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 she said she had been crammed—a car whose description she evolved to fit a detective’s suggestions.

At the trial the defense showed that the prosecution had distorted facts and manufactured and planted false evidence in its efforts to obtain a conviction. Professional medical and other opinions, some expressed at the time and some not divulged until later, agreed that in fact there had never been any rape at all. Just who attacked her and just why she claimed to have been raped remain unclear.

But well before the trial had begun it was obvious that the truth was not its real concern, or the law either. Its real concern was who mattered in Hawai’i. The accusation immediately became the occasion for assertions of racial, national, and class superiority by the dominant haole (white) oligarchy in Hawai’i, many of whose members felt their status and power were at stake in the trial. They were soon supported by many ignorant but excited people on the American mainland who read lurid and inaccurate accounts of the trial in the Hearst-controlled press.

Thalia Massie’s tale of rape, and the excited rhetoric it produced, might be compared with an account in Honor Killing by Russell Owen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who covered the Massie affair for The New York Times, of a conversation years later with “one of Honolulu’s prominent businessmen,” who told him that “when he was a boy, attending the exclusive school for white children in Honolulu, he and some of his friends used to find it lots of fun to take some Hawaiian girl out on a dark road at night and rape her.” There is no way of knowing now what part of the businessman’s story was fact and what part, like Thalia’s, was fantasy. But in the months just before the Massie trial a sailor had broken into the house of a fifty-seven-year-old Hawaiian grandmother and attacked her while she was sleeping. Twelve weeks earlier, after a teenage Hawaiian girl managed to fight off a rape attempt by a thirty-seven-year-old American sailor near Diamond Head, the man choked her, smashed her head against a stone wall, and beat her with a crank from an automobile. Both men were arrested by the Hawaiian police, but the Navy, as usual, demanded jurisdiction, and there is no record, in either case, of either man being called to account.


In his finely written and meticulously researched summary of the sequence of events that followed after Thalia Massie told her tale, David Stannard has given careful attention to the press: the two principal Honolulu papers, the Advertiser and The Star Bulletin, and the mainland papers from San Francisco to New York. In those days before easy telephone communication between the islands and the distant mainland, the American papers at times could make up the story and its characters to suit themselves. They tended to sensationalize details or fictions that might sell papers, playing to sure-fire provincial and racial prejudices. From what they had heard of Thalia’s story, some of them extrapolated a picture of the islands as a place unsafe for white women after dark. Raymond S. Coll, the vehemently racist editor of Honolulu’s Advertiser, the voice of Hawai’i’s ruling corporate interests, published an editorial during the trial in which he said, “Even among the cannibals of New Guinea or the aboriginal blacks of Northern Australia womanhood is safer than in this enlightened American territory….” He called for the recruitment of a “small army of special deputy sheriffs” to control the lurking bands made up of colored races: Hawaiian, Asian, and “half-breed.” Coll’s daily exhortations in this vein on his editorial page had their effect on the reporting of the mainland papers.

Another suggestion constantly made in editorials and letters to the press was for a military takeover of the islands. That was certainly not a new idea. There had been imperialist and military proposals along those lines since the post–Civil War negotiations in which Hawaiian merchants and sugar planters obtained a treaty that gave special status to Hawaiian sugar while ceding Pearl Harbor to the US government for use as a naval base. To the dismay of most Hawaiians, that treaty was ratified in May 1876; Pearl Harbor would subsequently become the largest concentration of naval power in the world.

At the time of the trial of the five young men charged with raping Thalia Massie, one of the most persistent and vehement voices demanding protection for the American sailors and officers stationed in Hawai’i was that of Admiral Yates Stirling. Stannard says of Stirling that “if his ‘first inclination’ …was to lynch the monsters who had committed such a ghastly crime, that reaction would have come as no surprise to those who knew him.” His preferred punishment, he said, was “to seize the brutes and string them up on trees.” Stirling had served in the American invasion of the Philippines in 1899, and Stannard writes that he “loved to boast” of the indiscriminate killing and general despoliation he and his troops had carried out there. Along one stretch of river, he wrote in his memoirs, “we burned the villages; in fact, every house for two miles from either bank was destroyed by us. We killed their livestock: cattle, pigs, chickens, and their valuable work animals, the carabaos…. It was after all war….”

