The Murder Trial of Lastenia Abarta, 1881, Part Four

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In addition to the compelling and detailed testimony of Lastenia Abarta at her late April 1881 trial at Los Angeles for her shooting and killing of Francisco P. “Chico” Forster, there was also a significant and very interesting series of statements made by members of the town’s medical fraternity.

Their expertise was called upon by both defense and prosecution hinging upon something Abarta said at the very end of her testimony: “I have always suffered from hysteria at certain times of the month.”  Added to her claim that she could not remember the details of the shooting was the idea that “dysmenorrhea,” or severe menstrual cramps, caused a level of temporary insanity that drove her to commit the crime under intense duress.  This, in turn, made her incapable of understanding right from wrong and led to her plea of not guilty of murder.


abarta trial dr kurtz testimony herald_apr_30__1881_
The excerpts of testimony by Los Angeles physicians concerning Lastenia Abarta’s alleged insanity due to dismenorrhea are from the 30 April 1881 issue of the Los Angeles Herald.

Dr. Joseph Kurtz testified that he’d known Abarta for two years and “has treated her for a severe case of suppressed menses,” including intense headaches.  He then visited her while she was in jail after the Forster killing and said that, on 23 March, her nerves were frayed and she hadn’t slept for several days.  He then examined her and “found that she had recently ceased to be a virgin.”

Kurtz went into a lengthy statement about “impulsive insanity” and “cerebral disorders, especially those due to irregularity in the sexual peculiarities of the female.”  When Abarta’s attorney John F. Godfrey posed a hypothetical question, given these “irregularities,” and asked if the patient could lose their reason, the doctor answered that such an instance “would be to make her crazy.”  For a theoretical supposition about a likely suicide, that answer was that “a diseased brain” would be led to such an outcome.”  As to whether homicide could result, he replied in the affirmative.

abarta trial dr kurtz cross exam herald_apr_30__1881_

Under cross-examination by Stephen M. White, later a U.S. Senator famed for his role in the “Free Harbor Fight” involving the determination that the Port of Los Angeles would be the region’s major port, Kurtz “was consistent and positive” in his views expressed earlier.  White’s probing, however, was more about perceived conflicts among medical experts on the question of hysteria and insanity due to menstrual problems.  More significantly, the Los Angeles Herald, in its coverage, stated, “the evidence of Dr. Kurtz made a decided impression on the jury” and that

When Dr. Kurtz said he considered that any virtuous woman when deprived of her virtue would go mad undoubtedly, decided marks of applause were noticeable among the concourse without the bar.

He followed this by stating that Abarta several times in the doctor’s presence at the jail talked of suicide and that this “was evidence of insanity; he thinks she is actually insane.”

Dr. Kenneth D. Wise told the court that he knew Abarta for four or five years, acted as her doctor a few times in 1877 and 1878, and “treated her for dismenorrhea accompanied by pain in the head.”  He then went to the jail to see her a couple of days after she shot Forster and noted “she had a high pulse, loss of appetite, severe pain in her head, and was suffering from sleeplessness.”  He also noted that she was “an innocent girl up to within a very few days,” meaning she was no longer a virgin.

abarta trial dr wise herald_apr_30__1881_

Irritability, excitability and her nerves being “unstrung” contributed to what Wise thought was “mental aberration, due to the physical troubles from which she suffered.”  Because of these conditions, he determined, “she was irresponsible for the act” and that her mental health since Forster’s shooting was such that it “may well result in permanent insanity, unless the female trouble be relieved.”

The doctor continued that such a palliative “has hitherto been impossible because of her extreme modesty.”  He did not explain what this meant, but went on to note that, despite differences of opinion in the medical community about what distinguished hysteria and insanity, he offered that “disappointment is the great incentive to hysteria [and] disappointment in love the great cause of insanity.”

Reiterating that Abarta did not “know of her offense against God,” he added that “her brain was undoubtedly congested with blood.”  When Godfrey posed the same hypotheticals to Wise as he did to Kurtz, the answers were substantively the same, but with more elaboration.  White’s cross-examination was lengthy and intense, but did not yield any surprises or contradictions; in fact, Wise appeared “to chafe a little under what he chose to consider a needless repetition of questions leading to nothing.”  As with Kurtz, moreover, Wise’s comments left “a marked effect on the jury.”

abarta trial dr nadeau forster fiancee defense rest herald_apr_30__1881_
Note the testimony of Celina Abbott, whose father built the Merced Theater which still stands next door to the Pico House and who was the fiancee of Chico Forster.

