By IDA CHIPMAN
PLYMOUTH — She was a very sexy lady.
She loved to dance and, fond of tobacco, she smoked cigars.
A former circus acrobat dubbed “The Woman with the Iron Jaw,” she could swing from a trapeze and 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, was actively engaged in the world’s oldest profession in the 1800s in the Tyner marsh.
Her character will come alive Tuesday night at Christo’s Banquet Center at the annual Marshall County Historical Society banquet.
Anna Liechty, the recently retired chairman of Plymouth High School’s English department, will play the part of this fascinating woman.
“I first came across the Queen,” Anna said, “in 1998, when Dan Tyree and I were doing work for an Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Award.”
Their winning proposal was on the premise that a collection of true stories from around home would give students an interest in their roots and in local history.
“I had no problem getting into this character,” said Anna, a Kentucky native and a 1969 graduate of Bowling Green (Ohio) State University.
“Biblically speaking, spirituality and sexuality are closely related.”
Her husband of 23 years, the Rev. Dr. Ron Liechty, retired pastor of the Plymouth United Church of Christ, just laughs at her enthusiastic monologue.
Maybe a wee bit nervously as his wife crosses her black mesh stocking legs and flutters her fake lashes.
Her entire outfit is enough to make a preacher squirm.
It is hot.
The lace-trimmed red satin dress, tailored by Becky Liechty, has a bodice cut dangerously low.
Her waist is encircled with a black bustier. She carries a black crocheted purse made by foster-daughter Debbie Bush and her mom, and she twirls a black lace parasol.
Anna made the provocative hat that frames her blonde curly wig and roguishly made-up lips.
A strategically placed beauty mark highlights her left cheek.
Anna has been researching the Queen throughout several states for the last decade.
“Along with Dan Sarber, Tyner, and Karin Rettinger, Bourbon, we have been doing detective work,” she said.
Her historical fiction book on the life of the notorious woman is six chapters under way.
Anna will tell the story of the Queen in the first person at the banquet.
“I was born in Warren County, Ohio. My daddy, an honorable man, was killed in a battle in the Civil War,” she says.
“I was left with an abusive mother who continually threatened to send me to the House of Corrections, and I never learned to read or write.
“I was forced into marriage with a much older first husband (there were to be at least three), Amos Davis, at the age of 13. After 4 months, he took me to St. Paul, Ind., where his sister was the madam of a ‘sporting house.’
“I escaped through the window from my first ‘john,’ and after a brief separation went back with Davis, who physically and mentally abused me.
“I didn’t know what else to do. I had nobody to take care of me.”
The couple both worked in the Montgomery Queen circus.
“After divorcing Davis, I took to drinking, and joined another circus, the Warner’s Circus, before going to work at Miss Nell’s sporting house in Indianapolis.”
Anna guesses the Queen figured that there was only one way left for her — that of a whore.
Van Amburgh’s Circus came along after Mat had been at Miss Nell’s about eight months.
On May 1, 1875, 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.”
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?
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 doesn’t agree.”
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!’”
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