Murder in Hawaii – Part Two

Hawaii was afire.

In 1932 it still remained a territory of the U.S.A., not a state, and its governor was Lawrence McCully Judd, whose father had been a judge and whose grandfather an American missionary. His active and constant concern for the patients in the leper station on Molokai was admirable, but it’s not certain that he was equal to the controversial storm that had broken late in 1931. At first the publicity – and fury – surrounding it were largely confined to the islands, but that had changed by the following year.

A socially well-connected Navy wife named Thalia Massie had gone to a party with her husband, apparently had a few drinks too many, and quarreled with one of her husband’s fellow officers when he wasn’t nearby. She left on her own in a huff. In the small hours of the morning her husband, Lieutenant Thomas Massie, came home, and was told by a distraught Thalia that she had been attacked and raped on a dark road by a group of Hawaiians and Asians. He promptly called the police, even though Thalia was reluctant.

Thalia at first could neither describe her attackers nor remember the license number of their car. The police had five young men from the crowded urban slums of Honolulu in mind as the probable guilty ones. They had been riding around in a car after a luau, and been in trouble already on the night in question. The police coached Thalia, suggested a license number to her, and carried out a line-up identification in which the procedure wasn’t correct, but prejudicial. They all but pointed out the suspects she should pick, or so it appears. They also took the car the five had been driving to the scene of the attack to compare tire tracks, instead of making a plaster cast and taking it away – which was so close to faking evidence that the police photographer refused to be part of the process.

The trial of the five – Horace Ida, Joseph Kahahawai, Ben Ahakuelo, Henry Chang and David Takai – resulted in a hung jury. A mistrial was declared. The five had been under pressure from the beginning to turn on each other and give evidence that would result in a guilty verdict; Horace Ida had been taken into the bush by navy men and savagely beaten with belt buckles. All five firmly maintained that they were innocent and never budged from that.

They were defended by lawyers who took their case without pay. William Heen, a Chinese Hawaiian attorney of talent, was one. Greatly to his credit, William Pittman, a prominent white man originally from Mississippi, was another. He became unpopular and more with his own class by representing the defendants. Robert Murakami, a young local Japanese lawyer, was a third. All of them would have been better off socially and financially if they’d refused to touch the case with tongs. Instead they opted to serve justice.

Before a new hearing could ensue, Thalia’s mother from the mainland, Grace Hubbard Fortescue, took matters into her own vigilante hands. With her son-in-law and two Navy men, she kidnapped Joe Kahahawai and took him to her rented house, planning to beat a confession out of him. The matter was bungled, as private vigilante action often is, and Thomas Massie (or perhaps one of the other men) shot the six-foot Hawaiian boxer in the chest at point blank range. Fatally. Grace coolly took the lead and drove the car as they went to dispose of Kahahawai’s corpse in the sea – the violent blowhole at Koko Head that wouldn’t have left much of the body. Instead they were caught driving the car, with the sheet-wrapped body of their victim in the back, and arrested.

That, briefly, is the story so far. Part One of “Murder in Hawaii” went into more detail.

Grace Fortescue’s arrest, readers, was when the conflagration really started. Until then, the issue and the controversy had been confined to the Hawaiian Islands. More or less. Neither the governor nor the Naval commandant had wanted it to become widespread. There was enough prejudiced belief that the tropical paradise of Hawaii was in fact a powder-keg of native rebellion ready to blow. Memories of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine War were still fresh. Many soldiers who had taken part in the latter weren’t even middle-aged yet. The Rough Riders’ deeds in Cuba had passed into legend – and Grace Fortescue’s husband Major Granville “Rolly” Fortescue was a cousin of their commander, former President of the U.S.A. Theodore Roosevelt. Fortescue had served in the Rough Riders himself, and been wounded at San Juan Hill. Grace was the daughter of Charles John Bell, a first cousin of the telephone’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, who had married her aunt. Grace’s grandfather Gardiner Hubbard had been the first president of the Bell Telephone Company.

This was a woman who socially sat at the right hand of God – and my blood oath, didn’t she know it? A woman whose daughter had been pack-raped by bestial natives and Asiatics, a woman of culture, breeding and courage who had avenged the outrage when the law would not, and was now being indicted for murder in this hive of mongrel Polynesians; that was the picture, the image. The majority of the mainland population bought it uncritically. It foamed at the collective mouth. There was almost unanimous agreement with Admiral Yates Stirling’s first reaction. (“Seize the brutes and string them up on the trees.”)

