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Daughter of the White River: An Interview with Author Denise Parkinson Part 2
Join author Denise Parkinson for an intimate look at a Depression-era tragedy. The once-thriving houseboat communities along Arkansas' White River are long gone, and few remember the sensational murder story that set local darling Helen Spence on a tragic path. In 1931, Spence shocked Arkansas when she avenged her father's murder in a DeWitt courtroom. The state soon discovered that no prison could hold her. For the first time, prison records are unveiled to provide an essential portrait. The legend of Helen Spence refuses to be forgotten--despite her unmarked grave.
Denise Parkinson is a freelance writer living in Hot Springs, Arkansas. A graduate of Hendrix College, Parkinson's writing appears in a range of publications, including the Arkansas Democrat, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas Times, Little Rock Free Press, Memphis Flyer and Cooper-Young Lamplighter. Since 2008, she has been the lead writer for Hot Springs Life and Home magazine. Dale Woodiel was born and raised on the banks of the White River in Crockett's Bluff, Arkansas. He teaches humanities at the University of Hartford.
Denise, thank you so much for joining us again on Crime Capsule. It is such a pleasure to have you back.
[00:00:10.070] - Denise
Thank you, Ben. It's been great so far. I'm excited.
[00:00:16.290] - Benjamin
Where we left off last week, Helen Spence had just stood up in a courthouse, pulled a pistol and shot her father's or murderer almost point blank. And what was remarkable about that scene, apart from the fact that you have a courthouse execution, is that she showed no remorse. She was strangely calm as she was led away, wasn't she?
[00:00:51.510] - Denise
Yes. In fact, one of the headlines that I remember was she showed no remorse. And one of the main quotes that the reporters there was a ton of AP reporters in the courtroom because they had come down to Arkansas, because there had been the very first food riot of the Great Depression in nearby England, Arkansas, which was the breadbasket of Arkansas and America at the time. And so the AP reporters were in the area and they went to check out this sensational murder trial. And they were there and they said that the only thing she replied was, well, he killed my Daddy, which is just what Maddie Ross was motivated by. So that's another reason that I think that Helen Spence was a prototype for Maddie Ross of True Grit.
[00:01:59.430] - Benjamin
That's kind of interesting. Do you think that if those AP reporters had not been in the area, do you think this is one of those sort of fluke situations where if national press had not been just next door, that this story would not have gained the attention that it did, that it would have just been kind of a local curiosity kind of Southern Justice kind of thing and would have stayed in the local community as a legend for years to come as opposed to being put on a national stage?
[00:02:30.390] - Denise
That's a good question. But in the time that I've worked on this project, we've gone from having statewide media to just having paywall and firewall. So back then, there were newspapers in every town. There were morning newspapers and there were even afternoon newspapers. And so there's no telling if it would have gotten the same amount of play or if it would have taken a little longer for other newspapers to pick up on the story because this was during the time when outlaws were splashed across the front pages and Bonnie and Clyde were in the process of getting their time in the media. So she was of her time and they labeled her an outlaw immediately.
[00:03:29.350] - Benjamin
There's a strange kind of segue here in that immediate aftermath. Last week, you told us about the chaos in the courtroom and the people sort of trying to flee the Chambers. And the question over, did she shoot him in the front, in the back? Did she drop the gun? Did she hand the gun off? Nobody was really able to track exactly what happened. All that chaos sort of segues into a very unusual sense of placidity in that the Sheriff takes her into custody because, of course, she had no home to go to at this point. Sheriff takes her into custody and she's put on what today we would really call parole, kind of almost immediately, I was really struck by the fact that in your account, it's only a matter of days or weeks before she sort of more or less remanded into his care and she can go and get a job.
[00:04:26.050] - Denise
Yes, it's a very small community. So she had a bunch of eyes on her. And because she knew she had to work, she quickly gained employment at a local cafe that was run by a man who was just reviled in dwit. No one could stand him, and he was very heavy handed or Ham handed, however you want to call it, with his female employees. So that sets up the next confrontation. But she definitely was with the Sheriff and his wife until she convinced the judge, Judge Waggoner, that she could be trusted. And she moved into a little apartment above the cafe with a woman named Anna Maybury, which has to be the most wonderful Arkansas name I've ever heard.
[00:05:47.590] - Benjamin
She almost became herself a tourist attraction at this particular cafe, didn't she?
[00:05:54.670] - Denise
Oh, yes. Because there was a period of time where she was on appeal. It took months before it was decided. Finally, she didn't get a pardon, but she did get a lesser charge of manslaughter. So in that amount of time, she was living and working at the cafe.
