The true story of outlaw queen Belle Starr, a frequent visitor to Fort Smith from Younger's Bend in the Indian Territory; documented by traditional genealogy research

The Legend of Belle Starr - Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws

The legend of Belle Starr did not take off in ernest until after her death in 1889.  Writers attempting to turn a good story into a sensational one, reported rumor as fact and in some case completely manufactured stories about her.  Newspapers in and around the Indian Territory became interested in her only after her arrest and conviction, along with her husband Sam Starr, for stealing horses in 1882. Newspaper writers back then did not have modern sensibilities about accurate and impartial reporting.  They often reported rumor as fact and accepted the word of their subject at face value.  Later, many of these accounts were accepted as documented facts.  I also suspect that many of the stories about her may have come from her daughter, Rosie Lee "Pearl" (Reed) Starr.  Pearl operated brothels in Fort Smith and Van Buren up until World War I, and enhancing her mother's image as an outlaw may have been good for business.

The only research I have done on Belle Starr is what I would do normally in my genealogy research.  I have looked at the U.S. Census returns for Missouri, Texas, California and the Indian Territories. I have read several different versions of her life, including some that took a hard look at the historical evidence.  I try here, using mostly my own judgment, to separate the facts from the myths about Belle Starr.  If you would rather have the unadulterated version of the legend, read Glenn Shirley's, Law West of Fort Smith, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE., (1957) and other books by him.  "Law West of Fort Smith" is a factual book primarily about Judge Isaac Parker and his court.  There are chapters devoted to some of the more infamous outlaws that appeared before Parker's court. One chapter is devoted to Belle and recounts the usual story about her.  In the 1950's Glenn Shirley did not have easy access to many of the records we do today.

A studio portrait of Belle Starr probably taken in Fort Smith in the early 1880's.

Belle Starr on her favorite horse Venus in Fort Smith about 1886

Belle Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley in Jasper County, Missouri on February 5, 1848.  To her family she was "May."   Her father was John Shirley, a fairly successful hotel keeper in Carthage.  The story goes that John Shirley sent Belle to the female academy in Carthage where she was educated and learned to be an accomplished piano player.  But even the best in schooling for southern ladies could not tame the wild streak in Belle.  She also learned to be a dead shot with a pistol and rifle and expert horsewoman. During the Civil War her brother John "Bud" Shirley lead a small band of Confederate guerillas and rode with Quantrill's raiders.  It was through him that the Shirley family became acquainted with William Clark Quantrill and his followers including Cole Younger and the James brothers.  Southern sympathizers like the Shirley's often provided the Confederate guerillas with support and comfort. 

Fifteen-year-old Belle idolized Quantrill's Raiders and saw them as gallant heroes of the South.  When Federal troops killed her brother Bud Shirley and razed the town of Carthage in the summer of 1863, Belle became inflamed with a desire for revenge.  She strapped on two pistols and rode off to join Quantrill.  Belle joined a small cadre of female spies that supplied Quantrill's band with information on Union troop movements and strengths. Supposedly she sometimes dressed as a man and joined Quantrill's gang on raids. 

The truth is that John Shirley moved his family from Missouri to Texas in 1864 soon after his son John "Bud" Shirley was killed by Federal militia.  It is not likely that Belle rode off to be with Quantrill.  She is not mentioned in any of the memoirs of former guerillas written after the war.  A sixteen-year-old female who could ride and shoot like the best of them would probably have been remembered.  It is entirely possible that Belle did pass on to Confederate guerrillas information about Federal troops.  Many female relatives of guerrillas did do that, and got away with it because early in the war a woman did not raise much suspicion.  As the war progressed, that would change.

It was in June, 1864 that Belle's brother John was shot and killed by Union militia as he tried to escape from a house the soldiers had surrounded.  This was the motive for John Shirley to move his family to Texas, settling near Mesquite and Scyene east of Dallas.  He put Belle back in school with the hope that the sixteen-year-old would become a proper lady.

In 1866 the James and Younger brothers were accused of robbing the Liberty, Missouri bank, committing the first peacetime daylight bank robbery in history.  The Belle Starr legend claims that Cole and the James boys came to the Shirley ranch to hide out after the robbery.  When they left several months later to return to Missouri, Belle was pregnant with Cole's baby.  This story is a complete fabrication.

