Three Women Legally Executed in Texas

Josefa “Chapita” Rodriguez lived in a lean-to shack near an ancient road that crossed the Nueces River north of Corpus Christi. She offered meals and a cot on her front porch to travelers along the route. During the Civil War, the trail was known as the Cotton Road because the Confederacy used it to move cotton to Bagdad, a Mexican port at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The Confederacy exchanged the white gold with mostly British ships for guns, ammunition, and medical supplies.

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

A few days before the discovery, Savage had arrived late in the evening at Chapita’s cabin carrying $600 in gold in payment for his 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 two bags and drag them 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 downriver 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 corn shucks in which she rolled 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 corn shuck cigarette. She stood to have the noose, dangling from a mesquite tree, placed around her neck. Local 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 through San Patricio came to an end. The railroad bypassed the town, 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.

On June 13, 1985, Governor Mark White signed a resolution passed by the Texas legislature to absolve Josefa “Chapita” Rodriguez of the murder for which she was hanged 122 years earlier on November 13, 1863.

Woodcut
Texas State Historical Association

Advertisements

Immigrant Creates a Food Tradition

In 1892 when Adelaida and Macario Cuellar left their impoverished home, crossed the Rio Grande, and were married in Laredo, they had dreams of working hard and finding success. They did not imagine that their family would eventually head a multi-million dollar food business.

Adelaida Cuellar and the first of her dozen children.

Adelaida Cuellar and the first of her dozen children.

The Cuellars spoke very little English and worked on farms in South Texas as they moved north, eventually settling as sharecroppers on a farm outside Kaufman, a town southeast of Dallas. By 1926 Macario worked as a ranch foreman at Star Brand Ranch and the family had grown to twelve children. Mama Cuellar, as Adelaida was known, decided to add to the family income. She set up a stand at the Kaufmann County Fair to sell her homemade chili and tamales while her five sons, known as Mama’s Boys, played guitars. She not only won a prize for her cooking, she sold out. The tamale stand made $300, the family claims that was more than Macario Cuellar made in a year. Thus began the family’s annual trek to the county fair.

Two of her sons soon opened a Mexican restaurant in Kaufman with Mama Cuellar doing the cooking, but the Great Depression forced them to close after a couple of years. Over the next few years her five sons tried unsuccessfully to operate restaurants in several East Texas towns, until 1940 when sons Macario and Gilbert, using Mama Cuellar’s recipes, opened El Charro in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas. As the restaurant became more profitable, all five sons pooled their resources and expanded to other locations under El Chico Corporation.

In 1961 Angus G. Wynne, Jr. owner of the Star Brand Ranch that had employed Macario Cuellar in the early days, planned to open an amusement park in Arlington to be called “Six Flags Over Texas.” Wynne wanted to serve food representing all the cultures in Texas, and he invited the Cuellars to open a restaurant in the Mexico section of the park. El Chico proved so popular at the opening that it ran out of food and even paper plates and cups.

Mama Cuellar

Mama Cuellar

By the time Mama Cuellar died in 1969, El Chico had expanded into twenty different businesses from canning to restaurant franchising. Over the years the business went public and then returned to the family’s hands several times, each time at considerable profit. Many of the El Chico employees, realizing the growing popularity of Mexican food, opened their own Mexican restaurants. Some facilities were white tablecloth and fine dining establishments, while others served Mexican seafood, and some catered to the post-college boomer crowd.

In 1974 Mariano Martinez, one of Mama Cuellar’s grandsons who owned Mariono’s in Old Town, hit on the idea of refitting a soft-serve ice cream machine to serve frozen margaritas. His invention opened a whole new line of Mexican restaurants and bars and a whole new way to enjoy Mexican food. That original machine is now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Original frozen margarita machine on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Original frozen margarita machine on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Today the tiny Mexican immigrant’s dream of using hard work to be successful has expanded into almost one hundred El Chico restaurants in Texas and the surrounding states and twenty-seven El Chico Restaurant franchises.

