Belle Starr checked to make sure the pair of six-guns she was carrying was loaded before she proceeded across a dusty road toward a saloon just outside Fort Dodge, Kansas. When she reached the tavern, she peered over the top of the swinging doors of the establishment and carefully studied the room and its seedy inhabitants. Her thin face and hawk-like nose was illuminated by a kerosene lantern hanging by the entrance.
She stepped inside the long, narrow, dimly lit room and slowly made her way to the gambling tables in the back. A battery of eyes turned to watch her walk by. Four men, engrossed in a game of five-card draw, barely noticed the woman approaching them. A tall man with an air of foreign gentility sat at the head of the table with his back to Belle, dealing cards. She removed one of the guns from her dress pocket and rested the barrel of the weapon on the gambler’s cheek.
“You took $2,000 off a friend of mine,” she calmly informed the card sharp.
“I’m not in a habit of taking things, madam,” the man responded. “I’m an exceptional card player.”
“So is my friend,” Belle offered, “And I have serious doubts that he could have been deprived of his fortune honestly.”
The three other card players at the table pushed away from the scene. Belle kept her gun on the gambler.
“How do you hope to right the wrong you believe your friend has endured?” the man inquired with a sneer.
“I’ll just take what’s in the pot,” Belle stated without hesitating.
She dropped her hand into the center of the table, and one of the other players moved as if to stop her. She removed the second six-shooter from her dress pocket and leveled it at him. No further attempts were made to keep her from raiding the pot which amounted to more than $7,000.
“There’s a little change due, gentlemen,” she said as she collected the money. “If you want it back, come down to the territory where me and my boys are and get it.”
Belle inched the gun away from the gambler’s face but kept it cocked and ready to fire at anyone who stood in the way of her appointed goal. She tossed a saddlebag full of money over her shoulder and backed out the saloon, smiling a sly smile of contentment.
John and Eliza Shirley had wanted better for their daughter than to be a gun-toting champion of a band of outlaws that included the likes of Cole Younger and the James brothers. Belle was a headstrong woman with a penchant for crime and amoral adventures.
She was born Myra Maybelle Shirley on February 5, 1848, near Carthage, Missouri. Her father was a well-educated, wealthy innkeeper with a background in judicial affairs. His friends referred to him as “Judge,” and he was sought after by many important political figures for advice on campaign support and laws that would further civilize the state.
Both John and Eliza came from genteel Southern stock. They were well mannered people who raised their daughter and two sons to behave accordingly. As education was important in the Shirley household, Belle and her brothers were required to attend school and participate in other areas of learning as well. Belle was enrolled at the Carthage Female Academy and was taught the basic subjects along with horseback riding and music. She was a gifted piano player and had natural talent with a gun.
Being raised at a busy inn exposed Belle to a variety of rough characters and provided a less than savory education. She learned how to chew and spit tobacco, curse, and play cards. She excelled at the games of blackjack and faro. By the time Belle was fifteen she was working several hours at the inn’s tavern either playing the piano or dealing faro. Belle was a polite, young woman with an innocent face, qualities that often led newcomers who challenged her to a hand to think she could be easily bluffed. The misconception enabled her to win more poker games than she lost.
Rumors of an impending Civil War caused a great deal of unrest with many Carthage families, and the Shirleys were no exception. Belle’s brother, Edward, joined the Confederate guerilla forces and fought in a few skirmishes against free soil sympathizers before the actual war began. Belle was as strong a Southern supporter as the rest of her relatives. She wanted nothing more than to lay down her cards, pick up a gun, and fight.
When the War Between the States was declared, Edward was assigned to William Clarke Quantrill’s savage military unit. It was then that Belle got her chance to serve. Quantrill’s gang craved any information about the enemy. Belle was more than happy to help acquire what they needed. She rode about the town and surrounding farms under the guise of making friendly calls on neighbors and acquaintances. What she was doing, however, was gathering news from Union supporters about Yankee regiments in the area. She was learning about the supplies and artillery they had and what their movements were.