Throughout his life, Cole denied that Belle's daughter Pearl was his child.  He claimed that at the time of the Liberty hold-up he was still in California where he had gone shortly before the end of Civil War.  Younger did in fact visit the Shirley ranch in Texas in 1864 during one of the guerrillas' visits to Texas during the war.  The next time he saw Belle was in 1868 when she was living with her husband Jim Reed in Bates County, Missouri.  At the time she was pregnant with her first child.

After 1868 Belle never saw Cole again.  He was captured and went to prison in Minnesota after the disastrous Northfield raid in 1871.  By the time Cole was released from prison, Belle was dead.

On November 1, 1866 Myra Maybelle Shirley married James C. Reed, a former Quantrill guerrilla whom she may have known in Missouri.  It was by him, not Cole Younger, that she became pregnant.  Daughter Rosie Lee Reed, who Belle called "my little Pearl" was born in September, 1868 in Missouri.

This is contrary to the legend that says Belle became pregnant out of wedlock by Cole Younger.  After her daughter's birth she left the child with Belle's parents and went to Dallas where she became a saloon and dance hall singer and piano player.  She also learned to deal poker, monte and faro.  It is said she became financially independent and dressed extravagantly.  She also mixed with men who had less than total respect for the law.

Cole Younger immediately after his capture in Minnesota in 1871

Belle's son Ed Reed

Twenty-eight year-old Jim Reed was known around Dallas as a horse thief. It is said that Belle operated a stable where she sold horses that Jim stole. When Belle became pregnant again Jim Reed took Belle and Pearl back to his home in Missouri.  Reed soon joined a gang of Texas cattle rustlers who ambushed Texas herds headed to the rail heads in Kansas.  Belle apparently took delight in her husband's career; if she did not actually participate, she supported him whole heartedly.

Jim's brother Scott Reed was killed by the Shannon brothers, members of another gang of cattle rustlers and Jim Reed sought revenge.  He shot and killed his brother's murderers.  A warrants were issued for his arrest and he had to leave Missouri.  He fled to California and then sent for Belle and Pearl. 

The story of Belle and Jim raising hell in Dallas in the 1860's is fictitious.  Jim Reed took his pregnant wife back to his family's home in Bates County, Missouri shortly after their marriage.  There is no evidence that at the time Jim or Belle were associated with any shady activity, or living a scandalous life in Dallas.  However, after returning to Missouri Jim Reed became involved with Tom Starr and whiskey smuggling in the Indian Territory.  A warrant for his arrest was issued for the killing a man named Shannon, whom he killed apparently as revenge for the murder of his older brother Scott (the 1850 and 1860 census of Bates County, Missouri which lists the family of Solomon and Susan Reed, Jim's parents, does not show a child named Scott - this may have been the middle name of Jim's brother, William).

Belle's third child, son Ed Reed, was born in Los Angeles, California in 1871. When I looked at the 1870 census, dated August 11, 1870, for Los Angeles County, California I found Jim Reed (age twenty-four, born in Missouri) and his family living in Los Nietos.  I was surprised to find another child, Elisa W. Reed, born in April, 1870 in California.  Myra Maybelle is listed as Mary M. (age 20, born in Missouri). Daughter Rosa, age two, is listed (her place of birth says Maryland!).  Living in the household with the Reeds is Henry Reed, age 35, born in Kentucky.  I'm certain that despite the errors, this is Jim and "May" Reed.  Since the Reeds moved to Missouri from Kentucky, Henry is probably a cousin. James Reed's personal property is listed as $900, a sizeable amount for a farm laborer, listed as his occupation. In today's standards that is about a year's income for most families.  I suspect his fortune had a lot to do with his part-time job, counterfeiting.

Belle's daughter Rosa Lee (Pearl) when she was a madam in a Fort Smith bordello in the 1890's

Having a wife and three children to care for did not deter Jim from escalating his outlaw career in California.  Reed supposedly held up a stage near San Diego. He was also involved in counterfeiting. Local law enforcement in California learned about the warrant from Missouri. There were probably rewards offered for his capture and he became a valuable target for bounty hunters.   He was again forced to flee.

