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.