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.

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.


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.


He and Emma also founded the Queen’s Medical Center.

On Aug. 17, 1862, 4-year-old Albert threw a tantrum over a pair of boots. “The temper of the Kamehamehas had descended to the young prince,” Liliu‘okalani wrote, “and was also the cause of his death.” The king doused him with cold water to calm him and it was believed at the time that Albert developed brain fever as a result. He died 10 days later. More recent research, however, suggests that the boy may have actually had appendicitis.

The king became a recluse, suffering from asthma and depression, gasping in his guilt in his home at Kahalua. He died on St. Andrew’s feast day, Nov. 30, 1863, two months’ short of his 30th birthday. Emma ran unsuccessfully for the throne in 1874, losing to David Kalakaua. She died in 1885 at the age of 50.

In Aug. 1905, Neilson’s nephew, Edward Harriman (father of President Kennedy’s ambassador to Britain), visited Hawai‘i in search of details of his uncle’s shooting. No factual accounts existed, so legends had begun to grow. One bizarre story he heard, which was then widely reprinted, was that the king shot Neilson holding the pistol over his shoulder while looking into a mirror.

The Church of England made Nov. 28 a feast day in its liturgical calendar, honoring Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma. A stained glass window in the front of Honolulu’s St. Andrew’s Church—the Kahalua property—depicts both monarchs, and little Albert as an angel.   

Hilo-based writer Joseph Theroux last wrote about the Dole pineapple tower, in our March 2010 issue.