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Truth Dims the Legend of Outlaw Queen Belle Starr

Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

February 17, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight lovers, they say, combed her wavy black hair.

Eight men knew the feel of her dark velvet waist.

Eight men heard the sound of her tan leather skirt.

Eight men heard the bark of the guns that she wore.

--19th century anonymous verse

written about Belle Starr

*

Amid the tangle of fact and myth surrounding the infamous ''Queen of Outlaws'' Belle Starr, one thing is clear: Without knowing it, she staked a claim on the American imagination.

The notion of a female outlaw in the Victorian 19th century made Belle Starr the belle of the American West, however dark her deeds.

Since her death in 1889, she has spawned so many legends, books and movies that the truth has often been lost in the fog.

More recently, the bandit queen's myth has lost much of its luster as historians continue to dig into her past, discovering a woman whose lawlessness was inflated by myth makers. In spite of the outlaw company she sometimes kept, her sole conviction was for horse theft, and she died far more violently than she lived.

Part of her claim on history's imagination was established in 19th century Los Angeles, where Belle's outlaw husband, Jim Reed, worked in a gambling house. Belle contented herself with rearing their daughter, Pearl, and bearing a son, Eddie. The Reeds found time for family excursions north to Paso Robles, supposedly visiting or just missing some professional colleagues named Jesse and Frank James.

Belle the infamous outlaw is one of the most-told tales of the Old West. But the truth is far less entertaining.

Belle was born Myra Maybelle Shirley. Her father was a Missouri hotel owner; her mother was a Hatfield, of the notorious feuding Hatfields and McCoys.

During the Civil War, when Belle was a teenager, her elder brother, Bud, joined Quantrill's Raiders, a gang of Confederate ''bushwhackers.''

Quantrill shot or hanged Unionist farmers and burned their farms, killed prisoners, scalped dead Union soldiers and sported necklaces made of severed ears and fingers. He also mentored outlaws like ''Bloody Bill'' Anderson and the Jesse James-Cole Younger-Jim Reed gangs, who would figure in Belle's life.

The gang's skills, honed by four years of guerrilla battle, turned to robbery: They are said to have emptied nine banks and eight trains and killed 32 people.

Reputedly, Belle strapped on a six-shooter and crossed the Missouri-Kansas line disguised as a man to join the guerrillas. But that is merely myth, according to recent research.

Meeting the Gangs

It was during the war, however, that Belle got to know some of the gangs, before her brother was killed and she moved to Texas with her family in 1864. That same year, Belle met Cole Younger, a God-fearing man who reputedly carried a Bible in spite of his crimes. He dropped by their Texas ranch to pay his respects.

But it's mere myth that Belle and Younger hit it off and had an affair that produced a daughter.

The truth is, after a bank robbery in Missouri in 1866, some of the gang headed to Texas to hide out at the Shirley family ranch. It was then that Belle married a horseback gangster and rustler named Jim Reed, whom she had a schoolgirl crush on before the war. He was the first of her four husbands and many lovers. A month later, she was pregnant with Reed's child, Pearl.

The Belle myth depicts her as buying a livery stable in Dallas, which she used as a front for dealing stolen horses. Popular history envisioned her as a dance-hall hostess who dealt faro in a saloon, drank at the bar with the boys and rode sidesaddle at breakneck speed in pursuit of danger, money and excitement.

There is a nugget of truth here: Belle did ride sidesaddle and she was a crack shot. She also dressed in a black velvet riding habit, a plumed hat and two pistols, with belts of cartridges crisscrossing her hips.

But she was not the brains of the various James-Reed-Younger gangs.

Among many Belle biographers and fabulists, the first to explode the myths was Glenn Shirley--no relation to Belle--in his book, ''Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts and the Legends.''

Belle, in fact, graduated from Missouri's Carthage Female Academy, a genteel institution her father helped to found. The piano-playing, Yankee-hating Belle did scout for her guerrilla brother from time to time during the war, before the family moved to Texas. She also loved to cook and traded recipes with neighbors.

The war over, the James-Younger-Reed gangs were unable to return home to peaceful pursuits in Missouri. Amnesty had been proclaimed for Union guerrillas--pillagers, arsonists and murderers--but not for Confederate guerrillas, who were subject to arrest for war crimes.

To make a living, the Jameses, Youngers and Reeds began stealing horses and cattle before they switched to stealing cash--including from the railroads. Unlike the version recounted in last year's film ''American Outlaws,'' the railroads did not push them into a life of crime by laying tracks across their farms.

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