'Born to be called a lady
Born to die like a tramp
Born to charm society
Born to the outlaw's camp.'
In the (slightly dusty) wake of a cowboys and indians shindig, I've been reading up on the biggest, baddest outlaws in the Old West. And they make for some cracking stories.
Today's inspiration comes from Belle Starr, a 19th century crack shot from Missouri with a strong sense of style. Belle rode side saddle dressed in a tight black jacket, velvet skirt, high-topped boots, a man's Stetson complete with ostrich plume, twin holstered pistols and a cartridge belt across her hip.
Now Belle (Myra Maybelle Shirley) was a well-bred lass, educated at a high fallutin' ladies academy where she excelled in reading, spelling, grammar, arithmetic and deportment, and loved to play piano.
Growing up with Jesse James and the Younger brothers as childhood friends, the infamous outlaws would later hideout in the impressionable young Belle's family home.
It wasn't long before Belle got hitched to one of their posse, Jim Reed, and two years later along came bouncing bub, Rosie Lee (Pearl) amid speculation that the real daddy was gangster Cole Younger.
Belle packed a lot into her short, audacious life.
After Jim, on the run for murder and a stagecoach robbery, was shot and killed, she was rumoured to have married another Younger brother, Bruce. That union lasted three weeks, when she married Sam Starr, a Cherokee Indian from an outlaw family. They settled in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where Belle immersed herself in outlawry, organising and fencing for rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers and harbouring them from the law. If she didn't have enough coin in the kitty to buy off the lawmen when caught, Belle would seduce them into turning the other cheek.
Finally unable to elude the police any longer, Belle and Sam were found guilty of horse theft and incarcerated for six months. She was a model prisoner, but on her release was unrepentant and immediately returned to her villainous ways.
"I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw", she told a Dallas newspaper reporter.
Legend has it Belle spent much of her time in saloons, drinking and gambling at dice, roulette and cards. She'd ride her horse through town shooting off her pistols, and she took many lovers, including Jim July (a relative of her husband Sam), Blue Duck, Jack Spaniard and Jim French.
Belle's life came to a violent end just days before her 41st birthday when she was ambushed and fatally shot on her way home from a shopping trip.
There was a healthy list of suspects:
- Edward Watson, with whom she'd been feuding over tennancy of her land;
- her lover, Jim July, with whom she'd recently quarreled;
- her son, Ed, with whom she had a strained relationship and had recently beaten for mistreating her horse;
- and her daughter, Pearl, whose prospective husband Belle had frightened off to marry another.
No one was ever convicted.
Belle, the 'Bandit Queen', was buried at Youngers Bend, a sleepy spot by the Canadian River where she often lived. Pearl later erected a headstone there, engraved with a horse, a bell and a star, purchased with her earnings from a brothel.
The gravestone 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."