Friend To the Small and Lowly: Helen Kinau Wilder 

By DM Testa

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, a three-year veteran of the Hawaiian police force was making headlines. Sporting a silver badge on her soft felt hat, the officer had been granted the right to arrest while enforcing animal cruelty laws. Some found her eccentric, others charming, but all agreed:

Miss Wilder loves children and animals, and wherever she is, or whatever she may be doing, carries a pair of handcuffs, which she is quick to snap upon the wrists of the enemies of her small and lowly friends.”

Helen worked under the auspices of the Humane Society, investigating cases from dog fights to the plucking of live fowl and she played no favorites, once reprimanding the wife of Hawaii’s Attorney General Henry E. Cooper. 

Eager to achieve “correct form,” Mrs. Cooper used a tight check rein to wrench her horse’s neck so far back while out driving that “it was forced to stare into the sun.” When Helen saw the poor horse, she stopped the buggy and freed it. Afterwards, the disgruntled husband warned Helen that she might lose her badge if she weren’t careful. Pfttt! Helen retorted, telling him publicly “attorney general or not, she cared nothing for his threats as long as she did her duty.” 

And that’s exactly what she did: forcing drivers of overloaded trams to discharge their passengers and arresting those whose draft animals were lame or displayed harness sores. When Helen saw a driver whipping his mules, she promptly yanked him off his seat and marched him to the police station. 

Newspaper Headline (image: public domain)

When reports filtered back about the captain of a steamship mistreating his children, Helen boarded the vessel. She discovered his bedraggled children locked in a stateroom. They’d been there several days, the captain told her, allowed only bread and water as punishment for a slight offense. To the captain’s shock, Helen arrested him.  

The charges would be dropped because the captain wasn’t a resident. Vowing vengeance, he headed for his home in Victoria, Australia, where he was greeted by local authorities who’d been contacted by Helen. He was re-arrested. 

Before long a growing gang of convicted abusers were searching for ways to bring Helen down. They thought they might have succeeded when a gentleman by the name of Olaf Tollefson sued her for $5,000. 

 Helen Kinau Wilder (image: Hawaiian Humane Society)

Olaf had run over a dog with his team of horses; eyewitnesses saying he’d done so intentionally. Helen arrested him but at the police station the dog’s owner declined to press charges. Since Helen hadn’t witnessed the incident, Olaf walked free. Claiming injured feelings, Olaf instigated a lawsuit against her for wrongful arrest.

The case went to trial in February 1899. Both sides retained well-known attorneys so there were a number of objections, exceptions, and arguments over technicalities throughout. After nine minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Helen. Unfortunately, the celebration would be short-lived.

A San Francisco newspaper was tipped off that after several broken engagements, Helen had secretly wed a Horace Craft on May 16, 1899 and then left on a solo honeymoon the next day. The subsequent full-page spread took great pains to vilify Helen, describing her as “not fair to look upon” with “swaggering shoulders in perfect harmony with the masculine determination of her jaw” and “thin, brown hair, lusterless and straight…worn short.” 

Tracked down by a reporter, Helen told him, “My ways are not the ways of the world. I have had considerable notoriety and I am tired of it.” She sounded defeated. For the next few months, little more would be heard from her. 

But the following March, a Honolulu newspaper announced:

“We hail with pleasure the first number of The Humane Educator, a magazine published monthly by Mrs. Helen Wilder Craft, whose interest in animals is well known. The first number is gotten up in a very artistic manner and is full of interesting matters.” 

In 1903, Helen relocated to California, building a large home in the Pajaro Valley, but “she never lost her ‘aloha’ for her island home” or the creatures who lived there. On one of her frequent visits back to Honolulu, Helen realized “there isn’t a place in this town where we can take a sick animal.” 

She and another woman went to work raising funds for the construction of a Humane Society building. Helen donated $5,000 and contributed regularly until the building’s completion in 1925. 

The artist’s imagination ran wild for San Fran Wilder. Helen said she never carried a weapon; her attitude was always enough! (image: public domain)

On February 4, 1954, Helen Kinau Wilder died at the age of 83 with her longtime companion Emma Campbell by her side. A month later, a plaque would be unveiled at the Honolulu Humane Society building, honoring the woman who wanted “people to appreciate the intelligence and virtues of an animal.”


Recommended Reading/Viewing:


About the Author:

Winston the Great Pyrenees wants to add a bit more to Helen’s story. In July 1902, she raised $500 to construct the first sanitary water fountain in Honolulu’s McKinley Memorial Park, providing much-needed clean water for thirsty children and their four-legged friends. This fountain became so popular that ten others would be added throughout the city along with a special fountain for horses. 

Winston says Slurp !!!  

You can see more of Winston at www.wanderingwinston.com

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