Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Clarence Darrow and Hawaii’s Massie Affair

A letter I wrote to The New Yorker about Hawaii’s infamous Massie Affair, a sordid episode in American race relations, was printed in the June 27, 2011, issue and is at the bottom of this page.

I wrote the letter because: (a) I had recently read three thought-provoking books about racism in America during the early years of the 20th century and (b) the magazine’s profile of Clarence Darrow overlooked an important and defining episode that checkered the man’s career.

The first book, The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley, deals with Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy, highlighting the central role of paternalistic racism in American decision-making.

In the summer of 1905, Roosevelt, seeking to extend American hegemony into Asia, sent a huge diplomatic legation eastward from San Francisco on the passenger ship Manchurian. It was headed by Secretary of War William Howard Taft and, as this was still the era of monarchies, decorated with Roosevelt’s 21-year-old daughter Alice, America’s own “princess.”

The three-month journey across the Pacific also included seven senators, 23 representatives, and about 40 aides, servants, and hangers-on. In the aftermath of Imperial Japan’s stunning victory over Tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War—the first victory of an Asian (non-white) power over a European (white) power in modern history—Roosevelt wished to “show the flag” to Hawaiians and demonstrate authority to America’s Filipino subjects (referred to more than once as  “Asian niggers” on the floor of Congress). The Philippines, after gaining independence from Spain in the Spanish-American War, was still in turmoil seven years later over its annexation by the U.S.

Roosevelt justified western control as necessary (what Kipling had called in 1898 the “white man’s burden”) because Taft, governor of the Philippines at war’s end, had assured President McKinley that “our little brown brothers” would need 50-100 years of close supervision “to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills.”

The second book was Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang. It deals with the reality upon which Chan’s character was based (real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana) and the racial implications of an intelligent Chinese hero in American fiction. I’ve already posted about it.

The third was David Stannard’s Honor Killing, an exhaustive, historical examination of Honolulu’s Massie Affair, a racially explosive case of alleged rape (1931) that led to a hung jury and the murder of one of the Hawaiian defendants (1932) by the mother and husband of Thalia Massie, a 21-year-old white woman whose rape story had failed to convince the jury.

Clarence Darrow

Thalia’s father was the illegitimate son of Theodore Roosevelt’s brother; her mother’s grandfather was Alexander Graham Bell (even though Jill Lepore’s article stressed Darrow’s dedication to the oppressed, The New Yorker edited these facts out of my letter…for “space considerations”). Calling on wealthy friends, Thalia’s mother collected enough money to hire Clarence Darrow, whose defense of the accused murderers included creating a fictional scenario that attempted to prove temporary insanity.

The shorthand version of what happened is in my letter.

Most stories of racism in America are about African Americans. This one isn’t.

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2 Comments

  1. Len Becker says:

    I’m writing in response to your well-crafted letter to The New Yorker. Your criticism of Darrow’s representation of a defendant charged with a heinous crime seems off the mark. A lawyer is not to be condemned for the wrongs of the person he represents. (Edward Bennett Williams, a famous DC trial lawyer, aptly called this criticism “guilt by client.”) Nor is the representation somehow tainted because the client can afford to pay for it. There is plenty wrong with the legal profession, but in the foregoing respects, at least, Darrow properly may plead “not guilty.”

    With all best wishes from a Harvard ’65 classmate.

    • Steve Cotler says:

      Great to hear from you, Len.

      I was absolutely not criticizing Darrow’s decision to represent “defendants charged with heinous crimes” (note that they admitted the murder). Nor was I criticizing his representing clients because they could pay his fee.

      Jill Lepore’s profile of Darrow stressed his dedication to the underdog, to the oppressed. I felt it important to show that in the Massie Affair trial, Darrow worked the other side of the street with little regard for legal honesty. He suborned Thomas Massie’s perjury (with plausible deniability on Darrow’s part because he chose not to ask the defendants whether what he was doing actually matched the events) by getting Massie to claim he fired the gun that killed Kahahawai. One of the other defendants, years later, admitted firing the shot…and clearly all the defendants knew who had done it all along. Darrow needed the husband to be the murderer because a husband (in this racially charged case, a white man) might plausibly be temporarily insane if his wife had been raped (in this case by dark-skinned “lust-crazed beasts”…as reported in Honolulu papers).

      Darrow used this defense even though no rape had been proven…and all investigation demonstrated that no rape had even occurred.

      It’s difficult to see Darrow’s work on the Massie case as anything other than dishonest.

      He had built a reputation for fighting for those who could not fight for themselves. This case demonstrates an opportunistic lack of integrity that undercuts his past triumphs.

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