Stirling believed that “the polyglot population in the [Hawaiian] Islands” should be controlled by military rule, and that “self-government in Hawai’i is a menace to the nation’s naval security in the Pacific Ocean.” In his zeal to have Hawai’i governed by a military commission, he made much use of his considerable influence in Washington, spreading horror stories about the islands and about the menace of lesser breeds who “call themselves Americans.”

Stirling was the most vociferous of the many military officers who shared his views. They talked as though sailors on shore leave on the island of O’ahu were in constant mortal danger from the hostile Polynesians and Asians. In fact, whatever the relations had been between Hawaiians and sailors from various other nationalities since the arrival of Captain Cook in the eighteenth century, they had deteriorated rapidly as a result of the behavior of American sailors since the buildup of the Pearl Harbor base after World War I. According to a report in the Honolulu Advertiser, a clash between Hawaiians and US sailors in 1919 had been sparked by sailors “applying the term ‘nigger’ to two natives who were sitting on their doorsteps playing ukeleles,” and other reports referred to the “innumerable references to ‘the niggers'” from these soldiers, sailors, and their officers when referring to Hawaiians.


Besides the military transients in Hawai’i, another recent arrival who rapidly took a prominent place in the hurly-burly surrounding the case was Thalia’s mother, Grace Fortescue, who, according to Stannard, brought up Thalia in a pretentious and vapid atmosphere. Stannard writes that whether or not Thalia and her sister Hélène believed the pretenses of Grace and her husband, “the Fortescue children in time adopted their parents’ display of self-importance and ancestral entitlement.” Grace herself had a surly disposition and a strong inclination to self-pity, intensified by alcohol, which she drank a great deal of. Grace and her husband, Granville Roland Fortescue, known as “Roly,” had been living off their family connections for years. Roly was the illegitimate son of Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle, Robert Roosevelt. The name Fortescue was a fiction. Robert Roosevelt’s mistress, Minnie O’Shea, had invented a dead husband who she claimed had fathered her children, and she called herself Mrs. Fortescue.

Grace’s father, a cousin of Alexander Graham Bell, was a millionaire living in Washington, with a huge country estate outside the city. Roly and Grace and their children managed to use the various Roosevelt and Bell residences as their own, and to get by with help from their relatives. They appeared frequently in the society pages, though their own income seldom amounted to much. “‘Grace would have been President if she had been a man,’ her father often said.” She was given to displays of imperious behavior. When Thalia’s husband, Tommie, called to tell her about Thalia’s account of how she had got her battered face, Grace and Roly were not living together.

Grace arrived in Honolulu within a month. The trial was still being prepared, and from the time she stepped off the liner she was one of the most vivid, if not the most likable, of the observers. Her racism, her sense of outrage, and her arrogance never fluctuated. Of all those who were swept into the wake of the rape story, she was the one who remained unscathed, ending up in Florida, where she took up water-skiing at age seventy-five; at eighty-seven, she tried parasailing in Acapulco, and she lived on to the age of ninety-five.

Among island residents, the man who brought most pressure to bear upon officials, press moguls, and business executives was Walter Dillingham, one of the land-holding corporate Big Five that ruled Hawaiian business and politics from the middle of the nineteenth century until the end of World War II. Besides lobbying US officials in person, he maintained other lobbyists in Washington. The notes for the twenty-fifth reunion of his Harvard class describe Walter Dillingham as being to Hawai’i what J. Pierpont Morgan was to New York. Dillingham once testified before Congress that “God had made the white race to rule and the colored to be ruled.”

