• by Kirk Gaw

"Swamp Angel" Anymore Huckleberry Queen’s Out There?

How many Walkerton area women go by this description? "She was a sexy lady. She loved to dance and, was fond of tobacco since she smoked cigars." Anyone like that these days? She was a former circus acrobat dubbed "The Woman with the Iron Jaw," and could swing from a trapeze to lift a chair over her head by her teeth. She did other tricks too. Lots of 'em. Mary Louisa "Mat" Helms Falconbury, the notorious Huckleberry Queen wanted to impress the men around her. She also, wanted the Walkerton area women to be envious of her talents? Over 100 years ago film star, Tyner resident, Adellbert Knott published "The Queen of the Huckleberry Marsh" in 1879. In it Knott narrates the “Queen’s” tell-all tale in first person and through her life, illustrating the rough nature of late 19th Century life.

Mary Helms, the woman who was to become the infamous “Huckleberry Queen,” came to Marshall County on May 1, 1875 from Chicago as a performer for the Warner Circus. She reigned over the extensive marsh near Tyner, where “whortleberries” provided both a “cash crop” and a “ready crowd.” Her brash behavior, multiple marriages, and run-ins with local authorities made her a topic of scorn and ridicule among some in Walkerton, and a “champion of cheek” and eccentricity to others. Morality committees formed and fumed trying to “clean up” the marsh and eject the “Queen” and her consorts for good!

Circus Performer Photos by August Sander

Newspapers of the day from Ft. Wayne, Indianapolis, and Chicago wrote of her escapades. Some stories, however, do not correspond with the information recorded in Adelbert Knott’s 1879 rendering of her life story: “She took the part of the "Beautiful Circassian Girl" and traveled through the state until the show reached Plymouth. Mat and her current boyfriend, Frank, boarded across the river in Plymouth. When Frank left -- and they all left, sooner or later -- she became the mistress of a young Plymouth guy. "And that's how I first came to Tyner and the Huckleberry Marsh."

Tyner during the 19th Century

According to Adelbert Knott in his account of the life and confessions of the Huckleberry Queen, published in 1879: "The Huckleberry Marsh, which has become famous all over the country, occupies an area of 3,000 acres, running through Marshall, St. Joseph and Starke counties. From the earliest history of the state up to the present time, it has been the hiding place of crime and will continue to be the abode of desperadoes, in defiance of all state laws."

Sometimes called the "Swamp Angel," there are stories how the Queen saved men from drowning, provided medicine for sick women and beat the stuffings out of a man who raped a woman in the swamp. For awhile she opened a restaurant in Tyner but, as she put it in a bawdy way, "I didn't do much cooking." The Queen married her third husband, Jake Falconbury, in 1879. She was 23 years old. She said that she was going to give up her life of shame and live like a decent woman should live in the future. Did she? Could she?

In her quest to develop the “Queen’s” story as a basis for an historical novel, "Swamp Angel," local writer, retired teacher, Anna Liechty, has used her individual artist grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to search for verifiable details to document the Huckleberry Queen's life. Anna said, in her book , she is not going to preach. "I am going to look carefully at how her life was shaped beyond her control and she managed to exist, even if society didn't agree."

Anna Liechty dressed to perform as The Huckleberry Queen

At the end of his manuscript, Adelbert Knott said it well. "Who can say that the Queen has not been purified? Who can stand at the altar, pound their breast and cry out: 'Lord, Lord, I thank Thee, that in Thy sight, I am so much better than she!" Anna Liechty is a Kentucky native and a 1969 graduate of Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. She dressed up as the Huckleberry Queen for a lunchtime storytelling event at the Plymouth Library in 2014. Anna Liechty is an expert on the life of Mary Helms, Huckleberry Queen.

  • Kathy Bottorff - WTCA 106.1 / 1050 AM

  • Ida Chipman, South Bend Tribune

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