Politics and Salt Did Not Mix

Travelers driving east from El Paso may find it difficult to imagine the longtime controversies that took place in the shadow of the

Guadalupe Peak

Guadalupe Peak

majestic Guadalupe Peak rising from the desert floor. The tallest mountain in Texas soars 8,751 feet above its western flank where an ancient salt flat sprawled across 2,000 acres. The salt and gypsum formed dunes that flowed from three-

Dunes in the Salt Flat

Dunes in the Salt Flat

to sixty-feet above the desert landscape. This treasure, lying about 100 miles east of present El Paso, was so important for the region’s Native Americans that for centuries they viewed it as a sacred place where they secured salt for tanning hides, for use as a condiment, and as a preservative. Things began to change when the Spanish discovered the site in 1692 and the villages, such as San Elizario that developed along the Rio Grande near present El Paso, viewed the Salt Flats as common land to be used by all the peoples of the region. The Indians, especially the Apaches, did not welcome the intruders who defied Indian attack to gather the precious resource. Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended Mexican-American War and drew Mexico’s boundary with Texas at the Rio Grande, the Tejano farmers and ranchers supplemented their meager incomes by selling the salt as far away as the rich mining regions in Northern Mexico where it was used in smelting the silver.

More problems arose after the Civil War when El Paso came under the control of prominent Republicans who tried to claim the Salt Flat and charge a fee for Mexican Americans to gather the salt that had been free for many generations. Meantime, Charles H. Howard, a Democrat, arrived in El Paso in 1872 with the intention of turning the Republican stronghold into a Democratic electorate. Howard was successful for a time, got himself appointed district attorney and worked against the Republicans and the “Anti-Salt Ring.” Then, Howard changed course, filed on the salt deposits in the name of his father-in-law, which infuriated the El Paso area Hispanics who felt besieged by the Republicans and the Democrats. When Howard had the sheriff arrest local Tejano men to keep them from collecting the salt, a group of enraged local citizens held Howard prisoner until he agreed to relinquish all rights to the salt deposits.

Eventually in frustration over the attempted control of their community and their economic future, the Tejano people of San Elizario, closed all the county government and replaced it with committees (community juntas). The Anglos, who numbered less than 100 out of a population of 5,000, called on the governor who sent a detachment of Texas Rangers. When the Rangers arrived in the company of Howard, a two-day siege occurred ending with the surrender of the Texas Rangers, the first time in its history that a company of Rangers surrendered to a mob. Howard and the ranger sergeant and two others were executed. The disarmed Rangers were sent out of town, the Tejano leaders fled to Mexico, and residents looted the buildings. Twelve people were killed and fifty were wounded. No one was ever charged with a crime.

San Elizario paid a hefty price for its demands: the county seat was removed to El Paso, the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers re-established Fort Bliss to patrol the border and watch the local Mexican population, the railroad bypassed San Elizario, the population declined, and the Mexican Americans lost their political influence in the area.

By the 1930s, floods had deposited silt across much of the flats and salt gathering came to a halt. Today the ghost town of Salt Flats, which consists of a scattering of mostly deserted buildings, edges the highway. Scattered vegetation grows where silt covered the old salt beds, but barren white stretches still offer a glimpse of the precious early-day resource.

Jim Crow in Texas

This week Austin hosted the Civil Rights Summit celebrating President Lyndon Johnson’s amazing efforts to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, legislation that changed the course of American history. The Felix Longoria Affair reveals only one painful account of life in the Jim Crow South before LBJ stood up to the practices that stained this country’s heritage.

In 1948 the remains of Private Felix Longoria were recovered from the Philippines where he had been killed while serving on a volunteer mission

Private Felix Longoria

Private Felix Longoria

near the end of World War II. His body was shipped to his home in Three Rivers, where a barbed wire fence cordoned off the Mexican section of the cemetery. When Longoria’s widow tried to arrange for his wake in the local funeral home, the director refused to allow the family to use the chapel. He claimed that at previous Mexican-American services there had been disturbances and also that “the whites would not like it.” The funeral director offered to hold the wake in the family’s home on the Mexican side of town, which was the custom in Three Rivers.

Private Longoria’s widow and her sister turned to Dr. Hector Garcia who had recently founded the American G.I. Forum, a group of Texans that worked to secure equal rights for Hispanic veterans. After Dr. Garcia received the same negative response from the funeral director that Mrs. Longoria had received, he sent telegrams to Texas congressmen asking for their support. Immediately Senator Lyndon Johnson responded, offering to arrange for the burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Word spread of the discrimination with an article in the New York Times, and Walter Winchell commented on his radio program, “The big state of Texas looks mighty small tonight.”

