My wife and I recently took a ten day trip to Kaua’i. Before our flight, we snagged a carry-on bag full of books to read on hammocks and beaches in the South Pacific. Kat is usually the one devoting her free time to being entertained by legal-based entertainment (see, The Good Wife). I usually get my fill of these things during the work day. However, in the basement of Eclipse Books, the best used book store in book-loving Bellingham, Washington, amongst the Captain Cook journals and field guides to Hawaiian flora and fauna, was a nonfiction crime procedural about Hawaii that I couldn’t resist. It’s called Honor Killing: How the Infamous “Massie Affair” Transformed Hawai’i by David E. Stannard (New York, New York: Viking Penguin, 2005). It tells the story of a racially-charged murder trial in 1932 Hawai’i that captured the attention of the world, and was also the last notable mark in the career of Clarence Darrow, who many consider to be the best trial attorney in American history. I had never heard of it, and I was intrigued. Honor Killing is compulsive reading and highly relevant to our times.
The story is set in 1930’s Hawai’i, a remote American “territory” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In the American consciousness, Hawai’i evokes (well-deserved) images of tropical paradise – verdant mountain valleys, blue waters, waves, ukuleles, peace. But the history of Hawai’i, as most know, is more complicated. By the 1930’s, Hawai’i already had a long history of colonialism, including Western missionary and corporate influence over the native Hawai’ian population. As Kennard puts it, “[F]or the first half of the twentieth century, most of those famously friendly and multihued people of paradise lived under the authoritarian rule of an openly white supremacist oligarchy.” Walter Dillingham, perhaps the most prominent American businessman in Hawai’i at the time, testified before Congress that “God had made the white race to rule and the colored be ruled. It was as plain as ‘the pigment in the skin,’ he said, adding that when a white man is ‘asked to go out in the sun and work in the canebrake, away from the tropical breeze, you are subjecting [him] to something that the good Lord did not create him to do.” Yeah.
Enter Thalia Massie. She was the young wife of a US Naval officer stationed at Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Thommie Massie. Thalia’s family had East Coast, upper-class pedigree, with blood connections to former US president Theodore Roosevelt. Tommie was from Kentucky. Both were white. “By 1930 the island of O’ahu was home to the greatest concentration of American soldiers and sailors anywhere … virtually all of them white.” In contrast, “[t]he overwhelming majority of the population was nonwhite, Asian or Hawaiian, as was the entirety of the low-paid workforce laboring in the fields of the sprawling sugar and pineapple plantations.”
On September 12, 1931, at approximately 12:50 am, a Saturday night, a group of friends noticed a woman wander into their headlights on the outskirts of Waikiki. It was Thalia. She had been at a nightclub party in the area earlier in the evening with Thommie. After telling multiple versions of her story to whoever would listen, she eventually alleged that she had been kidnapped, physically abused and repeatedly raped by “five or six Hawaiian boys.” It did not take long for the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) investigation, led by an Irish-born haole (Hawaiian slang for “white,” or “outsider”) detective and supported by his hand-picked haole officers, to find some “Hawaiian boys” to charge with the crime.
The story exploded in the American press and beyond. In the New York Times, more than 200 stories were run about the case in the spring of 1932 alone. “In a twelve-month period that witnessed the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the transatlantic flight of Amelia Earhart, the Veterans’ Bonus March on Washington, the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the imprisonment of Al Capone, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and the worst days of the Great Depression,” the Massie trial “was voted by Associated Press editors one of the top world news events of the year.” From coast to coast, major newspapers, almost without exception, rushed to the defense of Thalia with warnings that the “honor of American womanhood” was under attack by “lust-sodden beasts.” These contrasted with typical descriptions of Thalia as a “white woman of refinement and culture.” The journal of the California Bar Association, the Recorder, claimed that “a mongrel race now threatens white supremacy.”
The actual trial exposed much of the real story, including a complete lack of medical evidence that a rape had even occurred, police officers being caught red-handed planting evidence, a lie from Thalia that she had become pregnant as a result of the “incident” (which her doctors knew to be false), and wild inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case. There were also some masterful trial maneuvers by the impressive defense team, if you’re into that kind of thing. The jury was hung at 6-6 and a mistrial was declared. Seemingly, the justice system had done its job, but this was just the beginning of the story.