No one suspected the perky, pleasant-looking Belle of passing whatever news she learned about the Yankees on to the Rebels. Quantrill and his men called Belle their “little secret.” Belle’s actions did not go undetected for long. In the winter of 1862, she was arrested as a spy. She was held for a short time and then released.
Undaunted by the experience, she sneaked off to warn her soldier brother about what had happened and that the Union forces were nearby and threatening to capture all of Quantrill’s troops. Belle’s warning gave Quantrill’s men the head start they needed to elude the Yankees.
During the time Belle was “scouting” for Quantrill, she was introduced to a few of the soldiers serving alongside her brother. Cole and Bob Younger and Jesse and Frank James were the most notable. The future outlaws applauded her efforts, and she basked in the attention they gave her. Her days of spying for the unit reached an end when the men moved on to the northeastern section of Kansas. Belle would meet up with the Youngers and the Jameses again at the conclusion of the war.
When the South surrendered to the North at Appomattox in 1865, John Shirley’s business was near financial collapse. That same year he decided to sell the property and move to Texas. Eighteen-year-old Belle went with him. The Shirleys settled on an eight-hundred-acre ranch southeast of Dallas. Much to her parent’s chagrin, Belle spent most of her time in Dallas playing cards. Her gambling skills were sharper than ever, and she was a regular winner. She was able to help support her family monetarily as a regular faro dealer.
Some of Belle’s earnings were no doubt used to help feed renegades from Quantrill’s unit who were in trouble for attacking Union sympathizers. The war was over, but many rebel soldiers could not accept the outcome. Some fled to Texas and because of their association with Edward Shirley, used the Shirley home as their rendezvous point. The James and Younger boys were frequent guests. Belle helped care for the men by cooking, entertaining them with her piano playing, and engaging them in multiple games of poker.
In 1866, Belle dealt a hand of cards to a former Confederate soldier turned bandit named Jim Reed. She was instantly smitten with the big man in his early thirties who had a weather-beaten face and a great crag of a jaw. The two were married within twenty-four hours of meeting. In spite of her father’s objections and pleas for Belle to remain with him, she traveled to Missouri with her new husband. Jim made his living stealing from Union families. His illegal activities eventually brought on the law, and he was forced to run. Belle made frequent trips from their new home to visit him in his hideouts. The young couple was now the parents of a little girl, but that responsibility did not transform the thief into a law-abiding citizen.
While Belle worked at a saloon dealing cards, Jim ran with a gang of desperados led by a violent Cherokee Indian named Tom Starr. Belle paid close attention to the players at the saloon, picking up on tips about gold and payroll shipments. Any information she had she passed on to Jim and his bunch so they could perpetrate more crimes.
In 1870, Jim murdered a man, and a warrant was quickly issued for his arrest. Believing that the law was fast on his heels, he headed for California to avoid being apprehended. Belle went back to Texas. John helped his daughter and grandchild make a new life for themselves on a nine-acre ranch down the road from the Shirley homestead.
Jim eventually sneaked back into Texas and onto Belle’s plot of land to visit his wife and child. When word got out that he was hanging around, he made his way to Fort Smith, Arkansas, before authorities could catch him. Jim wasn’t the only fugitive hiding out at the location. Many of Quantrill’s one-time followers and a host of new renegades resided at Fort Smith as well.
Belle made a number of trips to Arkansas to see Jim and had plenty of opportunity to mix with his circle of friends, which included Tom Starr’s son, Sam. Although she was loyal to Jim, Belle found Sam irresistible. Sam had feelings for her too, but knew better than to cross the line.
Wanting to be near her husband and thrilled by life on the run, Belle accompanied Jim on several robberies. Jim and his gang traveled from Kansas to New Mexico stealing horses. On February 22, 1871, in the midst of the thievery, Belle gave birth to a second child. The Reeds named their son James Edwin. While Jim stole his way across the West, Belle watched over her children and oversaw the ranch back in Texas. In the evenings she played piano and cards at a popular Dallas saloon.
