Belle Starr with pistol in 1880's
Carthage Missouri was a violent place during the American Civil War. Carthage is a locale today where interested people and history buffs can learn about Belle Starr, “The Bandit Queen“, her family and the circumstances of how a young lady from an upstanding and influential family could turn into one of the most notorious females of the frontier west. The Carthage Civil War Museum located at 205 South Grant Street offers a lot of history as to just how violent the Civil War was not only in that town but pretty much all over Missouri. Also, make a note to visit the Powers Museum at 1617 Oak Street in Carthage. The Powers Museum presents rotating exhibits on local and Missouri history.. You can even see a wax figure of Belle Starr on her horse at the Historical Wax West Museum in Colorado Springs Colorado.
In many ways Belle Starr was a product of the American Civil War. Amazingly, her story is about a young woman, who after being born and raised in a prosperous and influential family, turned into probably the most infamous female outlaw of the latter 1800’s. A young lady who received a private school education and learned to play the piano quite well would spend her later days in the company of murderers, horse thieves and cattle rustlers. How and why this all came about is an interesting story.
The Civil War in Missouri was extremely violent. Missouri had a mixture of both Union and Confederate supporters and partisan violence was widespread. This was the time of Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of pro Southern guerrilla fighters who killed many and destroyed more than one town. William Quantrill‘s raiding and pillaging became so bad and so bloody that the Confederacy publicly disavowed the group. Quantrill of course continued on until finally he was killed by Union troops. It was in this atmosphere that Belle Starr, real name Myra Maebelle Shirley, came of age.
Image of Battle of Carthage Missouri, 1861
The Shirley family originally came to Missouri from Virginia. The family like many in Missouri were southern sympathizers. In fact, the very young Myra Maebelle was suspected as being a Confederate spy/messenger. She was smart enough not to be caught carrying messages so there were never any charges. Most Belle Starr historians point to the time when Starr’s younger brother Bud was killed in the war, as a Confederate, as the time of her transition. The story is that Belle and her father went to retrieve the body and an enraged Belle grabbed her brothers gun and tried to shoot the Union soldiers present. Fortunately, the gun caps had been removed and nothing occurred however it was an omen of things to come.
The Shirley family decided to resettle in Texas and did so just to the east of Dallas. Belle’s father set up a farm and cattle operation. His farm was also well known as a safe haven for southern sympathizers. It was while living with her family in Texas that a second, even larger transitional event, occurred. The excellent book, High Spirited Women of the West, by author Anne Seagraves, gives a good description of what transpired. It seems that the Shirley farm was visited by none other than Cole Younger and his gang. During the visit, both Belle and Younger became close and, to the chagrin of her father, Belle rode off with Younger. Never again would Belle’s life be the same.
Gallows at Fort Smith Arkansas
Eventually, Belle Starr would have a daughter by Younger who later ended up in the Minnesota penitentiary as a result of the botched Northfield Minnesota bank robbery attempt with his friend Jesse James. The relationship was over but there would be several times after his release from prison that Younger would pay a visit to Belle.
As a side note, Belle Starr was not the only female to enter a life of crime because of infatuation, love or whatever it may have been. You may be interested in reading another short article we’ve published about Pearl Hart, the female outlaw stagecoach robber.
Our article about Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok is also a very interesting story.
The person we know as Belle Starr would marry several times in her life. Throughout, she kept the surname of Starr even though she married several times and had even more affairs. Unfortunately, the spouses she chose wouldn’t be all that different than the likes of Cole Younger. All of their job descriptions could be summed up as stagecoach robbing, horse stealing, bank robbery, cattle rustling, gun play and general theft. These were the people Belle would chose to surround herself with and sometimes marry. The former private school student and piano player would go ahead and buy pearl handled revolvers.
Belle would go on to have another child, a son. Due to Belle Starr’s hectic life, unfortunately, or possibly fortunately for the children, there would be several times that the children would be taken care of by their loving grandparents, the Shirleys down in Texas.
"The Hanging Judge", Issac Parker
There was one period that Belle Starr and her current husband Sam Starr were arrested for horse stealing. This was 1883 and both were tried by Judge Issac Parker, the “Hanging Judge” at Fort Smith Arkansas. Both were convicted and given nine month sentences which were fairly light in relation to the crime and the judge who tried the case. Belle was released early and Sam served his full sentence. When Sam was released, he returned to their ranch at Younger’s Bend. Youngers Bend of course was named as such by Belle who still felt close to Cole Younger. The couple stayed out of trouble for a while but the lure of horse theft lured them back into the world of crime.
Some interesting facts about Belle Starr and her offspring. The only time she went to prison was for the 1883 horse theft conviction. her son Ed who had grown up being sent back and forth to live with Belle, relatives and family friends grew up to be a deputy marshal married to a Cherokee schoolteacher. In 1886 he was shot to death during a quarrel with a saloon keeper. Belle’s daughter, Pearl, had a daughter Flossie who she put up for adoption. She later turned to prostitution and ended up as a madame with a house she ran for twenty-three years. She was known as Pearl Starr.
Belle Starr herself was killed on February 3, 1889 at 41 years of age near Eufaula Oklahoma. The exact circumstances were never uncovered, in fact some even suspected her son Ed, however lawmen had a fairly good guess as to what happened. Pearl’s husband at the time, Jim July Starr, was convinced by Belle to turn himself in at Fort Smith for the charge against him of larceny. She convinced Starr that the charges were so weak that an acquittal was eminent. Belle Starr was to accompany him halfway to the Fort and Jim would continue on alone. As Belle turned around to head back to Youngers Bend, a neighbor heard a loud shot gun blast. Belle Starr was later found dead by a shotgun blast to her back. Whoever the murderer was then shot Belle twice more with her own pistol. While just about everyone suspected, Edgar Watson, a neighbor of Belle and the man who claimed he heard the blast. The relationship between Belle and Watson was never good and he was eventually tried but was acquitted. The question of who killed Belle Starr has never been conclusively answered.
Cole Younger as a young man
Jim July Starr, who Belle had been escorting halfway to Fort Smith Arkansas in 1883, was himself killed in 1890 by a young deputy who the story says was convinced that Jim July had murdered Belle Starr and was avenging her death. Probably one of the strangest of all tales coming out of the Belle Starr story concerns the outlaw and ex-convict Cole Younger. Younger was released from his latest incarceration in 1901 and became, of all things, a tombstone salesman. He somehow received a full pardon at which time he put together the Cole Younger-Frank James Wild West Show. Frank James of course being the older brother of murdered Jesse James. Apparently the world wide success that Buffalo Bill Cody attained with his Wild West influenced people from all walks of life.
Belle Starr’s life story, as was the case with the James and Younger families just to name a few, was influenced more than anything by the Civil War and the violence, bloodshed and partisan animosity resulting from it. This animosity lasted for years. The crime sprees of the James, Youngers and Starrs lasted for years after the Civil War. Many people contend that these crime sprees were in fact a continuation of that war, just more on a personal level.