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The Crime That Changed the Islands

Race, sex, murder and politics— the Massie Case had everything, including the ability to strip bare the real issues in Territorial Hawaii.

Lavonne Leong
 
Thalia Massie


A little before one o’clock on the Sunday morning of Sept. 13, 1931, a car carrying a young man and two middle-age couples along Ala Moana Road toward the Kewalo Inn slowed and then stopped. The car’s headlights, cutting through the pitch-black night, had illuminated the figure of an elegantly dressed woman walking alone in their direction and waving to them. As she approached the car the people inside noticed that the woman’s mouth was swollen, and one of her cheeks was reddened and scuffed. The driver of the car reached over and rolled down the passenger window. The woman, squinting in the dark, peered inside. “Are you white people?” she asked. They said yes. “Thank God,” she replied. Then she opened the front door and climbed in, directing them to drive her home.

Less than 24 hours later nearly everyone in Honolulu had heard the shocking tale of a young navy officer’s wife who had been gang-raped by a carload of native Hawaiians. And until the day that they died the people in the car that rescued her never forgot the night they met Thalia Massie. It was the beginning of the most astounding year of their lives.

So begins University of Hawaii professor David Stannard’s new book, Honor Killing, due out this month from Viking Press.

Thalia Massie, that young Navy wife, soon accused five young Honolulu men—Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese—of raping her that evening. Thalia’s mother, Grace Fortescue, flew to Hawaii for the trial.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin and The Honolulu Advertiser all but convicted the suspects in print. There was intense pressure from the Navy and white business interests for a speedy conviction. But at the trial, Massie’s testimony was inconsistent, and was contradicted by much of the evidence. After record-length deliberations, the local jury deadlocked, setting off an outpouring of racially charged invective in both the national and local press. Hawaii, it seemed, was a place where white women could be raped at will.

With the defendants out on bail, Massie’s family took it upon itself to mete out its own brand of justice. When police stopped a car that was speeding toward the Ha-lona Blowhole with all its shades suspiciously drawn down, Fortescue and Tommie Massie, Thalia’s husband, emerged—and in the backseat was the bloody body of one of the defendants, Joe Kahahawai.

Even more than the rape trial, the murder trial rocked the nation, as did its unexpected verdict: Both Grace Fortescue and Tommy Massie were found guilty of manslaughter, which carried a mandatory sentence of 10 years’ hard labor.


Thalia Massie (above photo) falsely accused five local men of raping her. They were (left to right)
Horace Ida, David Takai, Henry Chang, Joe Kahahawai and Ben Ahakuelo. When the jury in the rape
trial deadlocked, Thalia’s husband and mother murdered Kahahawai, leading to an even more
sensational trial for this “honor killing.”

But then—and some say under pressure from the president—Hawaii’s appointed governor commuted their sentences to one hour, spent in his office.

In Honor Killing, David Stannard uses this gripping real-life tale of race, sex, murder and politics to expose the simmering tensions, racial and political, in the territorial era, the formative chapter in Hawaii’s history that often gets relegated to “golden age of tourism” retrospectives.

The book has already received rave reviews. It is poised to draw more national attention: A PBS documentary, The Massie Affair, is timing its premiere to coincide with the book’s publication.

Here in Hawaii, Honor Killing may change the way we talk about the time, not so long ago, when virtually everyone in Honolulu assumed that the perpetrators of what the national press had called “Hawaii’s first lynching” would walk free, because they were well-connected and white.

Stannard, who has called Hawaii home for the past 25 years, sat down with us to talk about the book, the trial and that riveting era.

 

 

HONOLULU: You’re a serious, Ivy-League-trained historian, but Kirkus, which gave the book a starred review, said that it’s “paced like the best paperback thriller.” How did it turn out this way?

STANNARD: I would like the maximum number of people to hear me! [laughs] I could have written this as a historical, academic monograph, but I wanted to tell this story to as large an audience as possible. It’s an important story for people in Hawaii to know, as they encounter one another today.

HONOLULU: Did you ever find out whether Thalia Massie was really raped?

STANNARD: Very probably she wasn’t. There was an independent report commissioned from the Pinkerton Agency, the biggest and the oldest detective agency in the United States. It invented the term “private eye.” The Pinkerton Agency was known to be very conservative. Its agents went in, interviewed judges and journalists, doctors, nurses, neighbors. Others were on the Mainland interviewing people who worked on the estates where the Massies had lived. When they finally put the whole thing back together again, they made it absolutely clear from the very beginning that these guys were innocent, that they should never have been charged in the first place, that it was evident from the start that it had been a frame-up, and that it was highly unlikely that she was ever raped.

HONOLULU: I was shocked, from a contemporary perspective, to realize how public and explicit the racism was in Hawaii and America during the 1930s. What was it like?

STANNARD: While researching the book, there was a story that leapt out at me about The New York Times journalist who was covering the trials. Before the murder trial, he got Grace Fortescue essentially to confess. He printed it in The New York Times. He didn’t have to do anything; she was happy to say it: “I’ve been sleeping better than I have any day since the murder,” and “the only mistake I made was pulling down the curtain in the car,” and so on. Years later, writing about that story, he said there were a couple of things he didn’t say—she also said, “I’m originally from the South, and we have a way of dealing with things, and that’s what this is all about.”

