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
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
Chapter One). Army-Navy feuds were notorious. The
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
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
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.