A colorful rogue in any era, Joseph (J.R.) Mills was a risk taker, entrepreneur, sugar planter, government employee, reputed ladies’ man, and eventually a convicted murderer. A contemporary of sugar planters William Rickard, George Hardy, George Willfong and other “founding fathers” of Honokaa, he was born in 1851 and emigrated from Queens, New York, to Hawaii and became a naturalized citizen of the Kingdom in 1868 at the age of 29. Over the course of the next 23 years, Mills was to marry four women: Awa, a Hawaiian woman from Kawaihae, who he divorced for adultery; haole Martha Pelham of Waipio Valley who divorced him for adultery with her friend Eugenia McGuire (an offense for which he was arrested and sued by Eugenia’s husband), and Hawaiian Emily Kelekini of Maui, who was 29 years his junior.
By 1879, Mills owned or leased over 1,000 acres of land, and purchased all of A.S. Cleghorn’s property in Hamakua, including the store in Honokaa that would be the future site of the Ferreira Building, for the 2015 equivalent of $1,000,000. Archibald Scott Cleghorn was a mercantile magnate who married Princess Likelike, King Kalakaua’s cousin. The union produced the last heir to the Hawaiian throne, Princess Kaiulani, who died at the age of 21. Mills' held four retail licenses for Honokaa, Waipio, Hamakua and Kohala, all ostensibly for the former A.S. Cleghorn stores. Mills’ Honokaa establishment boasted a saloon, stable, butcher shop, hotel rooms, restaurant, and a mercantile store. Mortgaged to the hilt, Mills eventually lost all of his properties to fellow sugar planter Robert Overend. Between 1875 and 1889, Mills served the Hawaiian Kingdom through appointments as the Commissioner of Private Ways and Means, