Bandit Queen Belle Starr, best dressed horse thief in Oklahoma

Time Before Now, July, 1889On June 8, three journalists, Charles Dow, Edward Jones, and Charles Bergstresser started a newspaper, The Wall Street Journal.  A week later, in honor of Italy’s queen consort, Margherita of Sovoy, a Neopolitan baker, Raffaele Esposito, named his new creation the “Pizza Margherita”   and Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh, in the asylum at Rimy-De-Provence recovering from the emotional loss of his left ear, envisioned one of the art world’s most recognizable paintings, “The Starry Night.” 

July 31, 1883

On this day, outlaw fashionista, Belle Starr, and husband number two or possibly number three, got arrested for stealing horses.  Both were sent to prison by Hangin Judge Isaac Parker.

Starr’s arrest was the result of yet another matrimonial entanglement.  Her path to perdition began at age of 20, marrying into the James-Younger criminal enterprise. This time it was hooking up with Sam Starr, part of the nearly as notorious Cherokee Starr Clan. 

Born in Carthage, Missouri, as Myra Maybelle Shirley, (left)  she was the daughter of a prosperous and dedicated Confederate, “Judge” John Shirley.   Belle’s mother, John’s third wife, Eliza Pennington Hatfield, was a descendant of the feuding Hatfields and MaCoys and most of Belle’s brothers took up arms as Civil War bushwhackers with Quantrill’s Raiders.  

In the last throes of the war, however, the Shirley family moved to Scyene, Texas, present-day Dallas. It was home base for a virtual A-list of transplanted Missouri outlaws, including Frank and Jessie James, Cole and Robert Younger, as well as Belle’s future husband, James gang member, Jim Reed. (Left) 

Running off with Reed despite her parents objections, descendants of the Reed family claim their side wasn’t thrilled, either.   Popular speculation  at the time concluded the bride may have already been pregnant with daughter, Rosie Lee, fathered not by the bride groom but by Cole Younger. (Right, at 30)  

Belle’s second child, son, James Edwin “Eddie” Reed, however, was born in 1871 in Los Angeles, while the couple was dodging Reed’s Arkansas murder warrant.   Belle used the time productively, working on her “Bandit Queen”image.

When the Arkansas warrant caught up with the couple in California, they scurried back to Texas.  In 1874, however, Jim was fatally shot by a deputy sheriff in Paris, following another arrest warrant, this one for  stage robbery.

The claim of another marriage to Cole Younger’s uncle lasting a mere three weeks was never reliably substantiated and the widow Reed wed Sam Starr, a member of the Cherokee Starr Clan.  Setting up shop as a safe haven for horse thieves, rustlers and bootleggers, Starr, as an added service, provided money for bail and/or  bribes when they were caught. 

But her luck ran out when she was nabbed by Deputy U.S. Marshall, Bass Reeves, (right) the nation’s first celebrated Black lawman. Both Belle and Sam received  lenient nine month prison sentences.   While Belle was said to be a model prisoner at Michigan’s Detroit House of Corrections,  Sam, not so much.  He spent his entire time doing hard labor as an incorrigible.

Belle, busted again, in the company of a deputy.  Note six-gun.

Belle was apparently not a lesson learner, barely escaping conviction on yet another charge of horse theft in 1886.   But when Sam was killed in a gun fight with lawman Frank West, her reign as the bandit queen ended abruptly. 

Her spicy, bad-girl reputation was burnished by rumored involvements with a laundry list of famous outlaws, including Jack Spaniard, Billy the Kid associate, Jim French and another Starr gang member, Blue Duck. (Right, Belle and Blue Duck)   In addition it  Starr reportedly married husband number four, a Starr relative many years her junior for the express purpose of keeping title to her Indian lands. 

Three days before her 41st birthday, she was ambushed outside Eufaula, Oklahoma, and died of a shotgun blast, February 3, 1889.  The long list of suspects in her murder included her young husband, her children and a sharecropper named Edgar Watson.  Watson was the only person ever to stand trial but was acquitted and the crime has remained unsolved.

Belle’s offspring pretty much picked up where their unruly parents left off.  Son Eddie (above right) was convicted of horse theft and sentenced to prison by the same Hanging Judge who convicted his mother.  Eddie had tried to turn over a new leaf, becoming a U.S. deputy marshall, but was killed in a barroom skirmish in Claremore, Oklahoma in 1896 at 25.  

Capitalizing on her mother’s well-earned notoriety, Rosie Lee Starr (right)  changed her name to “Pearl Younger and turned to prostitution, ostensibly to raise money for her brothers release.  Long after Eddie was released from prison, however, Pearl was still operating two bordellos in Arkansas.  Anti-vice ordinances in 1916 forced her relocate to Arizona, where she died in 1925. 

In 1933, Pearl’s daughter, Flossie, (right) in a two-part article for the Dallas Morning News, wrote that Uncle Eddie should have been arrested for  a worse crime than stealing horses.  Pearl was convinced, she said, that it was Eddie who had murdered Belle five months earlier.  

Hollywood discovered the Bandit Queen’s box office appeal even before talkies.  But it was the 1941 low budget B-movie, “Belle Starr,” with glamorous Gene Tierney, (left) that ignited a flurry of movies.   Most portrayed Starr as a crusading Southern woman “done wrong” by the Yankees.  So far, a Belle Starr character has been inserted into more than two dozen feature films, television episodes and even made into kind of a “musical” spaghetti Western with Italian model, Elsa Martinelli singing the title song.  Honest!   

Three Rivers Museum, 220 Elgin Street, Muskogee, Oklahoma, is a mere 35 miles north of the site where Belle Starr died in 1889.  The museum’s compact exhibits feature the female outlaw, her protagonist, U.S. Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves as well as regional and state history.  Located in the former Midland Valley Railroad Depot built in 1916, a small museum of train memorabilia is on the same grounds.  

Visitors can climb aboard a WWII-era switch engine donated by Georgia Pacific in 2002.   Open 10 to 5, Wednesday through Saturday, admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children over 6 and younger than 6 are free.  For more information go to, call (918) 686-6624 or write Three Rivers Museum, 220 Elgin St, Muskogee, OK 74401-7019.

Just 10 minutes away, the Five Civilized Tribes Museum at Agency Hill, Honor Heights Drive, is home to exhibits on the culture of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Creek.  Located in an 1875-era Agency building on the edge of Honor Heights Park, exhibits include artifacts, artwork, tribal  history and the Trail of Tears.  Open 10 to 5, Monday through Friday and 10 to 2 Saturday, admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for students.  For more information go to or call (918) 683-1701.

Other museums and historic sites in Muskogee include the Thomas-Foreman Historic Home, 1419 West Okmulgee Avenue and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, 401 S 3rd Street.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.