They say her ghost haunts the Nueces River, near the spot of her execution by hanging for the murder of a horse trader for $600 in gold.
Chipita Rodríguez holds the unfortunate distinction of being the second woman legally executed in the state of Texas. Josefa Rodríguez, known as Chipita, was sentenced to death in 1863 for the murder of horse trader John Savage.
Not much can be confirmed about Chipita’s life and the circumstances around her trial, pieced together through the scant newspaper and court records still available and mostly from old stories – whether those are true or not is anyone’s guess.
Researchers believe she was the daughter of Pedro Rodríguez, who moved to the settlement of San Patricio de Hibernia when Chipita was young. As an adult she sold meals to travelers, who could also rent a cot on her jacal’s porch or sleep in her yard by the Nueces River, though some accounts say it was near the Aransas River.
But the event that led to her death began in August 1863. Horse trader John Savage, traveling to Brownsville along the Cotton Road, arranged to stay the night. He disappeared in the night and his body was later found wrapped in burlap sacks in the river, with an ax wound in his head. Authorities assumed the motive was burglary, as he was carrying $600 in gold, but saddlebags with the money were soon recovered near the river.
Sheriff William Means soon arrived and arrested both Chipita and her handyman, Juan Silvera, who was rumored to be her illegitimate son. Sheriff Means served on the grand jury that indicted her, the first in a number of irregularities. There was no empaneling of a jury, they were literally rounded up and included four men previously convicted of felonies – one of those for murder.
Her trial was overseen by 14th District Court Judge Benjamin F. Neal, who was also Corpus Christi’s first mayor in 1852. Chipita had no defense counsel and offered no testimony for her defense, only stating, “No soy culpable” – “I am not guilty.”
The jury found her guilty, but suggested leniency based on the flimsy evidence and her age. She was likely in her 60s at the time. Neal ignored the pleas, and on Nov. 13, 1863, he sentenced her to hang. She was kept in Meansville, near present day Odem, until her execution. Sheriff Means was out of town that day, so hangman John Gilpin took Chipita by wagon to the hanging tree. Legend has it she smoked corn shuck cigarettes on her journey there. Chipita Rodríguez was then executed by hanging
The stories began immediately, that her body moaned as it sat in the coffin, before burial in an unmarked grave. Her death passed from local tragedy and to a legend of injustice as the years grew. She’s had poems, articles, books, and even two operas written about her. In 1985, state Sen. Carlos Truan of Corpus Christi asked the Texas Legislature to formally clear her name, and Gov. Mark White signed the resolution absolving her of the crime on June 13, 1985.
But still you hear stories, that someone heard her ghostly moans, or saw her wandering the banks of the river, with the noose trailing behind her.
Allison Ehrlich writes about things to do in South Texas and has a weekly Throwback Thursday column on local history.
This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Chipita Rodríguez became ghostly legend after her unjust execution
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