Belle Starr’s reputation as an outlaw lives on in Fort Smith
FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — While several historic figures are known for executing justice from Fort Smith, one is known for making trips into the town for her illegal actions.
Belle Starr, dubbed the “Bandit Queen” in 19th century pulp novels and newspapers, was tried in Fort Smith twice during the 1880s. Her reputation as a no-nonsense outlaw has left a mark on the city still evident today.
Originally Myra Maybelle Shirley, Starr, a non-Native American resident of what is now Oklahoma, began her career of crime after meeting up with Jesse James following the Civil War. James, an acquaintance of a childhood friend of Starr, introduced her to the life of crime when he stayed on her family’s farm in Missouri, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
Starr took on the name she is known by after marrying Sam Starr at 32, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Sam Starr was one of four husbands she had in her lifetime, all of whom died untimely violent deaths, according to former Fort Smith National Historic Site Park Superintendent Bill Black.
Starr’s first scuffle with Western Arkansas’ criminal justice system came in 1882, when she was arrested by U.S. Marshal L.W. Marx in Native American territory on suspicion of larceny. Historic Site Volunteer Jerry Akins said Starr’s 1882 arrest has taken on a legend — one that involves black deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, another fabled historic figure in Fort Smith’s history.
“There’s some mythology about Bass Reeves having a warrant for her, and when she heard that Bass Reeves having a warrant for her, she surrendered,” Akins said. “Well, L.W. Marx was the arresting officer.”
Starr was later sentenced to prison for one year by Judge Parker in 1883 after he found that she and Sam Starr were involved in stealing horses. Akins said Starr “made a splash” in her conviction.
“She refused to be transported in the train with men,” he said. “The newspaper said she was escorted by two neatly-uniformed guards.”
“She definitely has the reputation of being the bandit queen-slash-pants-wearing-woman of her time,” said Beth Templeton, owner of Belle Starr Antiques in Fort Smith.
Akins said the trial’s coverage was the first time Starr was mentioned in Fort Smith’s local newspaper. He said Starr was brought back to Fort Smith after she was arrested on suspicion of horse stealing in 1886, but was later acquitted of that charge.
Starr’s death in 1889 also has ties to Fort Smith. Akin said Starr was shot returning to her home in Porum, Oklahoma, after camping outside the town with her husband, who was in town for a court date.
“She got almost home, and somebody shot her off her horse with a shotgun,” Akin said. “It didn’t kill her, so they walked up and shot her again on the ground.”
Several of Starr’s love interests had ties to Fort Smith as well, the Southwest Times Record reported. Outlaw Blue Duck, who had a short romance with Starr during her third marriage, was hanged after being convicted of murder in Judge Parker’s court in 1886. Starr’s fourth and final husband, Jim July, died in a Fort Smith hospital from gunshot wounds from two U.S. deputy marshals, according to Black.
Today, Starr’s reputation is not only carried through the history books, but through the storefront of the antique store in Fort Smith named after her as well. Templeton said Fort Smith’s history wasn’t the only reason she named the antique store after the outlaw.
“I kind of found her as a progressive businesswoman, very forward-thinking,” Templeton said.
Templeton said she has hosted several Starr-themed tours through her antique store. She said the tours have gone to Younger’s Bend in Oklahoma, where she was buried.
Customers who have a connection to Starr also frequent the store, Templeton said.
“Whether they say, ‘She was my great aunt,’ or what not, it’s really a cool thing to have that local connection,” she said.
As far as Old West figures go, Starr fit the model for illicit behavior, Akin said.
“She was part of an outlaw bunch — horse thieves and all,” he said.
Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/