Was it an act of honor -- or revenge for a crime never committed?
In the waning days of summer 1931, Honolulu's tropical tranquility was shattered when a young Navy wife made a drastic allegation of rape against five nonwhite islanders. What unfolded in the following days and weeks was a racially-charged murder case that would make headlines across the nation, enrage Hawai'i's native population, and galvanize the island's law enforcers and the nation's social elite.
The Massie Affair recounts the sensational true crime story that rocked 1930s Hawai'i. Written and produced by Mark Zwonitzer (Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, Transcontinental Railroad), the documentary draws on research done by David Stannard, author of Honor Killing, a book that examines the same topic. "It's a little-known story to most Americans, but to a great extent, this ignited Hawai'i's own civil rights movement," says American
Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "The film is a powerful reminder of the injustices that are part of the tapestry of American history."
In the 1930s, Hawai'i was an American territory, and thought of by many as a paradise in the Pacific. But beneath the peaceful veneer, tensions were building. Hawaiians held a deepening resentment against the U.S. military presence. The workforce was struggling with a Depression-era job market. And racial tensions were about to erupt. The population of white mainlanders, or haoles, as they were called, was growing rapidly. The Navy bases on the island also created tension, as the military men showed little respect for locals. Many native Hawaiians were convinced that the mainlanders were taking over.
Tensions hit the boiling point on September 12, 1931, when Lieutenant Thomas Massie and his twenty-year-old wife Thalia joined a Navy crowd at the Ala Wai Inn, a Honolulu nightspot. Well known for their volatile relationship, the couple had an argument, and Thalia stormed out. Hours later she reported that she had been assaulted. But she could not identify the men who attacked her, nor the car they were driving -- it was too dark, she said.
Despite lack of evidence, five islanders were quickly rounded up and charged with the crime. The accused included two native Hawaiians, one Hawaiian-Chinese man, and two Japanese men. The driving forces behind the trumped up charges, it turned out, were high-ranking Naval officials, including the admiral in charge at Pearl Harbor, Yates Stirling.
Thalia's shocking accusation created a media frenzy. She was portrayed as a victim whose womanhood had been violated. The five defendants were painted as criminal fiends, heathens. Headlines declared "Thugs Attack Hawai'i Woman," and "Hawaiians Must Be Punished!"
While Thalia had fared well in the press, there was plenty of gossip around town about her wild behavior and liaisons with other officers. Thalia's mother, New York socialite Grace Hubbard Bell Fortescue, flew to Honolulu to support her daughter and to protect the family's reputation. But Grace would play a much larger role in the tragedy that was unraveling.
At the November trial of the five defendants, Thalia offered graphic testimony, even identifying her assailants by name. However, there was scant evidence to corroborate her story, and the jury could not agree on a verdict. Forced to declare a mistrial, the judge set the defendants free.
Grace Fortescue and Thomas Massie took matters into their own hands, setting out to force a confession from one of the suspects, Joseph Kahahawai. When coercion turned to violence, Kahahawai was shot and killed.
"A woman's honor was at stake and what a husband does in defense of his wife's honor, even if it involves murder, is justified," comments Stannard. "That became the drum beat throughout the country, on the radio, in the newspapers, in magazines." Papers across the nation eagerly carried reports of the "honor killing."
Despite a passionate defense by celebrated defense attorney Clarence Darrow, Grace and Thomas were convicted of man-slaughter, and sentenced to ten years in prison, a sentence that would not stand. Under pressure from the Hoover administration, Congress, and the Navy, Hawai'i territorial governor Lawrence Judd caved, reducing the sentence to just one hour. The people of Hawai'i were incensed. "So this is what Kahahawai's life is worth," comments historian Kanalu Young in the film. "Nothing more, nothing less than his accused and convicted killers spending an hour visiting with the governor, drinking tea, on a lovely afternoon in paradise."
"Even today, this remains a painful piece of Hawai'i's history," says producer Mark Zwonitzer. "Joe Kahahawai's murder and the aftermath shed light on the egregious institutional racism that stretched from the halls of power in the U.S. government to its outermost territory."
The Navy shipped Grace, Thomas and Thalia out on the first available boat to California, where they were met with a hero's welcome.