The Murder Trial of Lastenia Abarta, 1881, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the three-day court proceeding at the end of April 1881 to determine her fate after she was charged with the murder of Francisco P. “Chico” Forster, Lastenia Abarta took the unusual step of testifying in her own defense.

The 18-year old gave her story in Spanish, translated into English by Eulogio de Celis, Jr., a well-known local citizen, and started by stating that she’d met Forster, who was more than twice her age, at a Mexican Independence Day celebration three years prior.  That day, he asked her to take a photograph with him (something of a forward request for an initial meeting) and Abarta said she could not do so without consent of her mother, Isabella.

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Finally, after several supervised visits at the Abarta home on Ducommun Street (which now exists only east of Alameda, but then went to Main), she got permission and she and two sisters went to the gallery of Abarta’s brother-in-law, Francis Parker (a few of whose photos are in the Homestead’s collection) to have the image, which was presented as evidence, taken.  Once this was done and this being about a month or two after they’d met, Forster asked Abarta to marry him.

The young woman then told her passionate pursuer that she was engaged to Francisco P. Ramirez, an attorney who’d, as a teen, published the first Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles, El Clamor Público.  This was an arrangement avidly pursued by Abarta’s mother and Forster told her, “don’t marry that black Indian,” referring to Ramirez separately as a “monkey.”

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Shortly afterward, Francisco Pico, Forster’s cousin (his mother was Isidora Pico, sister of ex-governor Pío Pico—Forster’s middle name was Pío), invited her to the reopening of the Pico House hotel, built in 1869 on the Plaza but which always struggled to be financially viable.  Abarta and her sisters joined Pico and Forster for dinner and then to a ball at the hostelry.  When he went to San Francisco the following day, he requested a photo of her.

 

After a month in the City by the Bay, during which he wrote and again told her he wanted to marry her, he returned and sent flowers.  Several visits followed and, when he requested to take a carriage ride alone with Abarta, her mother informed Forster that she could only do so when she was married.  He replied, “I want to marry her; I want to be happy,” but it was three months, she continued, before she saw him again.

When he returned, it was through a very romantic convention: the serenade, including the translator, de Celis, and another man.  Once more, she said, he told her he wanted to marry her and then left for Tucson, Arizona, at which she wrote him saying that “if you don’t come soon, I will marry Mr. Ramirez, and I don’t want to.”  Though Forster came back to Los Angeles, Abarta’s mother forbade him from entering the house.  At this rebuke, the persistent suitor sent flowers and a note, which she destroyed, telling his paramour that they should elope and he suggested they go to Tucson for this purpose.

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This led matters to the Wednesday before the killing and note that the timeline does not appear to be three years, but, rather, about that many months, suggesting they met on 16 September 1879.  On that evening, Forster came to the house and Abarta said her mother was in the kitchen and a sister present in the parlor, when, once more, he pressed her on marriage.  That night, Abarta sent Forster a letter saying she would go away with him on Friday “if he came himself in the carriage for me, and would at once marry me.”

She then produced that note as evidence and at midnight Friday (that is, Thursday night/Friday morning), Forster arrived, while his uncle Pío Pico was at the Abarta home, and met his young lover on the porch, showing her a marriage license and asking if she would marry him.  They arranged to leave the home together at 6:30 that Friday evening and did so, taking a carriage to the Southern Pacific railroad depot north of the Plaza where Los Angeles State Historic Park is today.

SV 4361 Pico House From The Hill Los Angeles 2009.260.1.1
An 1870s stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection showing the area near the Los Angeles Plaza.  At the center right is the long three-story Pico House hotel, built by Chico Forster’s uncle, ex-governor Pío Pico and for a reopening of which Lastenia Abarta was invited and spent time with Forster as he avidly pursued her.  In the foreground center is a two-story structure with four chimney stacks.  This is the Moiso Mansion hotel, where Forster took Abarta on promise of marriage once she eloped from her home shortly before she shot and killed him in mid-March 1881.

Yet, the carriage then stopped and returned to the Plaza area, stopping on New High Street, now part of Spring Street, behind the Plaza Church at the Moiso Mansion, formerly the Cape House, a small two-story white framed hotel.  The proprietor was not in, so the couple drove down to Spring Street, which was then south of Temple, and went to another lodging house, but that proved unsuccessful as well (Abarta stayed in the vehicle throughout.)  Finally, they returned to the Moiso Mansion and checked in.

Mary Moiso, the owner of the hotel, separately testified that Foster checked as “man and wife,” and Abarta said she was brought into the building and to a room.  She said that, immediately, she told Forster she wanted him to find someone to marry them, to which he replied he’d go out and do so.  Yet, after several hours out and at about 11 p.m., he returned saying it was too late to procure someone to hold the ceremony.

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Abarta started to cry and lament about what had transpired and Forster, she continued, told her “we are just the same as if we are married” and “offered to kiss me.”  When “he tried to embrace me and I repelled him,” he undressed, locked the door, and climbed into bed, beckoning for Abarta to join him.  She answered that she would not do so until they were married and would rather die otherwise.  By then it was about midnight and a couple of hours later, she testified, he went away, saying he would marry her later that day, Saturday.

All that day, Abarta remained in the room at the Moiso Mansion, saying “I felt so ashamed and so frightened” but that she thought he would return and fulfill his promise.  Finally, eighteen hours later, at 10 p.m., he did come back and told Abarta he’d been busy and “could not bring anyone to marry us.”  Once again, he locked the door, repeated that they were as good as married, telling Abarta, she stated:

What are you going to do about this?  You have staid [sic] here all night and all day, and your reputation is gone; he then told me if I would not come to bed with him he would not marry me.  I commenced to cry; then he said, “it is best for you to come to bed with me, and if you do I will marry you sure tomorrow;” I was crying all the time; I loved Mr. Forster, and was afraid he would not marry me if I did not do as he wanted me, and finally consented and went to bed with him . . . I staid [sic] with him until morning; he left at 2 a.m. Sunday morning.

With that, Lastenia Abarta had sealed her domestic fate, meaning she’d left her home without permission on an elopement, gone to a hotel room with Forster, and had sex with him, surrendering her virginity—all of which were sacred to the chastity of young women.  There was no turning back and now the question was whether the much-older Forster would follow through on the promise that lured the teenaged Abarta to take such a drastic step.

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Tomorrow, we continue with the detailed testimony of Abarta and the tragic and dramatic ending of her relationship with Chico Forster.

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