Hawai'i scandal revealed racial prejudices, passions
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
The alleged rape, ensuing arrests and killing played out over the course of nine volatile months, causing outrage on a local and national level, and threatened the very foundations of the then-territorial government.
The Massie-Kahahawai affair proved a defining moment in modern Hawai'i history, exposing the powerful influence of the federal government, the military and "haole elites" on affairs of justice, and uniting a "local" community against outside judgment. "Aside from Pearl Harbor, it was the most traumatic thing, the most infamous thing, that ever happened to Hawai'i," said Cobey Black, author of "Hawaii Scandal," one of several books about the case.
Now, more than 70 years since the controversial events, and nearly a generation since the last wave of critical inquiry into their lasting repercussions, the Massie affair is again the focus of intense local and national interest. On Thursday, Kumu Kahua Theatre began a one-month run of Dennis Carroll's long-overdue "Massie/Kahahawai." The play, written in 1973 but shelved for 30 years because of legal concerns, presents the trials and related events as classic tragedy, using dialogue straight from court records, memoirs and other sources.
On Tuesday and again Jan. 20, the theater joins the King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center and the University of Hawai'i's Department of Theatre and Dance, Department of English, Women's Studies Program and Center for Biographical Research in hosting a pair of public presentations about the two trials. Both presentations take place at the King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center, site of the original trials.
Two new books about the Massie affair also will add to the conversation.
John Rosa, an assistant professor of Asian Pacific American studies at Arizona State University, considers how the cases led to the creation of a local Hawai'i identity in "Local Story: The Massie Case and the Politics of Local Identity in Hawai'i," due this fall.
For his book, UH American studies professor David Stannard focuses on the history of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Hawai'i, using the Massie affair as a "window" to explore the social and political realities of the day.
"I'm mostly concerned with where it came from," Stannard said.
Stannard said his book would also shed new light on the backgrounds of many of the principals in the cases.
Both Rosa and Stannard are contributing to a PBS documentary on the Massie affair, part of the network's American Experience series. That project is scheduled for completion early next year.
Also, Cobey Black's book, originally researched in the 1960s but put aside for more than three decades, arrived in bookstores last year. It is widely regarded as the most comprehensive account of the Massie-Kahahawai affair.
Story still reverberates
Locally, the case never has really gone away.
"This story continues to be told over and over again," Rosa said. "And people seem to talk about it when they are expressing dissatisfaction with the government or the military in Hawai'i, or legal injustice in general."
Basic facts of the case are still well known to many Hawai'i residents. On Sept. 12, 1931, Thalia Massie, member of the influential Fortescue family of Washington D.C., and wife of Pearl Harbor Navy Lt. Thomas Massie, reported that she had been raped by a group of locals. Five Honolulu men two Hawaiian, two Japanese and one Chinese Hawaiian were arrested that night for an unrelated incident and were later identified by Thalia Massie as the men who raped her. Their subsequent trial ended with a mixed-race jury unable to agree on a verdict.
Before a second trial could be held, Thalia Massie's mother Grace Fortescue, Thomas Massie and two enlisted men kidnapped defendant Joseph Kahahawai and tried to coerce a confession from him. Kahahawai was shot and killed during the encounter.
Outraged over the prosecution's failure to secure a conviction against Kahahawai and his fellow defendants, Rear Adm. Yates Stirling, naval commander in the Islands, and others lobbied hard for Kahahawai's killers to be acquitted.
Represented by celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow, Thomas Massie admitted shooting Kahahawai but claimed he was insane at the time. The four defendants, including Massie, ultimately were convicted of manslaughter by a mostly white jury.
Lawmakers across the country decried the perceived injustice of the verdict. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent telegrams suggesting that martial law might be imposed if the people of Hawai'i proved to be incapable of governing themselves. Under pressure, territorial Gov. Lawrence Judd commuted the sentences from a possible 10 years in jail to one hour in his office.
The Massies and Grace Fortescue left Hawai'i on a Navy ship soon after serving their "sentence," despite the fact that Thalia Massie was supposed to remain in the Islands for the retrial of her rape case.
With Thalia Massie unavailable to testify, charges against the four remaining defendants in the rape case were dropped. An independent investigation of the alleged rape, conducted by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency at the governor's request, questioned the credibility of Thalia Massie's testimony and supported defendants' claims that they were not in the area when the crime was supposed to have happened.
Thalia and Thomas Massie divorced two years later. Thalia Massie, after a troubled later life that included an alleged assault on a pregnant maid, died in the 1960s of an overdose of barbiturates.
