AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Island Murder
Airs Tuesday, April 17, 2018 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV
—Discover the truth behind the scandalous 1930s murder case that rocked Hawaii and the nation.—
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 Island Murder” (originally broadcast in 2005 under the title “The Massie Affair”) will have an encore broadcast on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, April 17, 2018 on PBS.
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.
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 nonwhites. Many natives were convinced that the mainlanders were taking over.
Tensions hit the boiling point on September 12, 1931, when Lieutenant Thomas Massie and his 20-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 could not identify the men who attacked her or the car they were driving due to darkness.
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.
Portrayed as a victim whose womanhood had been violated, Thalia became the center of a media frenzy.
The five defendants were painted as criminal fiends, heathens.
But while Thalia 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 protect the family’s reputation.
But Grace would play a much larger role in the tragedy that was unraveling.
At the November trial, 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. Papers across the nation eagerly carried reports of the “honor killing.”
Despite a passionate defense by Clarence Darrow, Grace and Thomas were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison.
But under pressure from the Hoover Administration, Congress, and the Navy, Governor Lawrence Judd caved, reducing the sentence to just one hour.
The people of Hawai`i were incensed.
“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 “The Massie affair is 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.”
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Written, produced, and directed by Mark Zwonitzer. Edited by Bruce Shaw. Director of photography: Michael Chin. Music by Brian Keane. Narrated by Blair Brown. A HiddenHill Productions film for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is a production of WGBH Boston. Senior Producer: Susan Bellows. Executive Producer: Mark Samels.