Belle Starr: A Black Widow?

Belle Starr was often called the "Bandit Queen" in early newspapers and dime novels. A more appropriate title might have been the "Black Widow." Of four husbands and several lovers she is reported to have had, all met violent deaths.

In 1866, while living in Texas, a 20 year old Belle entered a common law marriage with Jim Reed. Reed, who had supposedly rode with the Jesse James gang, was murdered eight years later by a friend who claimed the $1500 reward money on his head.

In 1880, Belle married Cole Younger's cousin, Bruce Younger, a petty outlaw who supposedly rode with some famous gangs. This marriage only lasted three weeks. Bruce Younger disappeared into history, but a newspaper account years later identified a mummified body found in a cave inn New Mexico as his.

At the age of 32, Belle's third marriage was to 28 year old Sam Starr. A notorious outlaw, Sam was killed in a gunfight on December 18, 1887. As Sam was on the run from the law most of their marriage, Belle took a couple of lovers during that time. John Middleton, nine years younger than Belle, was also an outlaw who was reported to have burned down the Scott County, Arkansas courthouse. Middleton showed up dead on the banks of the Poteau River one day and although it was probably an accidental drowning, some had him being a victim of Sam Starr's jealousy.

In 1884, Belle also had a short romance with Blue Duck. Two years later he was convicted in Judge Parker's court of murder and sentenced to hang. This sentence was commuted to life in prison, but after a year he was released due to poor health and sent home to die.

Belle's fourth and last husband was Jim July. Two years after their marriage, Belle herself was murdered, and a year after that Jim July died in a Fort Smith hospital after being shot by U.S. deputy marshals Bob Hutchins and Bob Trainer.

Two other ex-lovers met equally violent ends. Jack Spaniard was hanged in Fort Smith in August 1889 for killing a deputy marshal and Jim French was killed while robbing a store in 1895. That's a total of at least eight men who met a violent demise after interludes with Belle Starr.

Maybe she truly was a black widow.

Bill Black
March 1996

References: Dynasty of Western Outlaws by Paul Wellman, Starr Tracks: Belle and Pearl Starr by Phillip Steele and Belle Starr and her Times by Glenn Shirley.

This sketch is part of a series, “Fort Smith Minutes,” originally developed by the park staff to provide one minute long public service announcements for local radio stations. These sketches provide a light and entertaining glimpse into the complex history of Fort Smith.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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