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The Island Murder | Article

Joseph Kahahawai's Murder


Joseph Kahahawai​​​ was murdered Friday, January 8, 1932. Unlike Thalia Massie's assault case, Joseph Kahahawai's murder presented few confusing or disputed facts. The accused — including Thalia's mother, Grace Fortescue, and her husband, Tommy Massie — readily admitted they had kidnapped their victim, and shot him in the course of an interrogation. Lauded as an "honor killing" in the press, the crime was seen as a white husband's revenge, and a necessary white response to a nonwhite threat.

When the defendants were found guilty, America was outraged. "If President Herbert Hoover has a spinal column he will take Hawai'i out of the hands of half-breed politicians that have made it a cesspool and a danger spot," wrote columnist Floyd Gibbons, urged on by his boss, William Randolf Hearst. "Maybe you don't want white American rule in Hawai'i. I do."

The prosecutor, John C. Kelly, received hate mail from around the country, including one letter reading, "Should you have a daughter, may she be ravished by ten brutes... you ought to be hung from a lamppost and a fire set under it."

Just a few months after her sentence was commuted, Grace Fortescue published her story in Liberty magazine.

Why did Grace Fortescue decide to take matters into her own hands?
"In our efforts to obtain a confession from Kahahawai, we were not breaking the law. We were endeavoring to aid the law. Our actions were not, to our way of thinking, illegal. A confession, we were convinced, would instantly kill the rumors and gossip blackening my daughter's name..."
— Grace Fortescue, Thalia Massie's mother, July 30, 1932

Who shot Joseph Kahahawai?
"Suddenly the room vibrated with a shot. I wheeled around. Kahahawai stretched up against the arm of the chaise longue. Facing him, Tommy stood transfixed, the pistol at his feet... I crossed to the native. His body, rigid for a minute, slumped down in the chair. I pulled open his shirt. I saw the bullet hole -- a round, blue-red hole in the dark skin just above his heart... Kahahawai was dead."
— Grace Fortescue, Thalia Massie's mother, July 30, 1932

What did the killers plan to do with the body?
"I went to the sedan and backed it halfway out from the garage. I leaned across to the rear seat and pulled down the curtain to shut out curious, unwelcome eyes. At last out the kitchen door came the men, carrying their burden roped in a sheet. I had wanted to go alone. But the men said, no... I backed the car down the garage drive, and circled up the hill to University Avenue. To the sea!"
— Grace Fortescue, Thalia Massie's mother, August 6, 1932

How did Fortescue characterize the jury?
"Six were of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, two Chinese, one Portuguese, and three of mixed blood. These were the men who held our freedom in their hands. In the momentary quiet that followed adjournment, a woman's challenging voice rang out: 'Suppose you ask the people of the United States what they think about white people being tried by these alien jurors, some of whom have no understanding of the deep-rooted principles behind the slaying charge.'

...The stoical Oriental faces betrayed no emotion. Ethnologically and traditionally, white and yellow and brown are races apart. How could [a defense lawyer's] plea appeal to the six men to whom the white man's code is a mystery?"
— Grace Fortescue, Thalia Massie's mother, August 13, 1932

How was the criminal act justified?
"[The first] trial ended in a jury disagreement. All that we had done to help in the prosecution of the five accused of attacking a white woman had gone for naught. Those five were at liberty.

I burned under a strong sense of injustice. And not only was I stirred by the injustice done my daughter, but I was appalled at the thought of the consequences...

During the time I had lived in Honolulu I learned that ravishment was an all too common crime. Seldom were the guilty punished. When guilt was proved the punishment meted out was so mild it mocked one of the white man's most sacred tenets.

Every day Honolulu gangsters grew bolder in their attacks... Every day... women were boldly insulted in the city streets, attempts to kidnap and assault them occurred in every section of Honolulu.

For years the women of Honolulu had fought these conditions...[But] native defendants openly boasted that they had nothing to fear. Yet... the territorial administration promoted a 'hush-hush' policy."
— Grace Fortescue, Thalia Massie's mother, July 30, 1932

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