Belle Starr ~ The Bandit Queen
Researched & Written By:
© Esther M. Ziock Carroll
Belle Starr is a well known Missouri character. She was known as "The Bandit Queen" and had a passion for cutthroats and robbers. She was associated with the James gang and is rumored to have had an affair with one of the gang's members, Cole Younger. Anytime that Belle was brought up on charges of bootlegging, rustling or whatever she was always released for lack of evidence. However, in 1882 Belle Starr appeared before the notorious "Hanging Judge Parker" in Arkansas on the charge of horse stealing. This time she was convicted and served nine months in prison.
Dime novels immortalized many outlaws and Belle Starr was no exception. These novels dramatized the adventurous escapades of outlaws without differentiating between fiction and fact. Author Glenn Shirley states: " .the name of Belle Starr became a household word throughout the nation. She had been elevated to a seat of immortal glory as a sex-crazed hellion with the morals of an alley cat, a harborer and consort of horse and cattle thieves, a petty blackmailer who dabbled in every crime from murder to the dark sin of incest, a female Robin Hood who robbed the rich to feed the poor, an exhibitionistic and clever she-devil on horseback and leader of the most blood-thirsty band of cutthroats in the American West. All this despite the lack of contemporary account or court record to show that she held up a train, bank, or stagecoach or killed anybody ."
But it does appear that Belle was a consort of thieves as all of her husbands were outlaws. Her first husband, Jim Reed, was a horse thief and murderer. Her second husband, Bruce Younger, was associated with various outlaw gangs. Her third husband, Sam Starr, was a horse thief. Her fourth husband, Jim July, was a friend of the Starrs who were known horse thieves. And her lover, Blue Duck, was a murderer. But not everyone had a passion for Belle. On Feb. 3, 1889 (two days before her birthday) she was shot and killed from ambush. Some suspected a neighbor with whom she did not get along. Others suspected her husband Jim July who had supposedly offered another man $200 to kill her and on being turned down had shouted, "Hell - I'll kill the old hag myself and spend the money on whiskey!"
On Belle's tombstone it states that she was born in Carthage, Jasper county, Missouri and her family was living in that county in 1850. Other sources give various other places for her birth. Local legend says that she was born here in Washington County. She was born Myra Maebelle Shirley on Feb. 5, 1848 and came from a wealthy family. Her parents were married in Indiana in 1837 and it was her father's second marriage. Her mother, Elizabeth Pennington of Kentucky, was closely related to the Hatfields of the famous feuding Hatfields and McCoys. Her father, John Shirley, was originally from Virginia. Author Burton Rascoe in his book Belle Starr The Bandit Queen states: "The Shirleys were even prominent enough or numerous enough later to have given the name Shirley to a town in Washington County [Missouri]. And it was in Washington County, perhaps even in the present town of Shirley, that I elect to believe John Shirley and his family lived before filing patent on a land grant in southwestern Missouri, and that it was probably in Washington County not only that Preston and Ed Shirley were born, but Myra Belle also." Preston and Edwin were Belle's brothers. Edwin was a horse thief and Belle had another brother, Mansfield, who was killed in a gunfight with the law.
According to the Washington County Missouri deed records there was a Jordan Shirley in Washington County as early as 1835 and an Elijah Starr in 1821. The 1840 Washington County census lists the Jordon, Johnathan and Thomas Shirley families. In the 1850 census the Jordon Shirley family was the only one remaining in the county. There is a Shirley family cemetery on the grounds of Sunnen Lake below the dam. The town of Shirley was established by store-keeper James Shirley in 1895. Whether or not any of these Shirleys are related to the notorious Belle Starr remains to be proven.