[00:06:20.870] - Benjamin
So this is a story, Denise, not of one murder in the courthouse, but it's actually a story of three murders. For listeners who didn't join us last week, the whole saga starts when man named Jack Worls kills Helen Spencer's father in a fairly murky kind of dispute. But Helen witnesses this, and she then goes and takes matters into her own hands. That's murder number one, then murder number two. And then there's murder number three, which occurs right after this employment begins. There's a fairly mysterious set of circumstances in which her abusive, Ham handed boss was found dead in his car. And conveniently, it struck me conveniently, just as Jim Bohat dies, Helen's prison sentence for killing Jack Whirls manslaughter begins.
[00:07:27.690] - Denise
Correct. And she was investigated because she had supposedly taken a ride with him in his car. And Mr. Brown remembers it as a big flashy car with running boards. And I'm not sure what make it was, but it was very flashy. And that was the style of Jim Bohas. There are still, to this very day, people in Arkansas County that will argue back and forth, did she kill Jim Bohotz, or was she just the most likely suspect? Because after they investigated, the case went cold, and that's where the phrase popped up. Well, he needed killing because there were so many people in that town that had a beef with him that could have killed him. So she was no longer under suspicion when she went to serve her term.
[00:08:27.390] - Benjamin
Right. And so you said with this reduced sentence, she ended up getting about six to eight months in the state women's penitentiary before being paroled again. It could have been a much longer sentence, of course, if she had been convicted on a murder charge. But she did get that reduction. Tell us a little bit about the P farm, this women's penitentiary, it sounds like a pretty interesting place for its day.
[00:08:57.390] - Denise
Yes. Actually, I was told by the director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies that my book is the only book that even touches on the realities of the P farm because it was begun as the state legislature gave the money around 1919. Then it was taken in. It was a huge farmstead of a couple of hundred acres in North Pulaski County, which is located between Cabot and Jacksonville. So it's in an unincorporated, very rural area. And it was a straight up farm with a large farmhouse that they called the Big House and outbuildings that were used as dormitories. And it was very underfunded, as was everything, because it was the beginnings of the Great Depression. And so there were never more than a few dozen women inmates there at any given time. And the only guard that was on staff was himself a convicted murderer. Frank Martin. And I interviewed his next door neighbor during the writing of the book. A little girl had grown up and she knew all of Frank Martin's children. He was a tenant farmer after he was paroled, and everyone knew that he had gotten paroled because he took the rap for killing Helen Spence. And maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, but she said that he was a terrible man. He treated his children terribly and his wife terribly, and he would drink and beat his children. And his wife and her family lived down the road, and they would leave their doors open at night so that his children could come and they'd wake up and all the children would be asleep on their floor to get away from Frank Martin.
[00:11:18.870] - Benjamin
And this guy is put in charge of several dozen women in a rural area where nobody can hear you scream, to use the quote from the Alien movies. Goodness.
[00:11:29.550] - Denise
[00:11:33.790] - Benjamin
Wow. What was Helen's life for those six to eight months in her first period of incarceration. Like, was it grueling labor out there or was it fairly moderate? I mean, what were the actual conditions on the Pfarm like
[00:11:48.170] - Denise
possibly because she had had so much publicity and she was kind of like Arkansas sweetheart. There was a ton of sympathy for her. She was not forced to work in the fields, so the time passed as fairly uneventfully. And she made friends, and she had a special friend named Catherine, who was a prisoner awaiting transfer to a federal facility. So Catherine had a lot of mobility within the prison, and she took Helen under her wing. And Helen would tell stories. She would sing songs. We have accounts that were written to various newspapers from former inmates after Helen was murdered, talking about how in all the time they knew her, they never heard her curse, that she would sing the old time songs that they remembered from their childhood. And it was like a sisterhood in the prison, because as we learned during the research and interviewing so many people, we found descendants of some of the prisoners, and they would be sent there for something as ridiculous as riding a motorcycle with a boy in the 1930s. They would be sent there. It was a dumping ground for poor girl.
[00:13:21.650] - Benjamin
You have some amazing detail in your book, really, about that experience of bonding between the women on the P farm. I was really moved by the intimacy of their experiences confined together, telling stories together, assume occasionally talking about trying to get out of there together. But you have this sort of depiction of every night after dinner, these women would sort of gather together and just sort of talk each other to sleep, which is just so sweet and yet a sign of strength, too, because they're forming this cohesion, this camaraderie. You mentioned a couple of accounts from former inmates, but where did you get this information? Because as I was reading Denise, I was thinking, how on Earth did Denise have her ear to the wall of this women's penitentiary almost 100 years ago? I was trying to piece that together, and I couldn't do it. Where did you hear this stuff?