Belle supposedly returned to Texas with Pearl and Ed about 1873.  History books never mention the other daughter. Belle's father took her in again for the sake of his grandchildren. Jim Reed was hiding out in Indian Territory at the ranch of notorious Cherokee outlaw Tom Starr.  Belle would travel to Indian Territory to visit her husband on the Starr ranch.

Tom Starr had been a strong advocate of the Southern cause.  After the war he stirred up enormous trouble for the Cherokee Nation and the Starr clan initiated a tremendous crime wave of murder and robbery.  The Starr's were such a large and powerful force in the Cherokee Nation that the tribe was forced to sign a treaty with Tom Starr.  In exchange for peace the tribe paid him a good chunk of their treasury and gave him a large section of land in the area of Eufaula on a bend of the Canadian River.  The area was remote and scarcely populated.  No one dared travel the area unless they knew or were invited by the Starr clan.  It became a refuge for some of the most notorious outlaws in the West. 

Belle's legend says that In the fall of 1873, disguised as a man she went with her husband and outlaw Daniel Evans to the home of Watt Grayson, a wealthy Creek who lived not far from Tom Starr.  The outlaws beat and tortured Grayson and his wife until they told the bandits where they had hidden $30,000 in gold coins.  This story is probably the result of rumor, not fact.  The Grayson's identified Reed and one accomplice, but said nothing about a woman dressed as a man.  They were brutalized for several hours and most likely the Grayson's would have noticed something unusual about one of the outlaws.

At a time when the average annual income of most families was well under $1,000 a year, $30,000 was an enormous amount of money, even split three ways.  The Reeds could have lived comfortably on their share for many years without committing another crime.  But, criminals are usually greedy and the motive for their crimes is not always just the money. 

There was nothing the Grayson family could do about the crime.  The Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas under Judge William Story, which had jurisdiction, had no interest in chasing outlaws in the Indian Nations.  The tribal police had no authority to arrest non-Indians, or even other Indians not of their tribe.  Cherokee police could only investigate and arrest a Cherokee for a crime against another Cherokee.  There was indeed no law west of Fort Smith that could touch the criminals.

In 1874, while Jim Reed was visiting Belle and the children at the home of Belle's father, he joined up with two of his old gang members and held up the San Antonio stage.  Reed's accomplices were captured in Dallas and a few months later Reed was killed by a deputy sheriff near Paris, Texas.

Up until now, Myra Belle Reed was only known in a few circles as the wife of an outlaw.  She would soon start the chapter in her life that would make her notorious in her own right.  Belle supposedly shipped Ed and Pearl off to relatives in Missouri and Arkansas and moved to Indian Territory.  She became involved with her husband's old gang of cattle rustlers, bootleggers, hold-up artists and horse thieves.  According to legend she soon made herself the power behind the outlaws.  She planned their robberies and helped to fence the spoils.  If a gang member were caught, Belle would finance the lawyers or bribe officials to free them.  She also rewarded the most successful outlaws with sexual favors.  If any of this were true, she was a woman who knew how to control men and she was not timid about it.  As an outlaw she could be what very few women of her time could be, totally liberated and unbounded by the Victorian morality of that age.  However, I do not think that there is much, if any evidence to support these claims.

I wonder how anyone would know about Belle's sexual activities.  I suspect that those tales were mostly rumor about a single women living among men who had little regard for social mores.  I also suspect that Belle's daughter Pearl Starr, who was a madam in a Fort Smith brothel for years, may have used these stories about Belle to enhance her own image - or maybe a back-handed slap at her mother's puritanical attitudes about sex.  Belle attempted to get custody of Pearl's illegitimate daughter Flossie because she disapproved of her daughter's prostitution.  Before Flossie was born Belle tried to get Pearl to have an abortion rather than give birth to an illegitimate child.  Supposedly, Belle told Pearl that if she had the child she would kick Pearl out of the house and she never wanted to see the child.   This does not sound like a sexually promiscuous lady to me.

