The State of Aloha
Katsu Goto wasn’t your typical plantation worker. A surviving picture shows a serious man approaching middle age. His hair is cut short and looks surprisingly contemporary for the late 19th century. The modern hairstyle is in stark contrast to the massive black moustache covering the middle of his face.
Goto was just 23 and was one of the earliest Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii to work in the cane fields in 1885. In Japan, he was a clerk at a desk job, so you can imagine that rising in the dark before sunrise and working in the cane fields must have been a rough adjustment. But he persevered.
When he was released from his three-year contract, he moved to Honokaa in the upper hills overlooking the Hamakua Coast on the Big Island and opened a general store in 1888. Honokaa was run by sugar planter Robert Overton.
Goto competed with the company store operated by Joseph Mills. It was perhaps the only place where workers could go and speak freely and out of earshot from Overton’s men.
The store became a place for Japanese laborers to complain to Goto about grievances and slights they experienced at the plantation. Having better English and education than most of his laboring country men, Goto advised his friends and the workers, too. He had become their spokesman and community leader. This did not go over well with Overton. He warned Goto to stay off the plantation property and away from the workers.
Then Goto died. A little after 6 in the morning on Oct. 29, 1889, Goto’s body was discovered. He was hanging from a telephone pole with a noose around his neck. The authorities came to Honokaa.
Edward Hitchcock was the scion of missionaries and part of the ruling class in the islands. Born in Lahaina, married into the Castle family on Oahu, and a former sugar planter himself, Hitchcock could not have been more different from the slain Goto. But Hitchcock was committed to the law and a thorough investigation. He set out for Honokaa to personally interview witnesses.
Hitchcock concluded that judging from the nature of the knot in the noose that white men were behind this. Asian workers were less likely to use such a knot. After months of interviewing and chasing leads around Honokaa, Hitchcock turned in his evidence to the crown for prosecution. It proved to be dramatic and shocking.
Mills, the town’s notary, special policeman, auctioneer and postmaster, was arrested along with three of Overton’s men.
A trial was held in the Supreme Court in Honolulu in May of 1890. The high court’s chief justice presided. The prosecution’s case began with evidence of an act of destructive arson in a cane field. Thanks to the investigative efforts of Sheriff Hitchcock, the prosecution presented evidence that on the night before the killing, several workers gathered at Goto’s store. They were concerned about the $20 Overton wanted from each of them for the fire. Goto decided to continue the meeting by going with them to their homes on plantation property. He was spotted with them on the road that night by one of Overton’s men. After advising the workers, Goto left on his horse in the dark.
Two of the conspirators turned evidence for the crown. They testified that Mills and Overton’s men waited on the roadside for Goto. They pulled him off of his horse and covered his mouth. The men bound his feet and laid him face down in the dirt. Someone fetched a rope and when he came back, Goto was already dead. The men then strung him up and left him on the telephone pole. It was unclear if he had died of suffocation before he had been strung up.
The jury found the men guilty of manslaughter. Mills, the ringleader, was sentenced to nine years of hard labor. Most of the defendants evaded their sentences. Two escaped. Mills tried to escape too and when that failed he attempted to kill himself. He survived.
After the overthrow of the kingdom, the new government, which was friendly to white men of property and business, pardoned Mills. Much to his chagrin, it was Hitchcock who had to carry out the order of release. Mills opened his own grocery store in Honolulu and died in 1912.
Goto’s lynching was largely forgotten for many years. But if you go to Honokaa today next to the library you can find a somber and elegant shrine built in his memory. There you will find a plaque telling the tragic fate of one of the earliest leaders of the Japanese community in Hawaii. His terrible demise is a sobering reminder that even here in the islands we bore, as Billie Holiday sings, a strange fruit.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”