Belle Starr, Bandit Queen of the Wild West

By Stephanie Weber

The Wild West brings to mind images of roaming cowboys and outlaws who all seem to be men, but what about the outlaw women of the west? One such woman, Belle Starr, was so notorious in the wild west that she was known as “the bandit queen”.

Though she was a well-educated woman, she had a penchant for crime in her Texas hometown.

The legendary diary

A problem with learning about Belle Starr’s life is that an early dime-store novel called Bella Star: The Bandit Queen or The Female Jesse James claimed to have been full of diary excerpts from the horse thief herself. It was fictional, but some of the legends have stuck around. While she absolutely was a criminal, she was not as wild as legends made her out to be.

Belle Starr hung out with notorious outlaws in the late 1800’s including Billy the Kid and Jesse James. She held up stagecoaches, robbed trains and bars often dressed up as a man, and she was a Confederate spy during the Civil War.

belle starr

A flower in her hat and a gun on her hip.

A penchant for crime

Though she was a well-educated woman, she had a penchant for crime in her Texas hometown. Her first marriage was to Jim Reed, a criminal who fathered her two children. Sadly, Reed had an affair that Belle discovered right before he was shot in 1874. She was asked to identify the body so that the bounty hunter could collect the bounty.

According to one story, Belle was so furious at her now-dead husband that she allegedly walked into the morgue to identify the body, took a look at the body and said, “I’ve never seen that body in my life.” She then turned to the bounty hunter and said, “You’ll never get that bounty.” She wasn’t a snitch.

She later married a Cherokee man named Sam Starr and settled down with him in Indian Territory where she honed her criminal skills. Their home also became a refuge for other outlaws including Jesse James. When asked about this by the Dallas Morning News in 1886, Belle said, “I am a friend to any brave and gallant outlaw.”

In America, criminals get statues. By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Both Sam and Belle were charged with horse theft and sent to prison where Belle was actually a model prisoner who tutored prisoners. When she returned from her six months in prison, she tried to live a quiet life. However, she continued to have her outlaw friends over.

Once her husband Sam died in a shootout, Belle was in danger of losing her home in Indian Territory. She resolved the problem quickly by marrying a Cherokee Jim July who was so objectionable that her two children, who were now older, fought with her about it often. She and her son Eddie fought about it so much that the two were known to have a terrible relationship.

Final days

Her life came to an end when she was shot in the back when she was riding home from the general store. The identity of her murderer is still unknown. The crime remains unsolved largely because authorities at the time were not very concerned with finding justice for the notorious criminal.

Plenty of people were under suspicion including Jim July, former lovers, a fugitive named Edgar Watson whom Belle had just denied refuge, and her own son Eddie.

Despite all the fanciful stories about her life, the real story is still just as exciting and will remain a mystery.

About the Author

Stephanie Weber
Stephanie Weber is a comedian and writer whose work has been published on Atlas Obscura, Slate, The AV Club, Reductress, The Whiskey Journal and more. She performs stand up comedy at The Lincoln Lodge in Chicago.

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