Unburied Treasure: The Adventures of Preston Horner

In some ways, Preston Horner is a strange place to begin this blog. But then again, everything about this story is extraordinary, and I suppose that’s why it needs to be told.

I’ve been researching genealogy for 20 years (and thinking about starting a family history blog for several), but I’d never heard of Preston Horner – my first cousin, four times removed – until now. I was browsing newspapers.com for articles about my third great-grandfather David Motsinger1, when I came across this troubling notice:

 “Probably Lost,” The Norcatur Register, 27 Aug 1886, p. 1, col. 4; digital image, newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com/clip/29337643 : accessed 6 April 2019).

“A little boy about eleven years old, by the name of Preston Herner [sic], whose parents live at Oakland City, Ind., left his home about the first of August, presumably to come to his uncle’s (Mr. David Motsinger) at this place. He has not been heard from since his departure from home. Any information regarding his whereabouts will be gratefully received by his grief stricken mother – Mrs. Virginia Herner, Oakland City, Ind.” – The Norcatur Register, Aug. 27, 18862

My heart sank. What happened to Preston? Did he ever make it to his uncle’s farm? Did he ever make it back home?

As I worried whether Virginia Horner ever learned what happened to her son, I couldn’t move on without searching for him myself.


By the mid-1800s, American-owned sugarcane plantations had completely altered the economy of the Hawaiian islands. The Kingdom of Hawaii strained to balance the needs of its native population against the demands of the plantation owners, who wanted a voice in Kingdom politics, and a huge influx of immigrant laborers from China and Japan.

In January 1893, the Hawaiian League – a group of mostly Hawaiian-born, non-native citizens –  overthrew the monarchy. A group of 1,500 men garrisoned across the street from Iolani Palace, the royal residence in Honolulu. Queen Liliuokalani surrendered peacefully to avoid violence.

An article in Honolulu Magazine3 nicely summarized the pertinent events:

“Three months after Queen Liliuokalani was deposed, on Monday, April 3, 1893, the keys of Iolani Palace were transferred from Chamberlain James Robertson to the provisional government’s new custodian, R. Jay Green. The two conducted conducted an inventory and noticed that, in the chamberlain’s locked basement office, a leather trunk had been broken open. 

“Inside the trunk, in a satin-lined box of polished amboyna wood, was King David Kalakaua’s crown–bent and twisted. Every jewel had been pried out. The velvet lining had been torn away, and the Maltese cross on top, with its stunning six-carat diamond” had been snatched.

Kalakaua's crown

After being plundered for its jewels, Kalakaua’s crown was left twisted and broken.

“PLUNDERED!” the headline in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser hollered.4 “Kalakaua’s Crown is Left Without Ornaments.”

“The crown was nearly oval in shape, and was ornamented with a Maltese cross at the apex and brilliantly studded with diamonds and other precious stones, and on either side were gold kalo leaves. In the center of the cross was a large diamond about the size of a ten cent piece. It was taken along with a number of other smaller precious stones.

“The Chamberlain’s office was searched, and some of the filigree work was found in a small closet. Nobody knows who the thief is.”


George Ryan aka Preston Horner

George Ryan, aka Preston Horner

It took about two months for authorities to crack the case. “The arrest of George Ryan last night bids fair to put an end to the mystery attending the matter,” The Hawaiian Star reported.5

A week before the queen’s ouster, Ryan had been arrested in Honolulu for carrying a concealed weapon.6 He was ordered out of the country, but it seems he joined the army of the provisional government instead.

Ryan was on guard at the palace in the days before the crown was discovered despoiled.7 He was discharged the last day of May, but the officer charged with locating the jewel thief was suspicious and had Ryan shadowed. The investigation yielded a discovery in Ryan’s room at the White House Hotel – a dozen small diamonds, wrapped in tissue.

The White House Hotel

Some of the diamonds were found inside Ryan’s room at the White House Hotel.

