Female Justice Preview: The Cases of Lastenia Abarta and Mary Harris, 1865 and 1881

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Sunday the 27th at 2 p.m. at the Homestead, we kick off our four-part lecture series “Female Justice,” with a remarkable, fascinating, but generally little-known criminal case from Los Angeles that took place in spring 1881.

The trial was of Lastenia Abarta, an 18-year old resident of the city, who, in mid-March, shot and killed the 41-year old Francisco P. “Chico” Forster, son of prominent rancher John Forster and Isidora Pico, sister of ex-governor Pío Pico (who happens to be buried in the mausoleum at El Campo Santo cemetery here at the Homestead), who courted the young woman for several months, over the objections of her widowed mother.

A photo of Lastenia Abarta, taken about the time of her killing of Francisco P. “Chico” Forster, from a photograph owned by Mike Abarta and published in Paul Bryan Gray’s article “Searching for Miss Abarta,” published in The Branding Iron in 2000.

The shooting, which took place in broad daylight on a street in town, involved claims of a promise of marriage by Forster towards Abarta, her leaving her home (which meant she basically left her widowed mother and siblings and could not return) to join him at a local hotel, and his seduction of her.

When Forster dallied for a couple of days and did not follow through on marrying Abarta, she bought a gun, which she said was to commit suicide because she was dishonored in the eyes of her mother (Abarta was engaged to Francisco P. Ramirez, a teenaged newspaper editor in the 1850s and an attorney at the time, but did not want to marry him.)

chico forster
Francisco P. “Chico” Forster, suitor of Abarta whose dallying in a promise of marriage after seduction of the teenaged girl, prompted her to shoot and kill him in broad daylight on a Los Angeles street in March 1881.  From the Thomas Anthony “Tony” Forster Private Collection and reproduced in Paul Bryan Gray’s Forster vs. Pico: The Struggle for the Rancho Santa Margarita (Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Company,) 1998, p. 229.

With the help of younger sister Hortensia, Abarta tracked down the wayward Forster at a nearby stable and the siblings entreated him to marry Abarta at once.  After driving the streets of Los Angeles for a period of time, Forster ordered the carriage stopped, stepped out and started to walk away, followed by Hortensia and Lastenia.  The latter then produced the pistol and fired.  Despite her professed lack of familiarity with guns, Abarta hit her mark sending a fatal bullet through Forster’s right eye, killing him instantly.

Indicted for murder and pleading not guilty, Abarta went to trial at the end of April and produced a highly novel defense, the first of its kind in Los Angeles legal history, but one based on an earlier precedent.  This one took place across the country in our nation’s capital fifteen years earlier and had a number of striking similarities.

abarta kills forster herald_mar_16__1881_
Part of an article on Abarta’s killing of Forster, Los Angeles Herald, 16 March 1881.

Mary Harris was a teenager in Burlington, Iowa, a town on the Mississippi River bordering Illinois, when she met an older dashing man with the fabulous name of Adoniram Judson Burroughs.  He courted her assiduously, despite the objections of her parents, promising marriage.  Their relationship caused Burroughs to forfeit membership in the town’s Baptist Church and he left for Chicago.

While there, he wrote to Harris asking her to come to the Windy City and she took employment as a store cashier.  When he sought to form a Union Army volunteer regiment to fight in the Civil War, he promised marriage if it didn’t work out and he would take her to California.  He did succeed in forming the regiment, suffered an injury and was discharged.

mary harris chicago_tribune_feb_1__1865_
Coverage of the shooting of Adoniram J. Burroughs by Mary Harris on 30 January 1865 in circumstances bearing similarities in terms of promised marriage and a purported betrayal of family, Chicago Tribune, 1 February 1865.

Rather than marry Harris, however, who, she claimed, tried to make an assignation in a place she referred to as “the most notorious in Chicago,” Burroughs left the city for a job in the federal treasury office in Washington, having married another woman.  Jilted and the subject of rumors, she said, that she’d dishonored herself with Burroughts (she claimed there were no illicit relations), Harris bought a gun in Chicago, later saying she didn’t even know how to load it, and headed to the nation’s capital looking to reclaim her reputation.

At the end of January 1865, just a few months before war’s end, Harris confronted Burroughs in the halls of the treasury building and, without a word, fired two shots, one taking effect and mortally wounding Burroughs, who died a short time later.  Harris was arrested, jailed, and charged with murder.

mary harris trial headline national_republican_jul_8__1865_
Blaring headlines in the early stages of Mary Harris’ trial from the [Washington, D.C.] National Republican, 8 July 1865.  Harris’ defense, the first of its kind in America, was replicated in the Abarta trial sixteen years later to a similar conclusion.
In a sensational two-week trial that July that made headlines around the country, Harris, who pled not guilty, made a sensational claim of her innocence due to insanity based on a medical condition not previously acknowledged (and which has remained controversial in the 150 years since) as a determining factor in a case like hers.

Now, we can’t just go ahead and give the whole story away, now can we?  After all, this is a preview thinly disguised as a blatant teaser for “Female Justice,” so, if you want to know the whole kit and kaboodle, reserve a spot for this Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Homestead and “The Murder Trial of Lastenia Abarta, 1881.”

You can make your reservation right here and we hope to see you there!



Leave a Reply