by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon’s presentation, the first in this year’s “Female Justice” series dealing with woman and criminal justice, on the trial of Lastenia Abarta in 1881 went into some detail about this rare instance of woman facing charges of murder in 19th century Los Angeles. While the circumstances of Abarta’s shooting of Francisco P. “Chico” Forster were certainly notable, it was the main defense strategy that proved novel for a court proceeding in the city, though there was a precedent.
As noted in a preview post earlier this week, there was a shooting at the treasury building in Washington, D.C. at the end of January 1865, in which Mary Harris gunned down Adoniram J. Burroughs and claimed that she’d been promised marriage and accused of improper relations with her older paramour.
Her trial, held over two weeks in July, was a sensation for both the circumstances of their relationship and for her defense, which was that she was rendered insane by dysmenorrhea, or extremely severe menstrual cramps. The jury ruled that she was innocent by reason of insanity and Harris spent much of the next eighteen years in insane asylums in the nation’s capital.
In a surprising twist, Harris married her defense attorney, Joseph Bradley in 1883 (she was about 40 and he was 80), though he died four years later. Harris, occasionally remembered in later news articles for her slaying of Burroughs, was living in a boarding house in Washington as the 20th century dawned, but her whereabouts afterward are elusive.
With regard to Abarta, an inquest was held within an hour of the killing and the main testimony came from William Reavis, a carriage “hack” driver, and stable owner Nick Covarrubias. Reavis conveyed Abarta, her sister Hortensia and Forster through town, first at the Plaza Church and then to Commercial Street at Los Angeles Street and stopped as Forster exited followed by the sisters, shortly after which the shooting occurred. Covarrubias testified at length that Forster told him he never intended marriage to Abarta and told him it was “a put-up job.” He also claimed he heard Abarta admit that Forster never proposed to her.
The inquest verdict was, as typical to form, that Forster was shot and killed by Abarta, who was then indicated several days later on a charge of murder and a trial date established for 28 April in the Superior Court, Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda presiding. Meanwhile, brief summaries of the incident were telegraphed around the country, with newspapers using the copy sent to them, which invariably stated that she claimed Forster seduced her on a promise of marriage and offering telling headlines, including:
“A Girl Shoots Her Betrayer Dead”
“A Wronged Woman’s Revenge”
“Shot Her Betrayer”
“Got His Deserts”
“A Girl Murderer: Lastania Abarta Kills Her Seducer”
On 28 April, as scheduled, Judge Sepulveda’s court was convened and the Abarta case brought up for trial. She was represented by two attorneys, G. Wiley Wells and John F. Godfrey, while District Attorney Thomas B. Brown and his assistants Theodore Lynill and Stephen M. White, later famous as a United States Senator in the “Free Harbor Fight” of the 1890s, formed the prosecution. Jury selection occurred rapidly, being finished in 2 1/2 hours and the twelve, all-male, all-white jurors were seated.
After a recess, the case resumed. Witnesses for the prosecution included Reavis and others who were present at the shooting. One said that some unidentified person called out “You’ll never ruin another woman.” The coroner, Henry Nadeau, testified about his holding of the inquest at the morgue and he added that Abarta declined to testify and had counsel present. The gunsmith who sold Abarta the .38 caliber Smith and Wesson testified that the transaction took place at around 2:00 or 3:00 the afternoon of the killing and, on cross-examination, added that she returned to seek instruction on how to load the weapon.
After these prosecution witnesses finished, the defense asked for a brief recess, after which Godfrey told the jury that Abarta “was incapable of judging between right and wrong” when she killed Forster. He mentioned that the relationship between the deceased “will be fully brought out” during the trial. He said that, a year or so earlier, Forster began to court Abarta, but that her widowed mother, Isabella, wanted her to marry attorney (and former newspaper publisher) Francisco P. Ramirez.
Forster’s persistence paid off, Godfrey continued, as he convinced Abarta to leave her house and come with him to get married, taking her to the Moiso Mansion hotel “under pretence of desiring to be married there.” The attorney added that Forster “desired to remain with her, as her husband” but was “foiled in his purpose” and left the hostelry. The next evening, however, “using threats and promises,” he “prevailed upon her to grant him the privileges of wedlock” and evidence would show that “she was an innocent girl” before she had sex with Forster.
He wanted, Godfrey said, to take her to Tucson, Arizona and Abarta refused, returning home to tell her mother what transpired and then buying the weapon to commit suicide. Forster was sought out and found, promised marriage again and got the hack driver to go to the church and then “told him to drive elsewhere.” When the final confrontation took place, though, the attorney told the court “she had no thought of killing Forster; the pistol was discharged accidentally” and she remembered nothing of the shooting.
Then came the key point of Godfrey’s statement:
It will also be shown that the defendant is subject to hysteria at certain times of the month and is then subject to great physical and mental perturbation.
At this, a striking part of the defense strategy was employed: having Lastenia Abarta testify in her own defense. As the Los Angeles Herald expressed it, “the defendant . . . moved slowly and composedly to the witness box, where she was sworn to tell the truth.” Prominent local citizen Eulogio de Celis, Jr. was sworn as the interpreter and the defense began its interrogation of Abarta.
The length and extraordinarily interesting content of Abarta’s testimony forms the second part of this post, which will continue tomorrow.