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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Smith recounted his evidence for the next eight minutes: how Hawaii Guards Ryan, Wishard, Stone and Wagner had stolen the crown jewels on April 2, and then had the hack drivers fence the gems to fares throughout Honolulu. It is said in Hawaiian history books that the guards had rolled dice in a game of seven-eleven for the gems.
Whiting then gave instructions to the jury, and at 3:53 p.m. the jury recessed to deliberate. They returned eight minutes later with a verdict of guilty of larceny in the second degree.
It came as no surprise that Ryan was convicted on the charge, but the punishment was unexpectedly light: He was sentenced the following day to only three years and a fine of $200.
While Ryan was on trial, his companion in the crime, Stone, was ensconced in a Hilo jail. Back in May, Stone had finally been brought to trial for the shooting of the policeman, John Kailikole, at the Pantheon Saloon. Convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, he was sentenced to six months “on the reef.”
Eleven days later, he was put out on a work detail on Beretania Street, and escaped. He sold some of the stones via the hack drivers, and some in Chinatown. He then sailed on the Amelia to Hilo, to see his girlfriend. Two weeks after Ryan’s August conviction, Stone was captured in Hilo on Sept. 5 and arraigned in Honolulu on Sept. 11.
His trial took place on Oct. 4. Judge Alfred Stedman Hartwell had him defended in court by attorney Volney Vallencourt Ashford. Stone was convicted and sentenced to six months at hard labor and court costs of $1.30 for the escape. For the assault he was sentenced to a fine and court costs of $218.50, or 437 days if not paid.
Remarkably, he was never charged in the jewel theft. Not for lack of trying on the police’s part. Larsen had built a case against him. He’d called Lo Chit Sam, Quon On and Ah Fook to the police station to give formal statements, and turned over his evidence to Attorney General Smith.
Nothing came of it. Stone’s October trial only dealt with the shooting of the policeman and later escape, not with the palace robbery.
How Judge Hartwell kept Stone out of the crown jewel case is a mystery. He was mentioned in witness statements, identified as trying to fence the diamonds, cited as such in Ryan’s trial, and even named in the newspapers as a suspect in the theft. But after his release from Oahu Prison in 1894, he disappeared forever from the Islands.
Hartwell eventually became a justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Prison officials intercepted a letter to Ryan in prison, from his sister, Helen, in Missouri, thanking him for the jewel. Ryan had apparently mailed the six-carat diamond from the top of the crown to Helen. Smith, working with the Missouri attorney general, eventually got it returned.
It’s disappeared again since then. No one now knows what happened to the crown gems. Of course, some of the diamonds, pearls, opals, rubies and emeralds left the Islands in the pockets of travelers, who bought them, no questions asked, from Honolulu hack drivers. They were probably set in rings for far-off weddings, kept as keepsakes or displayed in pawnshops around the country.
Of the recovered gems, only a handful of the tiniest diamonds—those found in Ryan’s vest—were turned over to the government. (They are now kept in the State Archives.) Into whose pockets did all the recovered gems, including the six-carat diamond, disappear? The guardsman cannot have been the only larcenous officials in the case.
Ryan served a total of five years. On Dec. 31, 1898, he was pardoned. Ryan enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to the Philippines. Americans had fought a bloody battle in and around Malolos, Luzon, and captured it on March 1, 1899. Ryan was found dead on April 8, 1899, lashed to a raft on the Pampanga River near Malolos. His skull had been crushed and his arms cut off at the elbows.
News of his death flashed to Honolulu and to New York, and on May 30, 1899, his obituary appeared throughout the country—in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Ohio Marion Daily Star, the Illinois Daily Republican, the Massachusetts North Adams Transcript and The New York Times—as the story of “the murder of the man who stole the crown jewels.”
On Jan. 9, 1925, the remains of Kalakaua’s crown were examined at the Public Archives by its commissioners: Librarian Albert Pierce Taylor, Judge Alexander Robertson and former Provisional Government President Sanford Dole. They recommended that it be reconstructed.
The Territorial Legislature appropriated $350 to have it restored. On May 21, it was sent to the Honolulu jewelers Wall and Dougherty.
The missing gems were replaced with “cat’s eyes and rhinestones,” the filigree, Maltese cross and claret velvet lining reattached, and the gold filet and taro leaves straightened. The work was completed on Oct. 1, and exhibited in the jeweler’s window on Bishop Street.
Then the crown was placed in a cardboard box and returned to storage at the Archives, where it sat for 65 years. It was exhibited once in 1948.
On Dec. 27, 1990, the crown was returned to the newly restored Iolani Palace, reunited with Kapiolani’s crown, and until this past December, was on display in the very basement where it was plundered. (Air-conditioning problems at the Palace have prompted the staff to move the crown temporarily to the State Archives.)
Today, not everyone is happy with the 1925 repair of the crown, which cost just $350 and used imitation gem stones. In fact, a group of jewelers and history buffs have organized a Crown Restoration Committee, and hope to restore the headpiece to its original condition. The committee has the support of the Friends of Iolani Palace, although it’s early in the process: The team is currently researching to find the most historically accurate gemstones for the restoration, but the main challenge will be funding the project. Restoration co-chair Dale Cripps estimates the repairs will cost more than $1 million. To find out more about the Committee’s efforts, visit friendsofthecrown.com.
Joseph Theroux’s last piece for HONOLULU was “Kamehameha IV and the Shooting of Henry Neilson,” in June 2010.