(Civil Beat) Denby Fawcett: The Most Infamous Legal Case in Hawaii’s History

(Source: Civil Beat)

Many people have largely forgotten about the most notorious trial in Hawaii’s history, the Massie Case.

There are no monuments or plaques to commemorate the case, probably because it was one of the darkest criminal incidents of the last century in the islands.

But if you should stumble across a small and almost hidden gravestone in a state government cemetery in Kalihi, you are bound to start thinking about what happened and find yourself getting madder and madder.

The Massie case in 1931-32 prompted hundreds of front-page news stories both here and on the mainland. And since then, the affair has been the subject of numerous books, television documentaries and a Hollywood movie.

The Chicago Tribune deemed it “one of the greatest criminal cases of modern times.”

University of Hawaii professor David Stannard’s description focuses on the waves of racist hysteria the case generated all over the country.

“The Massie Case was more than a true-crime drama. It was a pivotal moment in the history of Hawaii, one that exposed a white supremacist social order (both locally and nationwide) and provided the seedbed for subsequent change throughout the islands,” says Stannard in his book, “Honor Killing.”

Puea cemetery kapalama kalihi, location of the Massie murder graveyard Joseph Kahahawai jr. 4 jan 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I would not be thinking much about the Massie case if it were not that my friend Phil Kinnicutt recently emailed me that he had found the grave of Joseph Kahahawai in a desolate section of the Puea Cemetery in Kalihi. Kahahawai was a central figure in the case.

I was intrigued and drove down to the weed-filled cemetery on North School Street that’s located between the Unted Public Workers building and Kapalama Street to see for myself.

Kinnicutt says he began looking for the grave after he read the novel “Honolulu” by Alan Brennert, which mentions the Massie case and Kahahawai. 

The Massie case is a dramatic example of the hollow and meaningless outcome of vigilante justice and the lynch-like executions of innocent people.

Kinnicutt says he was overwhelmed when he stood among the many broken gravestones in the Kalihi graveyard looking down at Kahahawai’s stone marker.

“It was a sad feeling,” says Kinnicutt of the murder of the 22- year-old Kahahawai.

Kahahawai was an unemployed, former St. Louis High School football star, who was wearing his school ring from the St. Louis class of 1928 when he was fatally shot in the chest.

“It struck me as so melancholy that Kahahawai, who was a central figure in a major historical event, is hidden away in such an unnoticed grave. It won’t be long before nobody knows what he meant and why we should care about what happened to him,” says Kinnicutt.

Even though the Massie case took place more than 80 years ago, we should remember it today is for its message about the kind of savagery that erupts when racists  or religious fanatics take the law into their own hands. 

Joseph Kahahawai

The Massie case is a dramatic example of the hollow and meaningless outcome of vigilante justice and the lynch-like executions of innocent people. It resonates today as much as then when we hear about Islamist fanatics stoning women to death or police violence against non-white suspects.

Kahahawai’s marker strangely says at the bottom, “Killed January 8, 1932.”

Cemetery historian Nannette Napoleon says in many years of studying Hawaii’s gravestones she has seen only one other that says “killed” instead of “died” at the bottom.

Kahahawai was one of five men falsely accused in 1931 of brutally beating and raping Thalia Massie, the 20-year-old aristocratic wife of a U.S. Navy lieutenant stationed at Pearl Harbor. 

Thalia was a relative of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, and related on her father’s side to President Theodore Roosevelt. The young suspects were impoverished, non-white youths. Most of them lived in humble houses in Iwilei, in an area known then as Hell’s Half Acre.

On the night of the alleged crime, Thalia had left a club known as the Ala Wai Inn beside the Ala Wai Canal after an argument with a Navy officer whom she slapped. She claimed that after she left the club and was walking alone in the dark, she was dragged into a car on John Ena Road by five or six Hawaiian men who repeatedly raped her near Ala Moana.

Initially, she said it was too dark to identify the suspects or the license plate of their car. But as time went on, she supplied more and more uncorroborated details, which later were contradicted in court.

Navy officials made outrageous and untrue claims that no white woman was safe in Hawaii from roaming bans of sex-crazed local men. Some members of Congress demanded martial law for Hawaii.

Besides Kahahawai, the accused in the Massie case were Benny Ahakuelo, Horace Ida, David Takai and Henry Chang.

