Dishonor in Hawaii

On January 10, 1932, in Honolulu, at the funeral of a young Hawaiian man—or “boy,” as some still referred to him, though he was twenty-two at the time he was killed—thousands of Hawaiians turned out to mourn his death in the greatest public display of grief that had been seen in the Hawaiian islands since the burial of Hawai’i’s last queen, Lili’uokalani, in 1917. The young man was Joseph Kahahawai, familiarly known as “Joe.” He had been born on the island of Maui, in what we can assume were extremely humble circumstances, on Christmas Day, 1909. His parents were Catholics, but after moving to Honolulu, to the poor district of Kauluwela, when Joe was a small child, they divorced. He remained close to them both, but the divorce would have added to the displacement of the move, making it a rough transition from one world to another.

When he was a child, Joe’s origins clung to him and he was teased about being a country boy, though probably not seriously, or for long. He grew up to be a tall, powerfully built but soft-spoken athlete, a star boxer and football player, awarded a scholarship at St. Louis High School primarily for his performance on the football field, and he made a name for himself among the many fans of both sports on the island. But it was not for anything that he had done that Joe Kahahawai’s burial, in a small cemetery in the shabby district of Kalihi, was the occasion for such a public outpouring of powerful feeling. In fact, it was for something that he had not done; through no fault of his own, he had been swept into someone else’s fantasy of crime.

He had been accused, along with four of his friends, all of them young men of Hawaiian or Asian descent, of assaulting and gang-raping a young white woman, Thalia Massie, the wife of an American naval officer, Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas Massie. The five young men had been arrested on the basis of unsubstantiated and dubious statements, and brought to trial, at which the defense had made plain to the jury beyond any reasonable doubt that the accused men had not, and indeed could not have, committed the crime for which they had been charged. A series of obviously reliable witnesses could account for where they had been for virtually the whole of the evening in question. Thalia had been attacked and beaten by someone but, between her first hysterical version of what had happened to her and her testimony on the witness stand, had improved upon her story with each telling, altering it to include bits of overheard suggestion. In fact, without her glasses she was half blind, and according to her tale, her catastrophe had taken place in the dark, but once she had been told the number of the license plate of the car the young men had been driving she claimed to remember seeing it on the car into which…

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