Belle had met Sam Starr during her visits to her husband's hideout in 1873.  Supposedly, he was one of her many lovers during the days of her leadership of the outlaw gang.  She married Sam Starr in 1880 and gained her famous name.  While Belle Reed may have been a respectable outlaw name, Belle Starr had a ring to it that the press and dime novelist could not pass by. 

Now that Belle had married a Cherokee she had dower's rights to her husband's land.  Sam Starr had a place on a bend of the Canadian River near Porum, Oklahoma under Hi-Early Mountain.  Belle promptly made it her home and renamed it "Younger's Bend" in honor of Cole.  According to legend the place could only be accessed through a narrow trail running through a canyon with caves and boulders that could be used to guard the entrance.  The ranch was practically impenetrable and immediately became a refuge for any outlaw seeking a hideout. 

To me, this description sounds like a Hollywood screen writer's dream of an outlaw hideout.  I have not been to Younger's Bend, which is on Lake Eufaula in Haskell County.  But, I do know the general area and I don't believe the place was as isolated and secure as the legend says it was.  There were probably dozens of different ways a person on a horse could get to Belle's cabin.  U.S. deputy marshals and Cherokee tribal police raided Younger's Bend more than once.  The origin of name of Younger's Bend is also in dispute.  Some sources say that Tom Starr named the spot in honor of Cole Younger who stayed there during the Civil War while Quantrill's Raiders were in winter camp in Texas.  It bore the name long before Belle Starr ever lived there.

In 1882 the law finally caught up with Belle and Sam Starr.  They were arrested for horse theft; two horses belonging to neighbors somehow mysteriously wandered into the Starr's corral and they sold the horses as their own.  Belle and Sam were arrested by U.S. Deputy Marshals and taken to Fort Smith to face Judge Isaac Parker.  Both were found guilty and sentenced to a year in the federal prison in Detroit.  Within nine months both were back in Younger's Bend and back to their old ways. 

It was well known (and a fact) that outlaws sought refuge at Younger's Bend and Belle welcomed them all. She made that statement to a Dallas newspaper reporter in the 1880's, some time after she returned home from prison in 1884.  Perhaps she felt that if she was to be labeled an outlaw, she might as well make the best of it.  From this period until her death Belle never seemed to be hard up for money.

Map of present day Oklahoma showing the location of Younger's Bend

Some time after their return to Younger's Bend a cousin of Jim Reed, John Middleton, sought refuge at their ranch.  Middleton was a wanted man in Arkansas and Texas.  He had fled Arkansas after gunning down Sheriff Black of Lamar County, Arkansas at Black's front door.  In the spring of 1886 a warrant was issued for the arrest of Sam Starr for the robbery of the Creek Nation treasury.  With the heat on, Middleton worried about his security at Sam Starr's ranch.  He decided to go to Dardanelle, Arkansas to hide out at the home of his mother.  Sam Starr proceeded to make himself scarce and left Younger's Bend for another hide-out.

With Sam on the run, Belle supposedly had turned her attention to Middleton and decided to run off with him to Dardanelle.  At Keota in the Indian Territory the pair separated to put off anyone trailing them.  They planned to reunite at Dardanelle.  John Middleton never made it to Arkansas.  A short time later his horse with an empty saddle was found tangled in brush and the banks of the Poteau River.   Near by, his body was found face down in the mud.  The legend says that Sam Starr had tracked Belle and Middleton from Younger's Bend and when the pair separated Sam killed Middleton with a shotgun blast to the face.  According to the legend Sam never took revenge on his wife for her unfaithfulness because, "... He knew what kind of woman she was."

There is another version of this story that to me seems much more realistic.  Sam Starr, John Middleton and maybe other associates of Sam's were suspected of the robberies of the Creek and Seminole Nations treasuries. A posse raided Younger's Bend looking for Starr and Middleton and evidence to tie them to the robberies.  The pair were not at the ranch when the marshals arrived and the posse found nothing to implicate them in the hold-ups.  With the heat on at Younger's Bend, Middleton decided to go back to his home in Dardanelle, Arkansas and asked the Starr's to help him.  Sam and Belle hid Middleton in a wagon covered with a tarp.  With their saddle horses tied to the back and the children little Ed and Pearl in the wagon, Belle and Sam headed for Arkansas.  When the group camped for the night on the first day out, probably near Keota, Middleton some how offended Belle and she refused to go any further or to allow Middleton to take her horse.

