The archetypal gunslinger in the Old West was mean, grizzled and potentially deadly. While Belle Starr was certainly capable of violence, she had a very different appearance. Starr would ride through the towns of the Old West with two pistols strapped to her black velvet skirt, and she wore gleaming boots while still displaying feminine charm. There are a lot of legends attributed to the ‘Bandit Queen, ‘ but evidence suggests she wasn’t quite as active as first thought as fanciful tales added to her mystique.
Myra Maybelle Shirley was born in Carthage, Missouri on February 5, 1848, and was typically called ‘May’ by her family. Her family was prosperous by the standards of the era, and she grew up on a farm. Her father, John Shirley, sold the farm in 1860 and moved into the town of Carthage where he purchased a livery stable, inn, and blacksmith shop.
Belle’s upbringing was a million miles from what she became as she received a classical education and learned how to play the piano. She even graduated from the Carthage Female Academy although it probably helped that her father was involved in founding it. It seemed as if she was set for the good life, but the Civil War changed everything.
Descent Into Criminality
The American Civil War, which began in 1861, resulted in the deaths of up to one million people (estimates vary) and destroyed the lives of many more. As Missouri was a slave state at the time, it was quickly caught up in the conflict which impacted the Shirley family. Belle had five brothers and a sister, and despite her classical education, she couldn’t fight her ‘tomboy’ instinct.
She was known for her fierce temper and would routinely get into fights with boys and girls. Her brother Bud taught her how to fire a gun, and she soon became a crack shot with a rifle or pistol. A Union attack on Carthage ruined the Shirley’s business and forced them to move to Sycene, Texas. This is where Belle apparently became acquaintances with Jesse James and the Younger Gang in what became a pattern of associating with men of questionable character.
Angered by how the family’s way of life was being destroyed by the Union army, Bud, and Belle’s sweetheart, Jim Reed, became bushwhackers and were involved in guerrilla attacks on the enemy along the Missouri-Kansas border. Belle volunteered to spy on Union troops, and she would provide Bud with her findings. In 1864, tragedy struck when Bud was surrounded by federal militia at Sarcoxie and shot dead. His death probably hastened Belle’s journey into a life of crime.
In 1866, the Reed family also moved to Sycene and Belle married Jim. Belle had her first child, Rosie Lee (nicknamed Pearl), in 1868 and her second child, James Edwin, in 1871. Motherhood didn’t prevent her from getting involved in Jim’s life of crime. He was wanted for murder in Arkansas, so the family moved to California which is where they had their second child. The family moved back to Texas soon after and Jim became involved with a variety of criminals. Jim initially tried to make his way legally through farming, but he soon started working with the notorious Cherokee Indian family, the Starr clan, along with Jesse James and the Younger’s. This association was to cause even more tragedy for the Reeds.