BELLE STARR (Woody Guthrie) (1940s)

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The hack writers for Richard Fox's Police Gazette planted and nourished the legend that Belle Starr was a "female Robin Hood and a Jesse James." In reality Belle was a horse-thief and perhaps a frontier fence. But unlike Jesse, she never held up a stage-coach or a train or a bank.

It is generally accepted that Myra Belle Shirley was born on Feb 5, 1848, in a log cabin somewhere along the Missouri frontier....
When she was eight, Belle became a pupil of the Carthage Female Academy.... The curriculum included reading, writing, spelling, grammar, deportment, Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Instruction in painting, piano, and organ were extra.

When the Kansas-Missouri border war broke out, Belle's brother joined Jim Lane's Redlegs. He was killed at Sarcoxie, Missouri. The continuous raids ruined Starr's tavern business and he moved his family to Scyene, Texas....

In 1866 the James-Younger gang robbed their first bank in Liberty, Missouri, and fled with $6,000 in cash and bonds. They broke up, Jesse and the Youngers going to Texas, where Cole met Belle and probably -- there is no positive evidence -- fathered her firstborn, a daughter she named Pearl.

Jim Reed, a bank and train robber from Vernon County, Missouri, was her next lover. With the law hot on Jim's trail, he and Belle fled to California, where she presented him with a son named Edward. In 1869, Belle, Reed and two other outlaws rode to the North Canadian river country, where they tortured an old Creek Indian until he told them where he had hidden $30,000 in gold. With their share of the loot, Jim and Belle returned to Texas, where she played the role of "Bandit Queen" to the hilt....

In August, 1874, Reed was killed by one of his gang. Belle left her children with her mother while she rode the Outlaw Trail.

From 1875 to 1880, Belle was the undisputed leader of a band of cattle- and horse-thieves who made their headquarters in "The Nations," or Indian-held sections of Oklahoma. Some she accepted as lovers, but Cole Younger still occupied, as he always would, the choice spot in her heart.

In 1876 another "husband" appeared on the scene. He was a flat-faced Indian with the odd name of "Blue Duck." He lasted only a short time, after which his place was taken by Sam Starr, a tall, slim Cherokee.... The honeymooners settled down on Sam's sixty-two acres on the north side of the Canadian River, near Briartown. Belle named the place Younger's Bend, after her first love....

Belle herself told a story of how a slim man with blinking eyes once visited her and Sam at Younger's Bend. Starr was suspicious of the cold and silent man..., but Belle told him he was an "old friend from Missouri." Sam Starr never knew the blinking blue-eyed man was Jesse James....

In 1883 Belle made her appearance as the first female ever tried for a major crime in the courtroom of the celebrated "Hanging Judge" Parker in the Federal Court of the Western District of Arkansas. The indictment charged her with being the leader of a band of horse-thieves....

She was found guilty and Parker sentenced her to six months and Sam to a year in the Federal Prison in Detroit.... After serving their time, Belle and Sam returned to Younger's Bend....

In 1886 Belle and Sam were arrested by United States marshals, who brought them to Fort Smith on charges of robbery and horse-stealing.... The Starrs were arraigned the following day before Judge Parker, who was forced to dismiss the charges for lack of evidence....

It was near Christmas when Sam was killed by a dying Indian deputy whom he had shot down in a drunken argument. Belle... did not remain alone for long. Several months after Starr's death, Jim July came into her life.... In a short time the marshals of Fort Smith were looking for July on a larceny charge. When Belle pointed out to Jim that the government had little or no evidence to support its case, he agreed to surrender. On a hot July day in 1889 Belle rode halfway to Fort Smith with him. At San Bois they stayed overnight, and the following morning after breakfast July set out alone.

Somewhere along the lonely road back to Younger's Bend a bushwhacker did in Belle Starr. She was found dying by a passerby....

Belle was buried on February 3, in the front yard of the cabin at Younger's Bend. Months later Pearl hired a stonecutter to mount a monument over her mother's grave. On top of the stone was carved and image of her favorite mare, "Venus." On the stone was this inscription:

Belle Starr
Born in Carthage, Missouri, February 5, 1848 Died February 3, 1889.
Shed not for her the bitter tear
Nor give the heart to vain regret,
'Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that fills it sparkles yet.
James D. Horan and Paul Sann, Pictorial History of the Wild West, London, 1970, pp. 132-135

He [Woody Guthrie] also wrote a series of ballads about outlaws, celebrating them as the populist heroes they'd been back in Oklahoma, as poor people who preyed on the rich. He wrote about the Dalton gang,... and about the brazen woman outlaw Belle Starr.
Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life, London, 1981, p. 123

Lyrics as reprinted in Woody Guthrie, American Folksong, New York, NY, 1961 (reprint of 1947 edition), p. 28

Belle Starr, Belle Starr, tell me where you have gone
Since old Oklahoma's sandhills you did roam?
Is it Heaven's wide streets that you're tying your reins
Or singlefooting somewhere below?

Eight lovers they say combed your waving black hair
Eight men knew the feel of your dark velvet waist
Eight men heard the sounds of your tan leather skirt
Eight men heard the bark of the guns that you wore.

Cole Younger was your first and the father of your girl
And the name that you picked for your daughter was Pearl
Cole robbed a bank and he drawed the life line
But I heard he was pardoned after Twenty Years time.

Your Cherokee lover, Blue Duck was his name
He loved you in the sand hills before your great fame
I heard he stopped a bullet in Eighteen Eighty Five
And your Blue Duck's no longer alive.

You took Jim Reed to your warm wedding bed
And from out of your love was born the boy, Ed
A pal killed Jim Reed by the dark of the moon
And your son Ed was blowed down in a drunken saloon.

Then there was Bob Younger you loved him well
He rode with the James boys out down the long trail
They caught him in Minnesota along with the gang
He died down in jail in the cell or the chain.

You loved Mister William Clarke Quantrill
And his Civil War guerrillas in the Missouri hills
He hit Lawrence Kansas and fought them still
And when he rode out Two Hundred lay killed.

They say could have, they whisper you might
Have loved Frank James on a couple of nights
He fought the Midland Railroad almost to death
Then in Nineteen Fifteen Frank drawed his last breath.

They say it could be, they say maybe so,
That you loved Jesse James that desperado,
Jesse got married, had a wife and a son,
Was shot down at home by the Ford brothers guns.

Belle Starr, Belle Starr, your time's getting late,
But how is Jim Younger, did you hear his fate?
He was jailed and then pardoned for all he had done,
And he blowed his own brains out in Nineteen and One.

Eight men they say combed that black waving hair
Eight men knew the feel of your dark velvet waist
Eight men heard the sounds of your tan leather skirt
Eight men heard the bark of the guns that you wore.

Belle Starr, Belle Starr, tell me where have you gone
Since old Oklahoma's sand hills you did roam?
Is it Heaven's wide streets that you're tying your reins
Or singlefooting somewhere below?

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