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February 28, 2009

To the Heirs of Ballí Spanish & Mexican Land Grants
History Time Capsule
(A Noose for Chepita)

The story below will touch you and it will also disclose the true past of our history.


A Noose for Chepita

In an article written by Daisy Wanda Garcia, she writes of the affect a book with the title "A Noose for Chepita" had upon her father Dr. Hector Garcia. Dr. Garcia read the book written by Vernon Smylie in 1970 and gave it to his daughter to read. In the article she comments:

"Smylie’s book documented a Mexican American’s experience during an era when there were no legal protections or due processes for us. Chepita’s tale takes place during the height of the civil war in South Texas. During this era, more Mexican Americans were hanged than the total number of blacks hanged. Chepita was one of those statistics and earned the dubious distinction of being the last woman hanged legally in Texas.

Chepita Rodriguez, an elderly Mexican American woman, lived near San Patricio de Hibernia in the 1830's. Chepita lived in the thicket near the Aransas River and earned her living by offering lodging to travelers. On August 23, 1863, a traveler, John Savage, supposedly stayed the night. Savage had gold from the sale of horses to the Confederate army in his possession. Some days later, Dora Welder and two slaves went to the river to wash clothes. Dora saw a gunnysack in the river with an arm protruding. When the Welder ranch hands pulled the gunnysack out of the Aransas River, they found John Savages’ body stuffed in the gunnysack. Later they found the gold downstream. When the sheriff, William Means went to interview Chepita, he found blood on the front porch of Chepita’s hut. Means felt he had enough evidence to arrest Chepita and her retarded handy man Juan Silvera on suspicion of murder since he found Savages’ body close to the hut and the blood on the front porch.

Sheriff Means kept Chepita chained to the wall under a lean-to shed at the back of the courthouse during the duration of the trail and her execution. She did not have a change of clothes but wore the same clothes since the arrest. Some of the towns’ people took pity on Chepita and brought her food. The trial lasted four days. Chepita was indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced to death during these four days. Chepita was executed one month later.

The trial caused the prejudiced attitudes to surface in San Patricio and the surrounding counties. In South Texas, the majority regarded Mexican Americans as less than human and not as valuable as farm animals or slaves. Some South Texans were outraged about a Mexican American killing an Anglo and tried to lynch Chepita on two occasions. "The Ranchero" a Corpus Christi paper ran an editorial praising the judge and the jury for their verdict: "Mexicans should not have the same rights in this state as Americans. We are decidedly pleased with our neighbors in San Patricio."

At the trial, Chepita pleaded not guilty. According to the records, Chepita responded in Spanish "No soy culpable," when questioned. The jury found her guilty and recommended mercy due to her age and the circumstantial evidence. Despite the recommendation, Judge Benjamin Franklin Neil ordered her executed on November 13, 1863. The judge would not have given a death sentence had Chepita not been Mexican American.

In 1889, a fire destroyed most of the court records from Chepita’s trail. The surviving written accounts of the trail describe glaring discrepancies and irregularities in the proceedings. In Texas and other southwestern states, the courts systematically excluded Mexican Americans from jury service. Therefore, Chepita did not have trial by a jury of her peers. The sheriff rounded up people off the streets for jury service. Four members of the trial jury were indicted for felonies, one for murder. The sheriff William Means who arrested Chepita served as the jury foreman. Conflicts of interest existed because the defense councils, the judge and prosecutor had convoluted business relationships.

The hanging took place during a rainstorm on November 13, 1863. It was a horrible spectacle. The force of the hanging did not break Chepita’s neck since she was frail. Instead, she strangled to death for what was a long time. Finally, the hangman cut her down and placed her in the coffin. Jack McGowan, an eyewitness heard groans from the coffin as the hangman lowered it into the grave. The hangman buried her body in an unmarked grave close to the hanging tree. Many of the locals felt the hanging brought a curse on their town. One citizen was reputed to say, "Tis a black day for San Patricio. We have brought a curse upon our town."

Chepita’s tale "shocked my father’s conscience." He felt outrage by the cruel treatment Chepita suffered at the hands of the law. In his opinion, the only form of redress was for the governor to pardon Chepita. I asked him what difference it made to Chepita if she received a pardon now. He replied that Chepita was not guilty and getting a pardon for her was the right thing to do."


It’s never too late to do the right thing.

Fred B. Ballí