By Stephen R. Farris
Special to the Navco Chronicle
Her real name was Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr, better known by historians as Belle Starr. She was a notorious outlaw during the post-Civil War era, at least that’s how the legend went after her death.
Born in Carthage, Missouri in 1848, Belle dealt with adversity and traumatic experiences early in life. She had an older brother, John A.M. “Bud” Shirley, who was involved in many guerilla attacks on federal troops in skirmishes throughout Missouri.
After her brother was killed by federal troops in 1864, her resentment towards the north grew even more. At the age of 18, she married a man named James C. Reed, also from Missouri. The couple had two children, Rosie Lee, and James Edwin. Reed tried his hand at farming, but found he had better luck at providing for his family by joining up with outlaw gangs from time-to-time, along with Belle. But mostly with the James-Younger and Starr outlaw clans. The Younger clan, as you know, was associated with the famous outlaw Jesse James. The Starr family was of native American descent, mostly Cherokee.
Belle was no stay-at-home mom, as her daily attire usually consisted of a black dress, with a plume hat, with cartridge belts draped across her bosom, and six-shooters holstered by her side. In 1874, she had her first arrest warrant issued (although there could have been a few prior), for assisting in a stagecoach robbery. Her husband, Reed, was killed in Paris later that year.
Belle ended up meeting Sam Starr and eventually the two were married, thus giving her the “Belle Starr” moniker.
In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested by the famous Deputy U.S. Marshall, Bass Reeves, and tried before Judge Isaac Parker, also known as the hanging judge in Fort Smith, Arkansas. (On a side note, the upcoming movie “Corsicana” starring Isaiah Washington as Bass Reeves, is set to premiere in Richmond, Texas at the Star Cinema Grill on August 26th. The movie was written by our Police Chief, Robert Johnson.)
Belle served nine months in prison, but when she was released she went back to her outlaw life, joining up (according to the sensational tabloids at that time) with the likes of Jack Spainard, Jim French, and Blue Duck. After her husband was killed in 1886, she married a relative of Sams, Jim July Starr, 15 years younger than she, in order to remain on Indian land.
You might think that all the years of being an outlaw, that she would end up dying at the hands of some sheriff, or Deputy U.S. Marshall, but unfortunately for Belle, her demise, according to legend, was at the hands of a jilted dance partner. According to the story (as told by Frank “Pistol Pete” Eaton), Belle refused to dance with a fellow by the name of Edgar Watson. Allegedly, Watson followed Belle towards her home, and when she stopped to give her horse some water at a creek, Watson opened fire on Belle, striking her multiple times and killing her. However, her case is still unsolved, and no arrests were ever made.
All of this might not have come to light if it wasn’t highly publicized in the National Police Gazette, one of many dime novels of that time period. The publisher of the Gazette, Richard K. Fox also wrote several novels glorifying Belle Starr in 1889, the same year of her death.
Belle’s legacy was mostly in far north Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, so you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Navarro County history.
It seems that when the movie “Belle Starr” was about to be released here in Corsicana, at The Palace Theater, in October of 1941, local historian and photographer, Alva Taylor, and long-time theater owner, Sidney Miller, ventured out to the caves at Pisgah Ridge. The pair staged a series of photographs, inside and outside of the caves, along with a helper, Guy M. Titus, who claimed Starr came to their home when he was a child, after she had been wounded and needed help. From there, the duo came up with the story that Belle Starr and her outlaw gangs would oftentimes hold up in the caves to escape capture, or to just lay low from the law.
Their story was huge, as it took up almost an entire page of the Corsicana Daily Sun on October 1, 1941 (which is six months to the day after April Fool’s Day, by-the-way), including the photos. For years, folks actually believed that Belle Starr had been in Navarro County, although no physical evidence had been proved.
Was it true?
The answer is no. It wasn’t true at all. Miller’s wife told an audience at the March 2011 Navarro County Historical Society’s meeting that the whole story was just a hoax, to promote the movie. It was made up, set up, however you want to put it. It just didn’t happen, here.
Did the “hoax” work? More than likely it did for the theater, although nothing has been mentioned about its success at the ticket window. But in my opinion, as thirsty as folks were for a good western, it probably brought in a good chunk of change.
Miller continued in the movie theater business for many years, as well as real estate. Taylor was one of a few successful photographers here in Navarro County, and was heavily involved with the community. He is also one of the founding fathers of the Navarro County Historical Society, along with his friend Joe Daniel.
Is theirs the only case of embellishing history? Of course not. There are thousands of stories throughout history that have been embellished or glorified, usually by some type of feat the character(s) was involved in, or battle that was fought, or something else entirely. The best way to find out the truth about history is to do your research. Of course, you’ll still have to sift through it in order to know what really happened.
Until next time boys and girls, keep it real!
(References: http://www.newspapers.com (CDS Oct. 1, 1941, pg. 10), Wikipedia bio of Belle Starr, Navarro County Historical Commission website (History Corrected))
Photo caption: Belle Starr, standing, with another famous outlaw, Blue Duck, circa. May 24, 1886. Unknown author/Wikepedia.com