The main English language papers in Hawaii, the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin from the beginning slanted the stories about the case with the unquestioned assumption that five suspects were guilty. GANG ASSAULTS YOUNG WIFE and MALTREATED BY FIENDS were the Advertiser’s first banner headlines. Mainland papers followed the example. They claimed uncritically that rape of white women in Hawaii was common, in fact rampant, and committed with impunity. Governor Judd denied it officially, and stated that the numbers cited were wildly exaggerated, but he wasn’t believed. Instead he was branded a gutless appeaser of the natives.

I believe it’s all but impossible for us, seventy years later, to grasp the attitudes and beliefs that were taken for granted in 1932. Hitler ran for President against von Hindenberg in Germany in that year, but was beaten, and many people thought, “Well, we’ve heard the last of that fruitcake.” Many others didn’t think him a fruitcake at all. World War Two and the Holocaust were still in the future. Racial and national stereotypes were a staple of popular fiction. Above all, it was believed, it was ordained, that the white race, particularly Nordics and Anglo-Saxons, had produced all real civilization, and were its natural guardians. People of racially mixed parentage were routinely described as “mongrels”, and the cliche, “They inherit the worst traits of both races,” was accepted as fact.

Hawaii, on that basis, was bound to be regarded as a “melting pot of peril,” especially in the atmosphere created by the Massie case. When William Randolph Hearst’s tabloid papers swung into action they made the situation considerably worse. Hearst, after all, was the man who invented yellow journalism in its twentieth-century form. He’s well known to be the model for the protagonist of Orson Welles’s movie Citizen Kane, which doesn’t flatter him, and he was probably the inspiration for the fictional character Gail Wynand, a corrupt and formidably powerful newspaper baron, in Ayn Rand’s best-seller The Fountainhead. The phrase yellow journalism derives from the comic strip character the Yellow Kid, who starred in the funnies in Hearst’s New York Journal. His coverage of the Massie murder case was classic yellow journalism – that is, sensation, scandal and biased opinion presented as fact. His and other lurid news accounts presented the murder as an ‘honor killing’, justified by the so-called “unwritten law”

A Hearst editorial asserted that Hawaii was a place where “bands of degenerate natives lie in wait for white women driving by” in the island’s “jungles.” Time magazine printed that the five alleged rapists had displayed the characteristic ‘lust of mixed breeds for white women’. How those mixed breeds had come into existence in the first place was a question Time didn’t see fit to raise. The New York Post demanded that a navy battleship enter Honolulu and remove the defendants from the custody of the civil authorities. Almost the whole country cried out for martial law to be imposed in the islands without delay. (REH was all for that too.)

Sympathy and support for Grace Fortescue, Thomas Massie and the two Navy men who had kidnapped and killed Joe Kahahawai was overwhelming.

So was the evidence that they had done it. It was something Grace Fortescue never denied for a moment. Despite that, the grand jury she and the others faced was so reluctant to indict them that at first it returned a “no bill” vote. Judge Albert Christy refused to accept it, and reminded the jurors that it was their duty to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to indict the quartet for kidnapping and murder. The jurors still stalled till the end of the month (January) before they indicted the accused – for second degree murder.

Public opinion and the media were having a huge effect on the conduct of the case before it even came to trial. Almost every white person was convinced that Fortescue and her accomplices should be acquitted without delay – should, in fact, have never been indicted. The “unwritten law” – that a parent or spouse had a right to personally avenge the rape of a child or marriage partner – was invoked again and again in the news coverage. It was used as a defense at the trial in April, by the accused’s defense counsel, Clarence Darrow.

The presiding judge at the actual murder trial was Charles Davis. His job was no more enviable than that of the prosecutor and jurors.

Lynch fever was raging as the trial started, much of it directed at the prosecutor, John Kelley. He was called a traitor to the white race and much, much worse. At dinner tables and in bar-rooms across the land it was furiously declared that he ought to be hung or shot. Not only was he prosecuting a well-bred white woman for the murder of a ‘brown-skinned buck’ who allegedly raped her daughter – he was prosecuting her before a jury that included six Anglo-Saxon whites, a Portuguese, two mixed-blood Hawaiians, and three Chinese. How low could a white man sink?