Immediately, the military community and the American press expressed outrage at the lack of conviction. Street violence and tension began to rise between the US Military and the local Hawaiians. Admiral Stirling, the highest ranking US military person in Hawaii at the time, called the unconvicted defendants a “contamination” who “were not men who deserved the benefit of the doubt.” Stirling insisted that the Navy’s shore patrol be given authority to “shoot to kill without being tried for murder.” Dillingham, the business tycoon, admitted that the defendants “probably were not guilty” but the authorities nevertheless “should have forced a conviction.” General George S. Patton (then an Army Major) wrote to his friend: “It seems to me that what the Honolulu Rapers need is some quick hangings. It is better for a few inoscent [sic] natives to hang than for the reputation of a great City to suffer.” Large parts of the haole community were crying for a good, old-fashioned lynching. And that is exactly what happened.
Instead of waiting for a second trial, a roving band of navymen kidnapped Horace Ida, one of the defendants, and beat him to the brink of death on a seaslide cliff, allegedly torturing a “confession” out of him and leaving him for dead. Miraculously, he recovered. Thalia’s mother, who seemed to make racism into an Olympic sport, along with Thalia, Thommie, and a sailor who had been sent ashore to “stand guard” for Thalia, plotted the murder of Joseph Kahahawai, the darkest-skinned of the defendants. They impersonated law enforcement officers in order to kidnap him, shot him in a private location, and were caught by HPD officers with his body in their backseat while they attempted to dispose of it in a lava tube off the coast of O’ahu. They were charged with first-degree murder, eventually downgraded to second-degree murder and manslaughter. Thalia’s mother openly admitted to the crime in interviews with newspapers prior to trial and the defendants were whisked away by the Navy to be held in luxuriant quarters on the top deck of a Navy ship, where they were widely praised by the American media as heroes and sent flowers.
Enter Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the darling of the American left – friends with anarchist Emma Goldman and labor advocate Samuel Gompers. At the time, he sat on the Board of Directors for the NAACP. However, he was also short on money late in his life and was offered a sizable sum to come defend the white lynchers, so he did. Amazingly, the defendants were actually convicted. The jury, in a compromise to prevent a hung jury where an obvious crime had been committed, settled on a conviction for mere manslaughter. Predictably, this shocked the US military, the haole community as a whole, Darrow himself, and the defendants. It carried a mandatory minimum sentence in Hawaiian prison of ten years. But not to be outdueled by pesky things like “due process,” the military and economic power set in Hawaii applied pressure to the judge to reduce their sentences, which he did. They were ordered to serve one hour detention in the sheriff’s office. By the time this was announced to the waiting press, there were only twenty minutes left of their “sentence.” Darrow and the defendants were snuck off the island in a Navy boat to a vessel bound for San Francisco, where they were received with fanfare and became national celebrities (Darrow, twice-over).
The whole Massie affair was a tragedy of the American justice system, played out before a watching world. The Hawaii-Chinese News called out the American hypocrisy, contrasting the “stupid mob mind” with “the American principle that a man is innocent until he has been proved guilty.” It was open warfare between the white supremacist, military-economic power brokers and our country’s founding principles of due process of law. The whole affair changed Hawaii permanently. Kennard describes “the new interracial consciousness” of Hawaii in the aftermath of the Massie trial. The historically self-interested ethnic minority communities – native Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Portuguese – coalesced and began a period of more intentional unity amongst themselves. This included many haole sympathizers. After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, when anti-Japanese sentiment on the mainland ran to a fever pitch resulting in internment camps for Japanese-American families, there was an aggressively anti-internment haole movement in Hawaii. In the 1932 election, 90% of Hawaiians showed up to vote. Hawaiian politics was changed forever, with complete ethnic shakeup of local governments. Nothing is ever a perfect fix, and Hawaii still has its share of racial tensions, like every community, but the community rejection of racism was real, long-lasting, and inspiring.
Honor Killing by David Stennard. Give it a read. Great story, with a full cast of heroes and villains, and fundamental questions involving the criminal justice system in our country.
Attorney at Navigate Law Group
Every legal issue is very unique. Accordingly, the information in this blog is intended as general education material and not as legal advice. If you think you may have a legal issue you should consult an attorney.