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Texas Originals

Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen

She was a real person who lived a life that was portrayed and exaggerated in film. Belle was a fast-living, hard-driving woman who became known as the “Bandit Queen.”



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

February 5, 1848–February 3, 1889


When Belle Starr was shot to death in 1889, a newspaper declared her to be "a most desperate woman ..." Her killer was never identified. Many suspected her son, whom Belle had recently beaten for mistreating her horse. Her unsolved murder was a fitting end to a life that was a whirlwind of violence, crime and legend.

She was born Myra Maybelle Shirley in 1848 and at the age of 16, moved to the north Texas town of Scyene. She kept company with notorious criminals including Jesse James. She married three times to three different outlaws and even spent time in prison for stealing horses.

Though she was ruthless to her enemies, she had a great capacity to make friends and she even mingled with the Dallas elite during the brief periods when her gunfights and thievery gave way to respectable living.

But it was only after her death, at age forty, that her legend grew. The National Police Gazette invented new stories about her and her embellished reputation continued to inspired popular novels and western films, long after her death.

Stories circulated depicting Belle as an elegantly dressed woman riding a black mare in a feathered black Sombrero and toting a Colt 45 pistol that she called "my baby."

Instead of being remembered as a desperate criminal, she became a romantic symbol of the disappearing American West, known as: "Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen."

Belle Starr, Fort Smith, Arkansas, 1886


Selected Bibliography

Fox, Richard K. Bella Starr, The Bandit Queen, or, the Female Jesse James. New York: Richard K. Fox, 1889; reprint, Austin, Texas: The Steck Company, 1960.
Kooistra, Paul G. “Belle Starr” in American National Biography, ed. J. Garrity, 575-577. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
The New York Times, "A Desperate Woman Killed," February 6, 1889, 1.
The New York Times, "Last of a Noted Family," November 14, 1893, 9.
The New York Times, "They Went Thataway. Caught in a Stampede of Western Films," March 13, 1949, X1.
Riley, Glenda. "Belle Starr: ‘Queen of the Bandits,'" in With Badges and Bullets: Lawmen & Outlaws in the Old West edited by Richard W. Etulain and Glenda Riley. Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999: 139­–158.
Shirley, Glenn. Belle Starr and Her Times. The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
The Handbook of Texas

This episode first aired on August 11, 2012.