That was the view of Robert E. Howard as well. He wrote a poem about the prosecutor that opened courteously:

I hesitate to name your name,

John Kelley,

For I shrink from obscenity.

The closing lines ran:

It is my hope that your yellow-bellied pets

Will deal with you some day as you have dealt with your own

People;

That they will nail you into a barrel

Full of razor blades

And roll you down a hill into hell, John Kelley.

Kelley received hate mail and death threats galore – as if he hadn’t problems enough going up against Clarence Darrow for the defense. Darrow had come out of retirement to defend Grace Fortescue. His reason was simple enough; like many lesser men in the Depression, he was broke and needed the money, the biggest fee of his career. Forty thousand dollars. In 1932.

Darrow knew perfectly well that racial prejudice was on his side this time, and how powerful a factor it was. He’d been on the other side when he defended Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black man, and three members of his family on charges of murder. Their main offence had been simply to buy a house in an all-white neighborhood and move in. A white mob surrounded the house in order to drive them out, and the Sweet family fired on them. One white man was killed. As Darrow eloquently pointed out to the jury on that occasion, if it had been the other way around and a black mob had surrounded a white family’s house in a threatening fashion, and one of the blacks had been shot by the whites within, “… nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted. They would have been given medals instead …”

And Darrow had won the case.

This time he was simply a paid legal gladiator going in to bat for someone who had instigated and carried out kidnapping – a capital crime – and been an accessory before, during and after the fact to murder, a second capital crime. Nor did she deny it. He was even using the “unwritten law” defense, and making the flat assertion that Kahahawai and the others had been guilty, which was more than just debatable. A pretty low level for the famous “defender of the damned.” He wasn’t the one execrated by most of the nation, though. John Kelley was.

The jury was under immense pressure too. There were loud calls in the press and even in Congress for martial law to be imposed in Hawaii without delay. The jurors knew that a guilty verdict was likely to have that very result. Most of them worked for companies controlled by the haole upper crust, whose sympathies were with Grace Fortescue. A guilty verdict could well lead to the next words they heard being, “You’re fired.” A jobless state and the crowded slums of Honolulu wasn’t an enticing prospect. Most people expected another hung jury, or even a “not guilty” verdict. It wouldn’t have been surprising.

Grace Fortescue behaved with her usual arrogance during the trial. Her daughter Thalia followed her mother’s example. Under cross-examination, when handed a written item of evidence, she contemptuously tore it up. Then she dashed across the courtroom in tears to her husband’s arms. The court applauded.

The jurors resisted the pressure on them, to the extent of bringing in a “guilty” verdict of manslaughter. That carried a ten-year sentence in the territory. It was mandatory. The national fury increased to a whiter heat. A society woman and three Navy men (including an officer) to do ten years in a territorial chokey for killing a kanaka? It couldn’t happen.

It didn’t, either. The governor intervened. Afraid, perhaps, of martial law being declared in the islands, he commuted the sentence of the four defendants to one hour (!) which they served in his plush gubernatorial office before leaving Hawaii on a naval vessel. They never came back.

Horace Ida, Ben Ahakuelo, Henry Chang and David Takai remained in the islands, with the legacy of the case hanging over them for the rest of their days – and the memory of Joe Kahahawai’s murder by people who got away with it. An independent investigation of the case and the evidence, months afterwards when passions had cooled, showed that the accused men in all probability couldn’t have committed the crime – due to time, distance and other factors. Too many witnesses placed them elsewhere, too close to the time of the assault on Thalia Massie, for them to have made it to John Ena Road in Waikiki, where she had told the police she was abducted. The investigation was carried out by Pinkerton professional detectives.

Robert E. Howard’s feelings remained heated. He wrote to a friend (Tevis Clyde Smith) in May 1932, “Well, I see they had the decency to pardon the defendants in that Hawaii business. It was a black shame that they were ever tried.” After which he made some pretty drastic recommendations as to how to treat Joe Kahahawai’s four surviving friends, all twelve jurors, the prosecutor John Kelley, and conceivable the judge as well. None of which was at variance with the mood of the rest of the country, much.