The next day Belle purchased a mare for Middleton from a local man.  Belle gave Middleton her saddle and .45 revolver.  After Middleton left the group the Starr family returned to Younger's Bend.   Several days later the mare was found, covered in mud and with Belle's saddle still on her.  A search soon led to Middleton's body in the mud on the banks of the Poteau River close to the Arkansas border.  The consensus was he had drowned while attempting to cross the unusually high water in the river.  About this same period three people robbed elderly N. H. Farrell and his sons some forty miles west of Fort Smith. Rumors spread that one of the three bandits was a woman dressed as a man.

In April, 1886 writs were issued for Belle and Sam's arrest for robbery.  In May U.S. Deputy Marshals again raided Younger's Bend looking for Sam and Belle.  When the posse arrived at Younger's Bend Sam was gone but the officers arrested Belle and took her back to Fort Smith to again face Judge Parker.  Belle pleaded not guilty and paid her bail to await trial.

Obviously a "Glamour Portrait" of Belle Starr, Fort Smith, Arkansas in May 23, 1886 - except for her eyes, this picture does not look much like others taken of Belle (compare it to the one supposedly taken the next day with Blue Duck).

Legend says that Belle had taken up with an outlaw named Bluford "Blue" Duck and that the couple lived as man and wife during a period when Belle and Sam were separated.  This Blue Duck legend has been pervasive, often repeated and supposedly supported by a picture of Belle and Blue Duck.  However, there is evidence that there never was a relationship between the pair.  While waiting for her trial in Fort Smith Belle spent the time shopping and visiting friends.  She also had her picture taken.

While at the studio the attorney for Blue Duck, who was awaiting a hearing on appeal of a death sentence, asked Belle to pose with Blue Duck.  The attorney hoped that the picture of the couple would soften Duck's image and help in his appeal.  The next day the pair had their picture taken.  After that they never saw each other again, but the picture has survived to help inflame Belle's reputation as a loose woman.

The controversial photo of Belle and Blue Duck, May 24, 1886

At Belle's trial, Farrell and his sons were unable to identify Belle and testified that the robbers were three well built men.  Belle was acquitted.  However, her troubles were not over.  The horse that Belle bought for Middleton turned out to have been stolen.  Marshals again arrested Belle and she again faced Parker for horse theft.  Belle testified to the circumstances and the jury again acquitted her. 

In September, 1886 Sam was wounded and captured in a corn field by tribal police.  But, while his wounds were being tended to, some of Sam's friends raided the farm house where he was being held and freed him.  Sam hid out at a friend's house to recover and Belle tended to his injury.  When Belle learned that the tribal police were planning yet another raid on Younger's Bend, she convinced Sam to turn himself into U.S. Deputy Marshals.  She convinced him that he would stand a better chance in front of Judge Parker than before the tribal council.  If he turned himself in to the marshals, the tribal police could not arrest him.  It was good advice and Sam took it.  Sam rode into Fort Smith and surrendered himself to startled deputy marshals who had been hunting him for months.  Belle hired the best lawyers in Fort Smith for Sam and paid his bail. Sam was released and returned to Younger's Bend to await his trial.  Sam did not live to face Parker.  He was killed in a gunfight with a tribal policeman at a dance he and Belle were attending the week before Christmas.

With Sam dead Belle now had a problem.  The Cherokee tribal council told her that her claim to the land at Younger's Bend ended with Sam's death.  She was in danger of losing her home in the Indian Nations.  She quickly resolved the problem by marrying young Jim July, a mixed blood Creek and Cherokee Indian and the adopted son of old Tom Starr.  He was entitled to own land in the Cherokee Nation.  What we do not know is what Jim July got out of this marriage.  He was more than a decade younger than Belle.  There are also stories that he was known to say very unflattering and disparaging things about Belle when with his friends.  Perhaps it was her money that interested him.  Whatever the reason, it would not be long before he needed her help.  The marriage did not sit well with Belle's son and daughter who both resented July.  Young Ed was very upset by the marriage and he and July often quarreled.

