The Bizarre Story of How the Death of Hawaii's Last King Prompted the Search for His Crown Jewels
David Kalakaua (1836 - 1891) was the king of Hawaii from 1874 to 1891. But our story begins in 1881, when he first took a trip around the world. Apparently the voyage made him realize that his reign did not commence with an obscenely opulent coronation — complete with all the pomp and bling typical of Western traditions — and he was determined to rectify the situation, eight years into his reign.
Kalakaua and his wife, Queen Kapiolani, decided to commission new crowns that were designed by the king and made in London by Hoffnung and Co.. Cast in gold, they were lined with velvet and encrusted with everything the royal couple believed was appropriate for their station. When new, they each featured approximately “521 diamonds, 54 pearls, 20 opals, 20 rubies, eight emeralds, one carbuncle and six kukui nut jewels.”
“At the time, the taxpayers of this country strenuously objected to the expenses of the coronation exercises, but their objections carried no weight and the expensive festivities went on,” reported the Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser a decade later, in 1893. The coronation occurred on February 12th, 1883, and the king got to wear his crown, but that was the one and only time. King Kalakaua died of kidney disease in 1891.
The throne passed down to Kalakaua’s sister, Liliuokalani, whose reign lasted a brief two years. She was deposed by an American-led military coup in 1883, which effectively brought the Hawaian monarchy to its end. Three months later — on April 3rd, 1893 — “as the new rulers started to survey their bounty, they requested that all the royal property in the care of the previous custodian be turned over.” But they weren’t quite prepared for what happened next.
“The keys of Iolani Palace were transferred from Chamberlain James Robertson to the provisional government’s new custodian, R. Jay Green,” writes Joseph Theroux in Honolulu Magazine. “The two conducted an inventory and noticed that, in the chamberlain’s locked basement office, a leather trunk had been broken open.” Inside laid a violated satin-lined box of polished amboyna wood — it was intended to protect the crown of King Kalakaua.
The crown was still there, but it was bent and twisted, and every single jewel had been pried from its moulding. “The velvet lining had been torn away, and the Maltese cross on top, with its stunning six-carat diamond, had been broken off and taken. The ring of kalo leaves along the band was bent, and some of its gold filigree was missing.” Thus commenced the blame game, the investigation, and the alleged sightings of the missing pieces.
There was almost no evidence and the case’s lead investigator — 37-year-old William Larsen, who was just recently made chief of detectives — found virtually nothing for a good three weeks. Eventually, though, he did successfully figure out that the crown jewels were stolen between April 1st and April 2nd. So, he rounded up all of the people who worked security that weekend for questioning.
One person, a 25-year-old American corporal by the name of George Ryan, gave suspiciously evasive answers. “Ryan had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in January, and ordered out of the Islands. Instead, he had joined the reorganized Hawaii Guard. On May 10, he had been court-martialed for dereliction of duty and discharged from the guard three weeks later.” More importantly, however, was the fact that he recently sold a loose diamond to a friend.
The investigator searched the suspect’s lodgings in June and found “a dozen small diamonds that were wrapped in paper and shoved in the pocket of an old vest.” Larsen arrested Ryan later that evening, logging “George Ryan — larceny of crown jewels valued at $2,500” in the police book. While searching Ryan, Larsen uncovered another diamond in the suspect’s pants pocket; this was enough to book, photograph, and register him as inmate number 996.
Except, this wasn’t the end of the crazy story.
Ryan was in possession of small diamonds, but hundreds of other stones were still missing. Interestingly, about a month after the robbery, Richard Stone — Ryan’s fellow guardsman — was arraigned for shooting a police officer in an earlier brawl. A few days later, Stone and another man showed up at the residence of Ah Fook’s, a gambler Stone crossed paths with at the arraignment, to purchase some opium. Only, he didn’t have cash. He had diamonds.
Fook declined. Undeterred, Stone and his acquaintance — who was going by the name of Jack Duarte — continued looking for people they assumed would have opium, offering the diamonds to anyone who seemed able and willing to make an exchange. Later that night, Duarte threatened a pawnbroker who refused to purchase the diamonds, which led to the suspicion that Duarte was in fact Ryan, since his arrest record showed that he actually had used multiple aliases.
Though Larsen interviewed a number of people who interacted with the duo that night, he was never able to prove that Duarte and Ryan were one and the same, or that Ryan and Stone worked together. To make things more complicated, he also learned of “a third man who tried to fence the jewels.” Soon the cast of suspects expanded to include another three men who were not members of the guard; they were actually drivers for local carriage companies.
Joseph Theroux explains:
“Larsen seems to have theorized that the thieves had established an ingenious fencing system: They recruited from carriage stables the hack drivers who picked up numerous travelers from the wharf and nearby hotels. Nelson and Levi, of the Fashion Stables on Union Street, and Santos, of the Hustace Draying Co. on Queen Street, had offered opals, emeralds and pearls to the many fares they carried throughout the city. Even hoseman Charles Sillitoe, of the Tower Fire House, next door to the Fashion Stables, was enlisted.”
Ryan’s trial had been pushed back a number of times since his arrest, while the police were trying to find more evidence to build a stronger case. As Larsen was investigating, Ryan’s charge was reduced to second-degree larceny for reasons that are unclear. The change, however, meant that Ryan was going to serve a three-year sentence and pay $200 in restitution, which was a light punishment that didn’t, really, fit the crime.
Before his conviction, however, Ryan had apparently mailed a six-carat diamond, from the top of the crown, to Helen, his sister in Missouri. This was uncovered when prison officials intercepted her letter to Ryan, where she expressed gratitude for the precious stone. Ultimately, Ryan's prison sentence spanned a total of five years, until he was pardoned on December 31st, 1898. He enlisted in the U.S. Army after that.
It didn’t go well. “Americans had fought a bloody battle in and around Malolos, Luzon, and captured it on March 1, 1899,” writes Theroux. “Ryan was found dead on April 8th, 1899, lashed to a raft on the Pampanga River near Malolos. His skull had been crushed and his arms cut off at the elbows.” News of his demise spread like wildfire as the story of “the murder of the man who stole the crown jewels.”
Stone eventually went to prison for the murder of the police officer. He escaped shortly thereafter, was rearrested, convicted, and sentenced to six months of hard labor, court costs, and other fees. Bafflingly, he was never charged with the jewel theft, despite being “mentioned in witness statements, identified as trying to fence the diamonds, cited as such in Ryan’s trial, and even named in the newspapers as a suspect in the theft.” But, neither were the others.
As for the crown of King Kalakaua, it was restored on a $350 budget. “The missing gems were replaced with ‘cat’s eyes and rhinestones,’ the filigree, Maltese cross and claret velvet lining reattached, and the gold filet and taro leaves straightened.” It was returned to the newly restored Iolani Palace in 1990. Reunited with Queen Kapiolani’s crown, it was on display in the very basement where it was plundered.
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