The Cad Who Drove a Good Woman Mad

He was a rich 19th century Don Juan. She was the last woman he wronged.

She killed him with a single shot through the eye, delivered in broad daylight alongside a busy road in downtown Los Angeles. But what really convulsed respectable residents of the community was what followed: a trial in which her defense attorneys presented 12 male jurors with forensic evidence and expert scientific testimony that their client should be acquitted by reason of “menstrual madness.”

The story begins with Francisco “Chico” Forster, the handsome son of John Forster, Southern California’s richest land baron and a former L.A. County supervisor. At age 40, the younger Forster topped the list of the city’s eligible bachelors, but in fact, he was a rogue and an incorrigible womanizer with two illegitimate children and an attitude toward women that was callous even for the time.


His final victim was Lastania Abarta, a beautiful 18-year-old singer whose parents, Pedro and Isabel, ran a pool hall where their daughter sang and played the guitar. It was a place Forster frequented.

On March 14, 1881, the night before Forster had promised to marry her, Abarta was invited to sing and dance at a banquet given by Pio Pico, California’s last Mexican governor and the uncle of her secret fiance. At the time, Pico had just lost his Rancho Santa Margarita (now Camp Pendleton) to Chico Forster’s father in a famous lawsuit; he had lost the governorship decades before.

Needling Pico, Abarta created an instant scandal with improvised Spanish lyrics: “I salute your loving lips,” she sang, knowing how sensitive he was about his prominent mouth. But before anyone had time to react, she gave a mocking bow and ran off, into the arms of the man she loved. It was her farewell to the stage forever, or so she thought.

Thinking she was to be married in the morning, Abarta accompanied the charming Forster to the now-vanished Moiso Mansion Hotel, where he already had a room reserved. The next day--increasingly anxious over losing her virginity the night before and having no wedding ring, yet afraid to return home--she spent hours holed up in the hotel room, waiting in vain for Forster to return with a priest to perform the marriage ceremony.

At last, when Forster failed to show up by afternoon, Abarta sent for her sister, Hortensia, and together they scoured the city streets, determined to find the cad who had deceived and abandoned her.

To their dismay, they found him gambling his money away on slow horses at Agricultural Park--now Exposition Park. There wasn’t a priest in sight. Tearfully, Abarta demanded that they all ride together to the Plaza Church for a wedding.

But Forster stopped their carriage at Commercial and Los Angeles streets and got out. Both women followed.

“What are you going to do?” shouted Abarta. When he evaded her question, Abarta pulled a gun from her skirt pocket and shot him dead in front of several witnesses.

So popular was the dead playboy’s father that Los Angeles’ leading citizens hired a special prosecutor, the soon-to-be U.S. Sen. Stephen M. White, for $500.

Defending Abarta were two of the city’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys, G. Wiley Wells, a former consul in Shanghai, and John F. Godfrey, former city attorney. Together they saw a way to win this case that others thought a sure loser.

Prosecutors said the murder was premeditated and the motive was revenge. The defense argued that Abarta had been driven mad--not by disgrace, but by biology.

Nineteenth century American medicine--monopolized by males--had an obsession with what it viewed as female “hysteria,” which medical journals of the time linked to sexual deprivation and the malevolent influences of an oversexed uterus. Some popular medical theories even held that the mental strain of higher education would have dire effects on the natural development of women’s reproductive organs. By the 1880s, American physicians believed that female hysteria was epidemic in the land.

It was in that climate of misguided medical opinion that Abarta’s lawyers sought to build their defense. They began by producing as evidence the bloody bedsheets recovered from the hotel room the couple had shared the night before the shooting, thereby proving that their client, in fact, was an “innocent young woman.”

One after another, seven medical experts took the stand, most agreeing that hysteria was a uterine disorder brought about by irregular menstrual periods that “tended to disease the mind.” Some experts went further, testifying that Abarta’s behavior was a classic display of “hysterical symptoms"--fury, combativeness and paranoia.

One physician testified that Abarta’s condition was “unavoidable because her brain was undoubtedly congested with blood. . . . Disappointment is the great incentive to hysteria; disappointment in love is the great cause of insanity.”

But it was the testimony of Dr. Joseph Kurtz, a local physician of formidable reputation, that cemented the jurors’ decision. “Any virtuous woman when deprived of her virtue would go mad, undoubtedly,” he said.

The spectators applauded.

After a three-week trial, the all-male jury, swayed by Kurtz’s forthright testimony, took 20 minutes to find that Abarta had been insane at the time of the shooting.

Less than a year after his favorite son’s death, a dispirited John Forster died.

And Lastania Abarta left town about that time and dropped from sight forever.

Rasmussen’s new book, “L.A. Unconventional,” a collection of stories about Los Angeles’ unique and offbeat characters, is available at most bookstores or can be ordered by calling (800) 246-4042. The special price of $30.95 includes shipping and sales tax.