The reason why they were even on the police department’s radar that night is that the young men were involved in a road rage incident about an hour before Thalia’s alleged rape.

They were out driving in a car they had borrowed from Ida’s sister when a car driven by a white man named Horace Peeples nearly collided with them on King and Liliha streets.

Kahahawai yelled something about the “goddamn haole,” and Peeples’ large Hawaiian wife, Agnes, jumped out of the car and shoved Kahahawai. The two got in a scuffle. Kahahawai punched Agnes in the ear. Then she grabbed Kahahawai by the throat and hit him in the face before the young men took off in their car.

Thalia Massie

Agnes took down their license plate number, which she reported to the police, who broadcast the number on police radios all over Honolulu. It’s now believed that Thalia heard the license number when she was being driven to the hospital in a police car by two officers.

When she was questioned later, she gave police practically the same license plate digits as the numbers on the young men’s car, saying it was the license number on the car of her attackers, a number she had said repeatedly before she was unable to see in the dark. 

Although she had said earlier she had not seen the faces of the men who raped her, she quickly changed her story after police rounded Kahahawai and the other young men up and brought them to her house. After Detective Thomas Finnegan told her “he had some men to be identified as her assailants,” she identified them as her attackers.

Later, a Pinkerton Detective Agency investigation that was funded by the territorial legislature concluded all of the young men were innocent and the detectives’ report stated it was clear that Thalia Massie had not been raped. In fact, the youths had never even seen her before.

The evidence had been unconvincing all along.

When they were brought to trial in November 1931, despite the prosecutors’ racist portrayal of them as  “lust sodden beasts” and the push in the white community for their speedy conviction, they were released after a mistrial. The jury deadlocked after hearing contradictory testimony from Thalia, and being asked to consider weak evidence and questionable information from a botched police investigation.

Navy personnel here and many people on the mainland were outraged by the men’s release. A media frenzy was unleashed. A local publication called the Honolulu Times called the suspects’ release “The Shame of Honolulu.” Time Magazine in a story titled “Lust in Paradise” said, “Yellow men’s lust for white women had broken bounds.”

Navy officials made outrageous and untrue claims that no white woman was safe in Hawaii from roaming bans of sex-crazed local men. Some members of Congress demanded martial law for Hawaii.

A 1933 political carton regarding the Massie case that appeared in America's first national weekly gossip tabloid, the Broadway Brevities and Society Gossip.

The crime that happened after the men’s release created an even more wide-reaching sensation.

Thalia’s Massie’s mother, Grace Fortescue, described by author Stannard as “a socialite mother who would stop at nothing to avenge her daughter’s shame,” had arrived from the mainland after her daughter’s alleged assault. She and Thalia’s husband were concerned that Thalia’s reputation was in shambles after the mistrial when gossip began to surface that Thalia might have been beaten by her husband and that she lied about the rape to gain sympathy for herself.

They convinced themselves that the only way to salvage Thalia’s reputation would be to force a confession out of one of the suspects who had been freed awaiting retrial.

A group of Navy enlisted men then kidnapped suspect Horace Ida and took him up to the Pali, where they threatened to throw him over the cliff unless he confessed. When he refused, they drove him over the Pali to a back road in Kailua where they kicked him and beat him with their belt buckles to try to make him confess, but he maintained his innocence.

After the sailors threw the battered Ida into the bushes and drove away, he pulled himself up and made it to the police station to report his kidnapping and assault.

Later, Lt. Massie and Mrs. Fortescue, with the help of two Navy enlisted men, Edward Lord and Albert Jones, kidnapped Kahahawai.

After trying to get Kahahawai to confess, they shot him in the chest and stood by for up to 20 minutes — the time a city physician later estimated it would have taken for him to die from internal bleeding.

Soon after, the police caught Lt. Massie, Mrs. Fortescue and Lord in a rented blue Buick as they were trying to get rid of Kahahawai’s naked body that they had wrapped in a bloody sheet and bound with rope.

Police had chased the Buick up the East Oahu coast to near the Halona Blow Hole, where it’s believed Mrs. Fortescue and the others intended to throw Kahahawai’s body into the ocean.

Grace Fortescue

After they were arrested and charged, the Navy successfully argued for the murder suspects to be housed on the ship USS Alton instead of in prison as they awaited their trial.

