PINE BLUFF, Ark. – Bob Abbott knows a lot about Martha Beall Mitchell and her historic house in Pine Bluff.
The 86-year-old bought Mitchell’s childhood home in 1975 but wasn’t sure what to do with it. When Mitchell died a year later, though, reporters from around the world came to Pine Bluff, inspiring him.
“Many of them wanted to go through the old house, and I knew then there was more history than I knew about,” Abbott recalled.
That is how the house ended up becoming a museum.
When asked what the home means to the community in Pine Bluff, Abbott said every town should have something to reflect their history.
Born on September 2, 1918, as Martha Elizabeth Beall, Mitchell grew up in Pine Bluff, graduating from Pine Bluff High School in 1937. After college and a short career teaching, she started working at the U.S. Army munitions depot in Pine Bluff and was soon transferred to Washington D.C.
It was in the nation’s capital where she met her first husband, an Army officer. The two wed in 1946 and had a son a year later but divorced in August of 1957. She soon after met and married John Mitchell, who would later become U.S. Attorney General under President Richard Nixon.
As “Mrs. Mitchell,” she was famous for calling news reporters with political gossip she got from spying on her husband, but in 1972, Mitchell blew the whistle on Watergate.
She publicly blamed Nixon for the break-in and cover-up at the Democratic National Headquarters and accused the administration of, among other things, kidnapping her to stop her from talking.
When she was freed, Mitchell said she stayed quiet in her apartment while the White House was working to discredit her.
In interviews that were recollected and showcased in the Slate podcast “Slow Burn” in recent years, Mitchell described the pressure she felt at the time.
“These White House rumors are persisting. Martha Mitchell’s crazy, Martha Mitchell’s an alcoholic, Martha Mitchell’s this, Martha Mitchell’s that. And of course, they just kept on and on, and I stayed in the apartment. And it added to the beautiful little story.”
In the end, the Watergate scandal ruined her marriage and Nixon’s presidency. Still, Abbot contends that at least for a time, Mitchell was one of the most popular and talked about people in the county, maybe even more popular than the president.
Today, many people see the Martha Mitchell Expressway off Highway 65, there because Abbott pushed for it. Now, more than a century after Mitchell’s birth and more than 45 years after buying the property, he’s ready to sell the house.
Over the years, Abbot said he has never charged money for people to visit the museum, jokingly saying he doesn’t want to talk about that because it hurts.
Admittedly, though, what doesn’t hurt is knowing the old home has preserved a legacy and a critical moment in U.S. history.
That history could soon be roaring back, though. Production is underway right now on a new television series titled “Gaslight” inspired by the Slate podcast and starring Academy Award winner Julia Roberts as Mitchell.
The new series will air on the cable network Starz sometime in the new year.