[00:14:25.290] - Denise
Well, it was part of the oral tradition that was passed down from John Black, who was keeping close tabs as much as he could. They were getting information in bits and pieces from the prison, and he passed it down to Mr. Brown, who passed it down to me. But you'll be interested to know that some of the funny stories, for example, the best pranksters in Arkansas County were the Jenkins brothers, and they would get up to all kinds of shenanigans, and Helen would tell those stories. That's where I spent the last few days was visiting the Jenkins family, and these are direct descendants of the Jenkins boys. The funniest part was she would tell about when they would get together at the rural churches, and the people would show up in their butt board cabins. If the babies got fussy during the service, the mothers would take the babies, tend to them, feed them, and then swaddle them and put them in the back of the buck board where they would sleep in the shade until the Church service was over. Well, the chickens boys would go out and switch everyone's baby around. And so the people would head home for Sunday dinner and they'd get home and they'd be, well, this isn't our baby and they'd have to go back and change.
This happened three times. So these were Legends that were told.
[00:16:06.370] - Benjamin
It takes a village, what can you say? So she spends this first period a little under a year without a whole lot of note happening. She gets out. And in one of the many twists and turns in your book that I did not see coming, Denise, as soon as Helen Spence gets out of prison, she goes right back in and she makes this really dramatic trip to a local police precinct where she has a very specific kind of conversation with the local deputy Sheriff. Tell us just what was up with this Boomerang? What happened?
[00:16:50.890] - Denise
You're very correct in calling it a Boomerang because this was the part of my book that I gave it as I got it from the news accounts. And I thought it was strange after all of these news stories that had no guidelines and no way to tell what you were getting if it was just space filler and exploitation or if there was some truth in there. The story in the Gazette stated very clearly that she took an assumed name. They didn't say what name. And she took a job at a restaurant in Little Rock for a week before she went and talked to the Little Rock police Detective, who was himself quite a character and very corrupt. But they named the restaurant, they said its name Casanellis. Now, why would that detail be in there? I think it was to throw people off, because this Boomerang was the reason that I had to go back years later and ask for a second edition of my book so that we could put one paragraph in because my reader in Cabot that discovered the layout of the Pfarm based on all the names of the streets in that area being named after women prisoners.
He was a male man, a US postal worker. So he charted it out. He found out from one of the elderly folks on the route, oh, this is where the P farm was. Well, he looked at all of the prison files that I had received from the Arkansas Department of Corrections, and there were two pages that I did not understand. I've never been in prison, so I don't understand. I did not understand what I had. And he determined and showed me that the parole bond was signed and there was $1,000, and it was put up by a man named W. B. Graham. And there was an employment agreement that was signed by the same man. So it means that as we learned after my book came out and began to question the people in the area, there was a process at the women's prison in that time of debt peeinage where you could purchase a female prisoner for money and use that as a bond, and then they would be your slave. That's what she ran away from. So my second edition of the book that came out years. It took me years begging the publisher to let me add this additional information because it really changes everything.
But still, to this day, there are people convinced in Arkansas County that she did kill Jim Bohas. I'm on the opposite side. I think that was a huge smokescreen.
[00:20:01.650] - Benjamin
Well, let me ask you, do you think that this was like murder on the Orient Express in which everybody in DeWitt killed Jim Bohas? There happened to be a trigger man, but everybody was in on it. What is your explanation for his death?
[00:20:17.370] - Denise
Well, he got killed with his own gun. So unless they had some kind of way to do fingerprints, they never knew it was a mystery. But when she went back and made that confession, based on my research and the people that have helped in the research, we all think that that was a smokescreen because nobody at the prison wanted anyone to know that they were basically sexually trafficking and selling women. There were women that actually went out into the community from the prison and married into families, and everyone kept it very quiet. But some of those girls did not get so lucky. They went into worse situations than they had been in prison. And so for whatever reason, if she was escaping some sort of sexual slavery, I looked up W. B. Graham. I did find some information about him. He was a school Superintendent in a neighboring county. And there was a record on the Internet that popped up that was a dispute where he had apparently cheated a group of investors that were building an African American school, and he had cheated them on the amount of so he sounds on the amount of money that they had to pay for the property.
[00:21:55.250] - Denise
So he was apparently not a nice person.
[00:22:03.650] - Benjamin
It can be a little confusing here. That the sequence of things. And for our listeners who might find their heads a little muddled right now as to what is actually happening, it's probably worth just a little bit of clarification. After Helen goes and makes this alleged confession, she makes a confession, apparently, and is sent back to prison and she gets a sentence of ten years for killing Jim Bohas. What is happening is that she is making a series of escape attempts that did not define her first period of incarceration. Right. I mean, Denise, you say that the first six to eight months passed fairly uneventful, but then there's this turn, there's a sort of switch or twist where her behavior starts to radically change in prison. And there's not really a good explanation for that in the historical record. We talk sometimes about what we call there's the story, but then there's the story behind the story. Right. I mean, there's the underlying story which explains or helps to account for what's actually taking place on the surface. And the discussion here of what in the 30s 40s was called white slavery, human trafficking, forced prostitution really does help to account for this change of events on the surface of things, doesn't it?
