1878, Los Angeles, California was a very different scene than L.A. is today. It was always a party if you were among the Spanish elite, but it was also the Victorian Era and a virtuous reputation was essential for both men and women. Chico Forster, a wealthy handsome man, fancied himself a Lothario. His family was among the 1% of Spanish royalty in California. In reality, he was a cad. He seduced unsuspecting women, he was a gambler, had two illegitimate children, and had a dark reputation among his peers. No matter. A man with money rules the world. He was always able to find female companionship. Very cruelly, his biggest conquest was 18-year-old Lastonia Abarta. Abarta was in a very different social class than Forster. Her father owned a billiard saloon. They were lower-middle class people. As soon as Forster set his eyes on Abarta he hatched a nasty plan to bed her. Knowing that a young, single woman in the community was a virgin he looked at her as a tempting conquest. For Abarta, her virtue was the only treasure she owned. If it was taken from her, she would be shunned by society. To add insult to injury, Abarta was already engaged. Abarta’s mother, Isabel, was no fool. She knew of Forster’s reputation and ordered him to stay away from her beautiful daughter.
Forster however was a very selfish man. He wanted every woman he saw and he would stop at nothing to get them. Forster told Abarta that her fiance was a “monkey” and called him a “dirty idiot.” Abarta was intrigued by his attention but refused to become his mistress. Forster countered by promising to wed her. In reality, he only intended to bed her. On the night before her supposed wedding to Forster, Abarta was invited to sing and dance at a banquet given by Pio Pico, California’s last Mexican governor. He was also the uncle of her fiance. At the time, Pico had lost his Rancho Santa Margarita to Forster’s father in a famous lawsuit. The week before, on a Friday evening Forster conned the beauty into “eloping” with him in Tucson, Arizona. Forster brought a marriage license with him to prove his intentions were honorable. Finally, Abarta relented. A proposal of marriage in the 1880s couldn’t be broken. People kept their word in this era. Abarta was inexperienced and young. Tragically, she believed this joker. Now Abarta sat singing and needling Pico with improvised Spanish lyrics: “I salute your loving lips,” she sang, knowing the proud man was sensitive about his prominent mouth. She gave a mocking bow and ran into the arms of the man she loved. It was her farewell to the stage forever so far as Abarta was concerned. (The woman pictured is Ysidora Pico, daughter of Pio Pico). The resemblance to her father is in the shape of her mouth. It is this feature that Abarta mocked the night she left with Forster.
Forster booked a suite in a beautiful hotel. He assured Abarta they weren’t going to engage in sexual relations but merely rest. He promised her on the following day they would be wed.Forster kept Abarta locked in the hotel for three days. He threatened her that if she didn’t submit to him then he wouldn’t wed her. As far as I’m concerned that was rape. Abarta reluctantly gave in and he happily deflowered the poor girl. As soon as he was done, he zipped up his pants and informed her in a haughty manner he certainly wouldn’t be marrying her. She was nothing to him now. His mission was complete. Abarta was finished. Abarta was mortified when he abandoned her. She became desperate with shame and fear.
Returning home, she informed her parents that she had been bedded by Forster. Isabel’s response was to throw her precious daughter out of the house. Just knowing Abarta had been staying in a hotel with Forster was enough shame for the family. Think about that. This isn’t just about losing one’s virtue, otherwise known as rape. Her entire family rejected her (except her sister Hortencia, bless her). Abarta was suicidal. What did she have to live for? But wait! Hortencia had a plan. She would force the cad to make good on his promise. She refused to see her beloved sister an outcast. Don’t you wish you had a sister like that? Accordingly, on March 16, 1881, the two sisters went looking for Forster and found him in the company of another woman, naturally. She insisted he honour his promise. She hired a priest and found a church before she even found him. Aghast, Forster refused. He insisted her would return to Tucson with Abarta and marry her there. Riiight. Isn’t that what he said the first time? Forster stalled. He found another reason why he couldn’t wed poor Abarta.
Finally, Abarta snapped. If Forster wasn’t going to marry her, then he would suffer the same fate: she would ruin him. Abarta pulled out a gun and shot Forster in the right eyeball. You go, girl. As far as anyone was concerned, he got what he deserved. He destroyed Abarta’s life. His life was the price he would pay. Amazingly calm after the murder, Abarta displayed an “icy demeanor.” Of course, revenge has consequences and the poor girl was charged with homicide. Fortunately for Abarta, her lawyers came up with the genius to use her sex (that is her gender, not her relations with Forster which was firmly established) in her defence. Nineteenth century American medicine was dominated by female “hysteria,” which was linked to sexual deprivation and malevolent influences of an oversexed uterus. Say what? Abarta’s lawyers introduced evidence that she had indeed been a virtuous woman with the bloody bed sheets recovered from the hotel room. Dr. Joseph Kurtz, a local physician with a sterling reputation, sealed the deal when he testified that, “any virtuous woman when deprived of her virtue would go mad, undoubtedly.” In fact, “manual stimulation” by a medical doctor to stimulate “paroxysms” was often performed on patients. Nasty. The spectators applauded Kurtz’ diagnosis. Seriously. They bought into this crap. I’m not opposed to the jury’s final decision. It’s the perspective on women that makes me snort.
When you think about it though, we still have a version of female reproductive organs as a criminal defence today. I’m quite certain you’ve heard of it: PMS, or pre-menstrual syndrome. In Virginia (love the irony of the name) Dr. Geraldine Richter (keep in mind she’s a doctor) was charged with impaired driving and other crimes. The judge acquitted her based on the PMS defence. In Liverpool, England, 1994, a jury acquitted Jan Painter after she stabbed her husband to death with a kitchen knife. She claimed he slapped her and “impaled himself on the knife.” You know that old standby, “he fell on the knife.” Her lawyers testified that it was PMS that drove her to it. She was acquitted. That demonstrates how little men (and maybe women) understand about female sexual organs today. The charge was reduced from murder to manslaughter and she was released on probation as long as she also took progesterone. Years later she did commit other crimes when her dose reduced. Meh. I’m not buying it. There has been a similar case in the 1990s where a woman was completely acquitted of murder based on PMS. Now really, people. If PMS was a homicidal trait, more women would be offing people when good old “Aunt Flow” arrived. Still The American Psychiatric Association Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes Late Luteal Dysphoric Mood Disorder (premenstrual). The Blue Cross defines it as a disease. Wonderful. Menstruation isn’t a natural biological process anymore. Now it’s a disease. Anyhoo. Back to Abarta and Forster.
Abarta told the jury she couldn’t remember anything and as a matter of fact, they believed her. It was believed that women who lost their virtue went insane and couldn’t be responsible for their actions. Abarta was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She stood up, raised her arms over her head, and was surrounded by cheers. Her virtue restored, Abarta wed another man and “lived happily ever after.” Bless them both. And female hysteria aka PMS, of course.