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Monday, January 26, 1998
Mystery still surrounds last woman executed
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
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
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
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'
Court records are sketchy, the courthouse later burned, and
Guthrie has found only a couple of newspaper accounts from the
"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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