The Tale Of A Racist Era In Hawaii

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - April 20, 2005
| Del.icio.us

Some stories demand to be retold. Hawaii owns one of them: In 1931 Navy wife Thalia Massie claimed that she was abducted and repeatedly raped by five Hawaii youth. Thalia Massie’s accusations and the ensuing trial of the youth provide drama enough for a book, a movie, a play. It was courtroom drama of the highest order.

But there was so much more. The trial resulted in a hung jury, and the five young men went free on bail while awaiting a new trial. Thalia’s mother, an East Coast society maven named Grace Fortescue, Thalia’s husband, Lt. Thomas Massie, and two sailors abducted one of the accused, a Hawaiian named Joseph Kahahawai. In their efforts to make him confess to the rape, they shot and killed him.

Add a second act to the play, at least one more book, a longer movie, a television docudrama. But there’s still more. The United States Navy commander in Hawaii, a racist, Southern-born admiral named Yates Stirling, tells all who will listen on the continent or read his falsehood-laden account of the affair that white women aren’t safe amidst Honolulu’s dusky, lust-ridden Polynesian and Asian males.

Add a local press that parrots Stirling’s line, a Honolulu business community worried about the economic impact of the fleet not making its several-million-dollar annual stopover, and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper chain screaming bilious accusations at Hawaii and its multiracial population.

Hawaiians at the time repeated through it all: “Hilahila ‘ole keia po‘e haole – The haoles are shameless.” And they were: Thalia Massie, Mrs. Fortescue, Adm. Stirling, Hawaii businessman Walter Dillingham, Honolulu Advertiser editor Ray Coll and legions more.

The story’s denouement included the trial of Fortescue, Massie and the two sailors. Enter Clarence Darrow, the country’s most famous defense lawyer. America watched, and the jury — despite Darrow’s four-hour closing argument — convicted Kahahawai’s killers of manslaughter.

And it finished with yet another shameless act: Under extraordinary pressure from the Navy and the business community, Territorial Gov. Lawrence Judd commuted the sentences of the four from 10 years to an hour spent in the presence of the high sheriff.

A sad, shameful story of haoles acting just about as badly as haoles – or anyone else — humanly possibly can.

But, ah, what rich fodder for the dramatist. Three years ago longtime Island journalist Cobey Black produced Hawaii Scandal, a fast-paced, almost novelistic account of Massie’s alleged rape and the ensuing trials. Last year Kumu Kahua Theatre presented a brilliantly staged production of Dennis Carroll’s Massie/Kahahawai.

And this may be Hawaii’s Massie spring. This past Monday, as part of the American Experience series, PBS Hawaii broadcast The Massie Affair, an hourlong documentary in which Cobey Black and University of Hawaii American studies professor David Stannard served as the principal historians.

Stannard’s own treatment of the affair, Honor Killing: How the Infamous “Massie Affair” Transformed Hawaii (Viking Press, $25.95) appeared in the bookstores last week. It promises to be the definitive work on the Massie affair for some time to come.

I’m not sure that the Massie affair transformed Hawaii. “Transformed” is probably too strong. But it certainly helped, as Stannard argues, to forge a local consciousness. The Navy treated Hawaii badly; Hawaii’s oligarchic businessmen treated the local population badly; and many — haole, Hawaiian and Asian — recognized the ill treatment and began to fight back.

What Stannard brings to the Massie affair’s compelling drama are the skills of a first-rate scholar, an excellent writer and a man with a point of view. He gives this reader, at least, a significantly better feel for the social realities of Depression Era — and haole-dominated — Hawaii (and I was silly enough to think I had a good feel for them going into the book).

Stannard also provides a sordid story with a hero or two. In the trial of the five accused rapists, for example, Hawaiian-Chinese defense attorney William Heen demolishes the prosecution’s case. Not with soaring rhetoric or four-hour-long closing arguments, but with the dogged persistence of a fine-honed intellect sorting out fact from fiction for a jury he trusted competent to tell the difference.

And Stannard knows a villain when he sees one, in this instance Hawaii businessman Walter Dillingham. Dillingham held the Islands’Asian and Hawaiian population in contempt, and he did everything in his considerable power to see that the Joseph Kahahawai’s killers went free. Gross injustice was good for business.

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