The legal case known as the Massie Affair is described and analyzed in the book Honor Killing Race, Rape and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard. The story of the killing of an accused rapist created a sensation in Hawaii where it occurred and across the country in 1932, and the merits of the case have been argued ever since. The case was a major issue even before it included Clarence Darrow as defense attorney. The case presents a nexus of race, social class, legal structures, and other forces and suggests some of the failures of the legal system, the prejudices of much of the populace, the place of the military among a civilian population, and more.
The case involved a pampered daughter of privilege named Thalia Fortexcue, who married Lieutenant Thomas Massie, a naval officer stationed at Pearl Harbor from 1930. She may have married the dashing lieutenant without realizing that he was limited to military pay, and the lack of money and the difference in social standing created tensions that divided the two. In addition, Thalia believed herself to be socially superior to the other wives at Pearl Harbor, so she was largely ignored by them because of her behavior. The couple soon became known for excessive drinking and public battles. The lieutenant in time was disenchanted with his wife and sought a divorce, but he first gave her a warning and said if she did not behave, he would go through with the divorce, which at that time was a stronger threat to her social standing than it might be today. One evening, the pair attended a Navy event at a nightclub in Waikiki, and Thalia did not behave that night and slapped an officer before storming out alone. Massie thought she had gone home. After a while, he started calling home to see if she was all right, and when she did answer, she seemed to be in a state of shock an claimed that oln her way home she had been raped by several Hawaiian men. She did not want to call the police, but her husband did so anyway. Thalia did not give any details at first and claimed that it was too dark and that she could not identify any of the men involved. Later, though, she gave the police a description and a license number. The police arrested a man named Horace Ida, and it would later be shown that much of the information Thalia gave that led to this arrest had been given to her by the police. Also arrested was Ida’s friend, Joseph Kahahawai, and three others. Other witnesses emerged to cast doubts on her story. The trial fell apart and led to a mistrial.
That was the first trial associated with the Massie Affair. While awaiting a retrial, Thomas Massie and two Navy enlisted men kidnapped Kahahawai, apparently because he was the darkest skinned of the five defendants. The kidnapping was at the instigation of Thalia’s mother, and she and the Navy men interrogated Kahahawai and tried to beat a confession out of him. One of the group eventually shot Kahahawai, and the group went to dump his body in a desolate area, but they were stopped by police before they reached their destination and were arrested. The second trial associated with the Massie Affair would also be the main event.
The situation from the first had strong racial overtones, with the young white wife supposedly raped by the “natives” on the island. Her charges were flimsy, which made many Hawaiians believe that she had made them up and that the first trial was a case of white justice seeking to blame the dark-skinned man for a crime that did not occur. Also, the case raised all manner of flags about supposed black lust for white women, about vindictive white women being able to find dark-skinned scapegoats for their own indiscretions, about the occupying military lording it over the native population, and so on. Many in the white population saw the issue differently and believed that the men were guilty and that they were only acquitted by a Hawaiian jury that hated white people. That sort of outcome was the mirror of what was more common in the Old South as black defendants were convicted by all-white juries. In these terms alone, the case played to the prejudices of both sides and obscured the truth about what had happened, though as Stannard shows, there was likely no rape at all and Thalia was covering a meeting with a white man. This event is reminiscent of the charge by Susan Smith that a black man had stolen her car and killed her children, when in fact she had done it herself. Numerous cases can be cited where whites in different parts of the country blame4d blacks for certain crimes that never happened because they thought that stereotype would be believed. In a different way, the same idea empowered Lincoln Steffens to claim that Hawaii was now beset by a crime wave, which was not true:
As Steffens confessed in his book, the crime wave that he had proudly created was entirely invented, although technically all the “crimes” had been real. There had been no increase at all in the city’s actual crime. (Stannard 221)
Similarly, rumors were rampant about what had really happened to Thalia: “Rumors that he knew she had lied about the rape and hadn’t attended the trial for that reason” (Stannard 359).
This raises another element evident in the analysis offered by Stannard, one showing the growing role of the media in trails in America, which also meant perpetuating rumors, creating problems out of whole cloth, editorializing about what is true and what is not, and generally making the entire legal procedure more salacious and more difficult than it has to be. The trial is depicted less as a search for truth and more as a boxing match with one side favored over the other.
The final outcome did not satisfy most ideas of justice, either. Thalia continued to play the innocent victim, but the prosecutor angered her on the stand so that she tore up some evidence and stormed out of the trial. Her sense of superiority was apparent not only over the people of Hawaii but over the naval personnel and their wives as well. The jury found the defendants guilty of manslaughter, but even that seemingly small victory for justice was thwarted when the Territorial Governor commuted the sentence of ten years to one hour served in his office. The defendants were allowed to leave the country, which meant that there would also be no retrial for rape because Thalia, the complaining witness, was no longer on the island.
Stannard suggests that this trial changed Hawaii forever, and yet what it really did was highlight the racial and social divisions that existed there and that were becoming more pronounced because of the large number of naval personnel stationed there. Pearl Harbor would remain famous, or infamous, for this trial and would only become a different sort of infamy after the attack by Japanese forces in 1941. The governance by the American government had the aura of paternalism toward the dark-skinned people of the islands and so created divisions that would persist for decades, and indeed that have some sway to this day. The sort of racial and social divisions seen in this case mirror the divisions in the South for much of our history, with the same sort of tensions in the justice system and the same difference in perceptions between the white population and the minority population, though in Hawaii, the dark-skinned population was not the minority but instead had the aura of an occupied population.
Gender tensions are also evident in this case, not only between the white accuser and the dark-skinned accused men, but also between that same woman and her husband and between that woman and the naval husbands and wives on the island. The way the case ended suggested the willingness of the government to step in and thwart justice when it saw that as necessary, leaving the native population distrustful of the courts for decades and convinced of the injustices being perpetrated against them. If the law is intended to apply equally to all, it is clear that that ideal was not followed in this case.
Stannard, David E. Honor Killing Race, Rape and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case. New York: Viking, 2005.
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