The Nerviest Man in Honolulu

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

James Campbell made a fortune in sugar plantations. He survived a 1896 kidnapping.

Photo: Google images

James Campbell may have been one of the most powerful men in Hawaii, but on that hot August day in 1896, he was the weakest, chained to a bed in San Francisco, threatened with torture and murder. The 70-year-old cursed and railed against his kidnappers, and though they withheld food and water, he refused to sign a check for $20,000 (nearly a half a million in today’s dollars).

Lured away from the Occidental Hotel by a con man named Oliver Winthrop, he thought he was going to give his opinion on a real estate deal and help persuade Winthrop’s wife to move to Hawaii. Campbell put on his hat and they walked down Montgomery to Clay, and then took a streetcar “pretty far out of town.” Eventually they reached a cottage at 4109 California St. West. There, a man masked with a black silk handkerchief put a pistol to Campbell’s head. He told Campbell to raise his hands.

“I’ll be damned if I throw up my hands!” Campbell retorted. “Go ahead and shoot me!”

Campbell lunged for the gun and they wrestled each other to the floor. The pistol went off, grazing Campbell’s right temple and putting a hole in his hat. Winthrop then struck him from behind and knocked Campbell out.

When Campbell awoke, his head was bloody. At first he was tied to a chair, later shackled to a bed. Winthrop demanded he endorse the check. Campbell refused.

His captors went through his pockets and took $305. Again he refused to sign the check, though they handcuffed him and bound him with ropes.

“Do as you please,” he replied, but he would not sign. He was then gagged. The masked man never left his room. Winthrop entered the room occasionally, demanding his signature. Winthrop said to his masked accomplice, “Pete, if he makes any more trouble, cut his throat.”

Toughness was one of James Campbell’s main attributes. Born in Londonderry in 1826, he had learned carpentry aboard ships at sea and arrived in Lahaina in 1852. He built houses and boats, and married the daughter of a landowner. She died a year later. They had no children, but he did inherit her family’s land. He grew sugar cane there, eventually founding Pioneer Plantation.

Flush with success, he began purchasing large tracks of land on Oahu, around Honouliuli, as well as other ranches. He built a house on Emma Street, married Abigail Kuaihelani Maipinepine Bright in 1879 and had several children. He bought the Kahuku Plantation, dug an artesian well to irrigate the dry soil and made money leasing the land. He retired about 1885 and began traveling the world. That’s how, in 1895, he found himself in San Francisco, offering advice to a Mr. Winthrop.

Photo: Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 1896.

Who was Oliver Winfield Winthrop? Born in Dedham, Mass., in 1855, Winthrop served five years in the army, learned civil engineering and earned a “very good” rating. Army records say he was five foot seven, with dark-brown hair, a ruddy complexion and gray eyes. He was discharged in 1881, and set out for California in hopes of making his fortune. He married the same year, and had two sons. He seemed to be off to a good start. He became assistant superintendent of the Laurel Hill Cemetery and joined a local lodge, the Order of Chosen Friends.

But things went terribly wrong. In 1895, a local woman was found murdered. Mrs. Jennie Mathews had been poisoned in the Laurel Hill Cemetery. Winthrop was charged. The coroner said the evidence pointed to Winthrop, and he was arrested and jailed on May 28. However, on June 15 a judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence, and Winthrop was eventually released.

A year later he met a Hawaiian millionaire and began planning a kidnapping.

Several times Winthrop quizzed Campbell about the Islands, and once asked about Charles Bishop and if he had a daughter. Campbell did not let on that he knew Princess Kaiulani. Six weeks before the kidnapping, Campbell had passed out after a drink at the Occidental.

Friends carried him to his room. Winthrop later told Campbell in the cottage that it was he who had drugged him. “It was our plan to do you that night, but your fool friends spoiled the game.” Campbell “consigned him to the devil.”


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.