Belle Starr was shot and killed Feb. 3, 1889 as she rode toward her log cabin at Younger’s Bend on the north side of the Canadian River. She had accompanied her third husband, Jim July, on a trip to Fort Smith, but had turned back before reaching that town.
Starr made her way along the road through Hoyt Bottom as dusk fell. Shots rang out, and the woman known as the “bandit queen” was thrown from her horse. Neighbors found her body and carried her to her cabin where a few days later she was buried.
It was never certain who had shot Belle Starr. Theories circulated for years after her death, and a neighbor named Edgar Watson was charged and tried. But with no evidence, he was acquitted. No one was ever convicted for the crime, and it left an unsettled feeling in the area. A murderer was walking free.
Soon after her death a story began to circulate about folks in the area seeing a ghost in the exact likeness of Belle Starr. Some thought her spirit was disturbed because justice for her murder had never been served. According to stories, her ghost would wander through the hills around Younger’s Bend on moonlit nights.
The story grew over the years. It got to the point that locals around the Whitefield area were hesitant to go hunting for possum across the Canadian River when there was a full moon out.
One version of the tale told around campfires for over a hundred years is that when the moon is full, Belle’s ghost comes riding down from the mountain on the north side of the river and gallops on the wind down into the river valley. And you can hear her singing. Belle loved to play the piano and sing.
Perhaps the horse is Venus, said to be Belle’s favorite; its likeness was carved on her tombstone. This horse was shot and killed when a posse was chasing her husband Sam Starr through a cornfield so, of course, the horse is a ghost, too. Other stories say she rides from the site of her grave in Younger’s Bend and heads southward looking for gold hidden in a hollow tree.
Another belief about Belle’s ghost is that she is not searching for lost gold but rather is seeking revenge for her unsolved murder. According to this story, her ghost would be coming from Hoyt Bottom where she had been shot.
Others believe there is nothing sinister in these legendary ghostly appearances. Belle is said to have had a flair for the dramatic, so it may be that on moonlit nights when Belle rides through the Canadian River valley, she is simply showing off. Either way, no one wants to be caught out there at midnight when the wind moans through the river valley and the moon is full.
Reach Jonita Mullins at firstname.lastname@example.org.