Boo!

In the, uh, spirit of the season, I left my usual haunts and went in search of San Patricio's legendary ghost.

October 2001By Comments

MOODY RIVER: Chipita died by the Nueces in 1863.
Illustration by Debbie Dreschler

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’d still like to see one. It’s like the lottery: I don’t even play, but I still wish I’d win. I’ll never waste a buck on a ticket to up my Lotto odds, but in honor of Halloween, I decided to boost the boo-factor in my life by seeking out a haunted Texas spot.

There’s no shortage of books devoted to Lone Star phantoms, from Lisa Farwell’s Haunted Texas Vacations to volumes on the topic by the prolific Docia Schultz Williams. And the Web sites! The Internet is apparently a medium made for ghost hunters. According to one site, I wouldn’t have to go any farther than my neighborhood Home Depot to encounter an apparition. Frankly, since every Victorian B&B worth its gingerbread claims at least one benevolent spirit, I’m surprised I’ve been able to avoid an ectoplasmic episode all these years. Then again, the skeptic in me doesn’t respond to tipped-over paint cans, fluttering lace curtains, and other easily explained phenomena. Maybe, I thought, I should find a specter with a solid résumé—one who achieved ghosthood by way of a historic event rife with injustice, terror, and body parts. The ghost of Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez seemed to fill the bill.

Chipita was convicted of the 1863 ax murder of John Savage, a Cotton Road traveler who had bunked at her “inn”—little more than a lean-to—on the Aransas River outside San Patricio. When a gunnysack containing Savage’s dismembered body was found floating in the Aransas the next morning, the sixtysomething Chipita was charged with murder. The motive was supposedly robbery—even though Savage’s sack of gold was found in the river as well.

The trial was not a model of impartial justice. William Means, the sheriff who had arrested Chipita, was the foreman of the grand jury. Indicted felons served on both the grand jury and the trial jury. The only words Chipita spoke in court were “not guilty.” And despite pleas to spare her life by both the jury that had convicted her and the townspeople, who believed she was protecting her illegitimate son, itinerant judge Benjamin Neal sentenced the elderly woman to death. She was put in chains and hanged a month later, on November 13, 1863. She rode to the gallows on the banks of the Nueces River atop her own coffin. At least one witness reported hearing moans from the pine box as it was lowered into the ground beneath the hanging tree (its exact location has been lost to time). Now, is this a reason to haunt a town or what? For generations area residents have claimed they’ve heard Chipita wail at night and seen her wandering the river bottom with the noose still around her neck.

I headed to tiny San Patricio, in flyover mesquite country about thirty miles northwest of Corpus Christi, in hopes of being scared silly. And since I had none of the highfalutin equipment recommended by serious ghost stalkers—no electromagnetic-field meter or infrared thermal scanner—I took along my strong and fearless husband, Richard, instead.

In his book Ghost Stories of Texas, folklorist Ed Syers christened San Patricio “the epicenter of perhaps the most haunted region in all Texas.” We soon discovered it’s also the epicenter of historical markers, counting no fewer than nine plaques along the main drag, FM 666(!). We read about the founding Irish families, led by impresarios James McGloin and John McMullen, who settled the town in 1830 in what was then Mexican territory and named it San Patricio de Hibernia, in honor of the patron saint of Ireland. We read about the battles fought here during the Texas Revolution and about the Texian soldiers buried in the old cemetery on the hill.

Chipita has her own marker of sorts: a primitive mural of the hanging painted on a wall inside the Old San Patricio Country Store and Saloon, one of two businesses in town. Perhaps this earnest homage accounts for the spirit’s reportedly frequent visits to the establishment. After serving us a couple of cold ones, barmaid Evette Best described Chipita’s typical shenanigans, like opening and closing the door of the freezer over and over. She also told us about a recent visit by a group of paranormal sleuths who, detecting an electromagnetic disturbance in the corner behind the pool table, focused a video camera on the spot to record any activity. Nothing happened, but when they played back the tape, it showed the light above the pool table—which had burned steadily during the taping—flickering off and on. This elicited only the slightest response on my internal juju meter.