I freely admit to being two-faced in trying to excuse such sentiments in a man whose work I admire and with whose long struggle with depression I sympathies. I wouldn’t excuse them in someone else. I could say REH was a man of his times and those views of the case were widespread across a great nation in 1932. But then John Kelley and William Pittman were white men of the times, too, and Pittman’s formative years had been spent in Mississippi. He undertook the defense of the Hawaii five nevertheless. I could say that Rear Admiral Yates Stirling, William Randolph Hearst and Clarence Darrow were far more cosmopolitan than REH, men with bigger reputations and responsibilities, and they behaved much worse than he – who, when you come down to it, merely sounded off angrily in private letters. And that’d be wholly true. For me personally, I suppose the most disappointing thing is that REH didn’t manage to rise above his prejudices in a concern for fairness and individuality, when he was such a passionate individualist and such a strong believer in freedom. He also knew plenty about oppression and legal injustice from the history of Ireland. Still, he felt so disgusted with the U.S.A. for the results of the two Hawaiian trials that he contemplated – or said he did – leaving for somewhere else. “If I thought it was any better there, I’d transfer my citizenship to the Irish Free State. Those cut-throats seem to have a little manhood left about them, anyhow.” Quite ironically, he wrote in the same letter:

I dont know but what Australia would be a pretty good place, judging from the riots they’ve been having there. I’ve about decided that the Australians are the only white men left in the world. And they’re handicapped by the damned British government they live under. Whereas Americans have been bludgeoned by laws and exploited by big business hogs, until they have no spirit left.

He might have remembered that Hearst and various members of Grace Fortescue’s social circle were prominent among those ‘big business hogs’. As for Australia – he was unfortunately right in thinking that the Hawaii five might have received damned short shrift and a damned long rope down here in 1932. But that isn’t something that reflects too well on us, although REH seemed to think so.

There was, actually, a comparable case that occurred here at about that time. Ever heard of Nemarluk? Probably not. Most white Australians these days don’t remember him either. Nemarluk was a wild, implacable and courageous bush Aboriginal who led a group of warriors called the Red Band. His cousin Tiger was a wild fellow too. Their tribal country was the far north, near Darwin, and Nemarluk didn’t like the incursions of white men and Japanese pearlers. He knew too well what always followed that.

The hunter and the songman

Once searched the dreamtime skies,

But now they squat by Darwin town

With fly dirt in their eyes.

Then the crew of a pearling lugger abducted some local Aboriginal women and took them aboard the craft as sex slaves. Nemarluk and his mates followed in a crimson rage. They killed three of the Japanese crew and released the women. After that, they were hunted all over, especially the leader, Nemarluk, but the police couldn’t catch them – until the famous police tracker Bul-Bul was given the job of running them down. Then Nemarluk ended the long chase with handcuffs on his wrists. (As Tiger had, some time before.) He was tried and sentenced to death. It was later commuted to life in jail.

Now there was a fellow who believed in the “unwritten law” and acted on it. His color was wrong, though, and he was unlucky with his timing, too. If he’d done what he did ten years later, after war had broken out and the Japanese Air Force had bombed the hell out of Darwin, there might have been no fuss made.

If Grace Fortescue was still alive, she’d be offended, no doubt, at having her conduct compared to that of a fierce aborigine. Can’t say that troubles me much. She referred to the racially mixed jury that tried her as if they’d been Martians. “How can they understand a white man’s code?”

This writer believes there are broader implications to the Massie-Fortescue case, though, than facile bigotry, or the easy conclusion that trial by public opinion and the media is lynching, not a trial. That’s bleeding obvious. (Australia found it out with a vengeance in the Lindy Chamberlain case.) It’s patent, too, that the multitudes of people nowhere near Hawaii who accepted without any critical thought that the five were guilty, believed what they wanted to believe. And panicked far out of proportion to one crime. The whole country wanted martial law imposed.

What lay behind that? A frightened public perception of Hawaii as a dangerous place where Polynesians, Asians and Anglo-Saxons combined in an unholy melting pot, and where the alien breeds had to be kept under control. The Massie-Fortescue case was just about archetypal in the way it pitted white aristocrats against dark-skinned natives.

And again, in Australia we had our full share of that attitude, in our official treatment of mixed-blood aboriginal kids. See the recent movie The Rabbit-Proof Fence, in which Kenneth Bramagh plays the real-life official Augustus O. Neville. That fellow was the bureaucrat from hell – the worst kind, the kind with good intentions and certain he’s right. You wouldn’t want him holding power over your life, I’ll guarantee you. REH, I regret to say, wasn’t wrong when he opined that for anybody who wanted hard-line racial discrimination, Australia was the place to go.

