Looking Back - ‘River rat’ Helen Spence remembered in book

The tragedy and harshness of Helen Spence’s brief life was related on front pages of newspapers across the country. But as the 80th anniversary of her controversial death approaches, it’s unfortunate that outside of her Arkansas County birthplace, most are totally unfamiliar with the strikingly attractive young woman who as a two-time killer was also a victim of class discrimination and possible corruption not uncommon in her time.

Pine Bluff native Denise White Parkinson is intent on not only bringing her story to the forefront, but also leading a charge for a governor’s posthumous pardon of Spence. Parkinson’s first step in the campaign is her book, “Daughter of the White River: Depression-Era Treachery and Vengeance in the Arkansas Delta,” published by The History Press of Charleston, S.C.

Parkinson — a journalist who has written for both The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Arkansas Times — will be presenting an informational program on Spence at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Historical Museum. She’ll be accompanied by L.C. Brown of St. Charles, a leading authority on Spence and a primary source for Parkinson’s book.

Parkinson will be autographing and selling copies of her book. Admission will be free and cookies and punch will be provided.

Spence was born around 1912 as a member of a White River, houseboat-dwelling and primarily private clan referenced by others as “river rats.” After making it through nine years of schooling, she was briefly married to an area moonshiner. When the marriage failed, she returned to the river and resumed residency with her father and stepmother.

In early January 1931, her father was shot and killed by a Jack Worls, who also brutally attacked and sexually assaulted Spence’s stepmother, who died a few days later. Worls was quickly apprehended and put on trial in DeWitt, near St. Charles.

Within the Arkansas County Courthouse — as a jury commenced in determining Worls’ fate — Spence, still in mourning, decided to mete out her own justice, drawing a pistol and shooting Worls to death in a courtroom packed with witnesses. “He killed my daddy,” she said. The event netted front-page headlines nationally, with most accounts indicating favor of and sympathy to the pretty teenager.

A swell of support for Spence led to her parole after just eight months of imprisonment on a mansalughter conviction.

After her release, Spence confessed to a previous DeWitt shooting death of a man whom, she said, had stalked and threatened her. Her previous defenders turned against her.

Spence was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for second-degree murder. She became an escape artist. Within a two-month span of 1933, she escaped three times. Her flair for freedom again won widespread media attention and increased her popularity with the public.

Always recaptured, she became a victim of barbaric punishment that endangered her health and nearly killed her.

On July 10, 1934, Spence purportedly attempted her final flee. She was shot from behind by a trusty guard and died instantly. The trusty was a convicted murderer, too, and was acting on the orders of an assistant warden, who was cleared on charges of being an accessory to Spence’s slaying for allowing the woman’s escape. The inmate was indicted for murder but acquitted and then paroled, only to wind up dead in DeWitt after boasting of killing Spence, according to Brown.

Parkinson relates Spence’s story in a unique fashion, wrapping it with an account of her own family’s history with the White River. Featuring a number of photographs, it’s an interesting book that takes readers on a boat ride to the “good old days” that weren’t so grand for Spence and her fellow river rats.

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Do you have a question on a local historical event or figure, or a story of photo from Southeast Arkansas’ past to share? Email Rick Joslin at rjoslin@pbcommercial.com.