From the “Petticoated Terror of the Plains” Belle Starr to the fearless Bonnie Parker of America’s most notorious criminal couple, Missouri holds ties to more than its share of nefarious women. In a time when the so-called “gentler sex” was mostly expected to pipe down and clutch their pearls, women like Calamity Jane and Big Nose Kate gripped the nation with their scandalous exploits.

Whether they were robbing banks or slinging guns or getting drunk or running “sporting houses,” these women captivated the American psyche just as much as their famous outlaw counterparts—men like Clyde Barrow, Wild Bill Hickok, and Doc Holliday.

To be fair, newspapers often exaggerated their misdeeds. According to the historical record, it seems they never quite killed as many men, stole as many horses, or robbed as many banks as feverish reporters claimed. But what made these women so notable was their outrageous involvement in any such crimes at all. From generation to generation, the true stories of their lives have intertwined with lies to become legend. Steeped in lore, these characters have both endured and endeared themselves to us. They were mesmerizing for the pure fact of their existence—to be, at the very least, women who dared to be bad … or who were willing to appear to be as bad as we wanted them to be.

And we know, we know, we know—criminals should not ever be glorified … but it’s just so darn fun.

And as the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history anyway.

Belle Starr (1848–1889) Carthage

“Next to a fine horse I admire a fine pistol.” —Belle Starr, as quoted by Albert Powe of the Dallas Morning News, June 7, 1886

The 1889 novel Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen by Richard K. Fox first catapulted Belle Starr into the broader American imagination; in 1941, the stunning Gene Tierney portrayed her in a hit Hollywood movie. In truth, the real woman was probably no beauty. Some historical accounts describe her as “flat-chested with a mean mouth” and “hatchet faced.” But who needs good looks when your primary pastimes are stealing horses and robbing banks?

Belle wore two pearl-handled pistols strapped to her waist and a black velvet hat adorned with floppy ostrich plumes—that much we know for sure. But most everything else about her outlaw life is a tangle of fables. It’s said that she drank whiskey, that she wore a rattlesnake tail necklace, that she once dressed like a man to rob a bank, and that she once eluded authorities riding sidesaddle.

Belle grew up with a relatively refined upbringing. Born Myra Maybelle Shirley in 1848, she was raised in Carthage. Her father owned an inn and blacksmith shop on the picturesque downtown square. She even graduated from the Carthage Female Academy as a skilled pianist.

But she had a little rebel blood. Her mother, Elizabeth Hatfield, was a distant relative of the feuding Hatfields and McCoys. Her father—twice divorced—was the black sheep of his own family. During the Civil War, Belle’s family sided with the Confederacy and relocated to Texas.

Belle seemed to like the bad boys. She married three times, first to Jim Reed, a murderer who fathered her two children and eventually died in a gunfight. Next came Bruce Younger, a relative of Cole Younger who sometimes rode with the Jesse James–Cole Younger gang; that union lasted just three weeks. She married her third husband, Sam Starr, a Cherokee with a knack for stealing horses, in 1880. Sam is the one who pushed Belle from a shadow among outlaws to center stage.

Belle and Sam settled on an Indian Territory ranch called Youngers Bend, near present-day Eufaula, Oklahoma. There, the Starrs sheltered outlaws and orchestrated horse-stealing stunts. In 1882, she and Sam were arrested for horse theft and tried in Arkansas. Despite her notoriety, that incident is the first of Belle’s crimes on record. And when word broke of a well-raised woman run amok? Newspapers could not resist.

Fort Smith’s Western Independent described Belle as a “remarkable woman” and a “magnificent equestrienne.” A competing newspaper, the Fort Smith New Era, summed her up as the sort of woman who would “attract the attention of wild and desperate characters.” That sounds about right.

She served nine months in jail, reportedly as a model inmate who even befriended the prison matron. In 1886, she was charged with another theft but escaped conviction. Sam was killed in a gunfight later that year. Once widowed, she scandalized the region with romantic dalliances with outlaws such as Jack Spaniard, Jim French, and Blue Duck.

