by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After her acquittal in the late April 1881 trial on charges of murdering Francisco P. “Chico” Forster, Lastenia Abarta returned home to live with her mother and several siblings and receded into obscurity. The story of her and the dramatic shooting of her much-older paramour occasionally was revisited in the press, but Abarta quietly lived the remainder of a very long life.
In January 1883, she married August Cazaux, a native of France who ran sheep near Los Angeles, at the Mission San Gabriel. As a side note, Mary Harris, whose killing of her former suitor, Adoniram J. Burroughs at the federal treasury building in Washington, D.C. and subsequent acquittal on the defense that she was insane due to dysmenorrhea provided precedent for Abarta, also married that year.
In November, Harris, who spent much of 18 years confined in an insane asylum in the nation’s capital, wedded Joseph Bradley, her lead defense attorney. Bradley was twice the age of his second wife, she being about 40 and he 80 when the nuptials were held. The marriage did not last long, as Bradley died four years later in 1887.
As for Harris, she, too, lived in obscurity, though the last that could be found of her was in 1901, when an article talking about her killing of Burroughs and her acquittal mentioned that she was living in a decrepit boarding house in the northwest part of Washington, D.C. Her whereabouts after that were not determined.
Abarta, by contrast, remained married for decades and moved significantly up the social scale in her future homes. By 1885, she and August relocated to El Paso, Texas, where he became a partner in a meat market, later owning his own establishment, called the Union Market. In late 1886, Yda Addis, who lived for years in Los Angeles and went through turbulent romances with older men herself including ex-Governor John Downey and a Santa Barbara newspaper publisher, went on a trip to Mexico and encountered Lastenia in El Paso. Two years later, Lastenia’s sister, Hortensia, who played a vital role in the Forster incident, was married in San Diego to Frank W. Brown, publisher of an El Paso newspaper and moved to that city.
Meanwhile, August Cazaux was becoming a well-known “turfman,” to use an expression of the era, not unlike Forster in having a vital interest in race horses and also was developing important connections in Mexico and Central America, increasingly spending more time in those regions cultivating those relationships. By 1889, he and Lastenia moved to Mexico City, though they occasionally returned to visit El Paso to see Hortensia and friends or for August to conduct business.
In November 1897, there was an interesting article about August’s recent return from Guatemala, where he’d befriended a wealthy banker, Juan Aparacio, and was involved in horse ranching. Aparacio was executed by a firing squad during political turmoil in that country and there were rumors that Cazaux, who was jailed with his banker friend, would share his fate, but he was freed and left the country.
Cazaux had a riding stable in Mexico City, importing Kentucky horses for sale there. Over time, however, he was said to have been owner of a department store and was involved in banking. He was also known as a successful car dealer, first selling Italian-made automobiles and then working with the American Motor Corporation as their first licensed dealer in Mexico.
This happened in 1912, just after the overthrow of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz, who’d been in power for over thirty years. Not long afterward, there were reports that Cazaux had been arrested and was to be executed by agents of President Francisco Madero, who came to power after working to oust Diaz. Cazaux managed to escape that situation and Madero was soon overthrown and assassinated.
Despite political turmoil such as this, Cazaux prospered and he and Lastenia and their several children lived in the fashionable Chapultepec neighborhood of the nation’s capital. In fact, in 1930, Hortensia Abarta Brown went to Mexico City to visit Lastenia and was given a luncheon in her honor by Madero’s widow and attended by notable women in the capital.
Hortensia made several subsequent visits there which were reported on in El Paso newspapers, including descriptions of meetings with prominent Mexican figures and attending the inauguration of Mexico’s president, Manuel Avila Camacho, in 1940, during which Hortensia stayed at Lastenia’s new home in the Chapultepec neighborhood. When Lastenia’s granddaughter, Etta Cazaux, was married in 1943, attendees included former president Pascual Ortiz Rubio and Porfirio Diaz, Jr., the son of the former dictator.
Lastenia, who survived her husband by several years, died of pneumonia and heart failure on 30 January 1947 in Mexico City at the age of 84. She lived more than sixty-five years after her killing of Forster and the dramatic acquittal in her trial and, unlike Mary Harris, rose to a position of wealth far removed from her humble origins in Los Angeles.
Her story is a notable one for so many reasons, not the least of which is what she went through as a young Latina who was led to leave her home, a traumatic step, to elope with a much-older Chico Forster and, facing ruin and, evidently, mired in transitory, emotional insanity, took his life.
Her defense of insanity due to dysmenorrhea (basically, a PMS defense) seemed plausible to many in the courtroom, including the jury, at her trial, though it looks as if her acquittal was based perhaps much more on sympathy for her plight as an abandoned, abused young woman by a seducing, manipulative, predatory much older paramour.
In the MeToo era, moreover, this is a particularly notable story as women are now bringing more attention to issues of harassment and abuse and Abarta’s from nearly 140 years ago does have a significant degree of relevance to modern conditions.