The marriage was also the beginning of Belle's problems with her children.  Pearl became pregnant by a married man she had been seeing behind Belle's back.  Belle tried to convince Pearl to visit a doctor in Fort Smith for an abortion but Pearl refused.  Belle then shipped her off to her grandmother in Siloam Springs, in Benton County, Arkansas to have the baby. After the baby was born Pearl returned to Fort Smith and at some point became involved in prostitution. Belle was outraged at her daughter's behavior and tried to have the baby taken away from her.  While Pearl was still in Arkansas Ed was arrested for horse theft and selling liquor to the Indians.  Belle hired lawyers but Ed was sentenced to prison.  A few months after Ed was incarcerated, Belle's lawyers were able to win a pardon for him and he returned home to his mother's ranch.  There are a couple of versions of what happened next.  One says that Belle soon suspected that her son was intercepting her mail and asked the postmaster not to give her mail to anyone but her.  When Ed tried to pick up Belle's mail at the post office, the postmaster refused.  Ed pulled a gun on the man and demanded he hand over the mail.  Belle happened to walk in right at that moment.  She had a bullwhip with her and commenced to lash her delinquent son with it, giving him quite a severe beating.  Another version says that Belle caught Ed mistreating one of her horses at Younger's Bend.  She gave him a lashing with a bullwhip that he brooded about for months.  Whatever the truth, Ed soon moved out of the cabin at Younger's Bend.

In 1888 Edgar A. Watson and his wife moved to the Canadian River in Indian Territory from Florida. Watson rented some land from Belle and paid cash in advance.  Later, Belle heard from someone that Watson was wanted in Florida for murder.  The Cherokee tribal council had warned Belle after the last police raid on Younger's Bend that if she was caught again harboring outlaws or fugitives at Younger's Bend they would put her off her land.  Fearing this, Belle went to Watson and tried to return his money.  He refused to take it back and said he intended to farm the land he had paid for.  Belle was upset but there was nothing she could do about it.

Things just went from bad to worse for Belle.  About the same time that Ed was arrested for stealing horses, Jim July was also indicted for horse theft.  On February 2, 1889 July left to turn himself in at the jail in Fort Smith. Belle accompanied him a dozen miles or so, then turned around to go home.  The two had gotten into an argument and Belle told Jim she would not pay his bail or his lawyers.  On the way back to the Bend she stopped at a neighbor's house to visit with his wife and see her son Ed who was staying there.  Watson was also at the house and the argument between him and Belle resumed.  During the quarrel Watson made a remark about how often the law seemed to be at Belle's ranch.  Belle responded by saying that perhaps the authorities in Florida would be interested in knowing where Watson was.

Belle mounted her horse and rode back to Younger's Bend.  As she was crossing a creek near her cabin a blast of buckshot hit her in the back knocking her off her horse.  As she tried to get up another blast of turkey shot hit her in the face and neck.  Two men at the ferry on the Canadian River where Belle had crossed a few minutes before heard the two shots.  One of the men, Milo Hoyt, ran up the road towards Younger's Bend and found Belle face down in the mud.  When she lost her rider, Belle's horse Venus ran off towards home.  The horse with its blood covered saddle reached the cabin and Pearl immediately knew at what the two shots she heard were directed.  Pearl ran down the trail to where Hoyt was trying to comfort Belle.  Belle died in her daughter's arms.  Pearl and her neighbors buried Belle by her cabin in Younger's Bend. 

Now began a murder mystery worthy of the best fiction.  At first it seemed a clear cut case against Edgar Watson.  When Jim July reached Fort Smith a telegram was waiting for him with the news of Belle's death.  He immediately started back for Younger's Bend arriving there the following day. Boot tracks were found leading towards Watson's cabin.  When his house was searched the men found his shotgun and both barrels were recently discharged.  Watson denied having anything to do with the murder.  July threatened to kill Watson and Watson replied that if Jim did that he would be killing an innocent man.  Watson agreed to accompany Pearl, July and other witnesses back to Fort Smith arriving there three days after Belle's death.  July was anxious to secure an indictment against Watson.  A hearing was held before the U.S. Commissioner.  All of Watson's neighbors testified in his favor saying that he was a good man, quiet and hard working; they testified that he was well liked by everyone and that he had caused no trouble since coming to their neighborhood.  During the hearing it was discovered that the rumors about Watson being wanted for murder in Florida were false.  The Commissioner ordered Watson released.  Jim July was furious and left Fort Smith without turning himself in for his trial on horse theft.   When he missed his court date Judge Parker issued a warrant for Jim July's arrest.