Two days before her 41st birthday, Belle was killed on horseback, shot in the face and back by a sharecropper wanted for murder … or maybe a rejected admirer, or perhaps even her own horse-thieving son. Some accounts say she was killed with her own double-barreled shotgun.

She is buried on Youngers Bend, beneath a gravestone carved with a bell, a star, and a horse.

Calamity Jane (1852–1903) Princeton

“Some people think the world owes them a living—but it does not owe anyone a living—never has and never will.” —Calamity Jane’s diary entry, May 10, 1893

Famed for her sharp-shooting, cross-dressing, and whiskey-swilling habits, Calamity Jane brought uproar everywhere she went. Though she gained her reputation while working in Wild West outposts throughout South Dakota, she was born Martha Jane Canary near Princeton in Mercer County as the oldest of six children in a cash-strapped household. Around age 10, her family decided to head west via the overland route, perhaps to chase the gold rush. According to her journal entries, she spent that travel “at all times with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had.” After reaching Montana, she considered herself “a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age.”

By the time she hit 15, both her parents had died. Orphaned and with five younger siblings to support, she needed to grow up fast. Her shooting and equestrian skills, along with her tough demeanor and reportedly masculine appearance, landed unlikely work with General George Custer as a scout in Wyoming, and later on, as a rider on the mail route out of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory.

Calamity Jane
C.E. Finn

“It was considered the most dangerous route in the hills, but as my reputation as a rider and quick shot was well-known, I was molested very little,” she reportedly said.

Thanks to a sensational pamphlet that Calamity Jane published in 1901, a firsthand biography of her life exists. The problem is that she was known for stretching the truth. The most formative relationship of her life was with Wild Bill Hickok, who was shot in the head during an 1876 poker game. In her biography, she claimed to have killed Hickok’s murderer, Jack McCall.

By contrast, newspapers of the time instead reported McCall’s capture by locals. Such conflicting accounts are typical. She also claimed to save runaway wagons, nurse smallpox victims, drive oxen, and even run a mill. Rumors swirled of torrid affairs, promiscuity, fatherless children, plenty of public drunkeness, and a marriage or two, though no documents have ever surfaced to prove the allegations. Nonetheless, she embraced her public image.

“One of her weaknesses is strong drink, and profanity is another,” wrote The Rolla New Era newspaper in 1876.

In the 1890s, Calamity Jane commercialized her reputation in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a performance sharpshooter touring across America. Her top trick was to toss her hat up and shoot it twice before it landed back atop her head—all on horseback. She never drank on the job but surrendered to the bottle off-stage. By 1903, years of hard drinking finally caught up. That August, she died in the Calloway Hotel near Deadwood, South Dakota. Her death certificate blamed inflamed bowels—a common euphemism for alcoholism. She is buried next to Wild Bill Hickok at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in South Dakota.

Big Nose Kate (1850–1940) St. Louis

Phillips Collection/Wikimedia Commons

“To Doc from Kate” —inscription on Doc Holliday’s derringer on display at the Glenwood Springs Historical Society, Colorado

Big Nose Kate is often reduced to a footnote for the gunfighter Doc Holliday, but she lived here in her youth. New evidence even suggests that the famous couple first met in St. Louis, where he practiced dentistry.

On the frontier, she was famed for drinking, cursing, her temper, and an aristocratic nose fatefully coupled with an inability to mind her own business—hence her nickname. But long before she worked the western saloons, she was just Maria Katarina Haroney, a Hungarian-born girl who was eventually orphaned at 15 in Iowa. She stowed away on a steamboat to St. Louis, where she enrolled in an Ursuline Convent.

Apparently, that was just a phase.

