Publication Date: May 2, 2006
Honor Killing: How the Infamous Massie Affair Transformed Hawai’i by David E. Stannard takes place in 1931. Thalia Massie stumbled from the brush into a car when she accused six Hawaiian men of gang-raping her. When the accused went to trial and walked away due to a hung jury, Thalia’s mother and husband kidnapped and killed one of the subjects launching a highly contested trial. If aristocratic white folk exacting a revenge killing in a racially charged environment wasn’t enough to attract the attention of the world, Clarence Darrow for the defense in what would be in the last case, was certainly a draw.
This retelling of the Massie case paints the picture of a flighty and somewhat spoiled woman whose marriage to a Navy officer stationed in Hawaii was on the rocks. The author broaches slightly the idea that Mrs. Massie wasn’t raped but rightly doesn’t dwell on the matter because that’s not the point. The point is that there were serious grounds for doubt that the five accused were guilty of the crime. In fact, witnesses saw the accused Hawaiian men far away from where Mrs. Maisse was found on the night of the alleged rape. It certainly seemed to be a case of suggestion when they were identified. Suddenly the woman who claimed not to have been able to see her attackers clearly identified them without a shadow of a doubt. It bears mentioning that men who have been locked up for years for crimes for which they were convicted by eyewitness testimony have been found to be innocent because people simply cannot be relied upon to remember things in detail.
The plan that Grace Fortescue, Thalia Massie’s mother and Thomas Massie developed, was that they would kidnap the newly freed accused men and torture them until they confessed their crime. They kidnapped Horace Ida and beat him badly but that didn’t satisfy Mrs. Fortescue’s thirst for vengeance. They next kidnapped Joseph Kahahawai, a prizefighter, and in the course of questioning, someone shot him. They were caught pretty much immediately and that’s when the oddest thing happened — people rallied behind them. They were sent flowers and gifts and had if it not been for one brave judge, they would not have been tried for the crime at all. Stories started to travel to the mainland of the lawlessness of Hawaii and the “Hawaiian problem.” There were tales of Native Hawaiians roaming the streets and terrorizing innocent women. Filmmakers, who had worked in Hawaii, rose to the defense of their people. Grace Fortescue had suffered some financial bad luck but was able to use her newfound fame and sympathy to raise money to hire the best lawyer she could find — Clarence Darrow — the champion of the underdog. So why would he take this case, you might wonder? The author goes into the motivations and also the damage Darrow’s reputation took in certain circles for what could be seen as selling out.
Honor Killing: How the Infamous Massie Affair Transformed Hawai’i is an engrossing work of non-fiction. It starts — slowly going over Thalia Massie’s life and her somewhat damaged relationship with her husband. His behavior, when she stumbles out of the brush, was confounding. She said to the driver of a car she flagged down; “Are you white people?” before climbing into the car to sit on the lap of the couple’s teenaged son and demanding to be driven to her home. When the revenge killing happens, the story picks up pace and the jaw-dropping nature of its place in time engrosses the reader. I think many of us have probably said; “If anyone hurts my daughter, I’ll be the one to wind up in jail” but would we carry through? Would we be as proud of our actions as Fortescue certainly was? I don’t think there’s any question that she believed she had the right man but certainly the benefit of looking back at a full picture leads the modern reader to know that this poor Hawaiian man very likely died innocent.
Stannard presents the readers of Honor Killing: How the Infamous Massie Affair Transformed Hawai’i with a painstakingly researched work that is one of the stories that is stranger than fiction. That a crime that impacted Hawaii in the way it did is not more widely known is confounding to this reader. If you enjoy true crime or legal history, pick this one up today.
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