Honolulu papers reported that Ryan, believed to be about 25, had a “somewhat checkered career” and an “unsavory record.”8 He was known under several aliases – Patients in a hospital where the man had once taken refuge knew him as Neal, or was it Neill?9 Hawaiian authorities said he’d served two months for larceny in 1897 under the name Jack McVeigh. His true name, the newspapers revealed, was Preston Horner.10

“Who ever thought that some Oakland City boy would be the one to steal the jewels of the Hawaiian queen? Preston Horner, the culprit, was raised here and his father now lives here a respected citizen. Hattie McGinnis, the sister in Kansas to whom part of the jewels were sent, also lived a worthy life here and is the wife of Felix McGinnis. Preston Horner may thank his stars that [President Grover] Cleveland was prevented from placing queen “Lil” on the throne, for in the event he had done so his head would surely have come off.” – Princeton Clarion-Leader, Feb. 15, 189411


Back in Indiana, Preston’s hometown paper remarked that imprisonment was a stroke of luck for the lad, but apparently he didn’t agree. While awaiting trial in Oahu, Ryan slipped from the prison yard the afternoon of July 27, 1893. “There is some doubt as to the means he employed to effect his escape, but it is thought he climbed some trellis work and after reaching the top of the wall he jumped to the ground, a height of about fifteen feet,” The Honolulu Advertiser reported.12

A drawing of the Oahu prison known as The Reef from an 1894 newspaper.

A drawing of the Oahu prison known as The Reef from an 1894 newspaper.

Ryan was recaptured the same day. He later testified13 that, while the guard stepped into the sentry box to light a pipe, he’d moved a bucket rack to the wall and climbed over. When he was discovered in a cattle pen later that evening, the papers reported, Ryan “made no resistance whatever when the officer placed him under arrest, but simply remarked: ‘I am out of luck.’”14

Ryan was given a three-year sentence and a $200 fine15 – plus another six months for the short-lived break.16 A news feature detailed the conditions of the Oahu prison known as the Reef: Each prisoner was supplied a hammock and two blankets. They were fed customary foods based on their nationality – beef with vegetables for the Americans and Europeans; natives ate poi; Japanese and Chinese were served rice. Prisoners who caused trouble were assigned to the chain gang.

“Probably the most troublesome prisoners are Ryan, the jewel thief, and Gum Wuu. The former, who has been known by the aliases of George Ryan and Preston Horner […] is a noted ‘crook’ and a smooth talker. At his trial, he conducted his own case. He boasts of his sharpness and his ability to mislead one, and claims to be an escaped convict from the Oregon State Penitentiary. He has time and time again bragged of his ability to break jail, and says that the Oahu prison is not strong enough to hold him.” – The Honolulu Advertiser, March 15, 1894

Weeks after that article published, on April 26, 1894, Ryan attempted another escape while working at a quarry chained to two other prisoners.17 When the guard turned his back, the three prisoners threw him to the ground and whaled on him with their fists. The guard tried to reach for his pistol, but Ryan got to it first. He took at shot at two prisoners coming to the rescue, but the trio was ultimately subdued. Another eight months were added to Ryan’s sentence.


In 1899, news of George Ryan crossed the country a final time.

He was pardoned by the Executive Council and left prison on Dec. 31, 1898.18 Initially, the young man went to work for C.V.E. Dove, a Hawaii surveyor, according to The Hawaiian Star. “The job was irksome, however, and he decided to go to Manila,” the paper said.

The first battles of the Philippine-American War had erupted just a few weeks before Ryan arrived in Manila on March 27. Witnesses said he spent a week or two at the International hotel, then borrowed soldiers’ clothing and joined the firing line.

A newspaper clipping with the headline "George Ryan Murdered"“He was seen three days after that at Malolos, but then all trace of him was lost,” The Hawaiian Star recapped in the May 22 edition. Ryan’s mutilated body had just been found.

“His body was found by members of Company D, Thirteenth Minnesota, on the 8th [of May], lashed to a raft and floating in the river. The body was lashed to a rude raft, and was horribly mutilated. The skull was crushed and both arms were cut off at the elbows.” – The Hawaiian Star, May 22, 1899.

“It was a dreadful fate which overtook George Ryan. He was unfortunately of a criminal turn. Before he came here he had been in prison in California. Here he took an opportunity to steal the diamonds from the pinchbeck crown of our departed royalty. For this he served a sentence in part. In Manila he assumed the disguise of a soldier, and probably had some design of getting money by nefarious means. His end came swiftly and unexpectedly, no one will ever know how it came, but it came in peculiarly cruel form. A wasted life, and cut off before there was any opportunity for repentance. The tragedy must come home to us. Perhaps, with proper guidance, this man might have been led to better things, did he miss that guidance here. It is a thing that many a one might ask of his conscience.” – The Hawaiian Star, May 23, 189919

A painting of the Battle of Quingua

The Battle of Quingua, a painting of a scene from the Philippine-American War in 1899.


