Wednesday, November 13, 2013

From One Daughter of the White River to Another

Posted By on Wed, Nov 13, 2013 at 9:01 AM

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"Arkansas' Gun Moll and the Prison Love Nest" is how Daring Detective described the story on the cover of its September 1935 issue. And no wonder that magazine picked up on the Helen Spence story. This is the young woman who caught the attention of The New York Times too. As its front-page headline on January 20, 1931, declared, "Girl Kills Alleged Slayer of Father in Court; Fires as Arkansas Jury Is About to Get Case."

No two ways about it. That's what happened. That's what judge and jury and spectators saw: "river justice" in action. Helen, who grew up on Arkansas' White River, was just 17. But her story hardly stopped with that courtroom gunshot.

While awaiting trial for first-degree murder, Helen was in the custody of the county sheriff and his wife, and she waitressed at a restaurant in DeWitt until she put a stop to the unwelcome advances of the restaurant's manager, Jim Bohots. One night, she shot him too. But that case was never fully investigated. No charges were filed. Bohots was widely hated in the area. Again according to "river justice," he probably needed killing.

But Helen still needed sentencing for the murder of her father's killer, and she got it: two years in the women's prison near Jacksonville after she pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

A few months later, she was granted parole and moved to Little Rock, which is where she walked into a police station and admitted to killing Bohots, because the incident had "preyed on her mind." With that confession, Helen's new sentence was 10 years' hard labor at the Jacksonville women's prison (aka the "Pea Farm"), with these words of advice from the judge: that Helen "stay out of trouble" after serving her time.

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Helen didn't stay out of trouble. She got into more of it while serving time. She escaped the prison by simply climbing a fence. Three hours later, she was captured and, in punishment, according to reports, flogged. Then she escaped again, was caught the following day, and put to work in the prison laundry. That's where Helen used the checkerboard cloth napkins she was cleaning to sew herself a new dress, with her future in mind.

Word among the female prisoners was that they were to be bussed to Memphis and ordered to act there as prostitutes, but Helen had her own idea. She sewed the checkerboard dress to the lining of her prison garb, ducked into the West Memphis bus station bathroom, turned her clothing inside out, and, looking according to one witness like a "department store model," made it almost to Brinkley before being recaptured. Back in prison, she got another 10 lashes. Helen was officially now the Pea Farm's "most incorrigible, unmanageable prisoner." And that's not all.

She was soon to be a patient at Arkansas' State Hospital for Nervous Diseases, where in December 1933 her diagnosis read: "constitutional psychopathic inferiority, without psychosis." That hospital stay, however, didn't last long. Helen was moved back to the Pea Farm, where she was separated from other inmates and locked inside a wooden cage, under these orders from the superintendent: "Be sure that you do not let her have any matches in the cell for I do not want her to burn it up."

Helen never did get hold of any matches, but she did escape prison — again — after being assigned to work in the facility's strawberry patch. And again she climbed a prison fence. But the next day, a posse caught up with her on a dirt road, a shotgun was fired, and a bullet pierced the back of Helen's head. The next morning's headline, all caps, on the front page of the state's leading newspaper: "NOTORIOUS GIRL FUGITIVE KILLED BY TRUSTY GUARD."

That guard was later charged with murder (but eventually acquitted), and prison officials were forced to resign. But Helen Spence got herself a fine funeral, where crowds paid their final respects — none more respectful than a friend who remembered Helen as "more sweet and refined than many a girl who is raised like a queen."

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And she wasn't raised like a queen. Helen Spence — kind and loyal to family and friends but born with real spunk and a spirit of adventure — grew up on a pontoon-style houseboat on the White River, which is why Denise White Parkinson has titled her book on the life and death of Helen Spence Daughter of the White River: Depression-Era Treachery & Vengeance in the Arkansas Delta (The History Press).

Parkinson, a freelance writer in Hot Springs and onetime staff member at the Memphis Flyer, knows the territory well. She spent summers growing up at her family's converted houseboat/cabin near the White River. And to write this story, she's worked with someone who remembers the girlhood of Helen Spence very well: L.C. Brown Jr. But Daughter of the White River is more than one woman's story. Parkinson vividly recreates what it was like to live on the White before construction of the Bull Shoals Dam moved residents off the river for good.

It was a way of life that included "brush-arbor" worship services, mussel divers, and molasses makers. It was the era of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano in Hot Springs and manhunts for Bonnie and Clyde and the Ma Barker Gang. Most memorably, Parkinson evokes the natural beauty of the White River itself. But more importantly, she's given Helen Spence, daughter of the river, a sympathetic hearing — something in its pulp version of events Daring Detective did not. •
Denise White Parkinson will be discussing and signing Daughter of the White River at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, November 14th, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. For more information, call the store at 278-7484.

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