Dillingham, as a matter of course, shared his contempt for lesser breeds with his friend Lorrin Thurston, the publisher of the Honolulu Advertiser, who had done what he could to stamp out the Hawaiian language, and in the 1890s had used his influence as a propagandist to bring about the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Dillingham had exploded with rage when he learned that the five young defendants had somehow managed to retain for their trial “the best attorneys in the islands,” even though privately, Stannard writes, “he and ‘many whites, as well as Hawaiians'” doubted that the men arrested were guilty. This, he said later, was because three of the men were Hawaiians, a “peace loving people” whose “sex relations have been more social than brutal…. Court records here show they have been particularly free from the stigma of rape.” He may also have known quite early that official medical reports denied that Thalia Massie had been raped at all. Still, he also said later that he thought the authorities should have “forced a conviction.”

Neither the local papers nor those on the mainland gave a coherent account of the incontrovertible demonstration that the defendants simply could not have done the things of which they had been accused. Conforming to Hawaiian law, the jury was drawn from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, which infuriated white supremacists. There were “two Chinese, two Japanese, one Portuguese, one ‘American’ (meaning white Anglo-Saxon), and six who were a mixture of haole and Hawaiian.” All were employed either by corporations or by the city, and it seemed possible that their votes as jurors might affect their jobs. The press in general, and many of those who were also following the case, assumed that any division in the jury would follow racial lines. In fact, the jurors discussed the case for ninety-six hours—a record for Hawai’i—and ended with a hung vote, 6–6. The division did not follow racial lines at all, as Admiral Stirling and some others would claim, ignoring plain facts. There was no conviction, and the men were free, on bail.

They were not tried again; but they were not safe. The fervor of the press and currents of vindictive racism among local haoles and members of the Navy seriously menaced them, and although after the defendants were released the police mounted guard around their houses, one of them, Horace Ida, was abducted on the street at gunpoint by a sailor and four other Navy men in civilian clothes. He was pushed into a car and driven to the top of the Pali cliff above Honolulu, which has a sheer drop of nearly a thousand feet. The leader of the gang said he wanted a confession. Horace said he could not confess to something he had not done. They said that unless he confessed they would kill him, and they took him to a secluded spot near the edge of the cliff and began to beat him with belts. When he fell they kicked him and one of them pounded on his head with a gun butt. They kept demanding a confession until he was unconscious. Then they flung him into the bushes and drove off. A passing driver saw Horace Ida and took him to a hospital. Large pictures of his battered face and lacerated body appeared on the front pages of the next morning’s papers.

The next night a gang of sailors went to Ben Ahakuelo’s house and banged on the door and shouted until the police sent them away. The Advertiser’s editor wrote that all this violence was taking place because the defendants were free and out of jail. Admiral Stirling said that the fact that the Navy men had not actually killed Horace Ida proved how well disciplined they were. The mainland newspapers from Washington to Honolulu were full of language that sounded like the warm-up for a lynching.

Thomas Massie requested naval protection for Thalia and the rest of his family, and machinists’ mate Albert “Deacon” Jones, a heavy drinker and chunkily built part-time boxing coach for the Navy, was posted as their bodyguard. Grace remembered Jones telling her and the Massies that he had “lived many years in the South” and describing the “horror the Ala Moana case had kindled in his squad.” By then Thalia and Grace and Grace’s other daughter, Hélène, were carrying guns, waving them out of car windows as they drove through the streets. They kept saying that it was necessary to obtain a confession to a crime that Thalia knew was not committed.

Grace and Thalia worked on a plan to kidnap one of the defendants and get a confession, whatever it took to do so. Someone had told Massie that Joe Kahahawai, of the five, would be the man most likely to crack under pressure, but after the pictures of Horace Ida were published, they agreed that there should be no signs of violence. They would threaten a defendant at gunpoint.

Grace learned that the terms of the defendants’ release required them to report daily to Judge Steadman’s office, at different times. She learned that Joe Kahahawai was scheduled to show up at the judiciary building at eight in the morning. She got a photograph of Joe from the Star Bulletin so that she would recognize him, and concocted an imitation police summons to get his attention. In a car outside the judiciary building, before eight in the morning, Massie, wearing a chauffeur’s uniform, Grace, and Deacon Jones waited for him.

