The Massie Affair was a 1932 criminal trial that took place in Honolulu, Hawaii. Grace Hubbard Fortescue, along with several accomplices, was charged with manslaughter in the death of Joseph Kahahawai. Fortescue was the mother of Thalia Massie, who had brought charges that Kahahawai was one of a group of men that had raped her.
Thalia Fortescue married Lieutenant Thomas Massie, an up-and-coming U.S. Naval officer. A lieutenant's pay proved not to be up to her expectations, and the two were soon at odds. In 1930, Massie was stationed at Pearl Harbor, where Thalia considered herself "above" the rest of the officers' wives and soon became an outcast. The marriage, apparently not terribly successful to start with, degenerated into heavy drinking and public fights.
Massie tired of his wife's behavior and decided to divorce her. Eventually he gave her an ultimatum—behave or he would go through with the divorce. On September 12, 1931 the couple attended a Navy event at the Ala Wai Inn, a Waikiki nightclub. Far from being well-behaved, Thalia had another run-in which ended with her slapping an officer and then storming out. Massie, not having witnessed the event, assumed she was tired and had gone home.
Several hours later the story changed. Thalia now not only described the assailants as "locals", but managed to give the police a license plate number. Within hours the police arrested Horace Ida. Ida was not entirely surprised at first, as only a few hours earlier he had been involved in a near collision while driving his sister's car. Although there was no damage, an argument broke out with the other driver and one of his friends eventually slapped the woman. Upon his arrival at the police station, the charges with the altercation were never brought up—instead he found to his dismay that he was being charged with rape.
At first glance, the story seemed to hold water. Thalia's license plate was off by only one digit (or letter) and her description of the men, Ida and his friends, was fairly accurate. However, it later became known that the police taking Thalia's statement had in fact "told her" both pieces of information, apparently after hearing the name and description from the initial complaint filed by the woman driver. Riccio offers the following account of the incident involving Horace Ida:
Horace Ida, a young Japanese man, had borrowed his sister's two year old car and had attended a luau accompanied by his pals Joe Kahahawai, Benny Ahakuelo, David Takai and Henry Chang. At about 12:30 A.M, Horace suggested they call it a night. He and his friends piled into the car and left the luau.
As the car passed through an intersection in downtown Honolulu, Horace barely missed colliding with an automobile coming from the opposite direction. There was no contact between the two cars, but both drivers stopped and everyone piled out to argue the fine points of Hawaiian motor vehicle law.
The occupants of the other car were a Mr. and Mrs. Peeples. Mrs. Peeples was voicing her opinion of Horace Ida's driving skills when Big Joe Kahahawai (all six feet and more of him) hauled off and punched her in the face. Mrs. Peeples was equal to the challenge. She gave as good as she got. She clenched her fist, wound up, and to Big Joe's surprise, slugged him in the mouth! The incident was about to become a donnybrook. However, cooler heads prevailed, and the Peeples drove off to the police station to report the incident.
At the station, the Peeples gave Horace Ida's license plate as 58-895, and the police put out an all points bulletin for the car and its occupants. At about the same time, the police learned of the rape in Ala Moana Park, so it was only natural that they would assume that the occupants of the Ida car were more than likely the perpetrators of the assault on Thalia Massie.
Horace Ida and his friends were eventually located through the car's license plate and were brought before Thalia at the police station. She was unable to identify Horace Ida, who was wearing a brown leather jacket when she saw him. When asked the license number of the assailants' car, she did not remember it, but she later heard the plate number 58-895 being broadcast at the police station.
The next day, under further questioning, Thalia's story began to change. She now "remembered" that one of her assailants had been wearing a brown leather jacket and the license plate of the assailants' car was 58-805 (only one digit was different from the number of Horace Ida's plate). To the police, the case against Horace Ida and his friends began to look stronger. The five men insisted they were not part of any assault on a lone white woman walking through the darkness of John Ena Road. They explained their movements on the night at length. But the police were not persuaded. The five young men were indicted and charged with rape and assault.
Given that the police had no information tying Ida to Thalia in any way, it might seem odd that they would pick him out of the blue as a scapegoat. This was due entirely to race. At the time the Hawaiian population consisted primarily of extremely rich US businessmen, US Navy personnel, and a huge number of working poor, mostly Japanese. Racism was a fact of life, notably for the Hawaiians who were often called "niggers". Racial tensions were already high due to the Navy's disquiet about white Navy wives dancing with the locals.
When the story broke the next day, no one was concerned about the truth. Rear Admiral Yates Stirling, Jr., Commandant of the US Navy's 14th Naval District (which included the islands), suggested that he simply collect up several Navy men, hunt down the group, and "string them up". In stories printed as the case developed, the local newspapers referred to the men as "thugs", "degenerates" and "fiends", while Thalia was described as "a white woman of refinement and culture".
As the case developed, cracks in the story immediately appeared. In order to have assaulted Thalia—an event so far unproven to have even occurred—it would have been extremely difficult to have then been involved in the near accident across town. Witnesses soon came forward that reported seeing Thalia followed by a white man only minutes before the alleged assault took place. This information was never reported in the trial that was to follow, nor was the fact that the police planted information. The police themselves were split on the case—many of the detectives were locals who saw the case was a sham and when they were denied access in the courtroom, they started to talk directly to the press.
While the good citizens of Honolulu waited for the trial to begin, rumors began to develop and spread through the city. There were those who whispered that Thalia had not been raped at all. It was said that she was having an illicit relationship with one of the five beach boy suspects, and that she was on her way to a rendezvous with him when she found him in the company of four drunken friends.