Another thing the journalist didn’t put in the article: After dinner one night with one of the movers and shakers in Hawaii’s white community, he was told, in a lighthearted way, “Maybe [the five local men] were just getting even”—because his hosts when they were young, for fun, they used to go out and find a Hawaiian girl and rape her. [Raises eyebrows] I mean, what???

HONOLULU: Despite the fact it was run by a white oligarchy, Hawaii was condemned in the national press simply for being multiracial.

STANNARD: Time Magazine, in classic Time style, said, “The problem with this is the miscegenation. It’s the mixing of the races and the brown-skin mongrels lusting after white women,” really heavy-duty stuff.

People on the Mainland were listening to Lowell Thomas on the radio and reading the daily newspapers, which were virtually all pro-Fortescue and Massie: in favor of freeing the killers without even trying them in the first place, or if they were going to be tried, insisting that they not be found guilty.”

HONOLULU: In your research, what did you find that surprised you the most?

STANNARD: The stories of people who had everything to lose, socially, economically, but time and time again stood up anyway and came out for what was right—especially the conservative Republicans. The prosecutor, Jack Kelley, said we will not have a lynch law in Hawaii; if we let the killers go free, it’s the end of the rule of law. He was a Republican. There was Judge Cristy, a conservative and the head of the all-white Elks club. Harry Franson, the foreman of the grand jury. And so on down the line. They all stood up.

Then there’s the jury for the murder trial. All the defense needed was one vote, because a conviction has to be unanimous. The jury was half white. Not only that, almost all of the haoles were Big Five-connected.

There was a guy who went to Princeton, his father’s the president of Bishop Trust. There was Walter Napoleon, a butcher. There was a German immigrant who made potato chips and sold them in the street for a living. These people had no reason, ever, on any other day in their lives, to even talk to one another, to say nothing of agreeing with one another. But they did. They fought it out, they took some time and they voted unanimously to convict.

HONOLULU: What was at stake for them?

STANNARD: Individually, there was pressure from the jurors’ friends, from their neighbors, from their families, and in their workplace in particular. The Navy tried to boycott the butcher’s store afterwards, to have him fired. The owner of the store was haole, and said, “Walter stays. Take your business someplace else.”

The real sword of Damocles hanging over everyone in Hawaii, not just the jurors, was the political situation. An effort was being made in the Hearst newspapers across the nation—and more than a hundred congressmen said they signed on to support this—to strip Hawaii of all autonomy. The Territorial legislature and city council would have been wiped out. There would have been no elections for anything. It would have been a complete dictatorship. That was the threat from Congress, from the military, from the president’s cabinet.

HONOLULU: So the threat of martial law was real?

STANNARD: Everybody—everybody—expected that at least one person would vote not guilty. There was no expectation that there would a guilty verdict of any kind. So when it hit, it just exploded across the country.

Remember, at that time, to have a personal memory of the overthrow and annexation, you only had to be in your forties. It wasn’t ancient history. According to Gladys Brandt and others, people were saying, “This is like the overthrow. They can do whatever they want to do.” In the aftermath of the overthrow, you couldn’t speak against the new government without being thrown in jail. People saw this new reign of terror coming.

HONOLULU: Then Gov. Judd commuted the 10-year murder sentences to an hour. Was that a travesty?

STANNARD: Judd was in a bind. He feared pardoning them, because that essentially said that no crime was committed, it’s OK, white people can do that sort of thing. On the other hand, he could not bear the thought of [Grace Fortescue and Tommie Massie] going to the Territorial prison, because then there clearly would have been some kind of military takeover. The president and his Cabinet were putting pressure on him to do something. He was getting advice from the Big Five that was conflicting and contradictory.

Somebody came up with an out: There’s a middle ground between a pardon and sending them to prison. Allow the guilty verdict to stand, but commute their sentences. That’s what he did. Making nobody happy, but making both sides less unhappy than they would have been if either extreme had been chosen.

HONOLULU: You argue that the Massie affair changed Hawaii. Can you give one or two examples?

STANNARD: A solidarity movement began in Hawaii that hadn’t existed before Thalia Massie walked out of the Ala Wai Inn that night. It manifested itself in the elections of 1932. The Republicans had had a complete lock on everything in Hawaii at that time. The city council was three-to-one, Republican over Democrat. After the 1932 election, it was three-to-one, Democrat over Republican.

Andrew Lind, the sociologist, said afterwards that the term “local” emerged in the middle of the Massie struggles, essentially to draw a line between “us” and “them.” These five guys [who were tried for Thalia Massie’s rape] are Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese. You can’t describe them as Hawaiian. You can’t describe them as Asian. They belong to one single group only if you have a term for that group, and the term is “local.”

HONOLULU: Your introduction to Honor Killing says that this is a story with a “powerful message for the present.” What is that message?

STANNARD: In moments of great crisis and stress and fear—the internment of the Japanese in World War II, the McCarthy era during the rise of the Cold War—people are willing to abandon their freedoms as a way of maintaining order. Two years ago, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, a national poll showed that half of the people in the United States believed that we had too much freedom.

In the Massie case, there was a fear all over these Islands that the little freedom people had was going to be taken away if they did the right thing—if they voted to convict these people, who had obviously committed murder.

It’s a hard decision when—because of what you decide—food isn’t going to be on the table, you’ll lose your job, your friends don’t talk to you anymore. Or when you no longer can vote because of it. It’s a hard decision to make, and they made the right one.