Though no documents prove this, it seems she married and then divorced a traveling salesman, or maybe he just died. She may have also had a baby who died. By 1874, Kate was working as a prostitute in Kansas. In 1877, she met Doc Holliday and began the riotous love affair that would firmly cement her place in history. She is credited with saving Doc’s life in Fort Griffin, Texas, when she set a fire so he could escape before hanging. Their on-again, off-again affair ended in the 1880s when a drunken Kate fingered Doc for a stagecoach robbery and murder. Although she later recanted and Doc went free, the love affair was over.

Kate bounced around the Arizona Territory, living with other men and marrying at least once more. In 1931, she lied about her foreign birth and finagled a place in the Arizona Pioneer Home in Prescott, Arizona, where she lived for nearly a decade, dying five days before her 90th birthday.

Della Oxley (1870–1898) Carthage

“I go from here to a watery grave and god have Pitty on my Soul—But I would rather go there than to Jefferson.” —Della Oxley’s “suicide note” left after her Jasper County jailbreak, 1891


With a record of prostitution, burglary, and horse-thief convictions, Della Oxley mesmerized the public with her dramatic Jasper County jailbreak in 1891. For stealing a horse on the Fourth of July, a jury gave her five years in the state penitentiary. Until then, crime had never cost the 21-year-old more than $10. The verdict stunned her. She told the courtroom to “kiss my foot,” and wailed suicide threats as the bailiff escorted her away.

It all made for a dramatic show—one she felt determined to uphold. Early the next morning, she sawed the window bars of her jail cell in half and slipped out, leaving behind a melodramatic suicide note that sentenced her fate to a “watery grave.”

She fled to Baxter Springs, where she immediately disguised herself as a man. But the rough clothes weren’t quite fine enough for Della’s “fastidious taste,” and she went shopping. In a changing room, a letter bearing her name slipped from her pocket and tipped off the store clerk, who quickly reported her to the police. Once captured, they chained her to the floor of the very same jail cell she’d escaped from just one day earlier. She very nearly escaped again by filing her shackles before authorities shipped her off to serve her prison sentence in Jefferson City. Released in 1895, she divorced and remarried in 1896. Della died of unknown causes in 1898 in Taylorville, Illinois. She was 28.

May Calvin (1875-unknown) Carthage

San Francisco Chronicle

“I have no hard luck story to tell … I’m not like other women, either, in blaming my downfall on any man.” —May Calvin, quoted in The St. Louis Republic, 1894

May Calvin’s equestrian skills launched her career in the St. Louis Robinson’s Circus, but that same love for horses quickly pulled the Webb City school dropout astray. In October 1892, she landed in a Kansas jail for a horse and buggy theft, though she quickly escaped. The following May, she reappeared in Joplin, where she hired another horse and buggy for cross-town travel … but “forgot” to return either. A month later, she was arrested in Columbus, Kansas, for disturbing the peace, returned to Jasper County, and placed in the very same jail cell that Della Oxley had occupied just two years earlier. Like her predecessor, May had no intention of sticking around.

With a fellow inmate named Mary Medsker, May followed Della’s lead and escaped through the same sawed-apart jail bars. On a stolen horse, May fled to Oklahoma before the police caught her again, this time for good. She was sentenced to two years in the Missouri state penitentiary, but promised to “be a good girl” and was rewarded for good behavior with an early release in 1894. Her whereabouts after prison remain a mystery.

Cora Hubbard (1877–unknown) Pineville

“I could have held up the whole damned town.” —Cora Hubbard to the Joplin Daily Herald, 1897

McDonald County Library

When 20-year-old Cora Hubbard was arrested for a bank robbery, her foul mouth and general shamelessness stunned the public. She told the Joplin Daily Herald that she was “not a damned bit” afraid during the heist.

Despite her big talk, she didn’t actually participate in the robbery. Cora’s brother, Will Hubbard, hatched the plot with John Sheets and Whit Tennyson, a farmhand and a drifter who stayed with Cora and her husband, Bud Parker, on their farm near Weir City, Kansas. They plotted to rob the McDonald County Bank in Pineville, Missouri.

