Not-So-Happy Birthdays for Sam Bass and Belle Starr — Part Two Essay
Belle Starr was born Myra Belle Shirley on February 5, 1848 on a little farm near Carthage, Missouri. She received a classical education and was a competent pianist. Starr was on track to lead an ordinary and respectable middle-class life. But fate stepped in when the Civil War started and forever changed her life. The war ruined her father’s business as a Carthage innkeeper and took the life of her brother Edwin. Devastated and penniless, the family left Missouri for Texas and a fresh start.
In Texas, the young Starr fell in with a group of badmen the likes of Cole Younger, a member of the James-Younger gang that was infamous for a string of daring bank and train robberies. Starr and Younger were a couple, but her relationship with him was short-lived, and in 1866 she married Jim Reed, a family acquaintance from Missouri who had served as a Confederate guerilla. They had their first child, a daughter named Rosie Lee Reed (nicknamed “Pearl” by her mother), in September of 1868. Even though she was a new mother, she was apparently fine with her husband’s outlaw reputation and even became his partner in crime by 1869. Starr joined Reed in his outlaw way — stealing cattle, horses, and money in the Dallas area. Riding her mare, “Venus,” wearing velvet skirts and plumed hats, Starr played the role of “The Bandit Queen” to the hilt for several years. Like Bass, she had a song named after her — written by the great folk singer Woody Guthrie.
In 1871 the couple had a son named James Edwin “Eddie” Reed. Like his parents, he was an outlaw – convicted of horse theft and receiving stolen property in July 1889 and sent to prison. His sister Pearl, became a prostitute to raise money for his release. She did achive her goal, eventually obtaining a presidential pardon for him in 1893. Pearl was spurned by Eddie when he found out how she had earned the money that freed him from prison. After his stint in jail, Eddie was a reformed man and became a police officer. He was killed in a shootout in December of 1896. As for Pearl, she made a good living in prostitution, operating several bordellos in Van Buren and Fort Smith, Arkansas from the 1890s to World War I. She died peacefully in Douglas, Arizona on July 6, 1925 with no one knowing her true identity.
In April 1874, Reed robbed the Austin-San Antonio stagecoach and relieved the passengers of about $2,500. A dead-or-alive bounty of $7,000 was placed on his head and he went into hiding. But lawmen found Reed outside of Paris, Texas on August 6, 1874. He was captured, but shot to death by a deputy sheriff while trying to escape from custody.
After a brief fling with Bruce Younger, Belle married a Cherokee Indian named Sam Starr on June 5, 1880. The pair settled on communal tribal land in the Cherokee Nation, at a place called Youngers’ Bend — known today as Eufaula, Oklahoma. During the early 1880s their cabin provided a hideout for outlaws. Belle made no apologies for what and who she was, once telling a Dallas newspaper reporter: “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.”
In 1882, Belle and Sam were brought up on charges of horse theft filed against them by one of their neighbors in the Indian Territory. Both were found guilty and in March 1883, Judge Parker (known as ‘The Hanging Judge”) sentenced them to a year in the House of Corrections in Detroit, Michigan While in prison, Belle proved to be a model prisoner, however Sam was more incorrigible and did his time assigned to hard labor.
Leaving prison, the corrupt couple quickly resumed their lives of crime. Belle was charged with robbing a post office while dressed as a man; somehow she managed to get herself acquitted of the crime. In 1886, Belle lost Sam when he was killed in a gunfight with a Bureau of Indian Affairs Police Officer named Frank West. At a dance hall near the Canadian River, an intoxicated Sam approached Officer West and accused him of shooting his horse. He then pulled his pistol and shot West in the neck. Even though mortally wounded, West was able to return fire, killing Sam. The gunfire ended the happiest period in Belle’s life and her carrer as the famed “Bandit Queen.”
During the last several years of her life, Starr of her life had a trio of outlaw lovers with colorful names: Jack Spaniard, Jim French and Blue Duck. Eventually she married a Creek Indian named Jim July, an outlaw who was 15 years younger than her. In January of 1889, July was arrested for robbery and summoned to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to face charges. Belle accompanied her young lover for part of the journey but turned back before reaching Fort Smith. Upon returning to her land, she summoned her two wayward children to live with her in a cabin she shared with July before he went to trial.
On February 3, 1889, Starr was riding home from a friend’s house, rounding a small hill, when she was ambushed, taking a shotgun blast to the head. After she fell off her horse, the shooter came out of hiding and shot her again to make sure she was dead. She suffered fatal wounds to her head, neck, back, shoulder and face from the twin blasts.
When she was killed, she was alone on the Oklahoma plains with no one to witness her demise. However, there were several suspects, including both of her children. But the most likely candidate appeared to be Edgar J. Watson, a sharecropper who worked her land. Watson was fugitive, with a bounty on his head for murder he committed in Florida — and Starr was aware of his criminal past.
Watson was arrested and put on trial for Starr’s murder, but nothing came of it and he was ultimately acquitted. Thus the ambush and murder of Starr has entered the annals of Western lore as “unsolved.” As for Watson, he returned to Florida in 1891 where he allegedly killed a man in self-defense over a land dispute. The next year he bought a sugar plantation and became a businessman with a dubious reputation. He was gunned down by locals in 1910 after committing yet another murder.
While Bass did pass away on his birthday, Starr actually died on February 3, 1889 — just two days before her birthday — but heck that’s close enough.
Read Part One