Myra Maybelle “Belle” Shirley was born in 1848 in Missouri and was raised and educated as a proper southern belle. Even so, her older brother, Bud, taught her how to shoot guns and ride horses, which catered to her future life as a Wild West outlaw.
In the 1860s, the Shirley family moved to Texas, and Belle married Jim Reed in 1866. She bore him two children, and even supported his criminal activity. However, her supportive nature came to an abrupt end when Jim began consorting with another woman, prompting Belle to leave him and return to her parents’ farm. Reed was later killed in 1874.
Belle remarried in 1880, to a Cherokee named Sam Starr. They lived a life of crime together, often harboring notable outlaws like Frank and Jesse James at their home. In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested and convicted for stealing horses, for which they both did time in a Detroit jail. Belle was arrested twice more later in life, but was never convicted again. However, that did not detract from her reputation of being the “bandit queen.”
In addition to stealing horses, Belle was believed to have helped plan the crimes of her accomplices. This may have involved hiding and spending money that was stolen in bank and train robberies, while riding side-saddled on her horse, Venus.
One tale about Belle Starr’s outlaw days involves her lost iron door cache. It hasn’t been confirmed, but legend tells that Belle and some fellow criminal types stole a cache of gold bars off a train headed to the Denver Mint in the mid-1880s. After taking the bars, they removed an iron door from a railroad car and dragged it behind them as they rode off on horseback. Fearing pursuit from the law, Belle and her gang hid the gold inside of a cave in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma. They wedged the iron door into the cave’s entrance, covered it with brush, hammered a railroad spike into a nearby oak tree, and left the area to lay low for a while.
Shortly after, the gang members were killed during the course of another train robbery. Belle herself was murdered by gunshots in 1889, right before her 41st birthday, a crime for which her killer was never caught or brought to justice. That left no one alive who knew the location of the cache of gold bars tucked away in a cave behind the iron door.
Over the years, a handful of people claim to have come across a rusted iron door set into a canyon wall. Upon telling people about it and hearing the story of Belle Starr, many of these people returned to the area to recover the fabled gold bars. However, no one has was able to find the exact location of the door again. The oak tree with the railroad spike hammered into it has also been spotted, but is presumed to have since been cut down.
Recognized as the American West’s most famous female outlaw, Belle Starr may have left behind a legacy of stolen gold. If this tale is true, however, there are no reports of anyone uncovering such a treasure.
Some historians believe that, despite her reputation, Belle Starr may not have actually been involved in acting out many crimes. Rather, she may have helped planned them, while her husbands and accomplices actually committed them. It’s one of the many mysteries that shroud the days of outlaws in the Wild West!