In the early 1930s a train of events began in the Hawaiian Islands that would outrage the entire U.S.A. It ignited a conflagration of bigotry, furious emotion, vigilante justice, murder, and courtroom drama. Clarence Darrow, no less, would come out of retirement for the defense. William Randolph Hearst’s papers — along with many lesser ones – would issue editorials replete with pompous, turgid rhetoric and appeals to the “unwritten law”. Normally temperate citizens would give vehement approval to a cold-blooded vigilante murder by an arrogant socialite. Those who disagreed would be likely to keep their mouths shut, intimidated by the intensity of public feeling – unless they were exceptionally brave.
Robert E. Howard was among those whose feelings on the matter were violent and intense. In a letter to H.P. Lovecraft which he wrote in April, 1932, he comments:
Just now my interest in the Far East is centered on that trial in Honolulu, which makes me ashamed of my own race. How a white man can stand up in court and prosecute a white woman, before the scum of the Orient, with Orientals on the jury, is more than I can understand. I consider it a blot on the country’s flag and honor that the case was ever brought to court; at least she should have been honorably acquited without delay. Why, good God, what’s the Caucasian race coming to? Is a white individual not allowed to protect or avenge the members of his or her family? What ever they do to the defendants, any way, they cant resurrect that damned yellow-belly they killed. He got it easy; good thing for him it wasnt Texas. Men have been burned alive at the stake here for less than he did.
Nothing can excuse that outburst. I won’t try. It doesn’t lessen my admiration for REH’s writing talent a bit. It doesn’t cause me to forget that any number of supposedly urbane, educated and responsible people living in far more congenial social milieus than REH did were expressing precisely the same views, either. I’ll just describe, I hope without wasting too many words, the background to the incident, what the incident was, what provoked it, and the people involved.
The background? That, of course, was Hawaii; the Territory of Hawaii then, not yet a state. Lawrence McCully Judd was its seventh governor. To most Americans it was a distant, romantic tropical paradise they’d never see, but which they thought they knew from Hollywood movies and colorful novels. The Great Depression was under way and no ordinary person would take a holiday in the islands – just movie stars and millionaires.
Except for armed forces personnel. Hawaii was an important outpost. Among other functions it was an important staging post and port on the way to the Philippines, another American possession, where the natives were often restless – and ferocious. The Philippine War had ended in 1913, less than twenty years before. It lasted three times as long as World War I. Philippine independence was still a red-hot issue, and Americans of old Anglo-Saxon stock despised the notion.
Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was a major Naval base and shipyard. Any Naval personnel who were assigned there felt that Christmas had come early. Even the lowest ranks of commissioned officers could live comfortably in Honolulu. Officers, of course, did not live anywhere near the ordinary sailors. The Navy was the most class-conscious and socially conservative of the armed forces. The strict segregation by rank and age it practiced might not be official – but it was powerful and difficult to contest, much less beat. Prohibition hadn’t ended yet, and U.S. Navy ships were dry anyhow, but ashore, at the inns, clubs and cabarets of the islands, there was bootleg booze to be had, as everywhere in U.S. territory. There was also a plentiful supply of the local liquor known as okolehao. A popular form of entertainment was boxing, though up until 1929 it had only been legal in Hawaii if sponsored by the military. Local boxers often fought against Navy pugs – and Navy wives were strongly discouraged from attending the matches. Socially, it wasn’t done. The women didn’t have a whole lot they could do, except play bridge, swim and sunbathe at the beaches, and cover for each other’s affairs.
Outside the Army and Navy bases, Hawaii was run by privileged white (haole) elite. They enjoyed the top political positions, which, since Hawaii was then a territory and not a state, were by appointment of the President. The malahini haole were the Johnny-come-lately military men, in general more overtly and crudely racist than the established elite. They referred to Hawaiians and Asians as “niggers” on the island streets, and regarded them with suspicion, as being closely akin to the Japanese, with whom they expected to be at war eventually. But it was for the established elite that the native Hawaiians and the numerous Asians worked for sweated wages on the sugar and pineapple plantations – when they had employment at all. Others lived in crushing poverty in the crowded urban slums.
Then Thalia Massie came to Hawaii with her husband, a young Naval officer, Lieutenant Thomas Massie. Thalia was well connected socially, but she’d married Thomas at the age of sixteen and had personal problems, as did he; their marriage doesn’t appear to have been happy. Thalia suffered from Graves’ disease, which causes hyperthyroidism. One of the symptoms is long-term mood disturbances. Thalia was restless, irritable and had a drinking problem – although that was common enough among Navy wives in Honolulu, probably, due to sheer boredom. She reckoned herself socially above the other Navy wives, and they didn’t like her; it hadn’t taken her long to make herself an outcast among them. Her drinking increased and she sometimes had public fights with her husband.
In the summer of 1931 Thalia had one of the worst experiences a woman can have. Pregnant, in an episode of pre-eclampsia she lost her unborn baby. Her emotions rocketing along a rickety roller-coaster, she sought help from a psychologist. His professional opinion was that she suffered personal and emotional problems so severe that she required the help of a psychiatrist.
She and Thomas attended a party on the 13th of September 1931. He apparently left her on her own. Thalia in his absence had an alcohol-fuelled argument with another officer, slapped him, and then stalked out for some fresh air, still irked by Thomas’s neglect. Walking off her anger on John Ena Road, she found trouble. Massie assumed she’d gone home and made several calls later, to check that she’d arrived safely. She hadn’t. When Massie saw her next – or was it the next time he saw her? — she told him in a state of shock that she’d been raped by several Hawaiian and Asian men who stopped in a car on a darkened road beside her. She had trouble speaking clearly, I’d suppose, since her jaw had been broken. She also had bruises on her cheeks. He phoned the police, although she didn’t want him to, and in her first statement to them she said she couldn’t describe her attackers or their car, since it had been dark and they were strangers. Besides, they were Hawaiian and Asian. To someone of Thalia’s social class they probably all looked alike, even by daylight.
That was the version of events the Massies gave the police. It emerged later that their version might not have been strictly true. It was, however, quite a long time later. Too late for at least one man.
The cops decided to help her identify the pack of rapists. There had been another incident that night involving young Hawaiians and Asians in a car, with hot words flying and punches thrown. It seemed likely to the minions of the law that the same group of young roughnecks had attacked Thalia Massie. They were Horace Ida, a Japanese, Joe Kahahawai, a 20-year-old boxer, Ben Ahakuelo, also a boxer, and a football player too, Henry Chang, part native Hawaiian, part Chinese, who had recently come back to Hawaii to help his parents on their farm, and David Takai, 21 years old, of Japanese descent. The five had gone to a luau in a car that belonged to Ida’s sister. Driving around after midnight, they had almost pranged a car coming the other way at an intersection. The occupants were a Mr. and Mrs. Peeples. There was no collision, but both cars stopped and there was a heated argument. The occupants of each were convinced that the other car’s driver wasn’t fit to control a garbage cart. They said so, and quite a bit more.
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