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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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Prince Albert in a black and white of a posthumous oil portrait by Enoch Wood Perry. The Bishop Museum owns the original.

Photo: Courtesy Queen's Medical Center

He said to Neilson, “You must die.”

When the major heard his death sentence, he turned and fled into the house. The king pursued him and he fired a shot.

The pistol ball entered Neilson’s chest, traveled upwards, exiting near his shoulder, indicating that Neilson had been leaning back, trying to avoid the shot. He was able to escape and stagger to a neighboring house outside the royal grounds, where he lay bleeding.

The gunshot aroused the household. Dr. McKibbin asked permission to go and treat Neilson, but the king refused. He threatened to shoot the doctor if he moved. Emma intervened, pleading with her husband.

It infuriated the king to see her pleading for—in his addled mind—her lover.

Witnesses said he then beat Emma and threatened to shoot both her and little Albert.

A local doctor, M.B. White, was called to attend to Neilson’s wounds. In a letter to his brother Bleeker, Neilson clarified that he had been shot “on the lower part of my chest, just where the short ribs join the breast bone…then it passed toward the right side, struck a rib about midway which it followed, and just managed to drop out a few inches below my right armpit…”

Eventually, persuaded of the innocence of both Emma and Neilson, the king allowed McKibbin to treat Neilson with mercury and morphine, though he frequently coughed blood.

The Maria carried the news to Honolulu a week later; on the return voyage she brought Lili‘uokalani, Princess Victoria, Governor Kekuanaoa, David Kalākaua and Charles Bishop to offer advice and condolences.

The Honolulu Advertiser ventured an editorial on Sept. 28 and actually mentioned the act (“the king shooting his secretary”) but with no details. They said the act was “an open contradiction to the laws of God and man, which can under no pretext be justified.” Yet, it concluded: “He has erred, so we are all liable to commit acts of error.”

On Oct. 12 the king wrote a letter to Neilson in which he “regretted” this “great false act of my life … the act committed by me was premeditated, founded upon suspicions long harrowed up and extending for a length of time.”

Photo: David Croxford

He announced that he would make a public proclamation, submit to a trial and abdicate the throne. A flurry of letters were exchanged between the king and his minister of foreign affairs, Robert Wylie. Liholiho listed his reasons for abdication, but Wylie begged him not to exaggerate the gravity of the affair and opposed the proclamation. He insisted that “no emergency has occurred,” that “abdication” would be “a shame on himself” and “annihilation on the sovereignty of the nation.” Wylie also suggested (wrongly) that if Neilson did die, well, hadn’t he earlier suffered from consumption?

The Privy Council and the House of Nobles, the legislatures of the day, advised against “abdication.” One of the few items that appeared in the papers was a notice from the Privy Council that, despite rumors, the king would not abdicate his throne.

By Oct. 20, McKibbin reported to the king that Neilson was “feverish and in low spirits.” On Nov. 20, he suffered a relapse and the wound opened “afresh.”

Despite the king’s willingness, there was never a trial. The thought of the King of Hawai‘i standing in the dock was too much to imagine. Queen Lili‘uokalani wrote in her memoir that “no person would have been foolhardy enough to propose it.”

There was never an official investigation into the shooting of Henry Neilson.

When the scandal began to die down, the royal party returned to Honolulu.

Neilson was never out of danger. His health ebbed and flowed. Eventually he was considered safe to move and was taken back to Honolulu, where he was carried ashore on a palanquin, and taken to his cottage on Alakea Street. He never recovered, living as an invalid for more than two years. He died at his home on Feb. 12, 1862. He was 38.

The most complete obituary was in The Advertiser of Feb. 13, and it was skimpy. It read:

Yesterday morning Mr. Henry A. Neilson died in this city. In former years he was well known, but for two and a half has been confined to his room by the unfortunate occurrence which is familiar to all. His funeral will be held at 4 p.m. to-day.

In atonement, Kamehameha IV translated the Anglican Book of Prayer into Hawaiian and wrote to Queen Victoria, requesting Church of England missionaries. They soon arrived and established the Anglican Church in Hawai‘i.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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