The legacy of the Massie-Kahahawai case, 80 years on
In Kalihi-Palama on School Street, just between the United Public Workers building and the bus terminal for Kamehemeha Schools lies the small Puea Cemetery where Joseph Kahahawai, Jr. is buried. I always show my UH Manoa students a photo of his grave marker and ask them, as good historical detectives in training, what they notice. Yes, the tombstone indicates he was born on Christmas Day slightly over a century ago in 1909, but when pushed a little further, students see that it reads “Killed Jan. 8, 1932” – a defiant statement indicating that a young man’s life was cut short much to early.
Eighty years ago the killing of Kahahawai brought about the second criminal trial in the well-known Massie-Kahahawai Case. Joseph Kahahawai and four other young local men had been accused of raping Thalia Massie, the twenty-year-old wife of a Naval officer stationed at Pearl Harbor. The rape trial against Kahahawai and his friends, Ben Ahakuelo, Horace Ida, David Takai, and Henry Chang had ended in a mistrial in the fall of 1931. Before a second trial could be convened, however, Thalia Massie’s husband, Thomas Massie, her mother, Grace Fortescue, and two hired Navy personnel kidnapped Joseph Kahahawai from the front steps of a courtroom in downtown Honolulu where he had been checking in daily on condition of his bail. The “Massie-Fortescue” group drove Kahahawai to a rented cottage on Kolowalu St. in Manoa and tried to coerce a confession out of him for the alleged rape of Thalia Massie. When Kahahawai refused to comply and asserted his innocence instead he was shot and then bled to death.
The Massie-Fortescue group tried to dispose of Kahahawai’s body near the Halona Blowhole, but Honolulu police had been following their automobile and caught them red handed. Photographers from both the English and Japanese-language newspapers were close behind the HPD, documenting the crime for audiences locally, in the continental U.S. and even internationally. The evidence against the Massie-Fortescue group seemed to provide an open-and-shut murder case in the spring of 1932. Territorial prosecutor John Kelley, in fact, defeated the well-known Clarence Darrow who defended the group. The Thomas Massie, Grace Fortescue, Edward Lord and Albert Jones were found guilty of the lesser-charge of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years at Oahu Prison. In the end, however, as many keen observers of Hawai‘i’s history already know, Territorial Governor Lawrence McCully Judd – under tremendous pressure from the U.S. Navy and politicians in Washington, DC – commuted their sentences to one day. Many say that Thomas Massie, Grace Fortescue, Lord and Jones spent a mere hour in the governor’s office at ‘Iolani Palace, perhaps either sipping tea or champagne while signing paperwork and posing for newswire photographers.
The true crime details about the Massie-Kahahawai Case are by now, very well known – especially in the last decade with the appearance of books like Honor Killing (2005) by UH American Studies professor David Stannard, Hawaii Scandal (2002) by veteran newspaper reporter Cobey Black, and Mark Zwonitzer’s PBS documentary The Massie Affair (2005). But we also must recall that for decades, the event was deemed too painful, or at least too delicate a story to be repeated in public or in the press. By the 1980s, however, retelling the case in UH Manoa Ethnic Studies courses and eventually in high school curricula became ways to have students talk more openly about racial and ethnic relations, about tensions with a military presence in the islands, and about the need to have accurate and balanced media coverage regarding Hawai‘i and its peoples.
I first heard about the case, not in school, but through the Blood and Orchids television miniseries that aired in the mid 1980s. Like others of my generation from Hawai‘i who watched this fictionalized account while away for college, I was surprised to learn that the miniseries was based on true events. Some twenty years later, Kumu Kahua Theatre did a highly successful run of Dennis Carroll’s play, Massie/Kahahawai that had been painstakingly written by piecing together primary source writings and documents from 1931-32. Carroll, the recently retired chair of UH Manoa’s Theater Department, had originally written the play in the early 1970s, but threats of litigation from Thomas Massie himself caused him to shelve the play for three decades.
Because the Massie-Kahahawai Case involved the alleged rape of a white woman by non-white men of Native Hawaiian, Japanese, and mixed Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry, it is often seen as the first time that the term “local” was used in Hawai‘i with any salience. During the 1930s, during World War II, and onward, island residents of Hawaiian, Asian, and other immigrant descent often saw their working-class, local experiences as much different from – and even opposed to – that of a kamaaina, Big Five elite or representatives of the military or federal government. The case still retains much of that meaning today, but it is also a way to discuss whether local residents always have the power to determine what is right – what is pono – for themselves and the land that they live in. Will Hawai‘i always fight an uphill battle against people and places that do not understand it well, whether it be the “Mainland” or other nation-states in the Asia-Pacific Rim? Are the rights and needs of Hawai‘i and other islands in the Pacific ever to be addressed aqequately? Can justice be fairly and consistently administered, despite pressures from the outside?
Like any event in Hawai‘i’s history, the Massie–Kahahawai Case will continue to raise pertinent questions that current and future generations can think deeply about, seek to answer, and hopefully, resolve. Today (Sunday, January 8th), for example, a group led by Darlene Rodrigues will be going on a walk from downtown Honolulu to Puea Cemetery to call to mind the life of Joseph Kahahawai, Jr. and the continuing relevance of the case. When the group arrives at Kahahawai’s gravesite to offer their thoughts, prayers, and flowers, they will notice a slightly faded inscription on the tombstone that my students do not often see. The inscription is usually too difficult to see in photos, but it is nevertheless, important. It reads HOOMANAO – to remember.