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The Nerviest Man in Honolulu

Hilo-based historian Joe Theroux recounts the 1896 kidnapping of James Campbell.


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James Campbell, retired sugar planter, who was kidnapped and robbed in San Francisco.

Photo: Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 1896.

Winthrop and his accomplice held Campbell from the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 3, until Wednesday evening. When they realized that they could get nothing from him, they released him and gave him a nickel for carfare and a new hat. Campbell, dazed and famished, made his way back to his hotel and swore out a statement against Winthrop. With Winthrop’s description—gray eyes and brown hair—and name and address, the hunt began. He was picked up on Aug. 10 in Oakland disguised as an old man, hobbling on a cane and sporting green-tinted glasses, saying his name was Al Brunson. The masked “Pete” was never located.

Winthrop was charged with robbery and assault with intent to commit murder. Bail was set at $30,000. The trial began on Sept. 1, and the courtroom was packed. Campbell spent a full day on the stand recounting his ordeal, and identifying the ropes and chains that had bound him. Winthrop never testified, stating to reporters, “I’m as mum as an oyster.” The jury deliberated for five minutes. Reporters said Winthrop grew pale when the guilty verdicts were read. He got life at San Quentin, where he worked at a pattern-making machine. He was last mentioned as an inmate in the Federal Census in 1910. He died soon after.

 Campbell returned to his home on Emma Street, cultivating what was to become one of the richest estates in the Islands. But the events of August and September had rattled him. The death of his only son, James Jr., exactly a year later further demoralized him. He died at his home on April 21, 1900, leaving behind his wife and three daughters. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser recalled the San Francisco police chief’s comment that Campbell was “the nerviest man I ever knew.”

He was buried at Nuuanu Cemetery.

The estate he had worked to amass and had fought so hard to protect became a $2-billion enterprise, second only to the Kamehameha-Bishop Estate in value. The estate was further enhanced when Campbell daughter Abigail married David Kawananakoa, of King Kalakaua’s family.

Not a bad legacy for a ship’s carpenter.

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Honolulu Magazine March 2018
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