The Queen's voice
• Photo gallery: Queen Liliuokalani's voice
BY Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Some of history's greatest treasures can be hidden in plain sight — in the pages of an old newspaper, where carefully recorded milestones can vanish in a quilt of black and white.
But Nanette Napoleon is a careful reader. An expert on Hawaiian history, she knows patience is the best tool of discovery.
As Napoleon sat in the basement of the state library last month, studying microfilmed newspaper for a second time — or was it a third? — she was rewarded with a revelation. It made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end.
The voice of Queen Lili'uokalani had been recorded.
If true, it would be only the second known recording of Hawaiian royalty. The other recording was made of the queen's brother, King David Kalākaua, as the monarch lay on his deathbed in January 1891.
"I was blown away," Napoleon said. "This is huge to me. There was only the one other recording, by the king, and everyone knows about that. But nobody seems to have any inkling about the queen's."
The reference to the Lili'uokalani recording was one of two that Napoleon found in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. It was the most definitive of the stories, which ran on Nov. 17 and 18, 1891.
The stories described a meeting on Nov. 16, 1891, at 'Iolani Palace between Lili'uokalani and C. Stoeckle, owner of the machine — a Thomas Edison phonograph — that recorded her voice.
The queen spoke in Hawaiian but the second of the two stories includes an English transcript of what she said.
According to the newspaper stories, Stoeckle played a recorded greeting from Elijah H. Allen, consul general of Hawai'i, and a few musical selections.
"This wonderful instrument excels in clearness the one which we had listened to before," Lili'uokalani was quoted as saying.
The Commercial Advertiser's stories offer as much mystery as they do discovery. Neither one gives a clue to the whereabouts of the recording.
"I can't even guess where it might be," said Napoleon, who has researched local history for 35 years, and is known for her writing on Hawaiian cemeteries. "It's looking like it didn't stay here. No one in town, no libraries or museums, know anything about it. I am 99 percent sure it isn't here."
Even if a recording was located, it might not be playable. The Kalākaua recording, made on a wax cylinder and stored at the Bishop Museum since 1918, has deteriorated to the point where the king's voice can no longer be heard.
But the thought of hearing Lili'uokalani's voice is tantalizing, Napoleon said. Lili'uokalani was, and remains, one of Hawai'i's most beloved monarchs.
"I think it would cause a lot of emotion in the community," she said. "If we were to hear it live, I think everyone would break down in tears."
Napoleon had never heard of the queen's recording until she was asked to help look for one by Meleanna Meyer, a Kāne'ohe artist and educator making a documentary on 19th-century Hawaiian history. Meyer felt it was reasonable to believe someone would have made a recording of the queen, given Lili'uokalani's travels and position.
Chance stepped in at this point. One of Meyer's friends on the Mainland found a reference to Lili'uokalani, Stoeckle and the phonograph in an online collection of index cards created by Bob Krauss, a long-time reporter for The Advertiser. After Krauss died in 2006, his notecards — thousands of them — were put online by the University of Hawai'i's Hamilton Library.
One notecard included the publication date of a story. It led Napoleon to the microfilm and her chicken-skin moment.
When she told Meyer what she had found, the two women began to cry.
"I thought, you're kidding," Meyer said. "Could this be that we found something here?"
Finding Lili'uokalani's recording, which could have been made on wax or tin, is one of the most important discoveries Meyer can imagine.
"It's like having Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi all these years and not having their voices," Meyer said. "It's the animated energy. A voice is a profound representation."
There are written accounts of Lili'uokalani's voice, said Stuart Ching, curator at 'Iolani Palace, the queen's former residence.
In the book "The Victorian Visitors" she is said to speak English "very nicely and without a particle of American twang." And a San Francisco Post reporter said Lili'uokalani had "a low, sweet, musical voice and a most charming manner," adding, "Her English is perfect."
Ching applauded Napoleon's "good detective work." To know a recording was made is exciting but to hear it would be an incomparable experience.
"It's a little more personal to hear someone's voice," he said. "Through someone's voice you can get an idea of the type of person they are that you can't from the written word."
But hearing it may be impossible. The Bishop Museum has struggled to retrieve sound from the Kalākaua recording.
Last September, DeSoto Brown, the museum's collections manager, took the wax cylinder to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and optical lasers were used to examine it. Sound was found — possibly two different voices — but there was too much static to understand what was being said. Sound restoration experts may be consulted next.
Brown was unaware of the Lili'uokalani recording until Napoleon shared her evidence. He was surprised, but not completely.
"I have to say it did cross my mind, knowing the history of the Kalākaua cylinder," he said. "It was certainly sensible, since the queen lived until 1917, that she would have made a recording as well."
If anyone can find the recording, chances are good it will be Napoleon, Brown said. She doesn't give up easily.
But if she finds it, she will likely encounter the problems that plague recordings from the era.
"It is possible it does survive, but a wax cylinder is a fairly fragile thing," Brown said. "It is not brittle. It won't break if you drop it. But the surface is very soft. If it was kept some place where it was too hot or too humid, it would have deteriorated."
For Napoleon, her research compass has one true north: Stoeckle.
Stoeckle is the key to finding out what happened to the recording, but at the moment, Napoleon knows very little about him.
She found him listed in the passenger records of several ships that sailed to Hawai'i in the last years of the 19th century. One noted, in 1895, that he was a 29-year-old German and another called him a "jewelry agent."
She found him mentioned in a brief history of the phonograph in Hawai'i and used the footnotes to find him again in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser.
A Feb. 18, 1893, story in the newspaper proclaimed: "Mr. Stoeckle and his wonderful phonograph again in town." For 10 cents, a person could listen to the phonograph play an Italian opera.
Napoleon found two addresses in city directories — on streets named Arlington and Union — but could not find Stoeckle in any marriage or death records here.
And she never learned what the "C" stood for. A first name would narrow Napoleon's search on the ancestry.com database.
But she is running out of clues.
"Did he keep it in his family?" she said. "Did it get passed on to a relative? Did it get donated to someplace? We don't know. It could be anywhere and it could be nowhere."