[00:23:23.870] - Denise
Yes. When my friend showed me what he thought the paperwork meant, I felt like an idiot. I felt like a fool. But I also realized that I'm just the kind of person that I would not have gone to that dark place without someone explaining it to me. It's just so beyond the pale that our state, the state that I'm, a 6th generation born and bred Arkansas, would traffic women. I came up with a term for it, debt concubine. And that apparently was very widespread in North Pelasky County to the extent that people to this day, they want to protect the women who came out of the prison and were bonded into various households and then later married the men of those households because I'm thinking that most of these women were not cold blooded criminals. They weren't there because it was the Great Depression. They were the poorest of the poor, and they had really no civil rights at all.
[00:24:42.090] - Benjamin
Yeah. How little times have changed and how little we see those structures having shifted over the years. I do want to say very briefly and for listeners who may find some of this difficult to hear, we agree there is some material in Denise's book which is particularly challenging. And if anyone out there wishes to fast forward a few minutes, we do actually need to cover something that I find very difficult to talk about, which is this sort of Corporal punishment which the prison inflicted on its inmates. So feel free to fast forward a few minutes if you need to. But, Denise, you know, you write that Helen s attempts she was so determined to get out of the P farm in her second that she was willing to risk her own personal safety, bodily integrity, and she was actually whipped in a way which just makes all of the horror in us as a civil society kind of rise to the fore. She was willing to risk all of that in order to get out.
What was she undergoing at this time?
[00:26:24.890] - Denise
Well, I had never realized that the phrase, You've got me over a barrel goes back to when prisoners such as Helen Spence. And there was another woman before Helen, named Winona Green, who got the same treatment that we did find records for it. And they would spread Eagle the naked prisoner over a barrel like a pickle barrel, or just a big Oak barrel and flog them with a leather strap called the black snake. So this was very known. And so the people on the river were getting frantic because they were afraid that she was going to be killed in prison. You've got to remember, she's only five foot one, she was only £120. And then she lost weight in prison. She had a size five shoe, she was tiny, she was petite, and so this was not good.
[00:27:38.070] - Benjamin
Her first attempt results in that punishment. She just walks off the farm, she doesn't make it very far. And then she's brought back and she's with her second escape attempt, she actually gets violently ill and she spends weeks in recovery. But here again, you know, we have the abuse of the incarcerated by the prison system. The prison doctor is subjecting her to some extremely dubious treatments, isn't he? Treatments in sort of scare quotes.
[00:28:10.350] - Denise
Exactly. I found from the prison files, I think it was three punishment reports and they are just Typed up and there's a blank space and they say, how corrected? And it says Ten lashes. And so there were several of these punishment reports that lined up with the timeline that I had been working from of her life. The punishment that nearly killed her. We could never find a piece of paper that said she was punished for escaping. How was she punished? It was not in the file. And so she came back into the barracks with a high fever, she couldn't walk, and then her kidneys, everything started failing. So then they took her into the Infirmary and basically subjected her to medical torture. Just a series of horrendous, just hour after hour of trigger warning. Trigger warning. These were animals and douches and it just boggles the mind. And she eventually was so close to death that the prison finally sent her to a real hospital. But they didn't send her to Little Rock, which I thought was interesting. They sent her all the way to BB, Arkansas. So I think that they were worried about word getting out and they did not send her to Little Rock, where there might have been someone to find out what was going on.
So she was in this hospital in BB and recovered. But when she came back to the prison, she still had to take Digitalis because she basically was so abused that it gave her a heart attack.
[00:30:10.590] - Benjamin
Right. And Digitalist, as we know, is a poisoning agent as well, in the wrong doses.
[00:30:17.250] - Denise
[00:30:23.410] - Benjamin
The thing that got me the worst, it's all terrible. Your account of this and I had very difficult time reading these chapters, Denise. But the thing that got me the most was after one of her attempts, one of her next to last attempts, the Pfarm quite literally caged her in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable. Searing summer heat in direct sunlight. It's the kind of thing that you would go all the way to the Supreme Court in order to end forever, right. In this day and age. But in that day and age, it was seen as a way of correcting the uncorrectable.
