Monday, May 7, 2012

Sex, Race, Violence, and Courtroom Drama

In Honor Killing, historian David E. Stannard tells the story of two trials and the national uproar around them. The setting is Honolulu in the 1920s and early 1930s, a place with many divergent groups: Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, and Japanese plantation and cannery laborers, wealthy white business owners, the U.S. Navy, and tourists from the U.S. mainland.

Thalia Massie, a young white woman from "society" who is married to a Navy officer, is found alone on a road in the night with her face beaten. She says that she was taken into a car by five Hawaiian men and raped in the woods.

The police quickly apprehend five men (Hawaiian, Chinese American, and Japanese American) who who are prosecuted for the crime, despite scanty evidence against them. With lively descriptions of the courtroom scenes, Stannard offers plenty of detail but keeps the story moving. When the trial ends with a hung jury, the white press, the leaders of  major companies, and the naval command are outraged.

Before long, one of the freed young men is kidnapped and murdered by Thalia Massie's husband, her mother, and two sailors. The incident receives tremendous attention in Hawaii and  on the mainland, where much of the press (including the Hearst chain of newspapers) applauds the killing, since it was in defense of  a woman's honor. It's not clear whether the grand jury will indict but the killers are charged.

And who is brought in to defend them? Clarence Darrow, who is 75 and, because his investments fared badly in the Depression, glad to get the retainer. Although much of  his career he had fought for blacks and labor against the white power elite, this time he  was  on the side of the navy brass and wealthy whites and against the working-class people of color. And so we have a second courtroom drama, again told with detail and strong pacing.

The final chapter  looks at the years  following these events, making the argument that "the Massie affair" marked a turning point in race relations on the islands. After this, people of color—Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese—often united instead of working against each other (as the plantation owners had engineered it).

Engaging American history and legal history—and available in the Law Library (KF224.F685 S73 2006 at Good Reads). Catalog record. Publisher's page.

 (The book was published with two subtitles:Honor Killing: How the Infamous "Massie Affair" Transformed Hawai'i (2005) is available in Suzzallo/Allen Library. Catalog record. Honor Killing : Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case, published in 2006, is the edition here. If you like to read on your Kindle, Nook, or iPad, it's also available as an e-book from Seattle Public Library.)

For multimedia, check out the website for the PBS documentary, The Massie Affair. It includes text, photos, and video interviews.

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