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Martha Beall Mitchell: A Pine Bluff Original

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

This article is a reprint from the Explore Pine Bluff Blog due to anticipated interest in the upcoming Starz series Gaslit highlighting the role that Pine Bluff''s Martha Mitchell played in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. The series premieres April 24, 2022 and stars Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell and Sean Penn as her husband, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell.

Image: Martha Beall Mitchell, wife of Nixon-era Attorney General John Mitchell

Did you know that one of the Watergate era’s most polarizing figures was a Pine Bluff native?

Meet Martha Elizabeth Beall Mitchell, the wife of John N. Mitchell, United States Attorney General under President Richard Nixon. She became a controversial figure with her outspoken comments about the government at the time of the Watergate scandal.

Martha Beall Mitchell, the daughter of Arie Ferguson and George V. Beall, was born in Pine Bluff on September 2, 1918. She grew up in the city, graduated from Pine Bluff High School, and attended Stephens College, Columbia Missouri, and the University of Arkansas. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree requirements at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida. She first married Clyde Jennings, Jr. of Lynchburg, Virginia, whom she divorced. She then married John Mitchell, who was appointed U.S. Attorney General by President Richard M. Nixon. Martha Beall Mitchell won worldwide recognition by her outspokenness during the Nixon administration. In fact, she holds the distinction of being the very first Watergate whistleblower. Because she was a woman in a man’s world calling attention to political misdeeds, she was written off as crazy, unstable, and an alcoholic. Her enemies stopped at nothing to discredit her.

The birthplace and childhood home of Martha Beall Mitchell, now the Martha Beall Mitchell Home and Museum, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January 1978. On the second anniversary of her death, Martha Mitchell Expressway in Pine Bluff was named for her. Three years later to the day, a bust was erected in her honor at the Pine Bluff Civic Center with a plaque that reads "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." She is buried in the family plot at Pine Bluff’s Bellwood Cemetery.

Though Martha Beall Mitchell paid a hefty price for what she did, her story continues to be an inspiration to writers and artists. Three years after her death, Washington newswoman and Mitchell-collaborator Winzola McLendon released a book called Martha. Martha Mitchell was portrayed in the 1995 film Nixon by actress Madeline Kahn who, like Mitchell, died at the age of 57 of cancer. In 2004, a three-act play, This is Martha Speaking..., by Thomas Doran premiered in Pine Bluff, Arkansas starring Lee Anne Moore as Martha Mitchell and Michael Childers as John Mitchell. That same year, a one-woman play about Mitchell, Dirty Tricks by John Jeter, appeared off-Broadway. The first episode of the podcast Slow Burn, entitled "Martha," chronicled her role in the Watergate scandal. There’s even a psychological phenomenon named after her. The Martha Mitchell Effect is the process by which a psychiatrist, psychologist, other mental health clinician, or a medical professional, labels the patient's accurate perception of real events as delusional and misdiagnoses accordingly.

Martha Beall Mitchell. Some people loved her. Some people hated her. But everyone noticed her.

Image Caption: The bronze bust of Martha Beall Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, was dedicated on the fifth anniversary of Mrs. Mitchell’s death, May 31, 1981. Photograph by James W. Leslie.

Sources: Pine Bluff and Jefferson County, A Pictorial History; Wikipedia

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