In every century, there are always those notorious women who defy convention. Usually becoming infamous for their unladylike behavior, these women ultimately become legends of times past. Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Sundance Kid, and many other outlaws of the Old West are nearly household names. Many of these outlaw gangs had women companions that obviously had no problems with the crimes their men were committing. Many of these women were criminals and gunslingers in their own right. As they say, well-behaved women rarely make history and these women created not only a stir during their time, but live on as legends today as wild women of the Old West.
Belle Starr was born Myra Belle Shirley to a prominent family in February 1848 in Missouri. Her mother was a Hatfield of the infamous McCoy and Hatfield feuding families. The Shirley’s were a well-to-do family and they sent Belle to an exclusive all-girl school. However Belle preferred to be outside rather than cultured. Her older brother, Ed, taught her how to use a gun.
The family moved to Texas in 1864. Belle met members of the James-Younger Gang, Jesse James’ crew in 1866. She fell in love with the outlaw Cole Younger and bore his illegitimate child. Neighbors found the situation scandalous, so Belle left her daughter, Pearl, and moved to Dallas to become a singer and card dealer.
In 1866, Belle married Jim Reed, a horse thief. Her first foray into the world of crime and outlaw, Belle dressed up as a man and joined her husband and Daniel Evans in torturing a man into revealing where he had hid $30,000 in gold coin.
PBS.org describes Belle as, “When not dressing as a man and committing robbery, legend says she spent her time in saloons, drinking and gambling, and galloping down streets with guns blazing.”
After Jim died, Belle joined another band of outlaws and became the mastermind and leader for five years. The gang stole horses, bootlegged whiskey, and robbed travelers and shops. Though she never actually participated in the actual crimes, she reaped the benefits of the money.
In 1880, she married another horse thief, Sam Starr. The law finally caught up to and arrested Belle. At the time of her arrest, she was bearing a Colt .45 and .41 Remington Derringer. On June 7, 1886, the Dallas News reported that Belle told a journalist, “Next to a fine horse, I admire a fine pistol. Don’t you think these are beauties?” when referring to a newly purchased pair of .45 caliber revolvers. The same journalists continued, “Belle is a crack shot, and handles her pistols with as much dexterity as any frontiersman.”
Belle received quite a lot of attention when she appeared in court in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She was the first woman ever tried for horse thieving in Hanging Judge Isaac C. Parker’s federal courtroom.
Belle died in February 1889. Shot dead near Eufaula, Oklahoma. They never found her murderer.
Pearl Hart is usually credited, although wrongly, as the only woman stagecoach robber. However, the crime she did commit was one of the very last recorded stagecoach robberies. Pearl was born in Canada in 1871 into an affluent family and like Belle Starr, sent to an exclusive school. Also like Belle, the affluent life wasn’t for Pearl and she became obsessed with cowboys and the Buffalo Bills Wild West Show while she was living with her husband in Chicago who was working at the Chicago World’s Fair.
Her husband was abusive and a gambler. He squandered their money in the gambling halls. Pearl had enough and left for Colorado, eventually ending up in Arizona, searching for the cowboy adventures she longed for. Times were hard in the west for Pearl and she got by however she could. It is quite possible she was living in a tent outside a mining camp and “servicing” the miners when she met Joe Boot. Pearl says, “I was only 22 years old. I was good-looking, desperate, discouraged, and ready for anything that might come.” Around this same time, Pearl received a letter from home saying her mother had become very ill. Needing money to send home to her mother, Pearl and Joe decided to rob a stagecoach. Pearl cut her hair short and dressed in mens clothing to rob the coach in May 1899 near Cane Springs Canyon, Arizona. Armed with a .38 revolver, the pair took $431.20 and two firearms from the passengers. The law caught up to Pearl a few weeks later. She quickly became a media sensation, as she was the only woman known to have robbed a stagecoach. In October of 1899, she escaped from prison, but was caught two weeks later.
Found guilty, Pearl went to the Yuma Territorial Prison where she received special treatment, as she was the only woman. Pearl entertained journalists, often posing for photographs with a rifle or a revolver in her hand.