Travesty of justice
People in Hawai'i and the Mainland agreed that a travesty of justice had occurred, but there was serious (and telling) disagreement on who the aggrieved parties were: the Massies or Kahahawai and his fellow defendants.
Empowered whites in Hawai'i and on the Mainland said the Massies were victimized by renegade locals and a flawed Hawai'i justice system.
Meanwhile, a rapidly galvanizing community of working-class Hawaiian and Asian locals put their support squarely behind the five rape defendants. Their resolve was strengthened as details of the case emerged, including reports that Thalia Massie's reports to police changed from hour to hour as more information was provided to them about the suspects. Rumors also spread that thalia Massie may have been romantically involved with one of the men, or that she invented the rape story to cover up an affair with an enlisted man. Those rumors were never substantiated.
The Massie affair had such impact and notoriety that scholars and artists have mined the events for insights into contemporary problems ever since.
But why the recent interest? Some cite the passing of Thomas Massie several years ago, which eliminated the only remaining threat of legal action. Issues of racial stereotyping used in anti-terrorism rhetoric and the popularity of "true crime" TV programming also have made the case an attractive subject.
"There is a 'true crime' dimension, but I think that takes away from the real issues," said Craig Howes, head of the University of Hawai'i Center for Biographical Research and a member of Kumu Kahua's play development committee. "If we get distracted with 'Was Thalia lying or not?' it pulls us away from why it was such a big deal and why so much was invested.
"This is a case that showed how passions and prejudices and mistrust can lead us to suspending what values we believe in," he said.
Kumu Kahua Theatre's "Massie/Kahahawai," built around dialogue culled from court records and other official sources by playwright Dennis Carroll, was meant for the stage in 1973, when Kumu Kahua was still a part of the UH Theater Department. However, a long-standing threat from Thomas Massie to take legal action against any creative retelling of his family's story kept the play from being presented.
Aside from a reading in 1979, Carroll's carefully rendered tragedy has existed only as a promise unfulfilled.
"I wasn't interested in doing something fictionalized like 'Blood and Orchids' (the TV miniseries based on the case," Carroll said. "To me, there really was not point in doing a semifictional melodrama."
Carroll recognized basic elements of classical Greek trag-edy at play in the Massie/Kahahawai story and its disastrous chain of events unleashed by violence, revenge and guilt.
"One event lead to another, and at it's heart is Thalia," he said. "Nobody knows the truth about what happened. So there is a heart of darkness at the center of the play."
Carroll said he resisted the temptation to rewrite and update the play, leaving it almost entirely intact for the capable direction of Kumu Kahua's Harry Wong.
The challenge for Wong the director, as it was for Carroll the playwright, is in making the two complex trials work as good theater.
The answer, Wong says, is inherent in the reality of the story.
"It's about how chauvinism, racism, prejudice were able to inflame everyone and how they ultimately destroyed both Thalia Massie and Joseph Kahahawai," he said.
Ah Quon McElrath, a noted Ho-nolulu civil-rights activist, was 14 when the Massie-Kahahawai affair unfolded. She and her neighbors who lived in the Honolulu Gas Co. camp in Iwilei knew Kahahawai's mother. McElrath said she and her family used to gather keawe beans and dried bone to sell to the Pacific Guano and Fertilizer Co., where Kahahawai's mother worked.
McElrath would read newspaper accounts of trials to her neighbors at night beneath a gas light at the camp.
"The camp had Chinese, Japanese, Caucasians, mixed groups, and we all played and grew up together," she said. "We all felt that locals were not being treated fairly. If these local boys were not found guilty, how could one of them be killed? It was unfair."
McElrath said her neighbors were upset that Thomas Massie and the other defendant in the Kahahawai case "were allowed to get away with murder," particularly after a local Japanese man, Miles Fukunaga, had been put to death for a kidnap and murder three years earlier. McElrath and her neighbors were also indignant over how locals were being portrayed in the national news media.
"It was played up on the Mainland that because the prosecution couldn't secure a conviction (in the rape case) that we couldn't govern ourselves," she said. "The New York Times and other newspapers sensationalized us as a bunch of savages hiding behind trees waiting to rape white women.
"They portrayed us as savages stalking white women, but it was they who did the killing," she said. "There was a feeling of grave injustice. How dare they?"
McElrath said it is difficult for locals growing up today people accustomed to relative racial harmony and opportunities for education and personal advancement to fully understand the passions elicited by the case.