. And it is to be noted that Frank James had a 'large nose and sandy hair,' evidently Reed characteristics." So Frank James, who would come to live in Nevada in 1886, might have been coming to live near some of his relatives on the wrong side of the blanket!
Pearl was born in September 1866. A year later Jim Reed killed his brother's killer and became a fugitive. They spent two years in Los Angeles, where son Eddie was born in 1871, till California, too, became too hot to hold them. Eddie's arrival rather reconciled father John, who took Belle in, back in north Texas. Jim meanwhile holed up in Indian Territory, at the ranch of Tom Starr, a Cherokee. The Starr clan had land along the Canadian River, "a safe retreat for outlaws." Going there to visit her husband, Belle met handsome young Sam Starr.
During one such visit, dressed as a man, she sided Jim in the robbery of a wealthy Creek Indian, reportedly torturing him and his wife until he revealed the hiding place of more than $30,000 in gold coins. At the same time, however, she did well with a Texas stu d farm on land provided by her father, till she went to jail in Dallas, charged with horse-theft; but she "succeeded in winning the heart of a deputy sheriff, and induced him to break her bonds and elope with her." Between this and Jim's death at a deputy sheriff's hands in the summer of 1875, clearly Belle's life had reached a crossroads. She took son Ed back to Vernon County and placed him in the care of Grandmother Reed, while Pearl went to other relatives in Arkansas.
"Belle now embarked upon that part of her lurid career for which she became notorious in Judge Parker's court," bailiwick of the famous Fort Smith "hanging judge." She "gathered about her a set of male admirers as reckless as herself, to each of whom she was at one time or another especially gracious and who was for the time being counted as her lover." Many are the tall tales told of Belle's supposed outlaw exploits. For instance, when her crony Blue Duck lost a lot of money in Fort Dodge, Kan., Belle "covered the players with her pistol, grabbed up the entire stakes, amounting to $7,000, and backed away." In 1880 Belle married Sam Starr, who as a member of the Cherokee nation had rights to land along Oklahoma's Canadian River. Though she hadn't seen Cole Younger for years, Belle recalled his would-be paternity of Pearl by naming the hideaway "Younger's Bend." Belle had now become so notorious she found it impossible to live a normal life. Try as she might to live quietly, trouble and controversy dogged her. And she didn't try all that hard. "From 1880 to 1882, Belle appears to have confined herself pretty much to acting as the 'brains' of outlaw gangs from her citadel at Younger's Bend." Appearances before Judge Parker made her a national sensation, "the queen of the bandits," "the petticoat terror of the plains," "the lady desperado." Sam died in a gun duel in 1886. And then, in February 1889, "Pearl Younger was frightened to see Belle's horse run into the yard, saddled, but without Belle.
A few minutes later, Milo Hoyt, a neighbor, had come upon Belle's body lying face down in the mud of the road. She had been shot in the back with buckshot." Edgar Watson, a known murderer, was arrested, but the case against him went nowhere. Suspicion hovered even around Belle's own son, Ed Reed.
But Belle Starr's death, like her life, faded into history, obscure and unexplained.