On February 16, 1949, the funeral service took place with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in the presence of Private Felix Longoria’s family, Senator Johnson, and a representative of President Harry Truman.

The Texas House of Representatives authorized a five-member committee to investigate the Felix Longoria affair. After open hearings at the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce, the committee decided that although the funeral director acted in anger, he had apologized, and he had not discriminated against the Longoria family. The report was never filed as committee members began to back peddle with comments such as the director’s words “appear to be discriminatory” and the director’s actions were on “the fine line of discrimination.”

The Civil Rights legislation that LBJ pushed through Congress in the 1960s began the long road toward reversal of discrimination in this country. The Civil Rights Summit of 2014 highlights and encourages the continuation of that march toward equality for all our citizens.

Son Muy Hombres (?)

“Are They Real Men?” Alice Dickerson Montemayor, a Mexican American feminist of the 1930s, actually asked that question in an article in the LULAC News in March 1938. Montemayor was challenging what she viewed as gender discrimination and machismo in LULAC

Alice Dickerson Montemayor

Alice Dickerson Montemayor

(League of United Latin American Citizens), the oldest Hispanic civil rights group in the United States.

Alice Montemayor, who preferred being called Alicia, was born in 1902 in Laredo, long before Mexican-origin women embraced a feminist movement. After she married and had two sons, Montemayor began in 1934 as a social worker with the task of investigating welfare claims by Mexican Americans in Webb County. At first, she was denied a key to the office and was forced to work under a tree.  Some of the Anglo clients refused to see her, and at one point tensions grew so high that she was provided a bodyguard. Although she remained in that job until 1949, perhaps it was her treatment in the beginning of her employ that prompted her to become a charter member of Ladies LULAC Laredo, one of several women’s chapters that worked separately from the men’s groups.

When LULAC organized in 1929 in Corpus Christi, it did not include women, and for a while women operated auxiliaries. In 1933 the annual convention of LULAC “permitted Latin American women to organize on the same basis as men.” When Ladies LULAC began opening chapters, Montemayor became a charter member of the Laredo chapter, and began experiencing the sexism of Mexican American men who had organized LULAC to fight for Hispanic civil rights.  The men believed women should remain at home, work in the church, and stay out of politics. Montemayor began establishing herself in LULAC by writing articles for LULAC News. Her first article titled, “Women’s Opportunity in LULAC,” said a woman’s place in LULAC was “in that position where she can do the most for the furthering of her fellow women.”  In 1937 Montemayor became the first woman elected to the position of second national vice present general, which did not sit well with some of the male leadership and led to two events that prompted Montemayor’s article questioning the manhood of some of the male LULAC members.  The first incident occurred after her election when an official wrote a letter in which he said he hoped the president would soon get well because “there are those of us who hate to be under a woman.” The next grievance came when the El Paso Ladies’ LULAC wrote three letters that were ignored by LULAC’s president. In Montemayor’s “Real Men” article she said the sexism of LULAC’s male leaders reflected insecurity, not male superiority; their Latin way of thinking caused them to believe that men are superior to women in civic affairs and administrative fields. She wrote that Real Men were not threatened by sharing power with women.

When plans developed for forming a Junior LULAC she wrote a series of essays supporting the movement and organized a coed group with the belief that youth programs would help boys and girls “abandon the egotism and petty jealousies so common today among our ladies’ and men’s councils.”  To further good citizenship and become prepared for future leadership in LULAC, the young people learned debate and acting techniques, took part in public service, and improved their educational skills.

It’s not clear why Montemayor withdrew from LULAC about 1940. For a while, she operated a dress shop, and from 1956 until her retirement in 1972, she worked as a registrar for the Laredo Independent School District. After retirement she became a folk artist, using bright primary colors to paint Mexican family scenes, women, portraits and landscapes.  Signing her work “Mom” and later “Admonty,” she had solo exhibits at many venues in Mexico, Chicago, Texas, and California. A year before her death in 1989, she was honored by a presentation at the fifty-ninth Annual LULAC Convention.