Joe’s cousin Eddie Uli’i was with him when he turned up for his morning interview. As they were leaving the building, Jones got out of the car waving the fake summons and told Joe to come with him, saying that the sheriff, Major Ross, wanted to see him. Eddie testified later that Jones had a gun pointed at Joe. Joe told Eddie to come along with him but Jones elbowed Eddie aside, pushed Joe into the car, and they drove off. Eddie remembered noticing, on their way into the building a few minutes earlier, a gray-haired woman sitting in a car by the curb and pointing at them.

By ten-thirty that morning the police knew Joe had been kidnapped and were looking for the car “driven by a haole man dressed as a chauffeur or by a middle-aged white woman.” The police alert had scarcely gone out before two officers, Harbottle and Kekua, driving in eastern Honolulu toward Haunama Bay, spotted a car being driven by a woman. A man was sitting in back, on the left, with the window shade pulled down on that side. Driving along beside the car, Kekua had seen something else in the back seat: “something white wrapped in a bundle.” (Beside Haunama Bay there is a blowhole through which seawater shoots up thirty feet and more into the air. Then the water is sucked back out again with such force that anything dropped into it disappears, and may never be seen again.)

When the police ordered the car to stop, it drove away. Harbottle waved to another police car to join in the chase, and he fired at the sedan ahead of him, taking out a taillight. Finally they forced the sedan off the road and Harbottle approached the occupants with his gun drawn. When the rear door of the car was opened he saw that the “something white” was a large bundle wrapped in bedsheets that were soaked with water and blood. “I then noticed,” he said in his report, “a human leg sticking out of the white bundle, and I placed the occupants of the car under arrest.” They were Grace Fortescue, who had been driving, Lieutenant JG “Tommie” Massie, and Seaman Lord, another Navy man who had been posted to guard the Massie residence.

Joe Kahahawai’s body was found in the bundle, tied with a piece of rope that had come from Navy supplies kept at the Massies’ house. Joe had been killed by a single bullet shot from Deacon Jones’s gun. The gun itself could not be found, but it was the only piece of evidence that seemed to be missing. There was no doubt from the beginning about the way Joe had died or who his killers had been. They were referred to in the plural on the grounds that everyone who had participated in the kidnapping plan was implicated in the murder.

But it was also obvious from the moment the news was announced that the trial and conviction of the killers, like that of the five young men accused of rape, would have far less to do with the facts, or the law, than with the feelings aroused by the event. Some referred to the kidnapping and murder as a justified lynching. Admiral Stirling rumbled, “When American men find the laws will not protect their women, they take the law into their own hands. It’s obvious that a degenerate sex criminal has been killed. Now what is to be done?” The question evidently referred to the other four nonwhite “sex criminals” and not to the white Americans who had “taken the law into their own hands.”

Stirling was, in effect, putting forward a theory for the defense that was not altered after it was announced that Clarence Darrow had agreed to take the defendants’ case. The lawsuits for which Darrow’s admirers would like him to be remembered—particularly his defense of Darwinism against William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial in 1925—were by then behind him. In fact, much of his most celebrated rhetoric had been used in cases in which juries had decided against his clients. Darrow had promoted an image of himself as a plainspoken ordinary guy, a defender of the defenseless, the underprivileged, the underpaid, the unheard. His friend Lincoln Steffens once called him “the attorney for the damned.” But those who had known him well over the years had seen another side of Darrow, one characterized, as Steffens put it, by “fear, collapse,” and a “panicky mentality.” Some of his former allies in representing working people and minorities no longer trusted him, not knowing which side he would take if his own interests were involved. He lost a lot of money in the stock market crash in 1929, and he was in debt when a cable sent on behalf of Grace Fortescue, her son-in-law, and two other men charged with murder asked him to defend them.