In 1902, Pearl received a pardon because the prison lacked the accommodations for a female, but rumor had it that Pearl had become pregnant. She moved to Kansas City where she lived out her dreams by having a stint in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. No one is exactly sure how she lived out the rest of her life, but she died in 1955 from cardiovascular disease in Globe, Arizona.
Kitty Leroy had “five husbands, seven revolvers, a dozen Bowie knives and always went armed to the teeth.” (legendsofamerica.com) To what extent that may be true, Kitty was a trick shot with a gun. Her first husband allowed her to shoot apples off his head while she was riding by on a horse. Born in 1850 in Michigan, or maybe Texas—the state is contested—Kitty started dancing at age 10 and quickly became one of the best and most popular dancers in Dallas. In the mid- to late- 1870s, she arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota on the same train as Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, and quickly become known as one of the best poker players in the west.
Kitty married her third husband on his deathbed. She challenged the fella to a fight, and when he said he wouldn’t fight a woman, Kitty came back dressed up as a man and challenged him again. Feeling guilty for shooting him, she called in a priest and married the man on the spot.
In Deadwood, Kitty, along with her fourth husband, opened the Mint Gambling Saloon.
Kitty’s fifth husband, Samuel Curley, did her in and then killed himself over Kitty’s alleged affairs with Sam Bass and Bill Hickok.
Kitty is rumored to have kept Bowie knives in her hair and always ready to fight armed with revolvers.
Sally Scull (Skull)
If any of these women put fear in the hearts of men, it would have to be Sally Scull. Common consensus is that she murdered two of her five husbands. John S. Ford said, “She was famed as a rough fighter, and prudent men did not willingly provoke her in a row.”
Sally was born Sarah Jane Newman in either 1817 or 1818 in Pennsylvania. Her family was one of the first 300 to settle in Austin territory. Growing up in Indian Territory, the family and Sally had to defend themselves constantly from attack. Apparently, she axed off the toes of a Comanche Indian trying to break into their home.
She became quite notorious in Texas for riding and dressing like a man. Described as always having her six shooters strapped to her belt, Sally also carried a black leather whip. Legends of America.com writes, “Sally lived the life of a gunslingin’, horsetradin’, hardened man…”
After the disappearance of her first and second husband, she became a noted horse trader and possible horse thief in Nueces County. Once or twice a year, she would ride to Mexico, a dangerous and rugged trip even for the most seasoned man, and return with an impressive number of horses.
Her own son described Sally as a “two-gun terror.” Being known for being able to sharp shoot with either hand and preferred to wear buckskins to dresses, Sally openly killed a man in self-defense at a fair in Corpus Christi.
Later in life, Sally married Chris “Horse Trough” Horsdorff” and made quite a pretty penny selling cotton. In the late 1860s, Sally simply disappeared. The last known record was in 1866 when they indicted Sally for perjury. Some say Horse Trough killed her and took the money, while others say she moved to a relative’s house near El Paso.
Guntoters in the Wild West have a tainted reputation today. Gun control advocates like to argue that less restrictive gun laws would take us back to dueling gunfights in the middle of the streets, but this isn’t what actually happened at all. In fact, most of the cowtowns of the west such as Deadwood, Dodge City, Abilene, and Tombstone only averaged about two murders a year. Sure, murders over bets gone wrong, thievery, and foul play happened, but most people carried guns to hunt and for protection. Gun laws in the west were strict. Both Tombstone and Dodge City had a ban on concealed firearms and the Sheriff insisted guns be turned into the offices of the law when you rolled into town.
Dime novels, the most popular entertainment of the time perpetuated and exaggerated outlaws’ stories and crimes because it made for a more exciting read. Most outlaws, especially Billy the Kid, lied about how many people they had murdered to make themselves sound scarier. Experts say that towns like Deadwood would not deny the stories in the papers and dime novels in order to attract adventurous settlers.
Westerns have always been extremely popular in America. We romanticize the time as one full of possibility, freedom, and wide-open spaces. In reality, the American West was rough, dangerous, and had an unforgiving landscape for farming and agriculture. Of course, the wild women of the west had choices, but by chance maybe they were just doing what they had to do to survive. Which is what many settlers were doing out west in the 1800s.
Who is your favorite gunslinger from the Old West? Tell me about it in the comments below. To read about Calamity Jane, read my blog, Calamity Jane: The Most Notorious Woman in the Wild West.