Thursday, September 18, 2014

FEATURED STORY >> Mystery of women's prison

Leader staff writer

Daffodils planted uniformly, foundations buried 4 feet in the ground and the tale of one inmate who was likely the victim of a corrupt system are all that remain of the Arkansas State Farm for Women prison near Jacksonville.

That prisoner, Helen Ruth Spence Eaton, is the subject of Denise Parkinson’s book “Daughter of the White River.”

The author is continuing to uncover details about the Pea Farm, as the prison was known. She is asking people in the local community what they can recall about the prison.

But why is Parkinson on what she calls “a fact-finding mission?”

She said, “I want to know about the young women who were wronged. Helen was mistreated and forgotten. Other girls were, too. (The story of the prison) needs, for the sake of justice, to be told. It’s the least we can do.”

Parkinson explained, “It’s apparent that authorities went to great length to erase the history of the prison. There is reason to believe there was systematic enslavement for profit.

Women were treated as collateral for debts. (There was) a lot of injustice against women, (like) trafficking.”

David Y. Thomas’ “Arkansas and Its People: A History, 1541-1930,” states,

“Accommodations at the farm were inadequate. Fifteen women occupied a sleeping porch while another nine live in a tent house with screened sides and porch.”

The 185-acre Pea Farm was established by the Act of March 28, 1919, the article continues. Nine unpaid directors managed it, and five were required to be women. The Pea Farm began accepting prisoners on June 20, 1920.

Parkinson is working on another book, this one about the women sentenced to the Pea Farm.

She will be signing “Daughter of the White River” copies after 1 p.m. at the 12th annual North Pulaski Community Fest on Saturday, Sept. 27. The event ends with a fireworks show at 9 p.m.

Parkinson invites everyone with information about the prison to speak to her at the event. She is also willing to write research or museum grants for individuals who are interested in the topic.

Festival organizer Tommy Majors, who plans to build a historical exhibit at his general store, asked Parkinson to participate in the event after she attended a neighborhood watch meeting in the area.

At that meeting, a county resident presented Parkinson with 1930 census information for the State Farm for Women in the then-Gray Township of north Pulaski County.

The Pea Farm housed 24 female prisons that year, according to the list.

Their names were Myrtle McCuen, Lucile Freeman, Fredda Helman, E. Woolweaver, Emma Ray, Winona Green, Edna Edmondson, Mary Barnett, Callie Price, Juanita McGowne, Fannie Brannon, Bertie Owens, Vinia Beck, Margaret Lowe, Hazle Dean, Helen Higgins, Rudy Brannon, Helen Smith, Mildred Frost, Rena Palmer, Atona Box, Hazle Underwood, Mary Dodd and Anis Crocker.

Parkinson noted, “Every road (near the prison site) is named after a lost woman.” Some of those roads may bear the names of the women who were listed.

The youngest were Lowe and Dean at age 19. The eldest was Edmondson, who was 45.
Twelve prisoners were married. Six were divorced, and the rest were single.

Freeman and Helman are listed as the Pea Farm’s cooks. Woolweaver was a server. Ray was a maid while Green was charged with sewing. McGowne worked in the laundry.
A few of the women were from out of state. Woolweaver was from Minnesota.

Barnett, Palmer, Box and Underwood were from Oklahoma. Smith and Frost were from Texas.  Brannon was from Louisiana while Higgins was from Illinois.

According to Thomas’ article, the Pea Farm housed 242 women between September 1920 and January 1925.  An average of 33 inmates lived there during superintendent Mary Graham’s administration in 1925.

The article states that Pea Farm prisoners were convicted of felonies, prostitution, habitual intoxication, using drugs, contributing to delinquency and running a disorderly house.
In fact, the man who owns the old prison property now discovered that his motorcycle-riding aunt was sent there for being a rebellious teenager.

But the most well-known Pea Farm resident was Helen Ruth Spence Eaton. A native of the riverboat community near DeWitt on the White River in Arkansas County, she was convicted of two murders in the 1930s.

Helen was born Ruth Spence, but later changed her first name.

She married Buster Eaton when they were teenagers, but the marriage didn’t last long. Helen returned to using her maiden name, Spence, after they divorced.

Parkinson interviewed L.C. Brown and reviewed the few historical documents that were available to write her book, which explores the culture of the people who lived in boathouses on the White River and questions Spence’s tragic end delivered by a trustee guard during her fourth or fifth attempt to escape the Pea Farm.

Trustee guards, prisoners who had received life sentences, replaced paid guards for a time.
Parkinson met Brown while researching the history of the White River people. Her family has ties to that area.

Brown met Spence when he was 4 years old, and she was killed when Brown was 8.
After the book was published, one reader took up the charge to help Parkinson continue her research.

The author said her “foot soldier,” mailman Johnny Carver, struck proverbial gold recently on a visit to the North Little Rock funeral home where Spence’s body was sent. The home’s ledger listed her date of birth as Feb. 23, 1912.

Spence was 22 when she died. Newspapers from that time and several official documents provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction (which Parkinson is still submitting FOIA requests to) incorrectly listed her age as 21 or 18 on dates when she was 22 or 20.
Parkinson suggests the mistake is evidence that the system didn’t care enough about the Pea Farm’s women to document their correct ages.

