Jane Elkins, a slave convicted of murder, was hanged on May 27, 1853, in Dallas. She was the first woman legally executed in the state.
There might have been other women executed before Jane, but historians were not there to write it down. Most people don’t know about Jane.
According to information from her trial notes, she was convicted of killing her employer, a man named Wisdom. In some accounts his name is John Wisdom, in others he is referred to as Andrew Wisdom. He lived in Farmers Branch, a very small community near Dallas. In the 1850s, the population of Dallas was less than 2,000 people.
It is not clear who Jane’s owners were. Sometime during 1853, Jane was loaned out to Wisdom. He was a widower. Jane was supposed to take care of his home and watch over his children. One night, Wisdom laid down to sleep. While Wisdom slept, someone split his head open with an ax. His children were left unharmed.
After 160 years, we know little about the case. We know Jane pled “not guilty.” The trial was conducted by Judge John. H. Reagan, who would go on to become a U.S. Congressman. Reagan apparently felt no need for Jane to have a lawyer during her trial.
On May 16, 1853, Jane was convicted of Wisdom’s murder. The trial notes record that she had “nothing to say.”
“We the jury find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree. We further find that the defendant is a slave of the value of seven hundred dollars and that the owner of the defendant has done nothing to evade or defeat the execution of the law upon said defendant,” said the jury foreman R. Cameron on May 16, 1853. Two weeks later, Jane Elkins was hanged.
Some historians debate whether Jane Elkins was guilty at all, hypothesizing that fear of slave uprisings led to Jane’s wrongful conviction.
“In the previous decade, the cotton industry in North Texas Backlands had caused slavery to spread rapidly, and there had been regular alarms about real or feared slave uprisings. So the brutal murder of a white person immediately focused attention on any nearby slave— in this case, Jane,” wrote author Sherrie S. McLeroy in her book, “Texas Women First: Leading Ladies of Lone Star History.”
For many years, Jane Elkins story was lost to history. Historians did not even acknowledge she was the first woman legally executed in Texas.
For years, the dubious distinction of being the first woman hanged in Texas went to Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez, who was convicted of murder and hanged in San Patricio County in 1863. Joseph’s case also is filled with controversy.
Josefa moved from Mexico to Texas with her father when she was a young girl. Even when she was young, she was known for taking in travellers and providing them with a warm meal and a place to sleep. Years after her father’s death, she maintained this reputation. That is, until one of her guests was found dead with an axe in his head. Josefa was immediately blamed. Six hundred dollars worth of gold was found down the river from his body, giving the court enough evidence to believe that she had committed the crime to obtain his gold.
Despite her old age and frail body, Josefa was found guilty and hanged, becoming the first and only woman to be legally hanged in Texas in that time period. Her hired man – and suspected illegitimate son – was later put under scrutiny and assumed guilty of the murder, which led many to believe that Josefa let herself be convicted to protect her son.