OLD SAN PATRICIO – The first legal hanging of a woman in Texas occurred in San Patricio County.
That’s a strange title to hold, but every year on Nov. 13, the name of Josepha Rodriguez, or “Chipita” as she’s more commonly known, is spoken and her story remembered.
Fleeing from Mexico with her father, Chipita found herself across the border in an Irish immigrant colony known as San Patricio de Hibernia, now known as Old San Patricio. Her father left her to join the militia and was killed in the Texas Revolution, which is the only thing anyone knows about her early life in San Patricio County.
As she grew up, Chipita would make a living feeding travelers and providing shelter in her small shack located on the cotton road which led through Old San Patricio to Refugio.
It was there, at her home, that a horse trader named John Savage stopped by looking for a place to rest. Soon after lying down on a cot on her front porch to sleep, he was found dead in the Aransas River.
According to historian Murphy Givens, “Two house servants from the Welder Ranch collecting firewood by the river found his body in a burlap bag. His head had been split open with an ax.”
Givens also said that blood was found on her front porch where Savage was sleeping but said it was chicken blood.
Sheriff William B. Means (Will B. Means, a suitable name for the stories told about him) arrested Chipita for stealing $600 in gold that Savage was carrying and then murdering him.
A slow-witted boy who sometimes helped her around the house named Juan Silvera was also arrested as an accomplice.
The $600 worth of gold was recovered in Savage’s saddlebags shortly after her arrest.
The judge for her trial, according to Givens, was none other than Benjamin F. Neal, the first mayor of Corpus Christi.
The trial for Chipita lasted through the morning, and just before noon she was found guilty of first-degree murder; Silvera with second-degree murder.
The letter from the jury read, “We, the jury, find the defendant, Chipita Rodriguez, guilty of murder in the first degree, but on account of her old age, and the circumstantial evidence against her, do recommend her to the mercy of the court.”
Judge Neal ignored the jury’s wishes and gave Silvera five years in prison and ordered Chipita hanged on Nov. 13, 1863.
Stories of her hanging say that since she was an old, frail woman, when the ox cart she was standing on was pulled out from her feet, her neck did not snap. She simply strangled to death over the next few minutes hanging from a tree.
She was buried in an unmarked grave at the foot of a mesquite tree on the Nueces River.
Even with various residents claiming they’ve seen the ghost of Chipita creeping through the fog on the banks of the river, she hasn’t been forgotten for another reason.
She may have been innocent all along.
On June 13, 1985, the Texas Senate Concurrent Resolution 14 was signed by Texas Gov. Mark White and cleared Chipita’s name in Texas.
Then, in 2010, Chipita received a historical marker in Old San Patricio, placed in front of the old courthouse, near a bunch of mesquite trees that may or may not have been where she lost her life.
But there she also became a legend.