True Crime: The Unbelievable Helen Ruth Spence AKA The Swamp Angel

Madelyn Hutchison

Hello everyone, we’re back with another true crime story. This one is definitely more
lighthearted than the last, but still hard to read. If you are not in the right headspace to read
about murder, assualt, and prison violence, please leave this article until another day.

The research upon which this article relies was conducted by Denise Parkinson and can be found in her book entitled, “Daughter of the White River.”

Background Information:
This story starts off in the lower White River in Arkansas and a group of people referred to as
“the river people” which ended up being three groups of native cultures: The Osage, Quapaw,
and the Cherokee that lived on the banks of this river until the white people came and took up
most of it.
In the 1920s-30s they became very important to the mainlanders and the culture. They lived off
the land, catching their own food, diving for fish and mussels with their own handmade diving
gear. They never hunted or killed for sport and they used everything from their kills. They were
also huge button makers, and most of their buttons would be made from mussel shells. It was a
very tight knit community, they always helped each other, in certain areas people would take
watch at night and would sound alarms and so on.
Now that you have that, let’s move on to the star of the show.
How Helen Ruth Spence Became The Swamp Angel:
Even to this day her birthdate isn’t known, but her parents were Cicero Spence and Ellen
Woods and she had one older sister named Edna who actually had Pump Paralysis and would
be taken in by family in another city later on. Ellen died shortly after Helen’s birth and her father
eventually married a woman named Ada.
Cicero taught Helen everything he knew, and often treated her like a “son” teaching her how to
trap, build, fish, etc. According to Morbid Podcast host Alaina, on an episode titled “Episode
289: The Swamp Angel” she states that Helen “adored her father and they spent a ton of time
together”.
She had a ton of friends but the most notable of which were two boys: One was named John
Black, and the other was the sheriff’s son LC Brown. She was married briefly to a boy named
Buster Eaton, but that marriage didn’t last long and she quickly went back home.
Life was good until one morning in December, 1932. Helen was seventeen years old. She and
her stepmother were paddleboarding to meet her father because he forgot his lunch.
She watched as a friend of her father’s named Jack shot him and then proceeded to shove her
father off the little motorboat they were using to cross the river and into the water. Jack pointed
a gun at them and said he was looking for Cicero’s buried money. Ada saved Helen by saying
that she was “simple” and that Ada knew where the money was and could show him. Jack
grabbed Ada, and stole the oars from the paddle board leaving Helen all by herself to float down
the river. Eventually someone found her and managed to get her out of the water.
Ada didn’t know where the money was. There was no money. Ada knew there was no buried
money, she did what she did to protect Helen and it ended up costing her her life. He ended up
beating her to an inch of her life and assaulting her. She initially survived, but she ended up
dying later in the hospital due to her injuries.
Jack Worls, this upsetting excuse for a human being was later caught by the law and was set to
stand trial for the death of Cicero Spence once word spread.
So there Helen was, seventeen years old, an orphan, and sitting in the front row to witness the
man who murdered her father and stepmother on trial. Even though she had witnessed the
whole thing, her testimony couldn’t be used in court because she wasn’t eighteen, and that was
the law back then.
According to multiple old newspapers, they described what she was wearing as a “red velvet
suit and a white rabbit fur trimmed muff on her hands” and she sat quietly in the front row for
hours.
This case appeared to go either way, because Worls claimed self defense and now the only
witness besides Helen, was dead. As Worls stood and the Jury stood to file out to go deliberate,
Helen also stood.
As she stood she drew a pearl handled pistol from her fur trimmed muff and without batting an
eye, fired it, right there in the middle of the courtroom, and shot Worls in the head. Her best
friend’s father, the local sheriff, proceeded to walk up and arrest her.
According to official records, when asked why she did it, she said “He killed my daddy” with no
remorse. From that moment on, she was known as The Swamp Angel and the public was split
down the middle with support on one side and opposition on the other.
Afterwards, due to the fact that she brought that gun into court with a clear plan in mind, she
was tried and found guilty for first degree murder, but due to a technicallity she was able to get
an appeal.
During this time, she was out on a “promise to appear” where she had a curfew and had to get a
job, so she became a waitress at a small diner in Dewitt, Arkansas. Her boss, Jim Bohots, was
your average sleeze-bag excuse for a human being, was known to sexually harass the women
that worked for him. Can you guess who his favorite worker was? That’s right, Helen Ruth
Spence.
In February, he asked Helen to go for a drive with him because he felt bad for how he’d been
treating her, and due to the fact that she had to keep a job in order to stay out of prison and that
she was currently living in the apartment above the diner, she said yes.
Once again quoting Alaina from Morbid: “They went, don’t know what happened. But the
following day news broke that Jim Bohots was found murdered at a popular place for couples to
hang out and bang out.”
Bohots was actually found murdered with a gunshot wound to his chest with his own gun. When
officers brought in Spence for questioning she denied everything and since there wasn’t any
physical evidence that proved she was lying, the case went cold.
Now, instead of getting a pardon like Spence and her legal team was hoping for, her sentence
was downgraded to manslaughter instead of first degree murder for the murder of Jack Worls.
She only needed to serve two years at a women’s correctional facility named, strangely enough,
“The P Farm”.
According to official records, her stay there was fine, the inmates took care of her, and so on
and so forth. She actually got parol shortly after, but she wasn’t able to return home to the White
River or DeWitt. So what does she do when she can’t return home?
She lived in Little Rock for a couple weeks, and she had had enough. Then one morning in June
1933, she goes through her morning routine, she gets all dolled up, and turns herself in for the
murder of Jim Bohots. After the confession, she was sentenced ten years at the same prison for
second degree murder.
Helen Ruth Spence and Her Time In Prison:
Aside from working out in the sweltering heat, Helen’s stay at the correctional facility started out
okay. She made a couple friends, and they looked out for each other, this came in handy not