Instead of being treated like criminals, they were hailed by their many friends as heroes. The deck of the Alton was covered with baskets of fresh flowers and greeting cards expressing well wishes and offers of support.

The late Cobey Black said in her book “Hawaii Scandal” that “The prisoners were permitted to leave the Alton for an evening of bridge or an informal dinner party with friends in the Navy Yard.”

When Pulitizer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Russell Owen interviewed Mrs. Fortescue on the ship, she told him she had never slept better since the murder. Owen wrote, “The possibility that she had done the wrong things appeared to be far from Mrs. Fortescue’s thoughts.”

She told Owen her only regret was that their own carelessness caused them to get caught by the police before they had time to dispose of Kahahawai’s body.

Fortescue and her supporters urged attorney Clarence Darrow to come out of retirement to defend them.

Darrow was the most famous criminal defense attorney of that time, having defended Leopold and Loeb (two wealthy Chicago students who in 1924 kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old). In the Scopes trial, he had famously argued against William Jennings Bryan in Tennessee for the right to teach the theory of natural selection and evolution in schools.

Darrow was 74 at the time of the Massie case. He wrote later that he took the case because he needed money. He had lost most of the money he planned to use for his retirement in the Depression.

John C. Kelley, a public prosecutor for the territory, was not intimidated by Darrow’s world fame and defeated him by convincing the jury to find Mrs. Fortescue, Tommie Massie and the two sailors guilty of kidnapping and murder. But Darrow successfully urged the jury to reduce the conviction to the lesser felony of manslaughter.

Each of the defendants was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in Oahu Prison. But immediately after the sentencing, then-Hawaii Gov. Lawrence McCully Judd commuted their punishment to one hour under the supervision of the high sheriff. They spent the duration of this short sentence in the Governor’s Office in Iolani Palace. Then they were released, hustled aboard a ship by the Navy, and left the islands — never to return.

In effect, they got away with murder.

The worst part about reading about this case is the muted sadness and resignation of Kahahawai’s family and the local community. There was none of the huge demonstrations of protest for the injustice that you would expect today.

The trial was front-page news in newspapersaround the country.

Nearly a thousand mourners quietly crowded into Our Lady of Peace Cathedral for Kahahawai’s memorial mass. It was reported to be the most heavily attended funeral since the death of the last Hawaiian queen.

The mourners were mostly Hawaiians, but there were also Japanese and Chinese and a few white people. They walked a mile from the downtown cathedral in silence as part of  the funeral cortege to Puea Cemetery. Another thousand people were waiting there to hear the service at Kahahawai’s graveside.

Today, the cemetery has a mournful and forgotten aspect to it. Puea is one of four inactive public cemeteries under the care of the state’s Department of Accounting and General Services.

Kahahawai and the larger story of the Massie case are slowly fading away.

Central Services Manager Jimmy Hisano says there is no money in his budget specifically dedicated to the care of the cemeteries. He pays his regular DAGS maintenence workers overtime on weekends to trim the grass of Puea and the three other state cemeteries once a month. The grass trimming is the limit of the state’s maintenance.

Hisano said he was unfamiliar with the name of Kahahawai and his historic importance. That’s understandable. So much time has passed. Still, it seems a shame. Kahahawai and the larger story of the Massie case are slowly fading away.

I wish St. Louis  School, where Kahahawai attended classes, and other Oahu schools would take their students to Puea Cemetery to spark their interest. I think the loneliness of the grave and the youthful age of Kahahawai would capture the sympathy of some of the students.

Cemetery historian Napoleon says on her many trips to the Bishop Museum to do research, she often stops off at the nearby cemetery to visit Kahahawai’s grave. She says she always comes away feeling sad.

Her grandfather, Walter K. Napoleon Sr., was one of the jurors who voted to convict Mrs. Fortescue and the other three of manslaughter.

She says after the guilty verdict, her grandfather received phone threats of harm. Napoleon was a meat cutter at the Piggly Wiggly stores. His employer also received threats of a boycott if he didn’t fire Napoleon.

“The case was a huge event for people,” says Napoleon. “My grandmother talked about it until the day she died. She was impassioned whenever she spoke about it. She said it never should have happened.”

Napoleon says she wishes a surviving member of Kahahawai’s family would put up a plaque by the grave to make a political statement about the injustice of his death.

“But I guess Kahahawai’s family has already made a political statement. They didn’t just write on his grave that he died. They said he was killed.”

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