[00:31:12.730] - Denise
Especially if the uncorrectable was, number one, a poor, quote unquote poor person, and number two, a reviled culture, because back then and even till today, river people are called river rats. So if you dehumanize someone as a rat, there was a lot going on in this prison that was going on at the same time on the other side of the world in Germany. It mirrored a lot of the abuses of the Nazis. They classified her as some kind of inferior, a medical term that the Nazis used as well. And the cage there was more than one of those because apparently it was a thing in Arkansas prisons at the time to cage people. There is a wonderful Museum in Stuckgart in Arkansas County called the Museum of the Grand Prairie, and they have one of these cages. And when I first saw it, it had a teeny tiny bunk towards the top of the cage where you would be like lying with like eight inches on this teeny tiny bunk. The cage was maybe 8ft by 8ft. And they had a mannequin wrapped in a quilt up on the bunk. And I was by myself in the Museum, and it was very dark and quiet.
And I thought that the mannequin was real, and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It scared me so badly. But while she was in the cage, Ben, she wrote the most beautiful poem so her spirit was never broken. She wrote a beautiful poem talking about while I'm here and shadows play against the wall. The phrase that she uses in that poem, I think, speaks to both of us as writers. She says, you can't heal the heart with no work for the hand. So I pick up my pencil and do what I can.
[00:33:30.590] - Benjamin
Good line. Yeah, that's a great line. Nice little tight couple of there. This is a story of terrible horror at this moment, right? I mean, just make your skin crawl, what they've done to this woman. But from the very beginning, Denise, you write that Helen had always been a sort of embodiment of resilience. She had grown up in this self sufficient community. She had learned all these amazing things about how to survive from her father, whom she loved so much, and from her family. She had managed to make it into a bad marriage and got out of a bad marriage on her own. 2ft. Right. And she had survived year after year after year in very trying circumstances, as we said, in one of the poorest States, in one of the poorest periods of the country's history, she was resilient. And what struck me in this account, even in the sort of the depths of this prison experience that she's going through, she survives all of that. She survives the lashing. She survives the infections. She survives the lashing. She survives the illnesses and the infections and the sort of torturous medical treatments. She survives being caged.
And she survives long enough that these parts of her story have come down to it. So as awful as this horror is, there is something still so much to admire about Helen's life.
[00:36:26.890] - Denise
Yes, she had been working in the laundry because they did not trust her to work in the field. And so she had saved up a bunch of gingham, red and white, checked cotton napkins, sewed them into the lining of her prison dress because she was listening to Catherine, who kept warning the prisoners that the prison had a scheme to take the girls up to Memphis to the Catholic and return money back to the prison. And Helen took it very seriously because she had been paroled into the hands of an unscrupulous character. She escaped. They found her. It was the dress that was her ticket out. And they punished her severely. So then the final escape, she was out in the field again and she just walked away after she went and got some of her Digitalis because she had fainted. She was supposedly in a strawberry patch owing and she just climbed over the barbed wire fence and disappeared. Now there is an account in a magazine that is called it's some kind of exploitative true Detective type from the 1930s, a Tencent magazine. But the value there was the grand jury testimony because there was a witness who was there to work on the Pea Farms water pump.
And he States that it seemed to him that Frank Martin, who was the trustee guard, and Vo Brockman, who was the husband of the prison matron, they both let her walk away. So it seemed to him that they weren't making any attempt whatsoever to go after her. And so she continued 9 miles. She made it 9 miles in less than 24 hours away from there under heavy forested, thickly forested area. And she came out onto a dirt road. And we've interviewed and they're in our documentary, the nephew of the woman whose house she stopped at first and asked for a ride to Little Rock. Her name was, I believe, Hazel. And she jumped off the porch and ran off into the fields to get her husband because he was out plowing. And when they came back, Helen was gone. And she made it further down the road. I believe it was Carmichael Road, which is still there. And there were two women standing out in a yard, and they had just finished hanging the laundry. And there's a beautiful well out in that yard. It's still there. It's dry, but it's still there. I've been there.
And Helen wandered up and asked them for a drink of water well, they went to the well because this was the height of the dirty 30s. It was a terrible heat wave, terrible drought. So it was July 1934. It was miserable. And the Lady, May Bearden, went to the well, drew her some water, gave her a drink, and then Helen thanked her and went down the road. But suddenly, here comes a truck with two men in it, and they pull right up to her and shot her behind the right ear in front of the two women standing there. And May Bearden went and took a sheet off the line and went and covered her body out of respect.
[00:40:29.330] - Benjamin
Again, as with the scene in the courthouse, where there's sort of chaos and pandemonium and conflicting witnesses and nobody's really sure what's happening, you have some of the same chaos of the accounting for what happened on that day on Carmichael Road. And there are questions over did she or didn't she pull a gun? Did she or didn't she put up a fight? Did she or didn't she just keep walking away even as her captors approach her? What I found so sadly plausible was the conclusion that you reach, which is that she did not just escape of her own volition, that a trap was set, is that she was lured into escaping so that this time the guards could just kill her. That in the eyes of the prison warden and the prison system, Helen Spence was easier to deal with dead than alive.
