Malice in the Palace: The Hawaii Crown Jewel Robbery
Did the Hawaii Guard steal gems, fence them and even swap them for opium? Read on for the sordid tale.
Three months after Queen Liliuokalani was deposed, on Monday, April 3, 1893, the keys of Iolani Palace were transferred from Chamberlain James Robertson to the provisional government’s new custodian, R. Jay Green. The two conducted an inventory and noticed that, in the chamberlain’s locked basement office, a leather trunk had been broken open.
Inside the trunk, in a satin-lined box of polished emboyna wood, was King David Kalakaua’s crown—bent and twisted. Every jewel had been pried out. The velvet lining had been torn away, and the Maltese cross on top, with its stunning six-carat diamond, had been broken off and taken. The ring of kalo leaves along the band was bent, and some of its gold filigree was missing.
Designed by the king and purchased in London in 1882 for £1,000 from Hoffnung and Co., the solid-gold crowns of Kalakaua and his queen, Kapiolani, contained when they were new: “521 diamonds, 54 pearls, 20 opals, 20 rubies, eight emeralds, one carbuncle and six kukui nut jewels.” (Kapiolani’s crown was safe. She had taken it home, following Kalakaua’s death in 1891.)
“PLUNDERED!” roared the headline in the newspaper Pacific Commercial Advertiser as it recounted the theft. Accusations were traded as to who had been in charge of the palace basement.
Detective William Larsen set out in search of the robber. He was 37, born in Copenhagen, having arrived in Hawaii in 1882. He had worked his way up the ranks, from officer to lieutenant to captain. He had just recently been made chief of detectives.
Weeks passed with no announcement as to progress in the case. Everyone had a theory, of course. Attorney General William Owen Smith wrote to Lorrin Thurston on April 8: “The durned crown was broken into pieces. Some things point to someone acting in the interests of Mrs. Dominis.” (The anti-royalists no longer referred to the ex-queen and widow of John Dominis as Liliuokalani.)
On April 19, it was reported that several men were seen carrying a bundle near the barracks, behind the palace. They were shot at and disappeared. A search produced nothing. Some suggested the men were returning the jewels; others speculated they were ghosts.
At the end of April, some workers were cleaning out the palace basement. On the ground were found “a few worthless stones” (perhaps the polished kukui nuts) and “some filigree work which had been broken from the crown.” The items were turned over to the police.
Working on the case, Larsen first got the names of half-a-dozen guards who were on duty the weekend of the robbery. He began interviewing them. One of the guards, a 25-year-old corporal named George Ryan, gave evasive answers. Ryan had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in January, and ordered out of the Islands. Instead, he had joined the reorganized Hawaii Guard. On May 10, he had been court-martialed for dereliction of duty and discharged from the guard three weeks later. Larsen had no evidence against Ryan, but interviewed a guard who claimed to have purchased an unmounted diamond from Ryan.
On June 13, Larsen searched Ryan’s room in the White House Hotel on Nuuanu Avenue. In a wardrobe hung a vest, and in one of the pockets Larsen found a small package, wrapped in tissue paper, containing a dozen small diamonds. Henry Wichman, a Fort Street jeweler,
valued the stones at $2,500.
Larsen searched Honolulu all day for Ryan, finally meeting up with him at 9 p.m., near the Commercial Saloon on Nuuanu. Larsen invited him in for a drink and promptly informed him he was under arrest. It was June 13. The police day book read: “George Ryan—larceny of crown jewels valued at $2,500.” Searching him, Larson found another diamond in Ryan’s pants pocket. Ryan was booked, photographed and given the inmate number 996.
But that didn’t solve the case. Had Ryan acted alone? What had happened to the rest of the gems? Only a handful of the smallest diamonds had been found in Ryan’s vest.
Here things get tangled, and a whole cast of Honolulu characters enters the scene.
One of them was Ryan’s fellow guardsman, Richard Stone. A month after the theft of the crown jewels was discovered, Stone was arraigned in Judge Henry Cooper’s First Circuit Court for shooting a policeman in an earlier brawl at the Pantheon Saloon on Hotel Street.
Also appearing before Cooper that day was a Chinese merchant named Ah Fook, charged with gambling.
Stone escaped and, at 10 a few nights later, was pounding at Ah Fook’s door, in the company of another man. They asked for opium. Ah Fook, suspicious, insisted he didn’t allow opium smoking at his place of business. They then tried to sell him two diamonds.
Ah Fook declined, insisting he had no money.
Stone and his unnamed companion persevered, going to a saloon and offering the diamonds to yet another Chinese man, Quon On, who led them to a third man, the pawnbroker Lo Chit Sam, at his house on Kekaulike Street.
