Feb 5, 1848-1889
Myra Maybelle Shirley, one of the legendary rootin tootin women of the wild west. She was born to Judge John Shirley, a farmer and Eliza Pennington, a member of the famous Hatfield clan (Hatfields vs. McCoys Feud which is another book all together). They were a prosperous southern family from Missouri until the Civil War which changed all the rules. Missouri was a state divided in its loyalties during the war; but Belle’s brother Bud made a choice and joined the Quantrill Raiders, pro-confederate renegades. That decision was instrumental in his being shot and killed. Shortly after the war the Shirley family was bankrupt which in addition to Bud’s associations encouraged a move to Texas for a new life.
Due to some of the fanciful writing of the National Police Gazette; she strapped on her guns and went out for revenge! Real history does not support that story. Myra had been educated in the finest schools, but by time she was 16 the once comfortable family struggled for food and shelter. The dime novels did more embroidery than a Guatemalan spinster and made Belle Starr the intriguing and beautiful bandit queen. Truth is she was described as hatchet faced, boney, mean mouthed, nasty tempered and a “gatch-toothed tart”, just to name a few of the epithets.
Much of the legend may have sprung directly from Belle’s desire for attention. There is a rumor that Belle had an illegitimate daughter from her association with Cole Younger of the Jesse James Gang, although by dates the conception was two years after the birth. The Youngers and James boys did ride with the Quantrill Raiders, and Cole’s own writing admits to staying at the Shirley residence but the timing he outlines was when Belle was in Texas. Around the time of the phantom hook up with Younger, she bumped into Jim Reed an old Missouri acquaintance. When we say bumped we mean that literally. They wed in 1866. Reed worked part time as a petty criminal, and by1869 his illegal activities caught up with him so he moved his family, Belle and two children to California. Prince Charming Reed continued his deep involvement with horse racing, stealing, and running whiskey to the Indian Territory when he fell in with Tom Starr a murderous hard living Cherokee and his sons. Once there, Jim continued to get into trouble resulting in a hasty move back to Texas. Belle was getting used to hasty moves, and Reeds counter fitting business didn’t really support the family, so he expanded into murder, apparently farming didn’t fulfill him. Cole Younger reportedly helped set them up on a farm, but Belle still left Jim in 1873. It wasn’t just his criminal behavior but also extramarital affairs that made life intolerable. Belle moved back in with her parents. Saving Belle attorney fees, Jim was shot and killed in 1874.
Along here we lose track of Belle and there is some speculation that the destitute mother of two may have turned to a life of crime. The novels have her drinking and carousing thru the dance halls counting on tips. Neighbors have her raising her kids and going to church while living with her mother. It is also believed that she possibly married Cole Younger’s uncle but records indicate 32-year-old Belle married 23 year-old Sam Starr a 3/4 Cherokee which was instrumental in her history and her romantic name. Sam and his family were an embarrassment to the Cherokee nation, but Belle didn’t let that stand in the way of love or survival, hard to tell the difference.
They made a lucrative living in rustlin’ livestock and harborin’ fugitives, she liked to suggest that she was entrepreneur in a small home base business. In 1882 they both went to jail for horse theft. In 1884 they harbored a fugitive, 1885 suspected of robbing the treasuries of the Seminole and Creek Indians. In 1986 she bought a stolen horse, and the same year arrested for being part of a bandit gang that robbed farms. She was able to evade the convictions over and over, even though Hangin’ Judge Parker was anxious to reign her in. In December of 1886 Sam was shot and killed. Almost immediately she took up with Jack Spaniard another outlaw. This was a short term relationship as Spaniard was arrested and convicted of murder and hung. In order to keep her land in Indian Territory she needed to marry another Cherokee, so she married Sam’s step-brother Bill July a.k.a. July Starr.
Belle was gunned down on February 2, 1889 falling from her horse and into history. She was shot near Watson’s farm, and there were indications that he was involved. The other suspects were her daughter Pearl – for mom’s intervention with her love live. Belle’s son Eddie – he had threatened her before, and she was known to discipline him with a bull whip. Her own dear husband, July, seems she caught him in a romantic dalliance and he did offer a drinking buddy $200 to do the deed. Our sweet Belle had made his life miserable since the wedding reception. Her murder remains unsolved, where were the CSI guys when we need them. Mysteries at the Museum hangs it on July, but the deputy shot him before they solved the case.
On her tombstone it is written:
Shed not for her the bitter tear
Nor give the heart to vain regret
Tis but the casket that lies here
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.