The “Petticoat Terror of the Plains” Belle Starr — in the person of acclaimed storyteller and living history performer Karen Vuranch — bounded onto the Bonne Terre stage Saturday night like a force of nature and kept the audience spellbound throughout the entirety of her spirited and often tuneful monologue.
Vuranch closed out the Big River Chautauqua that focused on the stories of three infamous Missouri criminals — Cole Younger, Jesse James and Belle. A total of 287 people braved the heat and humidity on the final night to watch a top-notch Chautauqua actress immerse herself in the flamboyant character of a woman who was larger than life.
The audience was asked to imagine they were attending a party being held at the home of Jackson Rowe, a neighbor of Belle's, held Feb. 3, 1889.
Belle entered the tent singing “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain” before announcing to the crowd that she “never misses a party” and invited them to “have a little chat” while she waited for her son Eddie Reed to arrive.
Pulling a large pistol out of her holster and pointing it at the audience, Belle said, “Horses and pistols always seem to get me in trouble. Folks say I’m the ‘Bandit Queen,’ the female Jesse James. It’s just stories made up by newspapermen. Now, don’t go believing everything you read in the newspaper. They’re just trying to get your nickel. Nothing they say about me is true.”
Admitting she “had not had a good feeling lately,” Belle confessed that she didn’t think she’d be long for this world.
“What’s that you say?” she asked rhetorically, “Thunder and lightning couldn’t kill Belle Starr? Well, I suppose that’s true. And what did you say over there? I’m not old enough to talk about dying? Well, that’s true too. But I’ll tell you a secret — I’m older than you think that I am.”
Born as Myra Maybelle Shirley near Carthage, Missouri, Belle was raised in a “well-to-do” home. In the 1860s, her father sold the farm and moved the family to Carthage, where he bought an inn and livery stable on the town square. She received a classical education and learned piano, while graduating from Missouri's Carthage Female Academy, a private institution that her father had helped to found.
The cause of most of her problems appears to have been the choice of the unscrupulous men she married and the dastardly criminals she surrounded herself with. The one bright point in her life was her musical talent.
“For me it’s always been about the music,” she said. “The music has always gotten me through.”
Allegedly, Belle was briefly married for three weeks to Charles Younger, uncle of Cole Younger in 1878, but this is not substantiated by any evidence.
“We were on a red hot streak,” Belle said. “Everybody knew our face and we were known at every dance hall. I gambled and I played piano, but I never smoked cigars. Gambling is one thing but smoking cigars is all together different. It’s not ladylike.”
In 1880, Belle married a Cherokee man named Sam Starr and settled with the Starr family in the Indian Territory. There, she learned ways of organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers, as well as harboring them from the law. Her illegal enterprises proved lucrative enough for her to employ bribery to free her cohorts from the law whenever they were caught.
“People would come to see me because they said my house was the perfect hideout,” Belle said. “The first one to come was Jesse James. My husband didn’t know who he was. I introduced him as Mr. Williams from Texas. He didn’t even know until he left that we were honored with the presence of Jesse James.”
In 1883, Belle and her husband were charged with horse theft and tried before Isaac Parker, “The Hanging Judge” in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She was found guilty and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Detroit, Michigan. Belle proved to be a model prisoner and during her time in jail won the respect of the prison matron, while Sam was more incorrigible and was assigned to hard labor.
“I was not held in a gloomy penitentiary,” Belle said. “It was a reformatory with gardens and fountains where I could renew my education and hopefully find redemption. My job was to work in a chair factory. The warden took me around and said, ‘Madam, take a chair.’ I said, ‘No thank you, I’d rather stand.’ He said, ‘Take a chair and get to work.’”
In 1886, she escaped conviction on another theft charge, but on December 17, Sam was involved in a gunfight with Officer Frank West. Both men were killed, while Belle's life as an outlaw queen — and what had been the happiest relationship of her life — abruptly ended with Sam’s death.
“Once again I’m alone,” Belle said. “I asked myself why all the menfolk in my family died so young. I figured there was only one thing to do — marry a man a whole lot younger than me.”
Two days before her 41st birthday, Belle was killed in an ambush while riding home from a neighbor's house in Eufaula, Oklahoma. After she fell off her horse, she was shot again to make sure she was dead.
Following the end of the program, Vuranch was joined on stage by her fellow actors — Kevin Culton who played Cole Younger and Aaron Worley who played Jesse James. All of them took a bow to the applause of the audience.
Saturday’s closing program was sponsored by the family of Joe Layden.