The Murder Trial of Lastenia Abarta, 1881, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Lastenia Abarta’s testimony in her own defense at her murder trial in late April 1881 was unusual in that it was even offered, but her lengthy statement to the jury is a fascinating insight into what she claimed the nature of her tragic relationship with Francisco P. “Chico” Forster was before the 18-year old gunned down the paramour who was over twice her age.

Last night’s post ended with her account of the night at the Moiso Mansion hotel behind the Plaza Church below Fort Moore Hill when she yielded to his entreaties to join him in bed and threats to not marry her by having sex with him, yielding her virginity to the persistent suitor.

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The several excerpts here of Lastenia Abarta’s testimony in her late April 1881 trial for the killing of Francisco P. “Chico” Forster are from the 29 April edition of the Los Angeles Herald.

She said that, as he prepared to leave her at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning on 13 March, he told her that a hack driver would take her to the train station so she could go to Tucson, Arizona where he would marry her.  She replied that she would not do so until they were married first in Los Angeles.  After he said that was fine, as long as she went, he departed.

Abarta said she cried the remainder of the morning, could not eat a breakfast sent to her, and that “I felt sick and was so overcome with my feelings.” The hack driver who was to take her to the train station arrived in the early afternoon, but she refused to go until she saw Forster first.  Abarta said that, when the housekeeper came to clean the room she asked what was the matter and, upon being told Forster’s plan, the woman told Abarta not to go leave for Arizona until she was married (a point confirmed by testimony from the housekeeper, Mary Roberts.)

Forster stayed away all Sunday, she continued, and at 6 a.m. Monday the 14th, Abarta left the hotel and walked to her family’s home.  There, a sister answered the door and asked if Abarta was married and the reply was that it was expected that day.  Then, when she went to see her mother, who was in bed, Isabella Abarta broke down crying.  Lastenia said she told her “Mother, it is your own fault” for denying marriage to Forster, which led to Lastenia leaving the home.

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When Isabella asked her daughter if she married and got a negative answer, she told Lastenia, “if you are not married today I don’t want to see you any more.”  The latter asked the former to have one of her brothers sent to get a hack and, later in the morning around 10 or 11, Lastenia and her brother drove to the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Main Street looking for Forster.  He was not there, but she was told he was at a race track, perhaps the one at Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park, southwest of downtown.

On arrival at the track, Forster was found and, Abarta said, remonstrated with her, asking “What is the matter with you? What are you doing here?”  When she insisted on getting married, he told her he would return to the Moiso Mansion at 6 p.m.  On the way back, Abarta stopped at the office of John Trafford, an attorney and former justice of the peace, and told him her story.  Trafford asked if there were letters from him and she had her brother fetch them from the Abarta home and bring them to the lawyer.

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This was at about 1:30 p.m. and Abarta then went home and talked to her mother again, informing her that she was to be married at 6 p.m. as Forster told her at the race track.  Abarta then returned to the hotel by 3:00 and Forster showed up as promised, but produced a letter from Trafford and asked her why she’d been to see him.  Forster then laughed and exclaimed, “I don’t know what you want to do to me” and then left, claiming he had business to which to attend and that he would bring someone to marry them.

Yet, four or five hours later, when he came back to the Moiso Mansion with no one accompanying him, Abarta asked, “Mr. Forster, what are you doing with me?”  He stated again that he couldn’t find anyone at that late hour and asked her to join him in bed.  She refused, she stated, and sat crying when he told her he would marry her tomorrow and “he tried to embrace and kiss me.”

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Abarta testified that she “would have nothing to do with him” and sat up all night unable to sleep, while he did so and woke up at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning the 15th and left.  As he did so, he told her that at 11 a.m. a hack would come to take her to Trafford’s office “and I will meet you there to marry you.”  When she went there, however, Forster was not to be found.  Again, Abarta returned to her home, where her mother asked if she was married.  Lastenia stated, “I said no, and thought I would go crazy I felt so bad” as Isabella turned away.

Returning to Trafford’s office, Abarta asked him to come by the family home at Noon for advice fearing Forster would not marry her.  When the attorney arrived, he told her to seek out her wayward lover “and tell him he must marry you, that you are willing to go to El Monte or any place to marry you.”  Why El Monte specifically was mentioned isn’t known–maybe it seemed far enough “in the boonies” to be a quiet place for an elopement?

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This stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection, taken in the early 1870s, shows Commercial Street looking east from Main Street (it no longer exists in this section of town, though Commercial Street does go east of Alameda Street, which is at the end of this section).  Lastenia Abarta, who lived on Ducommun Street, to the south or right of Commercial, bought a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol from merchant John Liever on this street and a few hours later shot and killed Chico Forster in front of the White House, the aptly named light colored two-story building at the top right of the image, at the southeast corner of Commercial and Los Angeles streets.

Trafford then left and Abarta stated “I did not know what to do; I was nearly crazy.”  She then walked to Commercial Street, one street north of her family’s home on Ducommun, and to the gun shop of John Leiver “to buy a pistol to kill myself.”  When she returned home, she realized, she said, that she didn’t know how to use the .38 caliber Smith & Wesson, so she went back to the dealer to get a tutorial.  That done,

I went to the parlor at our house to kill myself, when my sister came in the room and said, “What is the matter, dear sister?”  I said, “I am very sad and only want to die;” then she told me “What can I do for you Lastenia?”

Hortensia Abarta then called for a hack so she and Lastenia could go find Forster and demand he follow through at last on his promise of marriage.  Driving to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, the sisters found he was not there, but was at a stable owned by Nick Covarrubias.  Arriving there, they asked a hand to find Forster who emerged.  Hortensia stepped out of the vehicle and insisted he get in, which he did.

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Once inside, Forster was asked by Hortensia whether he intended to marry Lastenia and he said, “Oh, yes, of course, I have promised her, I am going to marry her.”  He then told the driver to go the Plaza Church, but, upon stopping there, Forster suddenly instructed the driver to proceed to Ducommun Street, presumably to the Abarta residence.

Abarta testified, “as soon as he said that I did not know what to do” and the hack proceeded to go down Commercial Street.  Here, she continued,

Nothing was said then; all I remember was seeing Mr. Forster on the sidewalk [in front of the White House on the southeast corner of Commercial and Los Angeles streets] and hearing a shot and somebody holding me, then being in Trafford’s office and then in jail.  I did not know that Forster was dead until next day at 10 o’clock, when Mr. Wells [her defense attorney] told me.

Abarta then concluded her statement by noting “I have always suffered from hysteria at certain times of the month.”  This statement takes us to the next part of this post having to with the novel defense offered by the Abarta legal team, one never before used in Los Angeles (but, as we saw previously, was employed in the Mary Harris case of 1865 in Washington, D.C.).  So, check back tomorrow as we continue this fascinating story.


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