When you’re holding slaves, or a conquered population, or a vast mass of serfs as in Tsarist Russia, or when you’re a dictator anywhere – you require to keep them all frightened and subservient. Picking out which ones committed a particular offence and punishing them misses the point. It has never been the function of vigilantes, terrorists, secret police or government death squads to identify who’s guilty. Their function is to keep all members of the populace, or the required target group within it, scared and silent. To teach them constantly that any of them at any time can be grabbed and sent to prison, or caused to disappear.

I’m reminded of a scene in another movie, Dr. Zhivago. The setting is the Russian revolution. Yuri (Omar Sharif) confronts the ruthless Red general, Strelnikov – who was a gentle student until his face was sabered open in the street by the Tsar’s cavalry. Strelnikov has just destroyed a village in retaliation after some of his men were ambushed and killed.

“They swear they had nothing to do with it,” says Yuri, who has spoken to some of the homeless survivors.

Strelnikov (Tom Courtenay, as I recall) answers contemptuously, “They always say that. Even if it’s the truth, does it matter? Some of my men are ambushed – a village is destroyed – the point made.”

Well, Dr. Zhivago is fiction, fair enough. But it’s reality that in 1932, public opinion (fed by newspapers like Hearst’s, and more respectable ones, too) seemed to fear it was confronted with potential revolution. It’s significant that the reaction was nation-wide, intense, and involved more than just loud outcries for a lynching – whether by way of a courtroom or less formally. There were equally strident (and widespread) calls for martial law in Hawaii. Why? Over a single crime? Well, clearly, to most it wasn’t about a single crime – it was about the dreaded ‘native rising’ against the whites. Memories of Gordon at Khartoum, the Indian Mutiny, and Nat Turner’s revolt, turned into a sudden immediate terror for many. The natives had to be held down and examples had to be made.

There are at least two fantasy stories of REH’s that reflect that situation. One is “Man-Eaters of Zamboula,” a Conan yarn originally published as “Shadows in Zamboula.” The city of the title is a hell-hole of “many mixed breeds,” where rule has changed more than once and black cannibal slaves prowl the streets by night, looking for victims. A desert nomad chatters to Conan as the story opens, “Nay, in this accursed city … where white, brown and black folk mingle together to produce hybrids of all unholy hues and breeds … who can tell who is a man, and who is a demon in disguise?”

Zamboula is an oasis city, and it may well have been inspired by the historical state of Palmyra, caught between the Roman and Persian Empires. But since it’s a small place under the dominance of a mighty nation, and many different races mingle there, it shows a parallel with the Territory of Hawaii. Perhaps more significantly, it doesn’t seem stable. When the satrap goes mad due to a sorcerer’s potion, his mistress fears that if it is known, there’ll be “instant revolt and rioting.” During the Massie affair there were just such fears over Hawaii.

The second I have in mind is “Black Canaan.” That involves a back-country swamp region in the south, haunted by memories of a ferocious slave revolt that occurred in the past, and by fears of a similar outbreak in the present. Enter Saul Stark, a conjure-man from Africa, and his mistress. They intend to create a black state in the deep swamps after wiping out the local white people. As Stark has the sorcerous power to change men into swamp monsters to guard his proposed realm, he’s a worse threat than the locals – black and white – have ever faced before. Again, that isn’t a much wilder scenario than the fears that surrounded the islands during the Massie trials.

The stories may reflect some of REH’s own attitudes, but they were also the products of a professional writer with an eye to his markets. They had a wide appeal. They didn’t reflect the writer’s attitudes and prejudices alone; they were keyed to a number of widely held beliefs in the English-speaking world of the time, such as the idea that there had originally existed a small number of “pure” races which over time had mingled, with a detrimental effect on the parent stocks. That “mongrels” were emotionally unstable, ethically inferior, and (naturally) always lusted for the women of purer breeds. Not just pulp writers, but unprincipled politicians, could always get mileage out of the concept.

If there’s a moral to the pretty sordid story, I suppose it’s that the prevailing attitudes of our own day are always hard to resist, or to rise above. Going against the majority and choosing to stand for principle and justice is easy to talk about, not so easy to perform. I can’t be sure I would. But some people do.

Read Part One