Spence, a 5-foot-1-inch brunette who weighed 135 pounds and wore a five-and-a-half shoe size, was convicted of manslaughter in the killing of Jack Worls.

She first made headlines as the teenager who shot her father’s killer with a pistol inside a crowded DeWitt courtroom. Worls was accused of killing her father, Cicero Spence.

According to newspaper clippings, Spence shot him two or four times in the back in January 1931.

She believed the jury was going to acquit Worls. Where Spence was from, people believed in “river justice”— an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

The girl showed no remorse after the shooting, simply stating that Worls had killed her father.

According to Parkinson’s book, Worls also assaulted Spence’s stepmother when Cicero was killed. The stepmother died from her injuries before the trial, and her witness statement concerning the murder was suppressed because of a technicality, according to news clippings.

Spence was convicted of manslaughter and began her two-year sentence at the Pea Farm on Oct. 11, 1932.

While awaiting her trial for the Worls slaying, she worked at a DeWitt diner owned by Jim Bohots.

Bohots was shot with his own gun in February 1932. He was found inside his car at a “trysting spot,” but Spence was ruled out as a suspect.

The girl’s shocking confession to the Bohots murder came less than a week after she was released on parole from the Pea Farm.

Spence told the director of detectives in Little Rock that Bohots had attempted to sexually assault her and his murder had been heavy on her conscience.

She was convicted of second-degree murder in that slaying and returned to the prison here to serve another 10-year sentence.

Spence reportedly tried to escape from the Pea Farm four or five times.

Parkinson said one attempt involved Spence sewing checkered tablecloths to the inside of her prison dress.

The author told The Leader that prison officials had brought Pea Farm inmates to West Memphis to work as prostitutes when Spence went into a bathroom, turned the dress inside out and walked away without being recognized.

After the first three escapes, a special wooden cage was built to house Spence, according to several news clippings and Parkinson.

The author’s findings, backed by several of the same clippings, said the afternoon sun shone on the cell which would reach unbearable temperatures.

The clippings claim that Spence was hospitalized after having two heart attacks while inside the special cell. She was often treated with enemas when she was ill at the prison, Parkinson noted.

The author also found documents confirming that Spence was stripped naked and splayed over a barrel at least once to receive lashings for her bad behavior.

According to a newspaper clipping, Spence was sent to the Hospital for Nervous Diseases in 1933 so that her sanity could be evaluated.

During that brief stay, she wrote many poems that magazines declined to publish.

Spence’s last attempt to escape the Pea Farm was fatal, and she may have known that. The media reported that Spence left a note in her cell that read, “To whom it may concern: I’ll never be taken alive.”

Prison trustee and convicted murderer Frank Martin shot her behind the ear on July 11, 1934 —about 24 hours after the last escape. He used a shotgun loaded with buckshot, according to an Arkansas Democrat article.

Martin claimed she had reached for the revolver she stole from his room at the prison instead of putting her hands up when the posse he was a part of caught her eight or nine miles from the Pea Farm.

A grand jury investigated and cleared Martin of the murder because of how the law establishing the use of trustee guards was worded.

That trustee-guard system came under fire after Spence’s death. Thirty-four convicts were killed in the 18 months that system was implemented under superintendent A.G. Stedman’s administration, according to a news clipping.

Stedman resigned or was forced to resign. His replacement, S. L. Todhunter, disbanded the trustee-guard system.

He fired the Pea Farm’s assistant superintendent V.O. Brockman and his wife, who was the superintendent because a woman had to fill that post.

Mr. Brockman was with Martin when Spence was killed, but he was acquitted of an accessory to murder charge.

Thousands visited Spence’s body as it lay at rest at Owens & Co., a North Little Rock funeral home.

And rumors accompanied the tragedy. The Daring Detective magazine ran a story titled, “Arkansas’ Gun Moll and the Prison Love Nest.” It claimed Spence and another prisoner were romantically involved with the Pea Farm’s assistant superintendent.

An interview with the other prisoner is included, but an endnote states that the magazine gave her a fictitious name to keep her anonymous.

As a result of the rumors, two doctors performed Spence’s autopsy while three doctors witnessed it. They told the news media that she had not been pregnant.

Dr. Lawson Aday neglected to remove the bullets from behind Spence’s ear, telling the media that doing so would not reveal any new information on the circumstances of her tragic end.

Spence’s uncle, Pless Spence, claimed her body. Her disabled sister lived in Tulsa, Okla., with their grandmother.

A lawyer questioned the Pea Farm’s new superintendent, Mrs. Ben F. Maddox, about items that were missing from her belongings that were returned to the family.

Maddox wrote that they would need to speak with the undertaker about a locket Spence was wearing when she was killed.

Maddox wrote that the prisoner had given her Bible, dress and watch they asked for to her “closest” friend, a federal prisoner named Catherine.

The life history Spence reportedly wrote was not recovered. Maddox wrote that Spence often spoke as if she was going to write it but that officials were not aware that she ever did.

Spence was buried under a cedar tree at the Saint Charles Cemetery in Arkansas County next to her father. Her grave was unmarked until a reader of Parkinson’s book donated a plaque to hang around the tree.

The plaque that was placed there in May reads, “Beloved Daughter of the White River Helen Spence, Gone But Not Forgotten.”

Parkinson is also bringing a petition to pardon Spence to the North Pulaski Community Fest.