Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen

All info and quotations are from Barbara Holland's They Went Whistling.

Despite what her ridiculous name might indicate, Belle Starr was not a stripper or B-list actress. Rather she was "the Bandit Queen, the Petticoat Terror of the Plains, the Female Jesse James" (167).She was born in 1848 in Missouri as "Myra Maybelle Shirley", so I see why she got her name all gussied up for Hollywood the Wild West. She grew up in a staunchly middle-class, thoroughly respectable home, which is where all the best bad girls come from. That'll show you, parents, for giving me a decent childhood! *REBELLION*

And she got to be a bad girl, as so many nice girls do, by getting mixed up with a bad boy. Sandy in Grease? Ariel in Footloose? Judy in Rebel Without A Cause? Sloane in Ferris Bueller? Lock up your daughters, affluent parents.

She married a guy named Jim Reed who stuck her with a couple of babies, Pearl and Eddie, while he went gambling and hanging out with hooligans like Cole Younger, Frank James and "a towering, murderous-looking Cherokee named Tom Starr, head of the notorious Starr clan that caused so much grief to respectable Cherokees. He had eight sons, nucleus of a gang whose horse-stealing and whiskey smuggling were punctuated with murders" (169). He sounds like a cartoon villain. Disney, I'm looking at you. Make it happen.

So while Belle was being a good girl, living with her parents and going to church, her husband was attempting to slide back down the evolutionary chain like he was on a freaking fireman's pole. He went from counterfeiting money, to robbery, to horse stealing, to murder out of revenge, to murder out of necessity, to murder out of a caveman desire to club something. Needless to say, it put quite a price on his head. He ran off with another woman and got shot in a stand-off, leaving Belle a shunned widow with two young children and no way to support them.

"If you've been married to an outlaw, you're likely to have outlaw friends, and she took up again with the Starr clan, especially old Tom's son Sam . . . They were married in 1880s and Myra Maybelle became Belle Starr" (171), although at some point "she may have had a brief affair with Bruce Younger, a relative of the famous brothers; in one yarn, she forced him at gunpoint to marry her, after which he galloped off and she never saw him again" (171). Somehow I doubt it. The bad girl transformation process takes time.

She took her children and moved them to the Starrs' outlaw hideout, which is an excellent place to raise children. "Belle went through a flurry of domesticity, arranging her books and covering the walls with flowered white calico, apparently hoping for a quiet, outlaw-free life. Jesse James, however, knew the way and dropped in to visit for several weeks. Others followed. Presently Belle was running a retreat home for so many desperadoes, she had to throw up a couple of gust cabins and outfit a handy cave for extra sleeping quarters. And before long, it seems, she was dabbling in outlawry herself" (172).

It started out simply enough. She smuggled some whiskey and maybe stole a few horses, which was all well and good until she got arrested. It seemed that her arrest was a turning point–she could no longer pretend that she was a perfect little wife; she was an outlaw, married to two outlaws in rapid succession, and now with a record of her own. She "took it hard, fighting her captors tooth and claw, sabotaging the long wagon trip, and trying to kill a guard with his own pistol. She wound up traveling in chains" (173). She got a year in a house of corrections. Her kids were entering their teens by this point, and her letters are heart-breakingly ashamed of the grief she has caused them, and when she gets out of prison life will be so gay and they shall all live in a palace made out of candy and virtue, and her children will never need to hang their heads again!

Yeah. About that.

She and Sam got released from prison and moved back with the kids to their outlaw den. Unfortunately, her fierce behavior at her trial had started getting her some press back East, and they attributed loads of crimes and wanton behavior to her back story. She moved into the realm of legend. "She was just what the East wanted to hear about the West in the 1880s . . . Any raw, newly settled country, like Ann Bailey's Virginia in the eighteenth century, and the West in the nineteenth, needs more than farmers and blacksmiths. It needs it own stories, and heroes and villains and ghosts . . . . Sometimes in their haste to fill the vacuum, people elevated third-rate pinks like Billy the Kid to legendary heights. With Belle, they inflated a rather run-of-the-mill horsethief into exotic villainry" (167). The media couldn't make up their mind about what type of woman she was. She was either a savage or remarkably genteel. She was either a dedicated wife and friend, or the cruelest woman to walk the earth. She was either beautiful or ugly. Here's a photo of her. You make up your minds.