There, Stone’s companion—going by the name of Jack Duarte—offered to sell the diamonds to pay for Stone’s lawyer. The pawnbroker turned them down, saying the gems might be stolen. Duarte then threatened him if he ever went to the police.
Larson uncovered all this, but it was never proved that Duarte was, in fact, Ryan.
Ryan did use multiple aliases. On June 16, it was discovered that Ryan had served a sentence in an Oregon penitentiary, and another at Oahu Prison in 1887, under the name Jack McVeigh (or McVey). Ryan would admit nothing. He later said his name was actually Preston Horner.
The Honolulu police had recently begun using the Bertillon system of photographing criminals and noting their height, weight and physical characteristics. They had on record a photo of Ryan, alias “Jno [?] McVey, alias Preston Horner.”
Ryan’s case was continually postponed, perhaps in hopes more jewels would be discovered.
On June 28, Larsen discovered one of the “larger jewels” at the barracks.
Postponements continued until August, as Larsen contacted witnesses. Although he interviewed Lo Chit Sam, Quon On and Ah Fook, Stone was the only one they could identify by name.
A third man who tried to fence the jewels was identified as another guardsman, William Wagner (who signed his name as “William Wagener”).
The cast kept expanding to include several men who were not members of the Guard: Charles Nelson, Robert Levi and John Santos.
A look at city directories of the period reveal that they were drivers for local carriage companies. Larsen seems to have theorized that the thieves had established an ingenious fencing system: They recruited from carriage stables the hack drivers who picked up numerous travelers from the wharf and nearby hotels. Nelson and Levi, of the Fashion Stables on Union Street, and Santos, of the Hustace Draying Co. on Queen Street, had offered opals, emeralds and pearls to the many fares they carried throughout the city. Even hoseman Charles Sillitoe, of the Tower Fire House, next door to the Fashion Stables, was enlisted.
Then something inexplicable happened: Ryan’s charge was reduced to second-degree larceny. He was held at the Oahu Prison for trial in August. (As the prison was then situated on the beachfront at Iwilei, the jail was referred to as “The Reef.”)
Before he went to trial, he donned a black suit, blackened his face and hands with soot, climbed a trellis at the wall of the prison and escaped as far as the slaughterhouse and cattle-pen area at the end of Iwilei. There, he found a telephone and called for a carriage. Unfortunately for him, he was met instead by Police Capt. Robert Parker, who arrested him at 9 p.m. Ryan remarked, “I am out of luck.”
Finally on trial in late August, Ryan, having been through the system before, defended himself in Judge William Austin Whiting’s First Circuit Court. It was reported that “the penalty prescribed for larceny in the second degree is a fine double the amount stolen, and confinement in prison for a period not to exceed five years.” By law, he would have to pay $5,000 in restitution.
Smith called to testify palace chamberlain Robertson, Lt. Col. Joseph Henry Fisher, of the Hawaii National Guard, former chamberlain George McFarland, and William Wagner, the Hawaii guardsman, who avoided prosecution by turning state’s evidence.
Smith then introduced into evidence several recovered diamonds that had been in the possession of Richard Stone and another guardsman, Carl Wishard, who had also been involved in the Pantheon Saloon brawl and had been found in possession of one of the jewels.
Smith called Larsen to testify as to how he had discovered the stones on Ryan and Wishard. Smith then called J. E. Gomes, watchmaker and jeweler (of Fernandez and Gomes, 409 Fort St.), who testified that he had been given diamonds to set into rings. Smith rested the prosecution’s case. The Chinese merchants were never called.
Ryan, in his own defense, called Maj. George McLeod of the Guard and a man named K. Hinds to try and establish an alibi. He himself then testified that he was innocent. He rested his case at 3:40 in the afternoon and spoke for two minutes, summing up his case.
Smith recounted his evidence for the next eight minutes: how Hawaii Guards Ryan, Wishard, Stone and Wagner had stolen the crown jewels on April 2, and then had the hack drivers fence the gems to fares throughout Honolulu. It is said in Hawaiian history books that the guards had rolled dice in a game of seven-eleven for the gems.
Whiting then gave instructions to the jury, and at 3:53 p.m. the jury recessed to deliberate. They returned eight minutes later with a verdict of guilty of larceny in the second degree.
It came as no surprise that Ryan was convicted on the charge, but the punishment was unexpectedly light: He was sentenced the following day to only three years and a fine of $200.
While Ryan was on trial, his companion in the crime, Stone, was ensconced in a Hilo jail. Back in May, Stone had finally been brought to trial for the shooting of the policeman, John Kailikole, at the Pantheon Saloon. Convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, he was sentenced to six months “on the reef.”