It was also speculated that Thalia was having an affair with one of Tommie's shipmates. When Tommie came home after the party, so the gossip went, he found his wife and his friend in flagrante delicto (as lawyers like to say when they mean "caught in the act") and it was Tommie who beat up his wife and broke her jaw.
(The above account might have formed the basis for the suggestion in the motion picture Blood & Orchids as to how Thalia came to be raped and badly beaten, if this did not occur at the hands of the five men she accused.)
Grace Fortescue, enraged by the stories and what she saw as an attempt to sully the name of her daughter and the family, arrived and started a public campaign to attack the defendants. The story threatened to ruin Hawaii's burgeoning tourism industry and Admiral Stirling was worried that if the story reached the mainland he would be made to look as if he did not have control of the situation. The two groups successfully managed to keep the story out of the mainland press while the trial continued. Yet they also pressed the courts for a quick and aggressive prosecution to placate an enraged Navy and local haole (white) community.
In court the case quickly fell apart. After a three-week trial and lengthy jury deliberation, the jurors declared themselves deadlocked and a mistrial was declared.
Debating what to do, they eventually decided to dump Kahahawai's body off Koko Head, at the time a desolate area far away from urban Honolulu. Although he would eventually be found, it seemed to them unlikely that anyone would care. They wrapped Kahahawai in a sheet and put him in Fortescue's rented car, pulling down the shades to hide the interior. A police motorcyclist, alerted to the kidnapping, saw the blinds and considered it suspicious. He pulled them over and immediately arrested all four for murder.
This time the story could no longer be kept under wraps. The mainland press soon started printing stories where "the roads go through jungles and in those remote places bands of degenerate natives lie in wait for white women driving by". The fact that the men had not been convicted of the alleged rape only proved to the mainland press that Hawaii itself was a hotbed of anti-white racial hatred, not that they were innocent. That Fortescue herself had actually admitted to the crime was insubstantial.
Clarence Darrow, perhaps the most famous lawyer of his era, had been ruined by the Great Depression and decided to take on the defense for the astonishing sum of $40,000. Unlike the Leopold and Loeb case where the press was incensed by a rumored $1 million fee (which was actually $100,000, split three ways), no one felt that his price was outrageous given the circumstances.
Throughout the trial, Thalia attempted to present herself as an innocent victim. This fell apart when the prosecutor, John Kelley, played on her feelings of superiority. This eventually led to her becoming enraged, ripping up a piece of evidence, and storming from the stand. Although this would seem to be a prosecution victory, the courtroom erupted in supportive applause from the spectators.
The jury, under extreme pressure similar to the Rodney King trial, nevertheless returned a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder. Racial tensions were so high that everyone had expected another hung jury. The mainland press exploded with even more slanderous stories and the situation in Hawaii grew more tense. Martial Law was considered, notably by Admiral Stirling, who had considered imposing it from the start.
After a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering between Washington and Honolulu, martial law was avoided. Instead, Territorial Governor Lawrence Judd commuted the 10-year sentences of the convicted killers to one hour, to be served in his office. Days later the entire group, including the Massies, the two other Navy men, Fortescue and Darrow boarded a ship and left the island in turmoil. Thalia and Massie divorced in 1934; she committed suicide in 1963; he died in 1987. Grace Hubbard died in 1979.
Charges against the surviving four defendants in the rape case were dropped since the prosecution's lead witness, Thalia Massie, had left the Territory and could not be forced to return to testify.
Max Allan Collins's 1996 novel, Damned in Paradise, follows the facts of the case much more closely than Katkov's book. An entry in his series about Depression-era private eye Nate Heller, Damned in Paradise casts Heller as the personal investigator for Darrow after the famed attorney is retained to represent Lt. Massie, Grace Fortescue, and the other defendants accused of Kahahawai's murder. Collins also includes fictionalized depictions of such historical figures as John Jardine, one of the actual Honolulu police detectives who investigated the case, and Chang Apana, the real-life inspiration for Charlie Chan, who was still an active-duty detective in HPD at the time of the Massie case (though there's no official record to suggest that Chang was actually one of the investigating officers). As is often the case in the Heller series, Collins provides an alternate solution as to who might have been responsible for Mrs. Massie's rape.
It's been suggested that Robert Traver's 1958 novel, Anatomy of a Murder, was loosely inspired by the Massie case, involving, as it does, a military officer who murders the alleged rapist of his wife and the subsequent trial arising from that murder, with the setting changed from Honolulu to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and the Naval officer changed to an Army officer. However, in 1952 Traver himself defended an Army officer accused of the murder of his wife's alleged attacker, and, despite the striking parallels to the Massie incident, it is more likely that this was case from which Traver derived his plot.
During the American Bar Association convention at the Hawai'i Convention Center in Honolulu, on August 3, 2006, Lt. Gov. James Aiona served as the judge at the mock trial, using a copy of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency report complied by the then Territorial Government and using 21st century forensic techniques, looked into the rape case once more. Lawyers attending the convention acted as the Jury.
After testimony from two experts, and new arguments about the case, the lawyers voted with a unanimous "Not guilty" verdict for all defendants. Among other deciding factors was the defense's evidence that the five men accused of the rape had been involved in violence on the other side of Honolulu (the near collision with the Peeples's car) near the time of the alleged attack on Massie and would not have been able to reach Waikiki in time to have also raped Massie as she described.
In an ironic historical twist, the current Hawaii Convention Center — where the mock trial was held — sits on the former Ala Wai Inn, where the infamous case first started.