[00:41:34.850] - Denise
Yes. And the quote from Ms. Brockman is just bone chilling. When she was told that Helen Spence was dead, she literally responded with, well, that is a great burden off my shoulders. And there was a photograph that when I went back for the second edition of the book to include the information that had come to light. There was a photograph that I was given, but I had to wait until the person who gave it to me retired from the state Parks Department. She had been given that photograph from her boss as he was retiring, and he had been given that photograph from his boss as he was retiring. It was passed down in much the same way that the oral tradition was. And this photo, which I then included in the book and it's also in our film, shows what I believe to be the most damning image. She is lying there. She has obviously been shot. She's in the road. There is blood on the back of her neck. And you can tell that she has been killed. And she is lying there in the road. Somebody ripped open her blouse and shoved a huge pistol down into her bra, into her brassier, which, of course, at that time, they were all hand made.
So it was not a Brazier like you would imagine. It was a hand sewn garment that could never, ever bear the weight of a giant gun. And they did that to take a photo photograph of her and have it as a trophy. And the people in the parks Department were so horrified that they kept that in secret and passed it down to me.
[00:43:45.150] - Benjamin
That's remarkable. I'm so glad that you could bring that to light, Denise. Speaking of trophies, her indignity does not cease at the moment of her passing. You write that there was a major controversy in the days after she was killed about her body being put on display.
[00:44:16.110] - Denise
Yes. Because at this time period when Helen was killed, I'm thinking it was less than a month or two after the big Bonnie and Clyde shoot out, their bodies were taken back to Texas and put on display, sold 500,000 copies of the newspaper that had the photographs of their bullet riddled car, their bodies on display. That was a big deal in the Great Depression to sell file 500,000 copies of a newspaper. So a similar situation.
[00:44:52.830] - Benjamin
Big deal. Now, exactly.
[00:44:56.790] - Denise
Who knew that by the time I got to this point in this project, there would be no newspapers of any account anyway. So her body was put on display in North Little Rock. And one of my readers, one of my wonderful Detective readers, actually went to the funeral home and found in their roster the 1934 page where that's how we found out that her birth date was February 23, 1912, because there is no birth certificate, because she was born on a house. But that record was still there. The people came to view her body. And then when it went to Arkansas County, there was a similar situation which really riled up the river. People they did not want her body on display, so they came and kidnapped it.
[00:45:57.010] - Benjamin
And that was the final twist, is that one night her body disappears.
[00:46:02.650] - Denise
Yes. And there was also stories that there was a different burial with sandbags in the coffin because they didn't want to admit that her body was missing, but the actual situation was that the river people took her and put her in the Potters field section of the St. Charles Cemetery, which is a beautiful, historic Cemetery. And you'll be happy to know that while I was on my trip to visit the Jenkins folks, we planted a yellow roast Bush and a bunch of great hyacinths at her grave.
[00:46:46.130] - Benjamin
Let's talk about epilogues. There are some aftermaths here that we need to consider because this is a story that has been woven throughout the history of this part of Arkansas for decades and decades and decades. And I want to ask you just a few questions about specific people who were involved along the way and kind of what happened to them after Helen died, because their involvement did not end right. They were keeping parts of the story to themselves or they were harboring materials which would be pertinent to the case. Start with Helen's own family. She had one uncle left. Her younger sister, who was an Invalid, had been taken to Oklahoma, and she had a little bit of extended family. But what happened to them after she was killed?
[00:47:58.530] - Denise
Well, we were able to receive some photographs of uncle plus Spence, and he just looks like a sweetheart elderly gentleman holding up a ginormous fish. He was a river man on the river. So there was Ples Spence. And then there was Margaret Spence, who was interviewed. She was Cicero's mother. And she said that in the interview that her house was in view of the St. Charles Cemetery. And St. Charles is such a teeny, tiny town that I was in the Cemetery, and there are several houses, and it's the heart of the town, really. What happened was it all came out that Helen Spence had never written a note on the back of a rejection slip for her memoir that she wrote and tried to get published, which got rejected and sent back to the address of the P farm. So they kept that, and I'm sure use that as an excuse to double down on her. But according to the corrupt prison officials, there was a slip of paper that was the rejection slip to her story, and she had written on it, I will never be taken alive. Well, because Helen Spence was a writer and a poet and a very prolific letter writer, especially to her sister, they were able to stand her signature side by side and prove this was the one time that the newspapers really got it right because it was undeniable.
