This week in Texas History: Who bushwacked the Bandit Queen

When Belle Starr retired for the night on Feb. 2, 1889, she had no way of knowing that the twilight ride planned for the next day would be her last.

Myra Belle Shirley never blamed her life of crime on an impoverished childhood. Her folks were, in fact, quite well-to-do. Daddy owned a block of businesses in Carthage, Missouri, and the doting parents gave their little darling the best of everything.

As a border state caught in the North-South crossfire, Missouri became a battleground after secession. When Carthage was torched and a son slain by abolitionist raiders, the Shirleys decided to spend the rest of the Civil War in Texas and moved to Scyene on the eastern outskirts of Dallas.

Teenaged Belle fell head over heels for a dashing young fugitive. The impulsive girl took off with Cole Younger and his sidekick Jesse James and wandered back home only after the gunfighters resumed their robbing ways.

The following year, Belle gave birth to a baby girl she named Pearl Younger. Her folks bought the story that Cole tied the knot before skipping town, but skeptical neighbors ostracized the unwed mother.

In the dance halls and saloons of Dallas, where Belle worked as a part-time entertainer and full-time gambler, she met Jim Reed, future father of her son Ed. Reed was an Indian, like all of Belle’s lovers after Younger, and a third-rate bandit who introduced her to the exciting world of the frontier outlaw.

After Belle and her latest beau stole $30,000 worth of gold in Oklahoma, Reed was shot to death by a friend near Paris, Texas who killed him for the reward. His financially secure widow temporarily retired to a respectable life in Dallas, where she tried to mold her daughter into a child star.

Auditions were easy to come by for a pistol-packing stage mother, and at age 14 Pearl made her vaudeville debut. But, as is so often the case, the offspring’s talent did not match mama’s ambition.

Belle, even on her best behavior, was a wild and unpredictable hellion. Following arrests for arson and horse stealing, she abandoned the straight-and-narrow and headed for the Oklahoma Territory.

Serving a life sentence in the federal penitentiary at Stillwater was Belle’s first love. But to break Cole Younger out of prison or to buy his freedom, she would need a mountain of money.

The romantic trailblazer showed a scandalous preference for younger men. When she was pushing 40, they were barely out of their teens. The objects of her affection had a short life expectancy as six successive paramours met violent ends in just four and a half years.

Marriage to Sam Starr gave Belle her famous last name plus a sizable chunk of Oklahoma real estate. The property, which she indelicately called Younger’s Bend, was accessible only through a narrow canyon and, for a steep price, provided an ideal sanctuary for criminal associates on the run.

Younger’s Bend evolved into an infamous hideout for highwaymen, horse thieves, bank robbers and bootleggers all under the cunning control of the Bandit Queen. Except for a lone conviction that resulted in a nine-month stretch in the county jail, Belle brazenly operated beyond the reach of the law.

After Sam Starr perished in a December 1886 shootout, Belle picked a replacement 16 years her junior. When the independent female refused to take his surname, Jim July tacked Starr onto his own.

Belle was ambushed while horseback riding in February 1889. The ambush happened the week before her forty-second birthday, and the grisly coup de grace was a shotgun blast in the back.

The sensational unsolved murder yielded a bumper crop of suspects. A local farmer allegedly blackmailed by the victim was questioned and released. Jim July Starr was a popular choice, while another leading candidate was the vengeful brother of a dead boyfriend. The most sinister innuendo hinted that the killer was none other than Ed Reed, Belle’s own flesh and blood.

Neither of her children won any “good citizen” awards. Pearl’s adult performances were private affairs in Arkansas brothels. A prostitute and notorious madam, she died from natural causes in 1925. As for her half-brother Ed, he was a three-time loser when gunned down at the age of 22.

Although her colorful exploits inspired a stack of books, several movies and television shows and two Broadway plays, the Bandit Queen could not get the time of day from her original love. Bitter over Belle’s failure to spring him from prison, Cole Younger did not even mention her name in his 1903 autobiography.

“Texas Entertainers: Lone Stars in Profile” is full of talented Texans who deserve a curtain call. Order your copy by mailing a check for $24.00 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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