long after Helen began her stay.
One of the girls informs Spence and the others that the prison guards were up to something
quite nefarious. The guards were going to bus the younger inmates to Memphis and start sex
trafficing them. Hold on to that for later.
The next morning, Spence was outside in the field digging up sweet potatoes and realized that
the fence was holding on by a thread, as it were, so she walked up to it, wiggled her way
through and just walked away.
She was caught and returned to the prison within three hours. Due to her trying to escape she
was forced to get ten lashes with a huge whip they referred to as “Black Snake” as punishment.
She escaped again five days later through another hole in the fence the minute she was put out
in the field. With fresh lash marks she ran away from the facility. Sadly, she was caught and
returned the next day.
Now up until this point it’s been relatively light, even slightly humorous in some parts. However
now it gets really dark, really fast. I will try my best not to get too graphic in my retelling of what
Spence went through while in prison, that being said, if you are not in the right headspace to
read about violence from prison guards, please leave this part of the article for another day.
She received punishment yet again for escaping. There is no record of her ‘correction’ as they
called it. They took her in the warden’s basement and when she came out she had a high fever,
kidney infection, and couldn’t speak. Later the prison medical facility said it was likely going to
die when they tried to treat her.
She was treated with multiple medications that were meant to treat things such as: Organ
failure, heart palpitations, (even though she had no issue of heart problems prior to the
punishment), and between two hours Spence was given at least five enemas.
What did they do to her in that basement?
Ash and Alaina, the Morbid podcast hosts theorize that the officers did something down in the
basement that needed to be flushed out of her system in order to make sure that the officers
didn’t get in trouble.
On October 2nd she slipped into a coma and regardless of this, she was still receiving enemas,
this time though for some strange reason, they added sweet milk to them.
On October 3rd they finally took her to an actual hospital, to which she was getting treated with
medication that induces vomiting. Clearly they are trying to get something out of her system.
On October 7th she was simply returned to the prison and in good condition according to the
doctors at the hospital.
When she got back she was no longer allowed to work in the fields due to her constantly trying
to escape, so she was set to work in the prison laundry room.
Within just a few weeks of Helen being back she found herself on that bus to Memphis. You
remember that plan I told you about a couple paragraphs back? The sex trafficing bus? Yeah,
she was on that.
No need to worry though, because Spence knew this was going to happen. When the bus
arrived in West Memphis she asked if she could use the restroom at a gas station. They let her.
What they didn’t know was that she had been stealing cloth napkins one by one from the
laundry and at night she sewed them to the inside of her prison dress.
Ash says it best everyone: “She said reverse-reverse”. Meaning that when Spence went into the
bathroom, she turned her dress inside out and was able to just walk away.
Believe me, when I first heard the story of the woman behind this case I was just as
gobsmacked as you. Like, she just walked away. Turned her dress inside out and just walked
away. It’s utterly insane how brilliant she was.
However, they caught her again. All was not lost though, because in doing this the guards
weren’t able to do their Memphis scheme, so no one after her bus group was trafficked.
When she got back to the prison she was punished with yet another ten lashes with the whip.
The wardens tried their best to send her away by sending her to an insane asylum, but she was
quickly declared sane and transported back to the prison.
You thought they treated her bad before? Well imagine how they treated her after their multiple
attempts of getting rid of her didn’t work.
They built a wooden cage to keep her in.
You read that right. They kept her in a wooden cage that was barely big enough to keep her five
foot one slim frame in. She couldn’t move. She was placed in a room by herself and under a
window, so not only was she alone but she was also in direct sunlight that would make the cage
temperatures reach well above a hundred degrees.
There was a lot of prison reform after this, as you can imagine.
One day in July, she was working out in the field, set her things down and just kept walking.
Walking past the guards and even past one Frank Martin who was known as a ‘trustee guard’
Frank Martin was serving twenty-one years for murder, and his job as Alaina points out
beautifully “but his little job in the prison was to carry a gun and watch over the women. What’s
happening over there?”
Regardless, Spence climbed a barbed wire fence and ran into the woods. The following morning
when they tried to capture her yet again, she refused to stop walking and Frank Martin was the
one to shoot her in the back of the head. Killing her instantly.
When they searched her, they found two things: A tube of lipstick that was given to her by one
of the other inmates and one of Martin’s own guns because she snuck into his room and stole it
while he slept.
She was set up to die. As stated before, the guards that saw her leaving made no attempt to go
after her. Martin’s room was left unlocked. The other officers promised Martin that if he killed
her, they would help him get rid of his sentence. Someone wrote her suicide note stating “to
whom it may concern, I will never be taken alive.”
Later, she was buried next to her father in an unmarked grave with a cedar tree sapling from the
banks of the White River.
If you want to know more about the wild story of Helen Ruth Spence, I implore you to please go
listen to the true crime podcast Morbid and their episode on it titled “Episode 289: The Swamp
Angel”. Alaina and Ash go more in depth about this case on things such as but not limited to:
How the original case of Worls killing Spence’s father might not have been handled properly due
to the fact that the ‘river people’ were looked down upon by the ‘drylanders’, and how the court
handled things with the wardens of that prison after Spence’s death.
I hope you all enjoyed this article. Only 21 more days left of school!

***CORRECTION***

The original version of this article drew largely from “Morbid: A True Crime Podcast,” hosted by Alaina Urquhart and Ashleigh Kelley. Our reporter properly cited the podcast in the article, but did not cite the book and author that the podcast and article were based. The book upon which the podcast and our article relied upon is entitled, “Daughter of the White River” by Denise Parkinson. We apologize for this oversight. We appreciate the careful reading that brought this to our attention.