She and Sam had a remarkably happy marriage, even though they were total opposites–she a vibrant, well-read lady and he a very stern man who only said about three words a week. What united them was their passion for hell-raising, with promises to her children totally forgotten. Sam started way more trouble than she did, but she was somehow the star of the relationship. He'd rob someone and she'd get the credit for it, but it was okay because she had learned that fine American tradition of manipulating the legal system. She'd round up a bunch of lawyers and witnesses to swear she was elsewhere at the time of the crime, and walk free.

While she was in the middle of one of her court cases (from which she'd again walk free), some police had seen Sam out riding Belle's favorite mare. Knowing who he was and having read his rap sheet, they decided to shoot him. They killed the mare and shot Sam in the head, but he lived. He took one look at Belle's dead horse and went, "Awwwwwwwwww you done it now, boys. Belle's gonna getcha!" So despite being shot in the head, he managed a daring escape swearing that Belle would have her revenge for shooting her beloved husband for killing her horse.

One night at a party she was attending, the policeman who had killed her mare showed up. Belle, who thought revenge was a dish best served boiling hot and poured down her enemy's effing throat, told Sam to go shoot him while she stayed inside and played the piano for the party guests. They shot each other and both died on the spot, leaving Belle widowed again. "Under Cherokee law, the widowed Belle was no longer a Cherokee but an "intruder" and couldn't legally stay on her Indian property. Quickly she enlisted a much younger [Cherokee] man . . .. Bill July, sometimes called July Starr, to move in with her and proclaimed it a common-law marriage" (177).

The children objected to their new stepfather, who was not only a complete idiot, but a reckless idiot at that. He was no Sam Starr. The kids began to rebel in their own ways. Her son Eddie borrowed Belle's new "favorite horse to go to a party and brought it back worse for wear; she hauled him out of bed and whipped him bloody with her riding crop. She whipped him often, and he came to hate her" (177). Whaaaaa? But she's set such a good example of loving parenthood! Craziness! He eventually spent some serious time in jail before becoming a police officer (OMG, like Shane on Weeds who rebels against his mother's criminal activities by going to the other side!). But he was shot making an arrest, because every damn person in this story gets killed in a stand-off. There is, like, no other way to die in the Wild West. Cholera, childbirth, cattle stampede? Nope. You will be shot and it will be tense and tragic. And at high noon. In a cowboy hat.

ANYWAY, her daughter, Pearl, on the other hand, had the audacity to fall in love with someone who was both respectable and poor, which is the worst combination you could be, in Belle's opinion. So Belle decided to mess up her daughter's personal life by sending the boyfriend a letter under Pearl's name, saying that she had married someone else. He was so depressed that he went and married another girl. When Pearl and the boyfriend figured out what had really happened, they were able to meet up one last time, after which Pearl was pregnant. She became a prostitute and then a brothel owner, and eventually got banished from town for alcoholism and moral turpitude.

Belle, in her later years, tried to go straight, which we know never works. She spread word to all the outlaws that her place was no longer going to be their hideout, so they better just stay away. A man named Edgar Watson wanted to rent some farmland from Belle, but she eventually learned that he was wanted for murder in Florida, so she turned down his proposal. Because men from Florida are bad news.

His totally reasonable reaction was to wait until her back was turned before shooting her. Her death was rather unimpressive, much like the rest of her crimes, but people back East turned it into front page headlines. Watson managed to get off for the murder, moved back to Florida, killed tons more people, and was shot and killed himself. In a stand-off.

So I guess the moral of the story is: 1.) People in the East are dirty liars, and 2.) Don't marry criminals. And when you do marry criminals be sure to really enjoy yourself.

Uhhh, also, don't rent property because you'll risk being filled with buckshot, and if someone shoots your horse, just let it go or you'll end up a widow.

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4 Responses to Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m greatly enjoying these stories of badass females.


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