[00:49:49.110] - Denise
It was obviously a forgery that led to a grand jury, and the grand jury determined that Mr. And Mrs. Brockman had to go. They lost their jobs. They went back to Star City. There was never any investigation as to whether their adult son might have been a trigger man. Frank Martin took the rap. He was paroled because that was his gift from the state and the Superintendent of the prison system, Mr. Steadman, who had written notes that were in the prison file saying, do not let her escape. She must not escape. Lock her in the cage. He answered to the Lieutenant governor because there was some back and forth between the Superintendent, Mr. Stedman, and the Lieutenant governor. So knowing how Lieutenant governors operate in Arkansas, I'm thinking that the governor of Arkansas at the time, whose famous quote from the 1930s was, the poor are not worth the powder and lead it would take to blow out their brains. That was his famous quote. Oh, my gosh, Mr. Steadman lost his job. Everyone was disgraced. They ended the Trusty Guard program because, obviously, convicted murderers should not be turned loose with guns around enslaved women.
But nothing ever happened.
[00:51:22.930] - Benjamin
You would think you would think.
[00:51:24.530] - Denise
Yes, but nothing ever happened to the Lieutenant governor, and it certainly did not rise to the level of where was the governor's involvement in this? So heads rolled, but not much change.
[00:51:41.900] - Benjamin
There is another interesting twist. I lied when I said there was only one more twist. There's actually one more twist, which is you're right, that Frank Martin, after he was paroled, he went off to raise a family. There's some speculation that he might have been poisoned at the end of his life. He did not die a natural death. And there's some question marks surrounding that.
[00:52:09.490] - Denise
Oh, that was one of Mr. Brown's. He was Steadfast in that because he got the story from the lady at the grocery in Casco. And Casco is another very eerie, depopulated spooky place. I got lost trying to find it in the Delta, and it was bizarre, very strange vibe in Casco and the grocery store that Frank Martin came to, he would always brag that he was the one who killed Helen Spence, as if that's something to brag about. And he didn't realize that the lady behind the counter was from the river. And he came in to buy a loaf of bread, and she sold him a different loaf and said, this one tastes just as good, but it's cheaper. And he took it home and had dinner and did not wake up the next morning. And at the time, he had been suffering from an extended illness. But Mr. Brown is adamant that the river got him because that's what they said the river got him.
[00:53:22.490] - Benjamin
There are a lot of folks in your account, Denise, who, according to river people, just needed killing. Now, let me ask you this. You have two other individuals who are central to the story, one we spoken a lot about, which is LC Brown, your sort of friend, your confidant, the gentleman who really opened up this story for you. I want to hear what happened to him, but we also need to hear about a man whose name has not come up very much. But who harbored possibly the most important secret of all, which was the location of Helen's body. And that man was John Black. So tell us what happened to LC, and then tell us about the end of John Black's time in this story.
[00:54:14.610] - Denise
All right. Well, LC, he never forgot his first true friend. His heart was always with Helen Spence, and he went on to have an amazing life. He had learned Italian and German from playing with the river people because they were a multi ethnic community and there were descendants that were a mix. But then there were communities that still kept their language, like the Italian families and the German families. And so he learned how to speak that so well that when he enlisted in the army at the age of 17 to go fight in World War II, they put him in these Special Forces and made him because he was always a great shot. He was a crack shot. He was the only person I've ever met who literally could fire a gun and light a match by hitting the head of the match with the bullet. I'm serious, believe it or not, but I know. So he went behind enemy lines and was a sniper and got all these medals from World War II. And then when he came back, he decided to move with his wife, who he met into Wit to Hot Springs.
And he flourished in Hot Springs and had a number of different businesses for a while. He was a Hot Springs Police Department. He was a cop on the beat in Hot Springs, but they were almost as corrupt as the pea farm. So he got out of that and became a long haul trucker. He had an upholstery business for boating, and everyone brought their boats to him to do their upholstery. And so he raised a large family, had grandchildren, and was very, very beloved and told me some amazing stories, not just about Hot Springs, but also about what he experienced as an 18 year old sniper during World War II.
[00:56:40.900] - Benjamin
John Black is this kind of I mean, he's like a shadow presence throughout the story. He pops up and then he disappears and he pops up again, and then he disappears. But he's always got these sort of secret motivations and sort of sly attempts at well, suffice to say, he reminded me of a Ninja.
[00:57:05.910] - Denise
That's very good, because I've never been able to run across a photograph of John Black. He was that reclusive. And he was older than Elsie Brown, and he had been living in St. Charles, had gotten married, had moved off the river, and then when he was elderly, that was when he called LC Brown down to come visit him. And I believe it was the late yes, it was the late 70s. It was right before he died, he knew he was dying. And it took Elsie three times going down there to visit with him. Before he could finally get the reason for the visit out of Mr. Black. He was apparently very taciturn. There's still some descendants of his that live in the area. I've been to his headstone. Anyway, he finally told Elsie on the third visit that the reason that he wanted him to come was that he had to pass down the story to him that Mr. Black had volunteered to be the caretaker of the St. Charles Cemetery just so he could tend in secret Helen's grave. And he would go on the anniversary of her death and pick flowers from other graves and put them together with wildflowers and put them on her grave.
