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David E. Stannard, Honor Killing: How the Infamous “Massie Affair” Transformed Hawaii (New York, Penguin, 2005, $29.95, 467 pages, ISBN 0-670-03399-5)—Thomas J. Mayock, Annandale, Virginia


Hawaii’s scandalous Massie Case is now three quarters of a century old, and no new facts have turned up since the 1960s. Time, then, for a revisiting, David Stannard is American Studies Professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, in Honolulu, close to where the action took place and the pertinent records are stored. His previous works include American Holocaust, a history of the European conquest of the Americas, in the tradition of Bartholomew de Las Casas, the sixteenth-century Jesuit humanitarian. So Stannard has no quarrel with the islanders’ jibe that American missionaries came to Hawaii to do good, and stayed to do well—run off with the land.

In September 1931 Thalia Massie, the unstable wife of a submarine officer, left a Saturday night party to “get some air.” She turned up two hours later, severely beaten. She told several stories about what happened, but settled on a tale of assault and rape by five Hawaiians, which had been fed to her by the police. She was not raped and to this day no one knows who beat her, but speculation continues.

Yates Stirling, admiral in charge of the 14th Naval District at Pearl; Harbor and a veteran of the China Station, seized on the incident as proof that white women were unsafe in Hawaii, and its “racial turmoil” required a little lynching and a commission form of government, dominated by military and naval members. But when the matter went to trial it resulted in a hung jury. Then Thalia’s husband, Tommie, her mother, and two sailors, hoping to get confession out of him, kidnapped and shot Hawaiian Joseph Kahawahai, one of the defendants, who was out on bail. They were caught with the corpse. Many years later, it came out that the actual shooting was done by Deacon Jones, one of the sailors, and was something unintended, if not regretted.

When the Massies went on trial for murder, America feasted on the proceedings, exhibiting a distressing preference for lynch law. Clarence Darrow, the best defense lawyer in the country, came out to defend them. They drew a mandatory ten-year sentence but Lawrence Judd, the Governor of Hawaii commuted it to an hour.

In his highly readable account, Professor Stannard illuminates the principal actors. Thalia was a hyperthyroid, scapegrace Navy wife on the verge of divorce, but something of an actress; her formidable mother Grace Fortescue, an impecunious Washington socialite who survived to go water-skiing in her eighties.

Admiral Stirling is a reliable villain but the author winkles out another in Walter Dillingham, a wealthy tycoon. The chief of detectives was a racist and the principal newspapers, in Hawaii and on the mainland, immediately decided that Thalia was a woman of culture and refinement who had been brutalized by inhuman beach boys. Ray Coll, the editor of the Honolulu Advertiser, who the conspirators hoped would attest to any confession from Kahawahai, was a mouthpiece for the local army and navy. Years later on Pearl Harbor day, relying on them, he was to put out an extra claiming the Japanese had actually landed on Oahu. He admitted that he didn’t forward a copy of that issue to the Library of Congress.

Stannard does a masterly job of analyzing the arrests and the two trials, equaling the best police procedurals and courtroom fiction. He shows the native Hawaiian community and the mixed race jury requirement coming to the defense of the five suspects who were all nonwhites: Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian. He tells how Darrow was recruited, ruining his liberal reputation as Attorney For The Damned. The Depression had cleaned him out and he always wanted to see Hawaii. Darrow may have known that Deacon Jones had pulled the trigger, but he made his defense on the basis of it being Tommie overcome by temporary insanity. He abandoned this to plead the “unwritten law” that permitted a man to avenge his wife.

As to the governor’s extraordinary commuting of the sentence, Stannard goes along with the general assumption that he was ordered to do so by President Hoover, although no proof is offered. Stannard greatly simplifies the set-up in Hawaii, barely mentioning the Army’s Hawaiian command which had more men on Oahu than the Navy, was responsible for its security, and cooperated with the Big Five planters who ran the Islands (cf. reviewer’s FDR: Pacific Warlord, <>, Chapter One). Army-Navy feuds were notorious. The Territory of Hawaii was a creation of the Republican Party and the Hoover administration was not about to turn it over, whatever its Navy wished. The Attorney General sent out one Seth Richardson whose report testified that there was not much in the way of lawlessness or racial unrest on Oahu. Stannard makes good use of its records as well as those of the Pinkerton Report, commissioned by Governor Judd after the fact, which said that things could not have happened as Thalia alleged. But he says little about the administration’s overall handling of the embarrassing affair.

This brings us to a quibble about the book’s title. "Honor Killing" doesn’t exactly describe what happened to Joseph Kahawahai, nor did the Massie Affair, by itself, transform Hawaii.

The Navy sent the Massies back to the States in triumph, but they divorced and Thalia eventually committed suicide. Tommie Massie was later discharged from the Navy for mental problems. Admiral Stirling kept calling for a commission. He set up a briefing for visitors from Washington.

Within two weeks of Honor Killing’s appearance in the bookstores a little synergy emerged. Public Broadcasting Service put on the Massie Affair, a TV documentary produced by Mark Zwonitzer. Zwonitzer and Stannard cooperated on the project, and Stannard does much of the commentary. The film is well done and makes good use of the newsreel coverage, but neglects to tell how Kawawahai died. It goes more into native Hawaiians’ resentment at the takeover of the Hawaiian Kingdom. There is input from the University of Hawaii’s Center For Hawaiian Studies. Some present day Hawaiians favor secession from the Union and a country of their own.

Also in the TV special, the complaint is voiced that Hawaiians could not vote for governor. This was a feature of all territorial governments, and didn’t prevent lobbying in Washington for candidates nor hamstringing a governor in office. Among former territories Hawaii of course is the exception: the only overseas and white minority state.

The publisher provides a handsome dust jacket, worthy of the tourist industry. Stannard abandons citations for narrative notes and an excellent bibliography, and his introduction to the notes is especially rewarding. In journalistic parlance, the Massie story has “legs,” having already legged it through seven decades, and passed into folklore. We shall probably see other portrayals, but unlikely any better that Stannard’s.

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