Sunset was approaching, so we hightailed it to the cemetery, not so much to look for Chipita as to conjure a ghostly mood. Vandalized and overgrown, with clusters of yuccas, stunted mesquites, and weathered headstones dating back to the mid-1800’s, the cemetery wasn’t frightening so much as heartbreaking. We read the epitaphs of long-departed Sullivans, Doughertys, and McGloins. Then, as twilight fell, we realized we were not alone.

Actually, it was hard to miss the big blue van with the Texas A&M logo on the door, not to mention its six passengers wandering around the graves. One woman in the group strode toward us to find out why we were in the cemetery. We got to talking, as people do on windswept hills peppered with the dead, and it turned out that our inquisitor was Geraldine McGloin. “Yes, those McGloins,” she said, gesturing toward some nearby gravestones, “but I married in.” At that moment, she was as mad as the ghost of an unjustly hanged woman about the condition of her ancestors’ grave sites—not the McGloins’ but the Sullivans’ and the Doughertys’. As it turns out, Geraldine’s ties to San Patricio date back almost as far as her husband’s. Her great-great-grandmother Eliza Sullivan lived across the street from the courthouse during Chipita’s ordeal, and along with other sympathetic ladies in town, she took gifts of food and tobacco to the condemned woman. Chipita was hanged in a dress belonging to Eliza’s daughter Rachel.

And there’s more: Rachel married Robert Dougherty, who founded St. Paul’s Academy for boys in 1876 about two miles west of San Patricio. The white two-story Victorian building that housed the school still stands, well-restored and kept company by James McGloin’s 1855 clapboard home, also in amazing shape. Now stay with me here. The McGloin homestead has been turned into a field school for anthropology students from A&M, who have been uncovering ancient artifacts—like spear points dating back ten thousand years—from the banks of the nearby Nueces River. Geraldine’s companions in the cemetery were a group of students from the field school and their instructor, archaeologist Robert Drolet.

To me, this serendipitous meeting with such powerful links to the past was a hell of a lot more intriguing than flickering bar lights. Struggling to interpret a message behind it all, I decided I needed to spend some time by the river in the gathering dark. Richard had an equally compelling urge to return to the cool, bug-free saloon, but my, um, life force is apparently stronger than his and I got my way.

As fate would have it, we were staying nearby in a little Caribbean-flavored casita at Knolle Farm and Ranch, once the home of the world’s largest herd of Jersey cows and now a bed-barn-and-breakfast (you can take your horse). As guests we had access to the ranch’s stretch of riverbank, just across the Nueces from San Patricio. We parked on the bank beneath live oaks draped with Spanish moss and waited. And swatted mosquitoes. And stargazed. And waited. We talked about the horrors of Chipita’s ordeal, the infant graves in the cemetery, and the victims of the bloody revolution. We talked about the ancient ones and the mammoths they may have hunted with the stone spear points they left behind. And then we drove back to our rustic but comfy casita. Perhaps the window unit drowned out the cries of the spirits around us as we slept.

Knolle Farm and Ranch, FM 70, Sandia; call for directions (361-547-2546, fax 361-547-3934; knolle.com). A 1,200-square-foot cottage adjacent to the stables sleeps up to eight and starts at $160 a night; a small one-bedroom casita with kitchenette and living area sleeps two and is $125 a night (rates include a hearty breakfast delivered to your room); $20 per night per horse. Picnic lunches and gourmet dinners (think cold grilled salmon with cucumber sauce and beef tenderloin encrusted with peppercorns) are available by prior arrangement. Activities include horseback riding, skeet shooting, kayaking and canoeing, birding, and dove, duck, quail, and goose hunting in season.

Old San Patricio Country Store and Saloon, FM 666, San Patricio (361-547-5665).

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