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

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THE MURDER OF DIAMOND BESSIE

Jefferson, a thriving inland port in deep East Texas, enjoyed a cosmopolitan air of success in 1877. Steamboats designed to carry a thousand bales of East Texas cotton on only three feet of water, left the port of Jefferson and returned from New Orleans with the latest fashion in

Diamond Bessie

clothing and home design as well as immigrants heading for settlement in Northeast Texas, Dallas, and the Texas Panhandle.

The giant sternwheelers traveled the Mississippi River from New Orleans, steamed up the Red River and finally entered Big Cypress Creek for the journey to the head of navigation at Jefferson. Town residents did not blink at wealth or lavish living until January 19, 1877, when a handsome man and a beautiful young woman arrived on the train from nearby Marshall.

The woman, although tastefully dressed, wore enough diamonds to open her own jewelry store. Some accounts claim townspeople, upon hearing the man refer to her as “Bessie,” began secretly calling her “Diamond Bessie.”

After registering at the Brooks House under the name of “A. Monroe and wife,” the couple spent two days walking about town apparently enjoying the interested eyes following their every move.

On Sunday morning, January 19, the young people purchased a picnic lunch and disappeared into the fog on the footbridge crossing Big Cypress Creek.

Abraham Rothschild

Late that afternoon the gentlemen returned alone. To questions about his wife’s whereabouts, he claimed she decided to visit friends. He casually went about his affairs until the following Tuesday, when he boarded the early-morning train headed east carrying all the couple’s luggage.

On February 5, after several days of sleet and snow, someone looking for firewood discovered the body of the well-dressed young woman, sans jewelry, lying under a tree amid the remains of a picnic lunch. The coroner ruled she died of a gunshot wound to the head and due to little decomposition, appeared to have been dead only four or five days.

Charmed by the beauty of the mysterious woman, the town collected $150 for a proper burial in Oakwood Cemetery. Further investigation disclosed the couple registered as “A. Rothchild and wife of Cincinnati, Ohio,” at a hotel in Marshall two days before arriving in Jefferson. Authorities discovered Abraham Rothchild worked as a traveling salesman for his father’s Cincinnati jewelry business, and met Bessie Moore a few years earlier at a brothel in Little Rock.

Fred Tarpley in Jefferson: Riverport to the Southwest writes that Bessie’s real name was Annie Stone, daughter of a prosperous shoe dealer in Syracuse, New York. “Black hair, brilliant gray eyes, a flair for grooming, and a well-chosen wardrobe combined to make her an extraordinary beauty and to attract early attention from men.” At age fifteen she became, for a short time, a young man’s mistress. Then, working as a prostitute, she traveled from Cincinnati to New Orleans and Hot Springs where she met Rothchild.

Tarpley claims a “considerable inheritance from her father” and gifts from her many admirers led to her stunning collection of diamonds. The nation-wide publicity surrounding her death, and the romantic stories growing in the imagination of mythmakers, obscured the facts about her life. In reality, Bessie and Rothchild were drunks, and over the two years of their association, he pimped for her when they needed money. No one ever found evidence that they were legally married.

Jefferson residents raged against the murderer of the beautiful young woman as authorities headed to Cincinnati to arrest Rothchild. In the meantime, Rothchild, in a drunken state of apparent remorse attempted to shoot himself in the head. He succeeded only in blinding himself in his right eye.

Rothchild’s parents disowned him; however, the family provided the best legal defense, including a future governor of Texas and a US senator. The state, embroiled in the most high profile case of its history, involved the best legal minds available. Legal wrangling delayed the trial until December 1878. After three weeks of testimony, Rothchild was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging; however, the judge of the Seventh Texas Court of Appeals declared a mistrial.

During the second trial a witness claimed to have seen Bessie with a man who was not Rothchild on two occasions after Rothchild left Jefferson. Despite the prosecution’s attack on the credibility of the witness, she planted enough doubt that the jury on December 30, 1880, found Rothchild not guilty.

The verdict did not put to rest the tales continuing to circulate like the one claiming twelve $1,000 bills appeared in the jury room during deliberations or the report in the 1880s of a handsome, elderly man wearing a patch on his right eye asking to visit the grave of Bessie Moore and placing roses on it.

The mystery of who killed Diamond Bessie continues to stir imaginations each year during the Jefferson Historical Pilgrimage. This year from April 28 through May 1, the pilgrimage presents the 63rd annual production of the “Diamond Bessie Murder Trial.”

Diamond Bessie Murder Trial

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.