ST. CHARLES, Ark. – In 1931 inside the Dewitt Courthouse, there was a judge and a jury, but an 18-year-old was the executioner. Just before deliberation, Helen Spence killed Jack Worls for allegedly murdering Cicero Spence, Helen’s father, on a fishing tour leaving her parentless.
Because of the crime, Helen Spence’s name became one known across the country in her time. To this day it is revered among river people in St. Charles, Arkansas.
“That’s just what you did. If you hurt somebody’s family, whoever you hurt, their family comes back to get you. It’s just river justice,” St. Charles resident Michelle Jenkins said.
Helen grew up in a White River houseboat in Clarendon and St. Charles, Arkansas. River people harvested mussels or like Cicero supported their families hunting and fishing, skills Helen learned alongside her dad.
“She could hunt. She could fish, and she knew how to take care of herself. Everybody in town knew who she was because she was so beautiful,” Jenkins said.
Spence’s mugshots and her killing made national headlines, even the front page of the New York Times, for her unapologetic manner of taking the law into her own hands. Denise White Parkinson, researched the story of Helen Spence for her book “Daughter of the White River.” Records show the only words Helen said to explain her actions was, “He killed my daddy.”
“She laughed. She laughed in the face of doom. That’s what river people do,” Parkinson said.
Spence was convicted of manslaughter for Worls killing, but her parole was paid for by a Lonoke County landowner. She worked under him for less than a month before she ran away and confessed to a separate murder she had been cleared of. Spence went back to the State Farm for Women in Jacksonville, to serve a 10 year sentence.
Jenkins said that is the one part of Spence’s story she can’t make sense of.
“I never figured out why she confessed and wanted to go back to the Pea Farm,” Jenkins said. “What could possibly have happened in that short period of time that made her want to go back to jail?”
In jail, Spence repeatedly tried to escape for over a year, once even sowing a tablecloth dress on the inside of her uniform to fool a guard in Memphis as she exited a bathroom.
“The whole system was getting embarrassed by this little five foot, one inch, 130-pound girl, size five shoe, and they couldn’t corral her,” Parkinson said. “River people are like water. If one way is blocked they will find a way around.”
Each time Spence was caught, prison records show the warden ordered Spence whipped. Another punishment was being placed in a cage. It’s there where Parkinson said Spence showed the love of Arkansas’ nature never left her. A piece of poetry found on the grounds was posthumously credited to Spence’s hand.
Now, this is no secret ambition of mine
It’s merely to occupy some of the time.
You can’t heal the heart with no work for the hand
So I pick up my pencil and do what I can.
I’d rather be plowing or chopping down brush
Or rowing a boat in your Arkansas slush
Or scrubbing the fleas from a tiny fox dog
Or sawing and hauling a big hickory log
Or dodging the ruts in a bumpy old Ford
With oodles of kiddies on each running board
And picking them up at each turn in the road
Till Lizzy called Henry to help with her load.
Or riding the trail on an old lazy mare
Now and then chasing a cottontail hare
Here and there ducking a nut thrown at me
By a nibbling squirrel that will chuckle and flee…
So here by my window I dream of it all
When shadows like these come and play on the wall
And out of the wreckage I’m forced to confess
I might build again and perhaps for the best.Helen Ruth Spence, 1934
A year into Helen’s sentence, one contested escape ended in the 22-year-old being shot behind the ear by a trustee and killed instantly. It did not take long after Helen was killed, that many officials lost their job and the Pea Farm was eventually disbanded.
Anyone going to where it once stood can find street signs named after the women who went there, and other pieces of its history aren’t far away.
Andrea Wilson, owner of Pea Farm Bistro in Cabot, got her name from the prison when the restaurant opened in 2017.
“We looked for reclaimed wood, and we found this prison,” Wilson said.
Each patron going inside will see the cashier counter made from the Pea Farm physician’s floor and a table he owned. The restaurant not only shares the namesake of the prison miles outside Cabot but also Helen’s story. Although, the copy they have is akin to a tabloid version dramatizing the story.
“At lunchtime, people will always sit up here and you’ll just see them reading the story, or if they finish half of it they’ll come back and finish the rest of the story,” Wilson said.
Wilson often refers people to Parkinson who has helped Spence’s story evolve. Over the past 10 years with a book, a film, the discovery of Spence’s burial place, and the placement of a tombstone have all transpired. Most of those developments can be credited to author Denise White Parkinson, a daughter of the river herself who says when Helen died the river people’s way of life soon followed.
“We were exiled from the only place that ever meant anything to me,” Parkinson shared while providing home video of her aunt and visiting her houseboat.
Jenkins said back in Helen’s day, the entire section of the White River looked like a trailer park on the water, but now there are only four riverboats in St. Charles. The rest of the river access is owned by the government.
Helen’s death happened the same year as the passage of the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act which authorized most federal water resources agencies to acquire land for its purposes. The following year Congress made the lower White River a National Wildlife Refuge “to protect and conserve migratory birds and other wildlife resources,” and houseboat owners were told to move or be moved.
“Our family had two houseboats. They were both destroyed,” Parkinson said.
Michelle Jenkins still lives in St. Charles constructing one of the few houseboats near a bridge’s private right away. Unable to fight the law like Helen, they look up to her as they look down to her grave.
“Times change, and the people in the Delta and the river people they had to change with the times. There really wasn’t anything they could do about it. They did what they had to do to survive,” Jenkins said.
And for their female folk hero, they ask one more thing to right what they feel is a history of wrongs. A pardon from Arkansas’ first female governor.
“Helen was a one-of-a-kind. I’ve never heard another story like this,” Jenkins expressed.
“She was just young and she probably didn’t know how to react, and I think that she paid the ultimate sacrifice for actually for it,” Wilson added.
There are river people living in exile all over this state. She served her time. Why can’t she be pardoned,” Parkinson concluded.
In February, a 50-minute documentary about Helen’s life named “Daughter of the White River” became available to purchase online. You can also purchase the book which inspired it on Amazon.