She Was of The River, Part I

May 5, 2019

The True Tale of "Arkansas Gun Girl," Helen Spence

On this episode of Arts & Letters, we’ll be talking with writer Denise White Parkinson. Her book is titled Daughter of the White River: Depression-Era Treachery & Vengeance in the Arkansas Delta and is published by The History Press.

This true-life tale is about a depression-era tragedy and the stranger-than-fiction-life of Helen Spence: "so young and beautiful, even in death--Helen Spence-- a so-called outlaw . . . And why shouldn't she be an outlaw, being as she was of the river." 

For Helen Spence belonged to the River People. 

Grave of Helen Spence marked by the cedar tree planted by her life-long friend John Black
Credit Parkinson

John Black carried Helen Ruth Spence's lifeless body to a patch of ground miles away from the funeral home in the Arkansas County seat of Dewitt, Arkansas. He did this with the help of others, who waited with him until dark to enter the funeral home in stealth and spirit away the body lying within. John Black planted a cedar tree on a summer night in 1934. ... He dug a hole in the rich Delta earth and planted the tree to mark the burial place of Helen Ruth Spence.

In this episode, Denise White Parkinson tells of the once-triving houseboat communities that settled along Arkansas' White River and how Helen Spence's story shocked the nation.

Spence received unprecedented national media coverage in the early 1930's and then at the time of her mysterious death at the hands of Arkansas prison officials in 1934. 

A houseboat along the White River, 1932
Credit Archive photo found by White Parkinson

Through archival research, newly discovered prison records, community stories, and interviews with Spence's childhood friend, LC Brown, Parkinson tells the in-depth true story of a complicated woman whose legend lives on today.

Part I of this story tells of the river communities along the banks of the White River where Helen grew up, her early life and first marriage, the death of her father and step-mother at the hands of Jack Worls and the trial and infamous shooting at the Dewitt courthouse. 

Next time, join us for Part II to learn of a mysterious second murder, Helen's time in prison, and the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death in 1934.

Denise White Parkinson was born, raised and educated in Arkansas. She attended college on scholarship and is a 1986 graduate of Hendrix College in Conway.

Author Denise White Parkinson

Her career in journalism includes writing for The Arkansas Democrat, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas Times, Mature Arkansas news monthly, Little Rock Free Press, Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Memphis Flyer and Cooper Young Lamplighter.

Since 2008, she has been the lead writer for Hot Springs Life and Home magazine. She resides in Hot Springs with her husband and children, where her proudest achievement is founding the Hot Springs Area Community Garden Network.

Prison records and historical documents located by Parkinson

A special thanks to singers and songwriters Mandy McBryde, Becca Mancari, and S.J. Tucker for her song "Girl of the River." A special thanks to Iris Dement, whose music serves for so much of the backdrop of this episode.

Daughter of the White River book cover and Spence mug shot which made national papers.

S.J. Tucker
Becca Mancari

Thank you to Denise White Parkinson for sharing her archival research and photos with us.  Currently,  Parkinson and her team are shooting a documentary about Spence. Visit The Helen Spence Project for more information.

Iris Dement

Thank you as well to Stickyz Rock ‘N’ Roll Chicken Shack for keeping music alive and well in Arkansas.

Generous funding for this episode was provided by the Arkansas Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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