by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With two days of testimony giving great detail of the personal relationship of 18-year old Lastenia Abarta with 40 year-old Francisco P. “Chico” Forster, including the elopement that went awry and ended with her shooting and killing him, as well as abundant testimony by local doctors about her alleged insanity due to dysmenorrhea, or severe menstrual cramps, the jury was given, on 30 April 1881, instructions by Superior Court Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda and retired for deliberations.
The twelve men (all Anglos—women could not sit on juries then) were away but twenty to thirty-five minutes, depending on the account, when they entered the hushed courtroom and were asked for the verdict. According to an account in the 1 May edition of the San Francisco Examiner, “the Courthouse was crowded to capacity, and at no trial for twenty years has there been so much interest shown as in the present.”
Then, the jury foreman, Marion Miller, “read in a strong and clear voice, ‘We, the jury in the case of The People vs. Lastina [sic] Abarta, find the defendant not guilty, by reason of insanity,” this latter being the transitory and emotional insanity argued by her defense team. It was also reported in the Arizona Weekly Citizen that Abarta, said to have remained entirely composed during the proceedings,
arose from her chair and extended her hands as if in gratitude to heaven for her deliverance, and then sank back and gave way to a fit of copious weeping.
The Examiner added that as Miller intoned the verdict, “the dense mass in the Courtroom yelled, cheered and applauded in the wildest manner” making it impossible for the foreman to get past the words “not guilty” until some calm was restored. Abarta then left, leaning upon attorney G. Wiley Wells. There was even a report that Abarta stopped by the police station to request the return of the pistol she used to shoot Forster as she left a free woman.
Papers around the country reported on the acquittal and reprinted a short telegraphed dispatch that included the statement, “she claims [Forster] seduced her under promise of marriage, and subsequently abandoned her,” as well as noting that, after acquittal, “Miss Abarta left the courtroom amid the vociferous cheers of the crowd.”
Headlines in some of these were much like those that appeared after the killing Forster several weeks before, including:
“Acquitted for Killing Her Seducer”
“Cheered By the Crowd”
“A Popular Verdict”
A few papers, however, added more to their accounts. For example, the 7 May 1881 edition of the Arkansas Valley Democrat, published in Great Bend, Kansas, departed from the script of other papers and embellished. It stated that after Forster “accomplished the ruin of his victim” by refusing to marry her and abandoning her at the hotel, “she grew desperate, and followed him to his death, by emptying a six-shooter into his worthless carcass.” Of course, there was just one shot fired.
Then, the paper concluded by asserting that “during all the time, she had so won the sympathy” of the citizens of Los Angeles that their cheers upon the verdict was because the crowd in the courtroom “admired her heroism in avenging the greatest crime inflicted upon womankind.”
The Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel of the same date, published in the seaside city west of San Jose, went into a lengthy statement of the events that led to the shooting and noting the cheers Abarta received after the verdict. The paper, however, then revised the scene of the shooting by claiming that, after Abarta shot and killed Forster, “the crowd said, as they inspected the pool of blood, said so as plain as looks, actions and side expressions can: ‘Served him right!'” There was, however, no reporting in Los Angeles or testimony in court about any such statements being made.
Then, there was the heights of impassioned prose offered by the Arizona Weekly Citizen of 8 May, which wrote that it might seem unusual that “a murderer should excite so much sympathy,” but claimed that taking a life was not the worst crime to commit. Rather, it was Forster who transgressed the furthest bounds of the law, adding,
A sudden death is not so greatly to be dreaded as the living death of a martyr to the greedy lust of man. Her whole existence is embittered by the deepest anguish and torture, and the divine mantle of charity gives way to the scorn of a selfish world. Volumes could be said in defense of the weak and confiding creatures whose lives are forever blasted by man’s perfidy, but to the thinking mind the extreme enormity of the offense will suggest itself, and for once they will regret the absence of a most thoroughly orthodox place of eternal punishment in which to consign the perpetrator of so great a crime.
While there was obviously a great deal of local and outside support for Abarta in the defense of her chastity and womanhood, there may have been at least one violent form of protest over the verdict rendered by the jury.
On 21 September 1881, the Los Angeles Herald reported:
A fire occurred at the residence of Mrs. Abarta night before last, which was extinguished by the family before much damage was done. It was evidently the act of an incendiary, as the back door and window were saturated with coal oil.
Another tangential item of interest came in late June 1883 when the Examiner published an account from Los Angeles of how 17 year-old Lena Junge and an electrician named Warren “became intimate and, under promise of marriage, she alleges, he seduced her.” The report was that Junge “asked him repeatedly to make good his promise,” especially after she learned she was pregnant.
When Junge called for him and, in front of her widowed mother, asked him again to marry her, the report continued, “he laughed in her face.” She grabbed him and he broke free “and choked her and her mother.” Junge “then drew a pistol and fired at him, but missed him” and she was disarmed. Taken to the police station, the young woman “owing to her delicate condition was allowed to go on her own recognizance” and told authorities she would rather be hung than laughed at by Warren.
The Examiner, noting that Junge was “respectably connected” and Warren “esteemed as a quiet and gentlemanly young man, observed that:
the affair has created intense excitement, as it is a less fatal repetition of the Foster [sic]-Abarta case.
Five months before the Junge-Warren incident, Abarta quietly married August Cazaux, a native of France who’d been running sheep in Los Angeles, at a ceremony at Mission San Gabriel.
In the meantime, it appears abundantly obvious that Abarta’s acquittal was a product of an all-male jury (deliberating in what was likely an all-male courtroom, except, perhaps, some audience members) sanctioning her actions as a defense of her virtue and womanhood against a predatory male, who used his considerable charms of seduction and promise of marriage (and also left his fiancee, Celina Abbott, in the lurch) to besmirch her character and leave her home in violation of time-honored codes of familial behavior.
It may well be that the defense tactic of pleading temporary/emotional insanity, due to what might be called now “pre-menstrual syndrome” or PMS and which had a precedent in the well-known Mary Harris case of 1865, provided ample cover for the jury to render its verdict on what was clearly extralegal grounds, if true.
No jury member was asked or offered to give their version of what transpired in the brief deliberations held after Judge Sepulveda gave them instructions. Whether it was a form of chivalry, the abundance of medical testimony or an unknown mixture of the two that swayed the jury, it is remarkable that Abarta, who was acquitted, according to the Examiner, because of insanity, was not confined to an institution, as Harris was for many years, but went completely free.
Tomorrow, we conclude this series with a postscript that traces what has been found about Abarta’s remaining years, so check back then!