by Kitana Sanchez
For The Austin Séance
Growing up in a small border town in Texas, legends of the supernatural would circulate giving life to entities that used to scare the life out of me as a child. We all have heard of the Lechuza, the owl-like witch and how to curse it to scare it away. We’ve heard of the Dancing Devil, the man whose feet turned into hoofs or chicken feet at the local dance club. We’ve heard the horrifying story of Donkey Lady Bridge and the wailing woman herself, La Llorona. But while these are some of Texas’s most popular folkloric legends, another story stands out as equally important because it reminds us of past injustices foisted upon innocent people.
Josefa Rodriguez, also known as “Chipita,” was for many years thought to be the only woman in Texas ever executed by hanging. Many also believe that her hanging was unjust, and so for that reason Chipita’s suffering spirit continues to roam the Corpus Christi countryside. Reportedly born on December 30, 1799, Chipita, a native of Mexico, eventually settled with her father in the South Texas town of San Patricio de Hibernia, on the western edge of Nueces County. Chipita ran a small inn along Cotton Road near the Aransas River, an inn where travelers could find a place to rest and eat. Sources say her illegitimate son Juan Silvera helped her run the inn.
In 1863, in August, a horse trader named John Savage was brutally murdered after visiting the inn. As the story goes, he had been carrying with him $600 worth of gold — a small fortune in those days — and then not long after leaving the inn his hacked-up body was found downriver at the bottom of a burlap bag. Investigating authorities then retrieved an ax from Chipita’s front porch and also spotted blood. Chipita protested that the ax was for splitting wood and the blood from butchering chickens, but the sheriff and his men remained unconvinced.
Legend says Chipita was an old woman in her 90s, but she was most likely in her 60s. The jury was made up of people pulled off the street and it was a swift trial. Chipita did not speak in her defense and was charged with murder in the first degree by Judge Benjamin F. Neal, who also was the first mayor of Corpus Christi. “She was protecting someone else. All she ever said in the trial was ‘not guilty’,” said Keith Guthrie, a San Patricio County historian. “People said it was an illegitimate son who actually did the ax work.”
Even though the jury pleaded for mercy, Judge Neal sentenced Chipita to be hanged on Friday November 13, 1863. Again, she repeated, “No soy culpable” — I am not guilty. Geraldine McGlion of Corpus Christi told the Caller-Times in 1997, “Chipita was hung in my great-grandmother’s wedding dress. She didn’t have a decent dress for her hanging, which was really pretty grisly. And my great-grandmother gave her wedding dress for her hanging.
Imagine having to deal with the reality that you will be hanged, knowing you are innocent. That had to have created emotional turmoil for Chipita, which may have unsettled her spirit. Some locals believe that because her body was not buried in a cemetery (instead, she was buried beneath a mesquite tree near the Nueces River) that her spirit can find no peace. Some claim to have heard an actual moan rise from her coffin shortly after her hanging. Others report seeing a ghostly specter with a noose still hanging around its neck wandering aimlessly among the trees, or they say they have heard eerie wailing from the bottom of riverbanks.
In 1985, state Sen. Carlos Truan of Corpus Christi tried to rectify the situation by filing a resolution to absolve Chipita Rodríguez of murder. And while the 69th Texas Legislature passed the resolution (and Gov. Mark White signed the resolution on June 13, 1985) Chipita’s spirit may remain with us still. But some say her spirit only appears now when a woman faces execution in Texas. Others say it appears whenever any Texas woman is unjustly accused of murder.
While Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez’s story may not be as well known as other supernatural tales in Texas, it has had the distinction of being immortalized in several creative works. For instance, an epic poem by Rachel Bluntzner, “Shadow on the Nueces,” as well as a separate poem, “Chipita,” by Teresa Palomo Acosta, both celebrate her as a heroine. In 1993 the University of Texas music department performed the opera “Chipita Rodriguez,” composed by Texas A&M Corpus Christi professor Lawrence Weiner. Alcario Cary Cadena, a student screenwriter and college graduate of Del Mar College and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, wrote a screenplay about Rodriguez in 2010.
And so Chipita’s legend continues. Next time you make it out to western Nueces County, near the old colony of San Patricio de Hibernia, listen for her wailing sigh.
Kitana Sanchez, born and raised in Del Rio, Texas, currently resides in Corpus Christi where she wears many hats when it comes to her career — writing being one of them. She’s always been intrigued by the paranormal and hopes to become more involved with the spooky side of life.