More on the trip to St. Charles, Arkansas brings us to the odd life of Helen Spence. Long a source of local legend and bemusement, the life of this odd Arkansan has resurfaced recently in a new book, “Daughter of the White River: Depression-Era Tragedy and Vengeance in the Arkansas Delta.” The author is Denise White Parkinson, daughter of a high school friend of mine Matt White, who enjoyed a long and prosperous career as radio personality Sonny Martin.
Helen Spence makes a good story by any standard. She was born one of the “river rats” who lived on houseboats on the White River until life or circumstances drove them to “high ground.”
On a fishing trip, a man named Jack Worls killed Helen’s father, Cicero Spence, himself a person with a checkered past and possible prison background. At Worls’ trial, Helen slipped a gun into the courthouse (this was long before “concealed carry” permits) and exacted revenge in full view of the judge, jury, and spectators.
Public sympathy and national attention kept Helen out of jail long enough for her to kill another man, her employer at a restaurant. Despite the fact that she seemed to have gotten away with the second crime for lack of evidence, or disinterest, or both, she inexplicably confessed six months later. This act of contrition sent her into the infamous cesspool known as the Arkansas Prison System.
She didn’t like it there and proceeded to escape, again and again. Needless to say, prison officials quickly tired of her lack of appreciation and thus began a vicious cycle of escape, punishment, and more escapes. Oddly, she didn’t seem particularly adept at it as most of her captures took place along open roads a short time after she went missing.
Anyway, this process ended with her being shot-gunned to death on a lonely road by a prison trusty named Frank Martin. Legend says he was promised parole if he would rid the state of this pesky internee. Legend also has it that he later died by poisoning in the free world.
When they put Helen’s body, now possibly the most famous in the state, on display at a Dewitt, Arkansas funeral home, the curious crowds evidently infuriated a friend of Helen’s named John Black. He, with a group of friends, stole the body from the funeral home and buried it in a “secret location,” marked only by a cedar tree planted there and nourished by the man for years.
Legend has it that the location was unknown for years although legend doesn’t explain why nobody apparently, with the news of the body’s disappearance “a-swirlin,” noticed a fresh grave in the town’s only cemetery.
But, such is the stuff that legends are made of, and this one now has a life of its own as all good legends do. At any rate, the mystery of the location has supposedly been solved and the location of the graves of Cicero and Helen Spence now are identified, verified by my traveling buddies and me last week.
I don’t care much for the facile depiction of Southerners as “colorful characters.” They are to me like every subset of homo sapiens,—a diverse and unpredictable lot. But Helen Spence deserves the description of a colorful personage if anyone does.
At least it would according to legend.
“Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.” - John Steinbeck