Preston Horner, the son of Alex S. Horner and Virginia Humphrey, was born in Indiana about 1874. He’s listed in the 1880 federal census, age 6, living in Oakland City, Indiana, with his parents and siblings Hattie, 19; James, 17; Louis, 5, and Orie, 3.20 Aside from newspaper articles, this is the only record I could find for Preston, but the clue was just enough to link him to George Ryan. That, and a handful of diamonds mailed to his sister.21

In February 1894, several diamonds were recovered from Mrs. Hattie McGinnis, née Hattie Horner. The siblings apparently corresponded to some degree, and Preston sent a few of the gems to her in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

“Mrs. McGinnis was entirely ignorant of the fact that the diamonds were stolen property and gave them up without any hesitation. There were five of them, all very pretty but not very large stones, the total value being not more than $1,000.” — The Mountain Echo (Yellville, Arkansas), March 2, 189422

The police chief who tracked the diamonds received a $100 reward.

I never learned what Preston’s mother knew of his fate. A year after her boy’s disappearance, Virginia (Humphrey) Horner filed for divorce.23 She moved to Chicago and lived at least 20 years with the family of her youngest daughter, Ora Morrow. In the 1900 and 1910 censuses, Virginia indicated just three of her nine children were still alive.2425  She died Feb. 8, 1920.26

The San Francisco Call eulogized George Ryan as a “boy adventurer and soldier of fortune” in its May 28, 1899 edition.27 The newspaper told an outlandish tale – without any reference to sources – but from what I can gather, it’s (at least mostly) true:

“When a mere boy he had drifted to San Francisco, where he became a newsboy and blacked shoes at ‘Champion’ Lyons’ stand on Market street. As a youngster it was his boast that he shined the shoes of King Kalakaua and received $5 for the job.

“About thirteen years ago young Ryan stowed himself away on an Australian liner and made his way to Honolulu. He began selling papers in the Hawaiian capital and soon became a favorite. The revenue he derived from a bootblack stand he set up soon yielded him sufficient to enable him to embark in more genteel pursuits.

“When Queen Liliuokalani disagreed with her Cabinet in January, 1893, and the white residents of the islands formed a provincial army, he was one of the first to enlist. When the government of Liliuokalani was overthrown he obtained Kalakaua’s crown and relieved it of its numerous precious stones. For this he was arrested, tried and sentenced to several years’ imprisonment. He served time and kept the hiding place of the gems secret. When he was released he established himself in business in Honolulu. He had not lost prestige because of the theft of the jewels, for, strange to say, the swords and plate of the Hawaiian dynasty has disappeared at the time he took the crown.

“When the Spanish-American war broke out Ryan wished to enlist in the American army, but could not get a chance to come to the United States. Then the Government commenced sending troops to Manila and he went in one of the first vessels as a stowaway. He went to work for a friend at Cavite and when the trouble with the insurgents broke out he donned a uniform. He took part in several engagements, but his passion for covertly obtaining wealth led him beyond the lines, whither he went with the intention of obtaining treasure buried by a Chinese who had fled into the city at the outbreak of hostilities. He was surrounded by insurgents while digging for the treasure and his death and the mutilation of his body followed.”

