Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Belle Starr's 35-Mile Dash

According to legend, sixteen-year-old Myra Maybelle Shirley (later known as Belle Starr) was out on a scout from Carthage on behalf of her brother Bud and his guerrilla buddies in early 1862 when she was captured at Newtonia on February 3, which happened to be her sixteenth birthday, by Major Edwin Eno, who was stationed there in command of Union forces, and held in the Ritchey mansion because Eno had sent out a detachment in pursuit of Bud Shirley and his guerrilla band and he knew that Myra would warn her brother if she were not detained. Personally guarded by Eno, Myra paced the floor cursing and ranting against the major or pounded out songs on the piano to release her pent up emotions, but he merely laughed at her anger and frustration, further incensing the young woman and finally driving her to tears.
After a suitable elapse of time, Eno became satisfied that his men had an ample head start on Myra and that he could safely release her. She rushed through the door, cut several switches from a cherry bush to use as riding whips, and sprang into the saddle of her trusty steed. Plying the cherry switches with vigor, she sped away and, a short distance from the house, left the road and cut across fields, leaping over ditches and fences and making a bee line for Carthage thirty-five miles away aboard her speedy horse. Major Eno pulled out his field glass and climbed to an upper room of the Ritchey mansion to watch as Myra raced away like the wind. "I'll be damned," he said with a hint of admiration. "If she doesn't reach Carthage ahead of my troopers, I'm a fool."
Sure enough, Myra reached her hometown in time to warn her brother of the Federal troops sent out to capture him, and when the soldiers reached Carthage shortly afterwards, she was there to greet them and inform them with a smirk that Bud Shirley and his men had left town half an hour ago and were probably in Lawrence County by now.
The problem with this story is that it almost certainly didn't happen. The legend was first propagated by S.W. Harman in his book Hell on the Border, published in 1898, almost ten years after Belle Starr's death. The story, as related by Harman, was full of errors. Myra Shirley would have turned fourteen in 1862, not sixteen, and in addition the idea that the incident supposedly happened on her birthday seems like a bit of romantic nonsense. Harman misspelled the major's name as Enos instead of Eno and misspelled the name of Mathew Ritchey as Ritchery. Also, Eno was not stationed at Newtonia until 1863. These factual errors, the fantastic notion of a fifteen or sixteen-year-old girl off on a scout by herself 35 miles from home, and the fact that the story was not heard of until almost ten years after Belle's death make one suspect that the whole incident was probably manufactured or at least highly fictionalized to embellish the infamous reputation she had gained long after she had left Carthage.
A different version of the legend holds that Myra was not detained by Eno but instead came to the Ritchey home of her own accord as a spy to try to gather information for her brother and his guerrilla friends. Mr. Ritchey, a strong Union man, knew the Shirley family and did not like them, but out of courtesy he admitted the girl and let her spend the night. While she was there, Myra made herself very agreeable and entertained her hosts and the other guests, including Major Eno, by playing the piano. The next morning, having obtained vital information about Union forces in Newtonia, Myra cut some cherry switches and rode off side-saddle toward Carthage, but she had ridden only a couple of miles when Confederate forces launched a surprise attack on the Union troops at Newtonia. The cutting of the switches had been a signal that the place was vulnerable to attack.
While this second version of Belle's visit to Newtonia is somewhat more believable than the first, it, too, probably has very little basis in fact.


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