Rogues, Rascals and Villains

A roundup of Hawaii’s most notorious baddies from loveable hucksters to cold-blooded killers.


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Photo courtesy of Paradise of the Pacific

Ah, the ’80s. It’s all coming back to us now. The fleet of luxury cars, the polo matches, the beachfront estate, the hobnobbing with the sultan of Brunei, the … shadowy CIA involvement? Such were the life and fast times of Ron Rewald, titular head of an investment firm called Bishop Baldwin Rewald Dillingham & Wong.

Don’t let those missionary-descendant monikers fool you; the pedigree was fake. Only Rewald and his business partner actually existed. The investments were fake, too. Turns out Rewald was a flamboyant prevaricator, lying about everything from a football career to his education at Marquette University. When Channel 2 broke the news that investigators were zeroing in on Bishop Baldwin, Rewald checked into the Sheraton Waikiki and attempted suicide. He failed, and was arrested and charged with running a Ponzi scheme.

Rewald then claimed he had set up the firm under orders from the CIA, living a lavish lifestyle merely as a cover to get close to such international figures as Filipino banker Enrique Zobel.

Jurors didn’t buy it, and found Rewald guilty, in 1985, of 94 counts of fraud, perjury and tax evasion. In all, Rewald had conned $22 million out of more than 400 local investors, even a widow and a blind man. Originally sentenced to 80 years, Rewald was released in 1995, wheelchair-bound from an injury he sustained in prison, and was on probation in Los Angeles until 2001.




Hawaii long remembers the infamous Massie case of 1932, in which Thalia Massie, wife of a Navy officer, falsely claimed to have been raped by five local men. But perhaps the case should be renamed for its central villain, Grace Fortescue, Thalia’s mother and quite possibly the worst mother-in-law in history.


  "In her eyes, killing Joseph Kahahawai was nothing."—Eddie Croom

When the trial of the five men accused of the crime ended in a jury deadlock, Fortescue convinced son-in-law Thomas Massie that the family’s honor and Thalia’s reputation could only be restored with a confession from one of the alleged attackers. Thomas and two other sailors kidnapped, interrogated and murdered Joseph Kahahawai. Fortescue and Thomas were both in the car, with Kahahawai’s bloody body, when the duo was apprehended by police on their way to dump the remains.

She never showed remorse. In a February 1932 interview with New York Times journalist Russell Owen, before her murder trial, Fortescue said, “I have slept better since … the day of the murder than in a long time.”
Grace Fortescue in the society pages, left, and in her mug shot, right.

Photos courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives

“In her eyes, killing Joseph Kahahawai was nothing,” explains Honolulu Police Department historian Officer Eddie Croom. “The crime was something she felt she shouldn’t be prosecuted for. It wasn’t a crime, because he was a nobody.”

Unfortunately, the politics of the day sided with Fortescue’s view. Although she was convicted by a jury on charges of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor, the territorial governor commuted her sentence to one hour served in his office, to avoid a rift with the U.S. Navy and government.




Abraham Rosenberg

Claus Spreckels wasn’t the only huckster basking in the rays of Kalakaua’s power. A smooth talker named Elias Abraham

Rosenberg rolled into Honolulu in the 1880s, and quickly won the title of official soothsayer to King Kalakaua. Armed with religious relics, including a scroll and a silver pointer, and the ability to chant in Hebrew, Rosenberg cast rosy horoscopes for the king and anyone else who would listen. “Holy Moses,” as he became known, soon landed a plum appointment as an appraiser at the customs house, and the Hawaiian Gazette’s gossip columnist noted that the hardest work he did there was picking up his paycheck.

Unfortunately for Holy Moses, his benefactor’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in June 1887, when the revolution of the Bayonet Constitution stripped Kalakaua of much of his royal power. Rosenberg didn’t need a Hebrew scroll to see the writing on the wall, and was on a boat to San Francisco by the time everything came crashing down. Interestingly, his silver pointer is still around, in the collection of Temple Emanu-El.

When building his massive sugar empire in the late 1800s, Claus Spreckels knew where to go for help: straight to the top. He gained the ear of King Kalakaua through regular drinking and card-playing sessions, as well as extensive loans to the monarch, and used his influence to win cheap water rights and sweet land deals.

“Spreckels was a sharp cookie,” says Rich Budnick, author of Hawaii’s Forgotten History. “He was always viewed with suspicion by the rest of the business community, because of the sway he held with Kalakaua.”

A death threat against Claus Spreckels.

Photo courtesy of Paradise of the Pacific

Spreckels pulled off one of his biggest flim-flams in 1883, when he volunteered to handle the minting of $1 million worth of silver coins bearing the profile of Kalakaua. He ordered the coinage from the San Francisco Mint, as expected, but had them struck with a silver content of just 84 percent, and pocketed the approximately $150,000 difference (more than $3 million in 2008 dollars).

As Ernest Andrade dryly notes in The Hawaiian Journal of History, “The primary motive of Spreckels was to make a good profit. … The financial well-being of the kingdom was of secondary importance.” In fact, the scam helped precipitate a financial crisis in Hawaii that led to the revolution of 1887.

Spreckels left Hawaii in 1893 after receiving anonymous threats over his political stances. A poster left on his home’s gatepost read, “Gold and silver will not stop lead.”

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