Belle Starr: Ambush on the Canadian River
 
In the late afternoon of February 3, 1889, on a lonely stretch of trail near the Canadian River, a single shotgun blast was fired from ambush. A moment later another shotgun blast, fired from close range, ended the life of Myra Maybelle Shirley, 'Belle Starr', a mere two days before her 41st birthday.
 
Like so many of the famous, and infamous,figures from the Old West, a plethora of legends regarding our fair Belle Starr are still recounted today. 'The Bandit Queen' - 'a female Jesse James' - 'a she-devil' - 'leader of the most blood-thirsty band of cutthroats of the American West'; she was none of these. She was a woman who lived through some desperate times and lived in some dangerous, and interesting, places - and she did run afoul of the law on more than one occasion.
 
Myra was born in Jasper County, Missouri, into a reasonably prosperous family. Her father, John, was a farmer and, later, a successful merchant and hotel keeper.
 
Towards the end of the Civil War, the Shirley family moved from Missouri to Texas. The move was, in part, to escape the memory of the killing of Myra's older brother, 'Bud', by Union troops. The family also wished to get away from the constant fighting and property destruction that was taking place in Missouri at that time. The family again became engaged in farming, although John did have plans to build another hotel - but that construction never took place.
 
In July of 1866, four of the Younger brothers, and Jesse James, stopped to visit the Shirleys in Scyene, Texas. Cole Younger knew the Shirley's from their days in Missouri. Legend has it that when Cole rode on, Myra was pregnant with his child, who was to become known as Pearl. Many historians discount this legend, stating that Pearl's father was Myra's first husband, the outlaw Jim Reed. What is known for certain is that Myra would be associated with outlaws and bandits for the next twenty-three years.
 
On August 6, 1874, Jim Reed was shot and killed by Special Deputy John T. Morris near Paris, Texas. Morris had been after Reed for his part in a stage robbery near San Antonio.
 
Not much is known about Myra's life over the next several years, but in the summer of 1880 she married Sam Starr and came to live in the Cherokee Nation. From this time forward, she would be known as 'Belle Starr'. Visitors at the Starr residence included Jesse James.
 
In March of 1883, Sam and Belle were both sentenced to prison terms, for horse theft. The sentence was imposed by the famous Judge Isaac Parker. Belle was remanded to the House of Corrections at Detroit, Michigan, where she spent nine months of a twelve month sentence - being released early due to good behavior.
 
Belle's scrapes with the law continued over the next several years, and bad luck seemed to pursue her continuously. On the night of December 17, 1886, Sam was killed in a gunfight with Frank West - West was also killed in the shoot-out.
 
Over the next few years, Belle attempted to lead a peaceful life, trying to put her lawless years behind her. Regardless, she ended up in some disagreements with some of her neighbors.
 
While riding home that February evening, in 1889, someone fired those two shotgun blasts that forever ended the career of 'The Bandit Queen'. Belle was buried "with one of her hands grasping the handle of her favorite revolver."
 
No one was ever brought to justice for the killing, and controversy continues to this day as to who may have killed Belle Starr. Was it a neighbor, Edgar Watson, with whom Belle had some disagreements? Some historians have mentioned Belle's son Eddie as the possible murderer - due to Belle's harsh treatment of her son while she doted on her daughter Pearl. Others have speculated that the killing was a case of mistaken identity, that Belle Starr was not the intended victim.
 
The epitaph, on Belle's grave, reads:
"Shed not for her the bitter tear,
Nor give the heart to vain regret;
Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet."
 
Suggested Reading:
 
Breihan, Carl W., and Charles A. Rosamond
   The Bandit Belle
 
Brown, Dee
   The Gentle Tamers : Women of the Old West
 
Harman, Samuel W.
   Belle Starr, The Female Desperado
Note: Ramon Adams states that this account is "full of errors."
 
Hicks, Edwin P.
   Belle Starr and her Pearl
 
Horan, James C.
   Desperate Women
 
Miller, Ronald Dean
   Shady Ladies of the West
 
Shackleford, William Yancy
   Belle Starr, The Bandit Queen
 
Shirley, Glenn
   Belle Starr and Her Times:
The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends
 
Wellman, Paul I.
   A Dynasty of Western Outlaws
 

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