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The Coffee House Philosopher

Doc Holliday and the Powder Puff Poker Players – Part 6


February 24, 2019

Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr, more familiarly known as Belle Starr, was born into the John Shirley family on Feb. 5, 1848. By the time Belle was in her early teens, the American Civil War (1861–1865) had begun, and she had to deal with some of the worst of the guerrilla warfare that took place on the border between Kansas and Missouri.

Before the war, her family members had been residents of Carthage, Missouri, and her father owned several businesses that displaced a whole city block. During the war, Belle Starr kept a pistol within easy reach in case she felt the need for one – and felt that having two weapons on her person was even better. Though she often was faced with circumstances that made such weapons necessary for self-defense, there doesn’t seem to be a case in which she actually fired any of her guns in anger – which seems impossible given some of the dire circumstances of her life.

In her early teens, Belle received a top flight education at the Carthage Female Academy, and also became an accomplished pianist. But when the cross-border raiding started between the Jayhawkers or Red Legs favoring a free state status for Kansas and the pro slavery Border Ruffians of Missouri, it became necessary for all affected citizens to choose one of the two sides.

Heaven help anyone that chose the wrong side during the next raid by the opposing side. Having real or imagined scores to settle, neighbor often turned against neighbor, and a rather perverted version of the Golden Rule quickly evolved: “Do unto others BEFORE they do unto you.” The recent movie, “Ride with the Devil” (filmed in 1999) provides a vivid picture of what life might have been like in the border states during the Civil War.

Being the Shirleys were from Missouri, their sympathies naturally were aligned with the South. Consequently, during the war a large part of the family business was burned down by cross border raiders to the degree that it ceased to be a going concern. At the same time, in mid-war of 1863, William Quantrill led a guerrilla raid from Missouri on an inadequately defended Lawrence, Kansas, and burned most of the town to the ground. During the raid, almost 200 men and boys of Lawrence were massacred, many by summary execution.

Quantrill and his men as guerrilla raiders survived to perform their deadly work largely by on-the-spot planning, which enabled them to regularly outwit the regular Union troops pursuing them. Obtaining accurate and up-to-date information was critical for his operations, and Quantrill had to rely heavily on his network of informants to obtain such information.

Young Belle became one of Quantrill’s most capable informants. She flitted about the countryside, visiting and flirting with soldiers and civilians alike, seeming to be merely a naive teenage girl filled with pre-adult feminine romantic notions. In fact she consistently knew more about the area situation than top military officers on either side. As a result she became known in southern intelligence circles as “Quantrill’s little secret.”

Once Belle was exposed and captured as a southern agent and was at risk of being shot or hanged as a southern spy. But her northern captors did not realize the importance of the person they had in their grasp, and Belle merely turned on her considerable girlish charm and managed to slip away – probably after promising not to do such bad things again.

In 1864 Belle’s older brother, Bud, was killed by northern forces, leaving her much embittered. However, during the war Belle became friends with many southern soldiers, among them Frank and Jesse James, and Cole Younger. (One of the rumors promoted by several authorities was that Cole Younger later fathered one of Belle’s children.) At the conclusion of the war when Belle was 18, her father sold what was left of his ruined business, and moved the Shirley family to Scyene, Texas.

Many former southern guerrilla fighters had difficulty finding work because they had few skills other than stealing horses or cattle, robbing banks, and holding up stagecoaches and railroad trains. The Shirley ranch became a safe haven for scores of former southern guerrilla fighters needing a place to stay and something to eat. Among the frequent visitors to the Shirley homestead were Cole Younger and the two James brothers.

As a consequence of the increased outlays, the Shirleys' bankroll began to shrink drastically, and Belle looked for ways to help out financially. One of the ways she tried to increase her income was by gambling, and she found that she had a real talent for playing poker. Thus she began to frequent the gambling tables in saloons to supplement the Shirley family income, and it wasn’t long before she was making the lion’s share of the money at the poker tables.

Next time, Belle Starr the “Bandit Queen.”


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