The Crime That Changed the Islands
Race, sex, murder and politics— the Massie Case had everything, including the ability to strip bare the real issues in Territorial Hawaii.
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A little before one o’clock on the Sunday morning of Sept. 13, 1931, a car carrying a young man and two middle-age couples along Ala Moana Road toward the Kewalo Inn slowed and then stopped. The car’s headlights, cutting through the pitch-black night, had illuminated the figure of an elegantly dressed woman walking alone in their direction and waving to them. As she approached the car the people inside noticed that the woman’s mouth was swollen, and one of her cheeks was reddened and scuffed. The driver of the car reached over and rolled down the passenger window. The woman, squinting in the dark, peered inside. “Are you white people?” she asked. They said yes. “Thank God,” she replied. Then she opened the front door and climbed in, directing them to drive her home.
Less than 24 hours later nearly everyone in Honolulu had heard the shocking tale of a young navy officer’s wife who had been gang-raped by a carload of native Hawaiians. And until the day that they died the people in the car that rescued her never forgot the night they met Thalia Massie. It was the beginning of the most astounding year of their lives.
So begins University of Hawaii professor David Stannard’s new book, Honor Killing, due out this month from Viking Press.
Thalia Massie, that young Navy wife, soon accused five young Honolulu men—Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese—of raping her that evening. Thalia’s mother, Grace Fortescue, flew to Hawaii for the trial.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin and The Honolulu Advertiser all but convicted the suspects in print. There was intense pressure from the Navy and white business interests for a speedy conviction. But at the trial, Massie’s testimony was inconsistent, and was contradicted by much of the evidence. After record-length deliberations, the local jury deadlocked, setting off an outpouring of racially charged invective in both the national and local press. Hawaii, it seemed, was a place where white women could be raped at will.
With the defendants out on bail, Massie’s family took it upon itself to mete out its own brand of justice. When police stopped a car that was speeding toward the Ha-lona Blowhole with all its shades suspiciously drawn down, Fortescue and Tommie Massie, Thalia’s husband, emerged—and in the backseat was the bloody body of one of the defendants, Joe Kahahawai.
Even more than the rape trial, the murder trial rocked the nation, as did its unexpected verdict: Both Grace Fortescue and Tommy Massie were found guilty of manslaughter, which carried a mandatory sentence of 10 years’ hard labor.
But then—and some say under pressure from the president—Hawaii’s appointed governor commuted their sentences to one hour, spent in his office.
In Honor Killing, David Stannard uses this gripping real-life tale of race, sex, murder and politics to expose the simmering tensions, racial and political, in the territorial era, the formative chapter in Hawaii’s history that often gets relegated to “golden age of tourism” retrospectives.
The book has already received rave reviews. It is poised to draw more national attention: A PBS documentary, The Massie Affair, is timing its premiere to coincide with the book’s publication.
Here in Hawaii, Honor Killing may change the way we talk about the time, not so long ago, when virtually everyone in Honolulu assumed that the perpetrators of what the national press had called “Hawaii’s first lynching” would walk free, because they were well-connected and white.
Stannard, who has called Hawaii home for the past 25 years, sat down with us to talk about the book, the trial and that riveting era.