The Navy meanwhile had undertaken to protect the four defendants on trial for the murder of Joe Kahahawai. Admiral Stirling obtained custody of the prisoners though he had no legal basis for doing so. He lodged Grace and her family on a decommissioned cruiser in Pearl Harbor, a former flagship that had been fitted up with comfortable suites, polished wood and metal, and air conditioning, to be used as guest quarters for visiting military and political dignitaries. Instead of staying in the Honolulu jail, Grace was given a suite with a living room, bedroom, and private bath. Her only inconvenience was the quantity of flowers that at once began to arrive, sent by sympathizers from across the entire United States, until the Marines on board announced that the cruiser, some three hundred feet long, could not accommodate any more.

That was where matters stood at the time of Joe Kahahawai’s funeral. His killers were defended in the press and elsewhere with much emotion, reflecting the same sentiments accompanying the flowers, particularly the need to sustain the superior position of white Americans. The grand jury, composed mainly of whites, some of them closely associated with the Big Five, at first refused to return a vote to indict the murderers. They did so only after the repeated insistence of Judge Albert Cristy. The federal prosecutor, John Kelley, received hate mail, including death threats, from every corner of the United States. A typical letter, from San Francisco, told him that he was “not only a disgrace to American manhood but a reproach to the entire WHITE race, a stench in the nostrils of ALL right thinking people.”

Kelley, for his part, conducted the prosecution with great skill and clarity. His arguments and his explanation of the law were effective and rationally indisputable, and he left no question that the defendants were guilty as charged. Anticipating Darrow’s emotional defense of the killing, he quoted from Darrow’s own words eight years earlier, when he had said in another murder case, “there is no excuse for murder.” Kelley asked, “What has transpired since then to change Mr. Darrow’s ideas and now argue that killing may be justified?”

Darrow’s defense, as he later summarized it in a letter, was an appeal to what he called an “unwritten law…indelibly written in the feelings and thoughts of people in general.” According to Darrow’s account of this law, which was echoed in the hate mail and the white supremacist views that circulated during the trial, a man is justified in killing the man he thinks has raped his wife, especially if the woman is white and the presumed assailant is not. It was a monstrous argument, and Darrow tried unsuccessfully to reinforce it with a plea that Lieutenant JG Massie suffered from temporary insanity (caused by nervous strain). Darrow’s closing oration went on for four hours.

Again the members of the jury took a very long time—two and a half days—to reach a verdict, even after they had reduced the charges from murder to manslaughter and dropped the kidnapping charge altogether. Finally the jury found the four defendants guilty of manslaughter. They and their mob of supporters were stunned. Grace said she could not believe it; so did Darrow. “I couldn’t think,” he said, “or understand how anybody could be that cruel.” One of the jurors said of Darrow’s finale, “He talked to us like a bunch of farmers. That stuff may go over big in the Middle West, but not here.”

At once the pressure began to build on the federally appointed governor, Lawrence Judd, to pardon the killers. He received a petition from Washington signed by over a hundred members of Congress from every part of the United States, almost equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. It called for a “prompt and unconditional pardon.” Whatever swayed him, Judd commuted the judge’s sentence of each convicted defendant to one hour in the custody of the sheriff. A few days later Grace, Massie, Thalia, and Darrow left for the mainland, sailing together as celebrities.

But Joe’s murder had at last brought to the surface a longstanding resentment of haole privilege and presumption. The Big Five would continue to dominate Hawaiian business for several decades, and the Navy’s presence and the justifications for it would continue as though nothing had happened. Indeed, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military command put Hawai’i under martial law for three years. But when that legal status was finally lifted and World War II was over, the new labor unions and the new non-haole vote began an era in Hawai’i in which Asians and Hawaiians were better represented than they had been. Joe’s funeral may have been a kind of prophecy of that change.

David E. Stannard’s history of the two trials and their setting is lucid, thorough, and valuable for an understanding of present-day Hawai’i as well as its past. Such an account is long overdue. It is also a kind of biopsy of the racist and imperial arrogance that are an integral, though seldom acknowledged, motif of the history of America. The book is a reminder of what has changed in Hawai’i since the decade before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and of what has not changed, for there are still powerful people in Hawai’i who see themselves as victimized whites whose money and power are being threatened. The Massie case can be understood as a fable, and parts of it still sound all too familiar.

This Issue

March 23, 2006