After Watson returned home from Fort Smith he contacted U. S. Deputy Marshal J. R. Hutchins and told the deputy that July was attempting to frame him.  Watson said that July had come by his house the afternoon of Belle's death to borrow his shotgun.  At the time July was supposedly on his way to Fort Smith to face trial.  He told Watson that he needed the shotgun to kill a wolf.  July returned the shot gun only an hour later with both barrels empty.  Soon after July left his house, Watson learned of Belle's death.  Watson gave the deputy the two empty shells from the shotgun.  Hutchins returned to Fort Smith and gave Watson's story to Judge Parker.  Parker did not believe that Watson had any reason to lie since he had been cleared during the hearing.  Watson's possible motive, the fear of being turned in by Belle, had also been dismissed since the rumor was untrue.  Judge Parker ordered Hutchins to go back to Younger's Bend and attempt to learn the truth.

Deputy Hutchins interviewed Milo Hoyt and learned a startling detail. Hoyt said that Jim July had offered him $100 to kill Belle.  When Hoyt refused, July yelled, "Hell, I'll kill the old hag myself."  U. S. Deputy Marshal Bud Trainor and Hutchins received a tip that July had been to a woman's house looking for Hutchins and saying that he was going to kill the deputy.  Trainor and Hutchins picked up July's trail from the woman's cabin and caught up with the outlaw the next morning.  Ordered to surrender, July refused and reached for his gun.  Hutchins fired first knocking July from his horse and seriously wounding him.  With all the fight gone out of him, Jim July surrendered.  July was turned over to U. S. Deputy Marshal Heck Thomas who took him back to jail in Fort Smith.  Realizing that he was dying July asked to see Deputy Hutchins. He said that he had a confession that he would give only to Hutchins.  Before Hutchins could see July, he died.

The law was also interested in Belle's son Ed Reed.  Young Ed's anger at his public beating by his mother had been smoldering since the incident.  He had expressed his rage to several people and some thought he was capable of killing Belle.  He was known to have threatened his mother, and his whereabouts on the day of the murder was not known. He was at the neighbor's house and heard Belle's argument with Watson. Even Pearl was not beyond suspicion.  She held a long standing grudge against her mother because of the trouble between them when Pearl became pregnant.  She had the opportunity since she was home alone when Belle was killed.  Although no one looked for a shotgun in Belle's cabin, more than likely Pearl had access to one.

The murder mystery of the Bandit Queen fueled the flames of the press and dime novelists of the day.  After her death, she became as famous as her idols, the James and Younger boys.  It was as if each new story had to make Belle more sensational than the last.  Several decades later Hollywood worked its magic.  It is my suspicion that some of the more spicy tales were circulated by Pearl.  One hundred and twenty years later it is almost impossible to sift the truth from the fiction.  A counterfeit diary surfaced and letters supposedly written by Belle turned up mysteriously, all containing sensational details of her life.  I wonder what Belle would think of her scandalous reputation if she were alive today.  As for me, I probably would have been comfortable sitting down to a conversation with Belle, but I would never have turned my back on her men.

On the left is a picture of Belle Starr's cabin at Younger's Bend .

On the right is the headstone Pearl erected over her mother's grave by her cabin.

Sources: Glenn Shirley, Law West of Fort Smith, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE., 1957
Carol Tallman Jones, DESPERADO, The Infamous Belle Starr, Geocities/Heartland/Plains/bstarr (1997)
Richard D. Arnott, Bandit Queen Belle Starr, The HistoryNet.Com Copyright ©2006 Weider History Group; the 1850 and 1860 U.S. census of Bates County, Missouri; 1870 U.S. census,11 August 1870, Los Nietos, Los Angeles County, California.



Ronald N. Wall
Copyright 1999. All rights reserved.
Revised: 23 April 2011