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Belle Starr – The Wild West Bandit Queen Arrested by Bass Reeves

Ian Harvey
Photo Credit: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Belle Starr is the most famous Wild West female outlaw, earning her notoriety in the mid-1800s. She surrounded herself with questionable people but was eventually arrested by Bass Reeves. After serving her time and giving up a life of crime, she was mysteriously murdered, a case which has not been solved to this day.

The Civil War greatly impacted her life

Portrait of Belle Starr.
A studio portrait of Belle Starr probably taken in Fort Smith in the early 1880s. (Photo Credit: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Belle started life quite differently than it ended: she was highly educated in the classics and was an extremely good pianist. She seemed sure to be heading towards the path of a middle-class life, comfortable and respectable. However, this path was disrupted by the start of the Civil War. This War destroyed the business of her father, an innkeeper, and took the life of her brother, Edwin. Belle and her family were destroyed by these events and moved from Missouri to Texas to begin a new life.

Belle associated with some shifty people

Belle Starr on a horse, a man on a horse beside her.
Belle Starr, Fort Smith, Arkansas, circa 1886. (Photo Credit: Roeder Bros. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In Texas, Belle began to associate with men of questionable character. It is said that it was in these times that her family became associated with Jesse James and the Younger brothers. However, in reality, Belle had known both the Younger brothers and Jesse for far longer. She had grown up with them whilst in Missouri.

Some people say that Belle was married briefly to Charles Younger (Cole Younger’s uncle) in 1878. However, this has never been proven. Other claims state that Belle’s daughter, Pearl Reed, was actually offspring from this marriage. Cole Younger’s biography denies this and tells of what he knew of Belle. She was married in 1880, to Sam Starr, a Cherokee man, and settled down with him and his family in Indian Territory.

Becoming an outlaw

Illustration of Belle Starr riding on a horse past a crowd of men.
Illustration of Belle Star, titled “A Wild Western Amazon.” (Photo Credit: The National Police Gazette / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Once in this territory, she began to learn ways of planning, organizing and fencing for all the horse thieves, bootleggers, and rustlers. She also helped to harbor these men from the law. Belle’s enterprises were illegal but earned her enough money to use bribery where needed to free her associates whenever they were captured by the law.

Both Belle and Sam were arrested in 1883 by Bass Reeves and were charged with horse theft. They were sent to be tried before Isaac Parker’s (‘The Hanging Judge’) Federal District Court at Fort Smith in Arkansas. US Attorney W. H. H. Clayton was prosecutor and Belle was found to be guilty and sent to serve nine months in Detroit at the Detroit House of Corrections. During her time, she was a model prisoner and quickly won over the highest respect from the prison matron. Sam was not as much of a model prisoner and found himself assigned to very hard labor.

Belle escaped a further conviction in 1886, another theft charge, but on December 17, Sam was killed whilst in a gunfight with Officer Frank West, who also lost his life. Belle’s outlaw life ended with the death of her husband.

Belle’s later years

Portrait of Blue Duck and Belle Starr.
A photo of Belle Star and Blue Duck, May 24, 1886.(Photo Credit: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In the last several years of Belle’s life, she was linked to numerous men with dodgy reputations, including Jim French, Jack Spaniard, and Blue Duck, but then married Jim July Starr, a relative of Sam’s who was 15 years younger than her. He did this so that she could remain on Indian land.

Two days before Belle’s 41st birthday, on February 3, 1889, Belle was killed whilst riding home from the home of a neighbor in Oklahoma. She was ambushed and shot again after she fell from her horse. She died from gun wounds to her shoulder, face, neck and back. The legends tell that she was actually shot with her own double-barreled shotgun.

Her death was due to certain circumstances, claims Frank ‘Pistol Pete’ Eaton. He claims Belle had attended a dance when an intoxicated Edgar Watson had asked if he could dance with her. Belle declined and so he followed her home and shot her when she stopped to water her horse. Frank claims that Watson was tried, convicted and also executed by hanging for this murder.

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Another version of events state there were no witnesses to the murder and that nobody was ever found guilty of it, though there were plenty of suspects. Her son, Eddie Reed, was named as a possibility as she had beaten him for mistreating her horse. He was later convicted of receiving stolen property and horse theft in July of 1889, but went on to become a deputy in Fort Smith. He was killed on December 14, 1896.

Belle’s murder is still unsolved to this day.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News