When Cora, John, and Whit prepared to leave, the other two backed out. She called her husband “a damn coward” and left. The trio, with Cora disguised in men’s clothing, set off for Pineville on August 17, 1897. Cora watched the horses at a barn one block from the bank while her two compatriots stormed the building. The barn owner’s son discovered her, and she drew her gun to keep him quiet.

Minutes later, the bandits met Cora with a sack stuffed with nearly $600, and the jubilant trio fired their guns in the air, stole the barn owner’s son’s horse, and raced away. The gang was ambushed by vengeful Pineville deputies at nearby Noel. Buckshot peppered the two men and knocked Cora’s gun from her hand. Whit was captured and thrown in the Newton County Jail, but Cora and John escaped to Parsons, Kansas, some 70 miles to the northwest.

In jail, Whit gave up his accomplices. Once word hit that one was a woman, she was quickly branded as another Belle Starr. Cora and John were arrested a few days later and returned to Missouri for trial. She was sentenced to 12 years in the state penitentiary at Jefferson City but served less than seven, thanks to time off for good behavior.

That singular misadventure must have been enough for Cora. She allegedly worked as a seamstress upon her release in 1905, and her name never made the papers again.

Bonnie Parker (1910—1934) Joplin

Bonnie Parker Clyde Barrow
Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

“You’ve heard of a woman’s glory being spent on a ‘downright cur,’ Still you can’t always judge the story as true, being told by her.” —Bonnie Parker, “The Story of Suicide Sal,” 1932

Bonnie Parker was neither Missouri born nor raised nor captured, but she passed through the state occasionally, and that’s good enough for us. In Missouri, Bonnie and her partner, Clyde Barrow, are best known for their April 1933 shootout with the Joplin police, a dramatic end to what they’d hoped would be a relaxing, two-week vacation.

But the couple’s first visit to the state was actually the previous autumn, when they rented tourist cabins in Carthage to use as a hideout from a string of robberies. In January of 1933, they targeted Springfield, but caught the attention of a motorcycle cop named Tom Persell. Unwilling to play dumb, Bonnie held him at gunpoint and they kidnapped him. With the police officer blinded under a blanket, they drove backroads to Carl Junction, where Persell was quickly released. Though shaken, the befuddled officer didn’t even realize he’d survived a Bonnie and Clyde encounter until much later.

When Clyde’s brother Buck was released from prison in March 1933, the fearless duo convinced Buck to bring his wife, Blanche, to Joplin with them for a pleasant family vacation. The gang drove from Texas to Missouri, where they rented out a charming stone apartment above a garage just a few blocks from Main Street. For the next 12 days, they amused themselves by shopping for trinkets, playing cards, and drinking beer. Bonnie also wrote poetry. To keep cover, they hired a night watchman for one dollar and rotated license plates on their stolen vehicle.

But when the money ran low, the men resorted to robberies. Suspicious neighbors notified the authorities, who wrongfully suspected that the apartment actually housed a small-time bootleg operation. With a liquor warrant in hand, the police arrived and identified a stolen car sitting in the garage. Clyde immediately opened fire. The shootout ultimately claimed two police lives, but Bonnie and Clyde escaped unscathed.

In the abandoned apartment, officials found two rolls of film from the gang’s vacation, along with a sheaf of Bonnie’s poems. Newspapers across the nation published the photographs.

Bonnie and Clyde returned to Missouri in July to hide out after killing a policeman and robbing a few gas stations. They were finally killed in a police ambush amid a barrage of gunfire near Arcadia, Louisiana, in 1934. At just 24, Bonnie’s gutsy, brief, and seemingly carefree life had entertained and perhaps awed many suffering through the Great Depression. She was wicked but also darkly alluring to some.

Thousands attended her funeral in Dallas.