Belle Starr’s murder officially unsolved, with a long list of suspects

Belle Starr

MYSTERY WIRE — The Old West was a man’s world, but Belle Starr — “The Bandit Queen” — carved out a life and a name that endures.

And in 1889, dime novels about her exploits boosted that fame.

She didn’t live to see it, mysteriously murdered on Feb. 3, 1889, two days shy of her 42nd birthday. Shotgun blasts to her back, neck, shoulder and face left her dead on an Oklahoma country road. But who killed her?

Officially, the case is unsolved.

Belle’s image, which she cherished as she built it up during her first marriage, made her easily recognizable as she surrounded herself with some of the biggest outlaws of the time:

She often wore a Stetson hat with a long ostrich plume extending rearward. A fringed buckskin jacket was worn over velvet dresses and a brace of revolvers was usually strapped to her hips. Belle was known to be bad-tempered, and loved to drink and gamble, and could out-curse any muleskinner in the region. While there is no evidence that Belle ever committed murder, she was not afraid to fire her revolver at anyone who angered her. She apparently feared nothing and no one and never backed down.

W.C. Jameson, “Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West”

Authorities considered her husband at the time, Jim July, the prime suspect. He was known to have offered $200 to another man to kill her. A deputy pursuing him on another crime shot him, but he did not confess before dying three days later. July and Starr had a stormy relationship, and he cheated on her with a young Cherokee girl, legend says. Accusations of infidelity were also directed at Starr.

But July wasn’t the only suspect in Starr’s murder by a longshot. A history of failed marriages with outlaws, and a trail of victims of her horse thieving and other misdeeds leaves a very long list of possible killers:

  • Edgar Watson, a neighbor who owned the gun that was used to kill her, and Jim July’s accuser. Watson was arrested, but never charged because of a lack of witnesses.
  • Hy Early, another neighbor who Starr shot at following his report that she stole his horses.
  • A man named “Bertholf,” who claimed a $75 reward from Hi Early after Starr’s death.
  • The brother of James C. Reed, Starr’s first husband. The brother believed Starr was responsible for Reed’s death because she fed information about him to authorities before Reed’s death in 1874.
  • Tom Starr, father of Starr’s third husband, a Cherokee named Sam. Tom blamed Belle Starr for Sam’s death, and was overheard before she was killed: “Belle would never cause another killing.”
  • Jim Middleton, who blamed Belle and Sam Starr for his brother’s death. He reportedly confessed the murder on his deathbed in 1938.
  • Edwin, Belle Starr’s son by James Reed. A number of threats to kill his mother followed an incident when she whipped him for taking her horse when she told him not to. Belle was rumored to have an incestuous relationship with “Eddie,” and there was a history of whippings.

While the evidence pointed at Watson, he wasn’t the only man who wanted Belle Starr out of their life.

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