Woman Hanged in Texas

In 1985 the Texas legislature passed a resolution to absolve Josefa “Chapita” Rodriguez of the murder for which she hanged on November 13, 1863.

Chapita Rodriguez lived in a lean-to shack where the Cotton Road crossed the Aransas River, north of San Patricio.  She offered meals and a cot on her front porch to travelers along the route, which the Confederacy used during the Civil War to ferry cotton to Mexico in exchange for guns, ammunition, and medical supplies.

Near the end of August 1863, employees at the nearby Welder Ranch found in the edge of the Aransas River the body stuffed in two burlap bags of John Savage whose head had been split with an ax.

A few days before the discovery, Savage arrived late in the evening at Chapita’s cabin carrying $600 in gold in payment for the sale of horses to the Confederate Army in San Antonio.  A large man who traveled heavily armed with six-shooters strapped to his leg, Savage frequently stayed at Chapita’s house.

Most of the records in the case burned in a courthouse fire, allowing rumors and legend to fill in the blanks.  Since Chapita was too old (probably in her sixties) and too small to stuff the bulk of Savage into the bags and drag him down river, authorities pointed to Juan Silvera who may have been her illegitimate son.

The sheriff who arrested Chapita and Juan Silvera served as foreman of the grand jury and foreman of the jury that heard the charges at trial.  At least three grand jury members also served as trial jurors, and members of both juries had been indicted on felony charges that were later dismissed.  Chapita’s only defense was her repeating “not guilty.”   A few days before the trial began, the gold was discovered down river from where the body was found.

Despite the discovery of the gold, Chapita was found guilty as charged.  The jury recommended mercy because of her age and the circumstantial evidence, but the trial judge Benjamin F. Neal sentenced her to be hanged.  Juan Silvera was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to five years in prison.

Some accounts claim she was held for a time in the sheriff’s home; other stories say she waited in leg irons, chained to the courthouse wall in San Patricio.  Children visited the courthouse, supplying Chapita with candy and cornshucks for rolling her cigarettes.

Many stories suggest Chapita’s silence was to protect her son Juan Silvera.  Whatever her reason, Chapita rode in a wagon to her fate while sitting atop her coffin and smoking a cornshuck cigarette, then stood to have the noose, dangling from a mesquite tree, placed around her neck.  San Patricio residents, many of whom believed her innocent, whispered among themselves that Chapita’s execution marked the end of San Patricio.

By the mid-1880s life began changing.  The introduction of barbed wire closed the open range and the excitement of cattle drives came to an end.  The railroad by-passed San Patricio, the courthouse burned, and Sinton became the new seat of county government.

Despite Texas’ record number of executions, only three women have faced the gallows.  Little information exists about the first woman legally executed other than she was a slave named Jane Elkins convicted of murdering a white man in Dallas County and hanged on May 27, 1853.

The third execution of a woman occurred in 1998 when Karla Faye Tucker died by lethal injection fourteen years after being convicted in a pickaxe murder.

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16 thoughts on “Woman Hanged in Texas

  1. Wow! Texas just keeps serving us one riveting story after another. The part where she was going to be hanged had me on suspense. Guess its your writers touch. Just promise me one thing, you have to publish these stories in a book some day, or volumes.

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    • Robert, you lift my spirits. Yes, I hope to publish the tales some day. I’ve written about 52 at this time. We’ll see how things develop. My neighbors are planning a Dec 1 book signing for Legacy (see link above), a coming-of-age story set in a tiny Texas town in 1945.

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      • You are most welcome. Oh you inspire my spirits by being so active. Keep it up! Book signing sounds exiting. How fun for you. I remember you telling about that book. Could be based on your own experiences?

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    • Legacy is fiction, not my life at all. It is set in a small Texas coastal town. I grew up in an apartment near downtown Houston. I could go on and on about the differences. I remember 1945, the men who came home “shell shocked.” The men who could not get work because they had been 4F and the trauma in families, including mine. My parents would not let me see the photos in Life Magazine of the concentration camps. So, I went downstairs to the drugstore and carefully looked through the pages of LIFE. The images haunt me to this day. It all comes together in this story.

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  2. This is a really interesting and important story. The Texas Legislature’s absolution of Chapita in 1985 raises the almost certain prospect of future absolutions of more recent victims of wrongful executions.

    Obvious sources of potential errors in legal judgments, sometimes based on shady prosecutions, should be enough for Texas to ban the death penalty. In my view, life without parole is a harsher penalty than death, while preserving the opportunity for exoneration if contrary evidence is uncovered.

    Thanks much for Chapita’s story.

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    • Thanks, Earl, for your insightful comments. I hope you are correct, that Texas will be willing to look at past decisions. Let us also hope the reviews are done before the accused is executed. Living a long life with no hope of parole seems a much harsher sentence for the guilty and one that offers hope for the innocent.

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    • Hi Myra, Now I’ll leave a longer comment. I was testing it the first time. I don’t know why, but often I try to comment and WP says I don’t own that identity. So, I’ve been reading, but not always able to comment.
      This brings back so many memories because when I lived in Okla., it was always a joke about getting caught for a crime in Texas. “They hang women down there.” It’s great to know the story behind the old advice: If you’re gong to commit a crime, don’t do it in Texas.
      Hugs and I hope you’re well.

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      • So glad to hear from you, Barb. Sorry your comments get kicked back. It’s the little men in the computer, you know. All is well around here. Busy, as usual. Texas loves to claim its tough on crime. Haven’t noticed the toughness improving the crime rate.

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