The Vigorous Irish Prosecutor in Hawaii


While recovering from a lousy cold this spring, I watched an old episode of American Experience, the award-winning history series on PBS. “The Island Murder,” told the story of two related rape and murder cases that made international headlines in 1932. It was interesting enough, but my ears really perked up at the mention of the prosecutor in both cases, who was the “son of a Montana miner.” Of course, I had to look into this and discovered the prosecutor was none other than John C. Kelley, whose brother was president of the Anaconda Company, Con Kelley. Butte connections are woven far and wide across history’s web.

An attack on the young wife of a naval officer in September 1931, allegedly by five mixed-race Hawaiian youths, was the catalyst. Thalia Massie’s accusation of rape and the subsequent newspaper coverage set off race riots, confused judgment, and created a “crime wave” that thrust Hawaii into the national spotlight. The case inflamed already tense race relations and threatened Hawaii’s consideration for statehood.  Rear Admiral Yates Stirling, Jr. fanned the strife by saying that whites were “under attack in Hawaii,” even encouraging the lynching of the accused men with his racist remarks. [i]

John C. Kelley, the Honolulu city prosecutor, was vilified when a mixed-race jury was unable to find the young men guilty of rape. Following the trial, one of the men was kidnapped and beaten. Another, Joseph Kahahawai, was seized, beaten, and shot to death. The assailants were Thalia’s husband, two enlisted sailors, and her society-matron mother, Grace Fortescue.


Once again, John Kelley served as the prosecutor, arguing against the great American jurist Clarence Darrow, who was defending the lynchers. Clarence Darrow had been a household name for decades. He was an early supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union and represented such well-known defendants as Eugene V. Debs, Leopold and Loeb, and John. T. Skopes (the “Monkey Trial”). He was known to be pro-labor and successfully defended the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners in conspiracy murder charges. The Massie Trial would be his last case, and he took it on because he was in need of money.


Darrow introduced the “honor killing defense” to justify the lynching of Kahahawai. John Kelley was able to deliver a guilty verdict and the four white defendants were sentenced to prison. The trial received national and international attention, grabbing banner headlines with the contemporaneous Lindbergh Kidnapping. None of the white defendants served any time – their sentences were commuted by Hawaii’s Territorial

governor to one hour spent in his office. Ultimately, the Hawaiian men accused of the original crime of rape were proved to be innocent; and one of the enlisted sailors eventually confessed to shooting Kahahawai. John Kelley and Clarence Darrow both died in 1938.


Hawaii was annexed as an American Territory in 1898, in an act of military imperialism during the Spanish-American War. The U.S. was quick to establish multiple camps, batteries, and installations on the islands. The Massie case brought to the surface the racial tensions that existed between native Hawaiians and white Americans, especially those stationed at Pearl Harbor.

I’ve often said that you could name any aspect of history and I could find a Butte connection to it. So I should not be surprised that Butte had a small connection to Clarence Darrow and a “Trial of the Century.”


[i] Chapin, Helen Geracimos. Shaping History: The Role of Newspapers in Hawaii, University of Hawaii Press (1996), 153.



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