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Monday, January 26, 1998

Mystery still surrounds last woman executed in Texas

By MICHAEL HOLMES / Associated Press Writer

AUSTIN (AP) - History may be proving kinder to Chipita Rodriguez than her neighbors were.

After all, San Patricio County authorities hanged her from a mesquite tree and buried her in a shallow grave.

Convicted of the ax murder of a horse trader, she remains the last woman executed in Texas.

She has been the subject of two operas, a poem, books, newspaper articles, magazine accounts, even ghost stories. In 1985, the Texas Legislature passed a resolution formally expressing sympathy to her descendants.

But since her death on a stormy November afternoon 134 years ago, questions have been raised about Chipita Rodriguez's case. Now, interest has been rekindled with the pending execution of Karla Faye Tucker.

"Any time there's a woman who's convicted of murder and about to be executed, the ghost of Chipita Rodriguez stirs," said Marylyn Underwood.

The retired Victoria College professor wrote an article on the case for the Texas State Historical Association's authoritative "Handbook of Texas."

Unlike Ms. Tucker's 14-year legal battle, things moved considerably faster in Chipita's day.

Josefa "Chipita" Rodriguez - who the Handbook says "was described as 'very old' or 'about 90' but was probably in her 60s" - was hanged on Nov. 13, 1863, three months after the slaying of horse trader John Savage.

She was indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced to death in a space of four days, then executed a month later.

There was no appeal.

"Chipita Rodriguez, a 19th century inhabitant of San Patricio County and the only woman ever officially executed in the state of Texas, may have been wrongfully convicted of the crime for which she was executed," the 1985 Legislature declared.

Lawmakers said the trial appeared to violate state laws and called it "a rush to judgment that, even for 19th century Texas, was highly unusual."

Historians since have concluded that at least one other Texas woman was executed before Chipita, but none since.

Keith Guthrie of Taft, who heads the historical society in San Patricio County, has spent years researching Chipita's story.

"Most of it is legend," Guthrie said. "But a lot of the legend is true, handed down from generation to generation. Legends have a thread of truth to start and they kind of get embellished along the way."

Although details differ in the telling, the story goes something like this:

Chipita, whose parents were from Mexico and apparently died when she was young, furnished travelers with meals and a cot on the porch of her "inn" - more like a shack - along the Aransas River.

Savage, who sold horses to the Confederate Army, stayed there. On Aug. 25, 1863, his body was found downstream from Chipita's inn. He'd been killed with an ax, presumably for the $600 in gold he was carrying.

Chipita and a second defendant, Juan Silvera, were taken into custody at San Patricio. On Oct. 7, they were indicted. Two days later, a trial was held.

Although the money had been found - raising doubts about the motive - Chipita was found guilty of first-degree murder. Silvera was found guilty of second-degree murder.

On Oct. 10, despite the jury's recommendation for mercy due to "her old age and the circumstantial evidence against her," District Court Judge Benjamin F. Neal sentenced her to death.

Silvera, who some accounts speculated was her son, got five years in the penitentiary.

There were what modern Texans would consider some irregularities in the proceedings: At least three members of the grand jury also served on the trial jury; the grand jury foreman was the sheriff who arrested her; some members of both juries faced indictments of their own; and Chipita's only words in her defense were, "Not guilty."

Two lynch mobs were thwarted, and she was hanged as scheduled. Some of San Patricio's women had befriended her before the execution, and one lady refused the hangman use of a wagon to transport Chipita to the hanging tree.

"I think it's true that the jury didn't believe she did the crime but they believed she knew who did," historian Guthrie said. "There was some thinking that it was her illegitimate son and she was protecting him.

"The foreman of the jury passed down the word through his descendants that they gave her the harsh penalty to see if she wouldn't say who killed him. All she ever said was 'not guilty' in Spanish."

Court records are sketchy, the courthouse later burned, and Guthrie has found only a couple of newspaper accounts from the time.

"I don't think that there was a great deal of interest in her trial. She was a nobody," he said. "The legend takes up and fills in these spots that the record doesn't show. It's a good yarn."

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