Eleven days later, he was put out on a work detail on Beretania Street, and escaped. He sold some of the stones via the hack drivers, and some in Chinatown. He then sailed on the Amelia to Hilo, to see his girlfriend. Two weeks after Ryan’s August conviction, Stone was captured in Hilo on Sept. 5 and arraigned in Honolulu on Sept. 11.
His trial took place on Oct. 4. Judge Alfred Stedman Hartwell had him defended in court by attorney Volney Vallencourt Ashford. Stone was convicted and sentenced to six months at hard labor and court costs of $1.30 for the escape. For the assault he was sentenced to a fine and court costs of $218.50, or 437 days if not paid.
Remarkably, he was never charged in the jewel theft. Not for lack of trying on the police’s part. Larsen had built a case against him. He’d called Lo Chit Sam, Quon On and Ah Fook to the police station to give formal statements, and turned over his evidence to Attorney General Smith.
Nothing came of it. Stone’s October trial only dealt with the shooting of the policeman and later escape, not with the palace robbery.
How Judge Hartwell kept Stone out of the crown jewel case is a mystery. He was mentioned in witness statements, identified as trying to fence the diamonds, cited as such in Ryan’s trial, and even named in the newspapers as a suspect in the theft. But after his release from Oahu Prison in 1894, he disappeared forever from the Islands.
Hartwell eventually became a justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Prison officials intercepted a letter to Ryan in prison, from his sister, Helen, in Missouri, thanking him for the jewel. Ryan had apparently mailed the six-carat diamond from the top of the crown to Helen. Smith, working with the Missouri attorney general, eventually got it returned.
It’s disappeared again since then. No one now knows what happened to the crown gems. Of course, some of the diamonds, pearls, opals, rubies and emeralds left the Islands in the pockets of travelers, who bought them, no questions asked, from Honolulu hack drivers. They were probably set in rings for far-off weddings, kept as keepsakes or displayed in pawnshops around the country.
Of the recovered gems, only a handful of the tiniest diamonds—those found in Ryan’s vest—were turned over to the government. (They are now kept in the State Archives.) Into whose pockets did all the recovered gems, including the six-carat diamond, disappear? The guardsman cannot have been the only larcenous officials in the case.
Ryan served a total of five years. On Dec. 31, 1898, he was pardoned. Ryan enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to the Philippines. Americans had fought a bloody battle in and around Malolos, Luzon, and captured it on March 1, 1899. Ryan was found dead on April 8, 1899, lashed to a raft on the Pampanga River near Malolos. His skull had been crushed and his arms cut off at the elbows.
News of his death flashed to Honolulu and to New York, and on May 30, 1899, his obituary appeared throughout the country—in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Ohio Marion Daily Star, the Illinois Daily Republican, the Massachusetts North Adams Transcript and The New York Times—as the story of “the murder of the man who stole the crown jewels.”
On Jan. 9, 1925, the remains of Kalakaua’s crown were examined at the Public Archives by its commissioners: Librarian Albert Pierce Taylor, Judge Alexander Robertson and former Provisional Government President Sanford Dole. They recommended that it be reconstructed.
The Territorial Legislature appropriated $350 to have it restored. On May 21, it was sent to the Honolulu jewelers Wall and Dougherty.
The missing gems were replaced with “cat’s eyes and rhinestones,” the filigree, Maltese cross and claret velvet lining reattached, and the gold filet and taro leaves straightened. The work was completed on Oct. 1, and exhibited in the jeweler’s window on Bishop Street.
Then the crown was placed in a cardboard box and returned to storage at the Archives, where it sat for 65 years. It was exhibited once in 1948.
On Dec. 27, 1990, the crown was returned to the newly restored Iolani Palace, reunited with Kapiolani’s crown, and until this past December, was on display in the very basement where it was plundered. (Air-conditioning problems at the Palace have prompted the staff to move the crown temporarily to the State Archives.)
Today, not everyone is happy with the 1925 repair of the crown, which cost just $350 and used imitation gem stones. In fact, a group of jewelers and history buffs have organized a Crown Restoration Committee, and hope to restore the headpiece to its original condition. The committee has the support of the Friends of Iolani Palace, although it’s early in the process: The team is currently researching to find the most historically accurate gemstones for the restoration, but the main challenge will be funding the project. Restoration co-chair Dale Cripps estimates the repairs will cost more than $1 million. To find out more about the Committee’s efforts, visit friendsofthecrown.com.
Joseph Theroux’s last piece for HONOLULU was “Kamehameha IV and the Shooting of Henry Neilson,” in June 2010.