A map of the Hawaiian Islands, 1893

A map of the Hawaiian Islands, 1893

  1. David Motsinger (1840-1920) was married to Mary Ann (Humphrey) Hall (1838-1907). Mary Ann was the sister of Virginia (Humphrey) Horner.
  2. “Probably Lost,” The Norcatur Register, 27 Aug 1886, p. 1, col. 4; digital image, newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com/clip/29337643 : accessed 6 April 2019).
  3. Theroux, Joseph. (February 2011) “Malice in the Palace: The Hawaii Crown Jewel Robbery,” Honolulu Magazine; http://www.honolulumagazine.com/Honolulu-Magazine/February-2011/Malice-in-the-Palace-The-Hawaii-Crown-Jewel-Robbery/.
  4. “Plundered! Kalakaua’s Crown is Left Without Ornaments,” Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 5 April 1893; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29847440 : accessed 6 April 2019).
  5. “The Crown Jewels: The Mystery Attending Their Loss About to be Cleared Up,” Hawaiian Star, 14 June 1893; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/30104925 : accessed 30 March 2019).
  6. “Local and General,” Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 9 Jan. 1893, p. 3, col. 2; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=29845650 : accessed 23 March 2019).
  7. “Caught at Last,” Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 14 June 1893, p. 4, col. 3; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/30104842 : accessed 30 March 2019).
  8. “The Crown Jewels: Somewhat Checkered Career of the Alleged Thief,” Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 16 June 1893, p. 3, col. 3; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29845414 : accessed 30 March 2019).
  9. “His Previous Record,” Hawaiian Star, 16 June 1893, p. 5, col. 3; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29845747 : accessed 23 March 2019).
  10. “Proved to be a False Alarm,” San Francisco Examiner, 1 Sep. 1893, p. 2, col. 6; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/30105166 : accessed 6 April 2019).
  11. “Oakland City” Princeton Clarion-Leader, 15 Feb. 1894, p. 4, col 5; digital image, newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=29360185 : accessed 6 April 2019).
  12. “Another Escape,” Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 28 July 1893, p. 4, col. 4; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=29845886 : accessed 23 March 2019).
  13. “Ryan Escaped Easily,” Hawaiian Star, 1 Aug. 1893, p. 5, col. 3; digital image, newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com/clip/29846079 : accessed 6 April 2019).
  14. “Ryan’s Brief Liberty,” Hawaiian Gazette, 1 Aug. 1893, p. 10, col. 3; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29848141 : accessed 23 March 2019).
  15. “Local and General,” Hawaiian Gazette, 29 Aug. 1893, p. 9, col. 1; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=29359729 : accessed 6 April 2019).
  16. “Prisoners’ Life on the Reef: How the Convicts are Treated at Oahu Prison,” The Honolulu Advertiser, 15 March 1894, p. 1; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29360721 : accessed 10 March 2019).
  17. “Despoiler of the Crown: Three Prisoners Attempt to Escape, But are Frustrated,” The Hawaiian Gazette,” 1 May 1894, p. 6, col. 1; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29371619 : accessed 10 March 2019).
  18. “George Ryan Murdered,” Hawaiian Star, 22 May 1899, p. 1, col. 2; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29372063 : accessed 6 April 2019).
  19. “It was a Dreadful Fate,” Hawaiian Star, 23 May 1899, p. 4, col. 2; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=29846409 : accessed 6 April 2019)
  20. 1880 U.S. Census, Gibson County, Indiana, Oakland City, Enumeration District 106, p. 36 (penned), Dwelling 323, Household 335, lines 41-46 (18 June 1880); digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 6 April 2019; citing National Archives microfilm publication roll 279, p. 206D.
  21. “Diamonds Recovered,” Indianapolis Journal, 11 Feb. 1894, p. 2, col. 1; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29830745 : accessed 6 April 2019).
  22. “Stole Queen Lil’s Crown,” Mountain Echo, 2 March 1894, p. 2, col. 2; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29361639 : accessed 10 March 2019).
  23. “Court Cullings,” Princeton Clarion-Leader, 27 Oct 1887, p. 4, col. 5; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=29373601 : accessed 6 April 2019).
  24. 1900 U.S. Census, Cook County, Illinois, West Town, City of Chicago, Enumeration District 310, p. 167A, House 19, Dwelling 88, Family 169 (7 June 1900); digital image, ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7602/4113716_00545 : accessed 6 April 2019); citing Family History Library microfilm 1240257.
  25. 1910 U.S. Census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 20, Enumeration District 871, House 1722, Dwelling 80, Family 141 (26 April 1910); digital image, ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7884/31111_4328157-01150/4862706 : accessed 6 April 2019) citing Family History Library microfilm 1374275, roll T624_262, p. 7A.
  26. “Cook County, Illinois Death Index, 1908-1988” [online database] File Number 6006799, ancestry.com; citing Cook County Clerk Genealogy Records, Cook County Clerk’s Office, Chicago, Illinois.
  27. “Adventurer Slain and Mutilated by Rebels,” The San Francisco Call, p. 1, col. 5, 28 May 1899; digital image, newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com/clip/29372688 : accessed 6 April 2019).

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