But then when the sun came up, he would put the flowers back on the other graves because he did not want anyone to ever disturb her resting place. And it was in the far corner. It's in the far corner. And after my book came out, the Arkansas County, the Funeral Home found the little teeny, tiny metal marker for Cicero's graves that had literally been in storage since 1930. And so they went and put it next to the Cedar tree that John Black planted at the head of her grave. And then Mr. Brown, because he was a war hero, although he would tell me no, the heroes are the ones that did not get to come home. Don't call me a hero, but he's my hero. He told me that he got some of his army buddies to bring ground penetrating radar, and they came to the spot where the Cedar tree is, and there is a body.
[00:59:37.210] - Benjamin
They were never romantically involved. They were just friends. And to have stolen her body, to have buried it, to have tended it, and to have kept the secret of where it is for 40 years before he died, to be the only living soul that knew where this woman was buried. That is a story of devotion, the likes of which we do not see anymore, do we?
[01:00:03.130] - Denise
Well, that's how I feel about my husband. And even though John Black was never romantically involved. Yeah. Even though John Black was never romantically involved with Helen Spence, he was very close to her growing up. He watched her grow up, and he was friends with Cicero. So it was an honor for him to be able to carry that secret. And he had to choose who he thought would be the one who could carry it when he no longer could. And he said, Wait until I'm dead, because he did not want people gossiping about. Well, did John Black, you know, romantically love Helen Spence know? Elsie told me. He said they were just buddies. Haven't you ever had a buddy? And that's really the secret of the river people is that you can have that kind of love. And it has nothing to do with romance. It has everything to do with honor and respect.
[01:01:12.650] - Benjamin
The last character that I want to ask you about is not Helen, not Jack, not John, but the White River itself. You write that in the late 1930s, the river people began to experience a number of changes that were not possible to resist or stop, given the movement of the country at large. And it's a tragic tale, but again, it's a tale of resilience. And I was wondering if you could just give us a sense of what the area around the White River and this particular community looks like today.
[01:02:43.170] - Denise
Okay. Yes, I can, because I was just there. I left my heart in St. Charles, Arkansas. I was just there. So it started the diaspora, which to me is caused by basically cultural genocide from our own government. In a true bipartisan fashion, Democrats and Republicans alike have hated on the river people and destroyed our way of life, beginning when the dams went in upstream. And then the game wardens were given, they made the refuges. They had taken all the land, 166,000 acres of the most fertile bottom land was taken. And people were paid maybe $0.30 on the dollar because a lot of river people had land that they farmed on. And then they preferred to live on the houseboats because it was such a groovy, chill way to live. Just throw a hook in the water and you got your breakfast, you know what I mean? And my family, we have in our documentary footage in the 1950s of my family bathing in the river with a big cake of Ly soap. It was that clean. It was that clean as recently as the late 1950s. So after the dams went in, after the federal government took so much of the bottom land and turned it into federal wildlife refuges, well, it was not so much for wildlife, but to keep river people out and make them have to leave.
And so our houseboats were burned and sank. And as recently as the 1990s, there were a huge community of houseboats that have been, quote, unquote, grandfathered in. And I went there just the other day to look at where all these houseboats used to be. It's in Arkansas County where I was visiting. And every single one of those houseboats was burned and sunk by the US government because the people could not afford to tow their houseboat out of there and they were only given a matter of days to take all of their personal possessions and belongings and leads. And then you see well, in our documentary, the bridge not at St. Charles. The bridge at Clarendon, which is a National Historic Register listed landmark that people in Arkansas were fighting to save as a pedestrian viewing platform in the most beautiful place you've ever seen blown up in November of 2019 right before Covet. And that is the history. But today it's beautiful. It's green, it's quiet. There's birds everywhere. All you can hear is birdsong and wind chimes. I saw a coyote when we were on our way to visit Levon Helm's birthplace in nearby Marvel.
It's the most beautiful, beautiful place and there are still mussel shells. There are still beautiful pearls. There is everything there except the support for the people who have been robbed. That's what's missing.
[01:06:26.350] - Benjamin
Well, these are difficult forces to grapple with. But one thing that remains true, Denise, is that if this community has had you, as a historian, to listen to the ghosts of the past and to tell their story over the past century, I have every confidence that you will continue to serve in that capacity and listen to those whispers that the wind carries to your ears. So thank you so much for sharing this place with us. Thank you for sharing this incredible saga of one of the most resilient women ever to Grace the pages of a history book. It's been a real privilege to have you. Thank you.
[01:07:11.530] - Denise
Thank you, Ben. And when we Chris in the Helen Spence Memorial Ferry at Clarendon, which is going to be the rest of my life's work from here on till I die, you will get an invitation.