"Did women who murdered back then have to face the same punishment as men?" Joshua asked. "It just seems like we read only about the men getting the death penalty, but nothing about women," he continued in our discussion of a story about a man who was put to death in the early days of Texas.
"Wait a minute," Ashley interjected with a hint of indignation. "There were women put to death then, and unjustly. One of them, Chipita, is part of my family."
Yes, Chipita Rodriguez. One of the storied legends in South Texas, Chipita lived her unassuming life not too far from our school.
Part of her truth has been blended with dramatic embellishment, but some things are known.
Born Josefa Rodriguez, Chipita lived with her father on the riverbanks in a small lean-to shack. They'd fled Mexican dictator Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. During the Civil War years after her father died, Chipita made her living providing meals and cot space for cowboys, gamblers, and horse traders. She had help from a younger man, Juan Silvero, who was rumored to be her illegitimate son.
John Savage was like other horse traders who'd passed that way. Having just made a big sale to the Confederate Army, his saddlebags were packed with $600 worth of gold. He couldn't help but brag about his prosperity to other travelers that night as they drank their whiskey in Chipita's front room .
When the sun arose, John Savage's cot was empty. His horse was gone, too. The other boarders assumed he'd made an early start and was already on the road headed north.
Those who were alive then say Chipita had no reaction when the news reached them that John Savage's hacked body had been found stuffed into several gunnysacks, a bloody axe nearby. They say she also showed no reaction when shown the axe. It was her own, one she used to chop kindling.
The sheriff came to question Chipita. She refused to speak anything in her own defense and gave neither alibi nor reason as to how her axe had ended up bloodied and near John Savage's body. The sheriff's limited Spanish and Chipita's limited English were never taken into account.
Chipita and Juan Silvero were both arrested for the murder of John Savage. Juan was charged with second degree murder and Chipita with first degree murder. The prosecution made the case that Savage was murdered for his gold, although the gold was found near the body, still in the saddlebags.
Chipita's hard life was shown in her face and stooped body. People mistook her to be in her eighties or nineties when she was actually in her early sixties. She had little to no legal defense, and the only words she spoke during the entire trial were, "“No soy culpable.” “I am not guilty.”
Both she and Juan were convicted, with Juan receiving five years in the penitentiary. The jury recommended leniency for Chipita, based on her age and only the circumstantial evidence against her. The judge, Benjamin F. Neal, declared he was making an example of Chipita and sentenced her to death.
Her indictment, trial, and sentencing happened in the span of four days. The foreman of the grand jury who indicted her was the same sheriff who arrested her.
She was kept in the home of a deputy until her date for hanging, three months later. Two lynch mobs, headed by area men, were thwarted. Area women befriended Chipita, understanding with mothers' hearts that she was probably protecting her son with her silence. One woman even drove the hangman away twice when he came to retrieve her.
Three months after John Savage was found murdered, Chipita was driven to the banks of the very river where she had lived for so many years. A thunderstorm unleashed heaven's fury as the wagon was backed under the hanging tree. Even as the noose was placed around her neck, she held her head as straight and high as her stooped back would allow her in the driving rain. She refused to look at the men around her and remained silent even as the horse hitched to the wagon was cracked with a whip and the wagon was jerked from beneath her.
Not given the opportunity for a Christian burial, she was cut down and hastily buried underneath the large hanging tree.
The arresting sheriff told his descendants she was given the death penalty in an effort to make her talk, to reveal the true killer. No one actually believed this small, shriveled, and stooped woman could overcome a large man, hack him to death, stuff his body into gunny sacks, and haul them away.
My student, Ashley, concluded, "She's why I want to become an attorney and fight for those who have no one else to fight for them. Justice should be just."
Somehow, I have to think Chipita would be pleased.
In 1985, the Texas legislature passed a resolution absolving Chipita Rodríguez of murder.