November 13, 1863
San Patricio, Texas
Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez is executed for the murder of a man
On August 25, 1863, the body of John Savage was found in a burlap sack in the Aransas River. The cause of death was immediately apparent: his skull had been caved in by an axe.
Savage was a horse trader and had spent the evening before his murder at a small inn run by Rodriguez, described as more of a shack than a typical inn, where travelers could stop for a meal or sleep on Rodriguez’s porch. The body was found downstream of the inn, which was also the last place he was known to have been seen, making Rodriguez the immediate suspect.
Rodriguez herself was described as “very old” or “about 90” in comtemporary reports, but historians place her age closer to being in her 60s. When law enforcement visited her inn to question her, they found blood on the porch which Rodriguez explained had come from a chicken. Lawmen also questioned Rodriguez’s companion Juan Silvera — who sources indicate was likely either Rodriguez’s son or a handyman — who told the sheriff he had helped Rodriguez dispose of a body in the river. The language barrier between Rodriguez and Silvera (who both predominantly spoke Spanish) and the sheriff likely contributed to a misunderstanding by one or both parties.
The motive was initially believed to be robbery as Savage was known to have had $600 (about $12,400 today) shortly before his killing which was conspicuously missing. When the money was found in the saddlebags on Savage’s horse, the robbery motive was doubted but not Rodriguez’s guilt.
Both defendants were reportedly chained to the courthouse walls with leg shackles during their trial. The entire legal proceeding took just four days, from the grand jury indictment, to the trial jury, to sentencing. While the trial jury convicted Rodriguez of murder, they asked for leniency on account of “her old age.” The judge presiding ignored the plea for mercy and sentenced Rodriguez to death. Silvera was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
Rodriguez’s execution was scheduled to take place 3 months after Savage’s murder, on Friday the 13th. The women of the community were against the hanging but were unable to overturn the sentence. As Rodriguez had no dress for her execution, one of the local women donated her wedding dress. Another woman fixed Rodriguez’s hair for her. And the local children provided candy and corn-shuck cigarettes which Rodriguez smoked on the way to her hanging.
In 1985, Texas Legislature acknowledged Rodriguez had not been given a fair trial and had probably been wrongly convicted. It was noted the trial was “a rush to judgment that, even for 19th century Texas, was highly unusual” and violated several state laws. The sheriff who arrested Rodriguez was also the foreman of the grand jury which indicted her, and the foreman of the trial jury was a friend of the same sheriff. While the court documents of the trial were destroyed in a fire, it is known Rodriguez’s defense was almost non-existent and the only words she spoke during her trial were “no soy culpable,” Spanish for “I’m not guilty.”
The only tree large enough for hanging was located next to the river and, once Rodriguez was dead, her body was buried under the tree rather than in a cemetery. “People say her soul will forever be in limbo because she wasn’t buried in the cemetery,” Lonnie Glasscock III, a 15-term mayor of San Patricio, Texas, said during an interview. “Now her ghost will forever wander.” An apparition with a noose around her neck is also said to walk along the river banks where Rodriguez was hanged, with her first appearance occurring in the 1930s.
Rodriguez was the last woman to be legally executed in the state of Texas until Karla Faye Tucker’s execution by lethal injection in 1998.
Underwood, Marylyn. Rodriguez, Josefa Chipita. Texas State Historical Association. Handbook of Texas (archived: https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/rodriguez-josefa-chipita)
“A black day in San Patricio when Chipita was hanged.” Caller Times. April 6, 2017. Accessed: November 13, 2020. https://www.caller.com/story/news/columnists/murphy-givens/2017/01/17/black-day-san-patricio-when-chipita-hanged/96556038/
Ray, Steve. “Chipita’s execution haunts local memory.” Corpus Christi Caller-Times. February 2, 1998
“Mystery still surrounds account of last woman executed in Texas.” The Paris News. January 28, 1998