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Malice in the Palace: The Hawaii Crown Jewel Robbery

Did the Hawaii Guard steal gems, fence them and even swap them for opium? Read on for the sordid tale.


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After being plundered for its jewels, Kalakaua's crown was left twisted and broken.

Photo: Hawaii State Archives

Three months after Queen Liliuokalani was deposed, on Monday, April 3, 1893, the keys of Iolani Palace were transferred from Chamberlain James Robertson to the provisional government’s new custodian, R. Jay Green. The two conducted an inventory and noticed that, in the chamberlain’s locked basement office, a leather trunk had been broken open.

Inside the trunk, in a satin-lined box of polished emboyna wood, was King David Kalakaua’s crown—bent and twisted. Every jewel had been pried out. The velvet lining had been torn away, and the Maltese cross on top, with its stunning six-carat diamond, had been broken off and taken. The ring of kalo leaves along the band was bent, and some of its gold filigree was missing.

Designed by the king and purchased in London in 1882 for £1,000 from Hoffnung and Co., the solid-gold crowns of Kalakaua and his queen, Kapiolani, contained when they were new: “521 diamonds, 54 pearls, 20 opals, 20 rubies, eight emeralds, one carbuncle and six kukui nut jewels.” (Kapiolani’s crown was safe. She had taken it home, following Kalakaua’s death in 1891.)

The crown as it appears today, restored with paste jewels.

“PLUNDERED!” roared the headline in the newspaper Pacific Commercial Advertiser as it recounted the theft. Accusations were traded as to who had been in charge of the palace basement.

Detective William Larsen set out in search of the robber. He was 37, born in Copenhagen, having arrived in Hawaii in 1882. He had worked his way up the ranks, from officer to lieutenant to captain. He had just recently been made chief of detectives.

Weeks passed with no announcement as to progress in the case. Everyone had a theory, of course. Attorney General William Owen Smith wrote to Lorrin Thurston on April 8: “The durned crown was broken into pieces. Some things point to someone acting in the interests of Mrs. Dominis.” (The anti-royalists no longer referred to the ex-queen and widow of John Dominis as Liliuokalani.)

On April 19, it was reported that several men were seen carrying a bundle near the barracks, behind the palace. They were shot at and disappeared. A search produced nothing. Some suggested the men were returning the jewels; others speculated they were ghosts.

At the end of April, some workers were cleaning out the palace basement. On the ground were found “a few worthless stones” (perhaps the polished kukui nuts) and “some filigree work which had been broken from the crown.” The items were turned over to the police.

Working on the case, Larsen first got the names of half-a-dozen guards who were on duty the weekend of the robbery. He began interviewing them. One of the guards, a 25-year-old corporal named George Ryan, gave evasive answers. Ryan had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in January, and ordered out of the Islands. Instead, he had joined the reorganized Hawaii Guard. On May 10, he had been court-martialed for dereliction of duty and discharged from the guard three weeks later. Larsen had no evidence against Ryan, but interviewed a guard who claimed to have purchased an unmounted diamond from Ryan.

On June 13, Larsen searched Ryan’s room in the White House Hotel on Nuuanu Avenue. In a wardrobe hung a vest, and in one of the pockets Larsen found a small package, wrapped in tissue paper, containing a dozen small diamonds. Henry Wichman, a Fort Street jeweler,
valued the stones at $2,500.

Larsen searched Honolulu all day for Ryan, finally meeting up with him at 9 p.m., near the Commercial Saloon on Nuuanu. Larsen invited him in for a drink and promptly informed him he was under arrest. It was June 13. The police day book read: “George Ryan—larceny of crown jewels valued at $2,500.” Searching him, Larson found another diamond in Ryan’s pants pocket. Ryan was booked, photographed and given the inmate number 996.

But that didn’t solve the case. Had Ryan acted alone? What had happened to the rest of the gems? Only a handful of the smallest diamonds had been found in Ryan’s vest.

Here things get tangled, and a whole cast of Honolulu characters enters the scene.

One of them was Ryan’s fellow guardsman, Richard Stone. A month after the theft of the crown jewels was discovered, Stone was arraigned in Judge Henry Cooper’s First Circuit Court for shooting a policeman in an earlier brawl at the Pantheon Saloon on Hotel Street.

Also appearing before Cooper that day was a Chinese merchant named Ah Fook, charged with gambling.

Stone escaped and, at 10 a few nights later, was pounding at Ah Fook’s door, in the company of another man. They asked for opium. Ah Fook, suspicious, insisted he didn’t allow opium smoking at his place of business. They then tried to sell him two diamonds.

Ah Fook declined, insisting he had no money.

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