On this day in 1974, union activist Karen Silkwood died in an automobile accident. Silkwood, born in Longview in 1946, was a laboratory technician at a Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation plutonium plant in Oklahoma. She joined the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and became the first female member of the union bargaining committee in Kerr-McGee history. On her first assignment to study health and safety issues at the plant, she discovered evidence of spills, leaks, and missing plutonium. As environmental concerns increased in the 1970s, Kerr-McGee faced litigation involving worker safety and environmental contamination, and Silkwood testified to charges before the Atomic Energy Commission that she had suffered radiation exposure in a series of unexplained incidents. She died en route to a meeting with an AEC official and a New York Times reporter. Speculations over foul play in her death were never substantiated, but an autopsy showed her body had been contaminated by plutonium, and Kerr-McGee eventually closed the plant. Her life was the subject of a motion picture, Silkwood, released in 1984.
On this day in 1863, Josefa (Chipita) Rodríguez was sentenced to death for the murder of John Savage in San Patricio de Hibernia. Rodríguez, for many years believed to be the only woman legally hanged in Texas, furnished travelers with meals and a cot on the porch of her lean-to on the Aransas River. She was accused of killing Savage while seeking to rob him of $600 in gold, but the gold was found in the river north of San Patricio, where Savage's body was discovered in a burlap bag. Nonetheless, she and Juan Silvera (who may have been her illegitimate son) were indicted on circumstantial evidence and tried before Fourteenth District Court judge Benjamin F. Neal at San Patricio. After Chipita pleaded not guilty, the jury recommended mercy, but Neal ordered her executed. At the time, Chipita was described as "very old" or "about ninety," but was probably in her sixties. At least one witness to the hanging claimed he later heard a moan from the coffin, which was placed in an unmarked grave, and her ghost is said to haunt the area, especially when a woman is sentenced to be executed. She is pictured as a specter with a noose around her neck, wailing from the riverbottoms. She has been the subject of two operas, numerous books, newspaper articles, and magazine accounts.
On this day in 1947, John Hill Westbrook, the first black student to play varsity football in the Southwest Conference, was born in Groesbeck, Texas. In 1965 he enrolled at Baylor University and tried out for the freshman football team as a running back. Despite racially motivated harsh treatment from some teammates and coaches, he earned an athletic scholarship. On September 10, 1966, in the fourth quarter of a game against Syracuse, Westbrook became the first black to play football in the Southwest Conference. He ran for lieutenant governor of Texas in 1978 and received 23 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. In 1983 Westbrook died in Houston at the age of 36.
On this day in 1855, preacher Mansell Matthews was invited to address the people of Rockwall, Texas, on "the evils of intemperance." Born in Kentucky in 1806, Matthews had become both a doctor and a Disciples of Christ minister by the time he moved to Texas in 1835. After settling his family and winning election as representative from Red River County to the First Texas Congress, he joined the Texas army and served as a surgeon until July 1836. He was at the battle of San Jacinto and attended the wounded Gen. Sam Houston. Matthews lived and preached in a succession of communities before his death in Wise County in 1891. The struggle against the consumption of alchoholic beverages, the subject of his talk in 1855, engaged Texans for many years, culminating in the temporarily successful Prohibition campaign of the early twentieth century.