Jim’s criminal activities graduated from highwayman and cattle rustler to murderer. During the first few years of his son’s life, Jim had a $4,000 bounty on his head. When Belle suggested he reign in his work load a bit, he began an affair with a less demanding woman named Rosa McCommas. In August 1874, Reed’s illegal endeavors came to an end when a fellow rider shot and killed him.
Two years after Jim was gunned down, Belle’s father died. Alone, destitute, and anxious to be on the move, she started making plans to follow in her husband’s footsteps. She sold her property in Texas and sent her daughter to boarding school in Arkansas and her son to her mother’s in Missouri. She took up with members of the group of renegades Jim rode alongside. At first she merely acted as a fence or tipster in their various crimes, but eventually she helped do the actual stealing.
Her first arrest for horse thieving occurred in 1879. She was released from jail after she managed to charm the owner of the thoroughbreds into not pressing charges.
The band of outlaws she was associated with grew to include fifty men. Among them were well-known western cut-throats Jim French, Blue Duck, and Jack Spaniard. Together they picked up mavericks in Texas’s Atascosa territory, rustled stampeded cattle from trail drivers on their way to Kansas, and robbed banks and stagecoaches. When they weren’t engaged in dastardly doings, Belle was schooling her partners in crime in faro and five-card draw. She was such an accomplished player that her cohorts called her “the best lady gambler in the West.”
When Belle and her partners were feeling particularly daring, they ventured out of hiding to enjoy an evening on the town. One of their favorite arenas for entertainment was the saloons around Fort Dodge, Kansas. During one of their visits, Blue Duck lost all the money he had borrowed from the gang in a crooked poker game. Belle not only retrieved the funds but also a few thousand dollars more. After that incident the outlaws headed for the Starr Ranch in Adair, Oklahoma, to lay low for a while.
During the brief rest, Belle became romantically involved with Sam Starr. The two were married on June 5, 1880. They spent their honeymoon in Ogallala, Nebraska, rustling cattle. A yearlong stealing spree resulted in a substantial herd of cattle and stock horses. Belle and Sam decided to drive the animals to a thousand-acre spread they purchased in Oklahoma. Once they were settled in, Belle sent for her daughter to live with them. She also bought herself a new wardrobe and a piano.
Belle didn’t have much time to enjoy her fineries or renew her relationship with Pearl before the federal marshals arrived on the scene. She and Sam were arrested in 1883 and escorted to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to stand trial for stealing horses. Judge Isaac Parker, the hanging judge, sentenced both Belle and Sam to a year behind bars. The pair was released after serving nine months.
The Starrs returned to Arkansas and rustling. Belle went back to dealing cards and limited the number of horses she stole. Sam robbed stages and mail hacks. He spent most of 1885 running from the law. Hard living and friendships with homicidal bandits aided in Sam’s death. In 1886, he was shot and killed at a Christmas party while his cohorts looked on.
Belle was arrested two times for various crimes during a three-year span from 1886 to 1889. Each time she was released for lack of evidence. She had numerous lovers during the same time period. Among them were Cole Younger, Jack Spaniard, and Jim July. She eventually married July.
On February 3, 1889, Belle headed for Fort Smith with her new husband. July needed to be at a hearing to defend himself against a horse stealing charge. While he was in court, Belle was going to busy herself with some shopping at the post store and then play a game of poker at the local saloon. Midway through the journey, she changed her mind and decided to return home. An unknown gunman shot the outlaw gambler off her horse. Once Belle was on the ground, the assailant shot her again in the neck and breast.
Authorities never determined the identity of Belle’s killer. Some historians maintain that it was a wanted man named Edgar Watson who pulled the trigger. Others believe it was her seventeen-year-old son, Edwin. He had an explosive temper and, like his parents, he, too, was a criminal. Belle and Edwin had quarreled in public the day before she was killed. Edwin was humiliated and embarrassed by the display and vowed never to forgive her.
Belle’s daughter buried her mother near the Starr homestead in Eufaula, Oklahoma. The marker over the grave includes a short verse and the usual dates of importance. Belle Starr was forty years old when she died.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.