Dr. Newton P. Richardson testified that four years before he treated Abarta for dismenorrhea “accompanied by hysterical spasms,” while Dr. Hubert Nadeau told the court that he treated her for the same problem in 1878.  This was about the same time that  Dr. Henry Worthington saw Abarta for the same condition three years prior and stated that “she was irrational and insane at that time,” though he said he only saw her on three occasions.  When recalled to the stand and given the hypothetical examples presented to Kurtz and Wise, he replied “in a generally similar manner.”

On cross-examination, White again pressed Worthington on the expert witnesses and the value of their testimony, but the doctor replied that he “actually has a case of homicidal mania produced by dismenorrhea” and that suicidal thoughts could spring from homicidal mania.  Worthington did allow, however, that “he was not very familiar with the subject.”

abarta trial dr ross for prosecution herald_apr_30__1881_

The prosecution called two doctors, including William W. Ross, but after saying that he’d heard testimony in the case, the defense objects on the grounds that he was not an expert. While Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda sustained the objection, he allowed further questioning to determine Ross’ knowledge of the subject.  It turned out that Ross was paid $50 by District Attorney Thomas Brown “to study up this case” some ten days before the trial, but claimed he had enough experience to testify.

The judge allowed further questioning of Dr. Ross, who made a decided distinction between hysteria and insanity and said, having treated cases of dismenorrhea, that, while he thought Abarta definitely suffered from it and “insanity might result,” it would not do so “in one so young.”  Moreover, he felt that she acted “from revenge” in shooting down Forster.  He also stated that a person would not go from being sane, to insane, and then revert back to insanity, if there previously weren’t prior bouts of insanity.

Ross, moreover, said he’d never known a Los Angeles doctor “who believed in emotional insanity till to-day” and said there was much disagreement among physicians concerning the existence of impulsive insanity.  Godfrey’s cross-examination included Ross admitting that emotional insanity could stem from disappointment and grief and that a loss of sleep or “sudden nervous shock” could cause this condition.  He, however, stated that someone firing a second shot (Abarta cocked her weapon after firing once but was prevented from pulling the trigger) could not be insane.

abarta trial dr ross 2 herald_apr_30__1881_

While Godfrey got him to define various types of insanity and mania, Ross again offered that he “does not think the defendant was insane or suffering from dementia of any kind” and that Abarta was capable of knowing right from wrong.  Then again, he admitted he had not seen or examined the defendant.

The other medical expert put forward by the defense was county physician Joseph Hannon, who said that, in four years in his position, he treated over 100 persons said to be insane, though he’d not paid much attention to this condition previously.  Hannon averred that divisions of insanity were arbitrary and that the concept of emotional insanity was not universally admitted by doctors.

Hannon had not treated a case of emotional insanity and stated that “insanity in women does not generally depend on sexual diseases,” though the few cases of “insanity due to uterine trouble” almost always happened at menopause.”  He also had never seen insanity result from dismenorrhea, though delirium might, and his cases of the disorder did not include either.  Unlike Ross, Hannon did visit Abarta at the jail and, though he prescribed morphine for her insomnia, she “did not seem to be insane.”

abarta trial dr hannon herald_apr_30__1881_

It is notable that, to the Herald, the testimony of Kurtz and Wise that Abarta did suffer from insanity due to dismenorrhea and that this would exonerate her in terms of her understanding the difference between right and wrong made an observable impression on the jury.  More telling is the applause that arose when Kurtz talked of insanity arising from the loss of virtue in a woman.

Ross may have been more than suspect in the eyes of the jury (and others in the court) because he was paid to read up on the case and the issues at hand, though Hannon, being the county physician and who did examine Abarta in jail, likely had more credibility.  But, with five doctors who all testified to having treated the defendant in the years prior to the Forster killing and three stating that she was insane due to dismenorrhea, this could well have easily overridden the effectiveness of the prosecution’s experts.

Tomorrow, we’ll pick up the story with the verdict and what may have swayed the jury most in its decision.


Leave a Reply