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Kamehameha IV and the Shooting of Henry Neilson

Alexander Liholiho shot one of his closest friends, leaving physical and emotional wounds from which neither man would recover.


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King Kamehameha IV

Photos: Hawaii State Archives, Joe Theroux

Henry Neilson


In September 1859, five years after his coronation, King Kamehameha IV, Alexander Liholiho, set out for Maui, where he shot his friend and personal secretary Henry Neilson.

No Hawai‘i newspapers printed reports of the shooting. It was taboo for any paper in the Kingdom to recount the scandal. To this day, biographies of the king either omit any mention of it or give it only a cursory paragraph. But reporters did write of it, and their accounts appeared in Mainland papers from California to New York, carried to the coast by ships like the Yankee.

This account is based on two of those stories, now available online. They appeared in The New York Times and the Brooklyn Eagle, on November 18, 1859, over two months after the shooting.

Alexander Liholiho was crowned on December 15, 1854 at age 21. He married Queen Emma Rooke, two years his junior, a year and a half later.

This photo of Queen Emma dates to the time of her wedding, in 1856.

Photo: Courtesy Queen's Medical Center

One of his wedding gifts had been a pair of dueling pistols. Upon first trying them out, the king accidentally shot Neilson in the leg. It was a minor wound and soon forgotten. That is not the shooting of this account.

Henry Augustus Neilson was a New Yorker, the youngest of 11 children. His father was the physician to millionaire John Jacob Astor. The New York census of 1850 says Henry was a clerk. But he longed to travel. He came to Honolulu in March of 1851, when he was 27, as an agent for the New York Board of Underwriters. He became a friend of Liholiho, and they often went riding and hunting together.

In early September 1853, there was a smallpox epidemic in Honolulu and Neilson became ill. Liholiho invited Neilson to recuperate at his home, called Kahalua (now the site of St. Andrew’s Cathedral) As the king’s wedding approached, Neilson wrote to his family that Emma was “about 20 years of age, rather short and not remarkably beautiful, but still good looking.” After the coronation, he became major in the King’s Guard and eventually the king’s personal secretary, at a salary of $2,000 a year (about $45,000 in 2010 dollars). On Jan. 4, 1855, he became a citizen of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. A photo shows him in his guard uniform. He appears gloomy, but, as he explained in a Dec. 1856 letter to his family: “It is said to be a good likeness, altho’ a little cross looking, owing to the strong light which shone in my eyes.”

A royal tour set off from Honolulu in August, 1859, starting on the Big Island, where they saw the volcano. Next, Liholiho and his entourage chartered the interisland schooner Maria to take them to the palace grounds at Lahaina. In his group were Queen Emma, and their infant son, Prince Albert. Also included were Neilson, royal physician Dr. Robert McKibbin, (who had just been appointed to the Board of Health), Charles Gordon Hopkins, the director of the government press, and “about 30 natives belonging to the King’s party.”

On Saturday, Sept. 10, Liholiho ordered the Maria out for a cruise with his boat’s crew, and proceeded to drink. He grew despondent. Aboard the Maria, he loaded his pistol, which was described as a “rifle pistol” or “short rifle.” The reports said that he “drank freely” and “more than usual.”

Why was he morose? He had heard gossip in Honolulu—contrary to all evidence—that that Neilson had engaged in improper relations with Queen Emma.

Sometime that night, or early the next morning, the King ordered his boat lowered, and returned to shore. He gave his pistol to a servant and proceeded to the governor’s house near the beach at Lahaina, where he continued drinking all day. At about 11 p.m. Sunday night he told his servant to fetch his pistol. The servant refused, and the king beat him and ordered him to prison. Another servant retrieved the pistol. The king took it and went to Neilson’s house, where he found his secretary sitting on his lānai, wearing white cotton trousers and jacket, preparing for bed. McKibbin and Hopkins were inside.

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