A new documentary film explores the short, tragic life of Helen Spence, a real-life Mattie Ross who took justice into her own hands more than 90 years ago.
In 1931, the 18-year-old Spence, who grew up in a houseboat on the White River near St. Charles, shot and killed Jack Worls at the Arkansas County Courthouse in DeWitt during Worls’ murder trial in the death of Spence’s father, Cicero.
“He killed my daddy,” The New York Times quoted her as saying, according to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Spence was convicted of manslaughter on Oct. 8, 1932, but was released on June 10, 1933, after Lonoke County landowner W.B. Graham paid $1,000 for her parole. Less than a month later, Spence turned herself in to Little Rock police and confessed to the February 1932 slaying of Jim Bohots in DeWitt.
Spence had been questioned during the investigation of Bohots’ death, but was ruled out as a suspect. Some believe she confessed to get shed of Graham, who may have required her to repay him through “debt peonage,” according the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
She was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison at the State Farm for Women in Jacksonville, from which she repeatedly tried to escape.
On July 11, 1934, after fleeing once again, she was shot dead by prison trusty Frank Martin.
Denise White Parkinson told Spence’s story in her 2013 book “Daughter of the White River: Depression-Era Treachery & Vengeance in the Arkansas Delta.”
The 51-minute documentary, “Daughter of the White River: The Author’s Cut,” is based on the book and was directed by Julie Williams and Parkinson. It debuted online Oct. 4 via the Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance.
The all-Arkansas production features old footage of life along the White River, interviews and re-created scenes starring Lilie Lim as the feisty Spence. It also examines the long-lost houseboat communities of the lower White River and the 2019 demolition of the White River Bridge at Clarendon.
“I had to finish this film before I die,” says the 57-year-old Parkinson with a laugh from her home near Hot Springs. “My cousin, Bryan Smoke, and I edited it on my porch all summer.”
Production stopped because of the pandemic and a longer, more polished version of the film, with planned footage filmed by Markham Park Studio of Little Rock, is still in the works, Parkinson says.
A streaming version of the “The Author’s Cut,” bundled with the movie’s soundtrack by musician S.J. Tucker, is available for purchase at riversisters.bandcamp.com.
Information on future screenings will be available at facebook.com/daughterofthewhiteriver/.
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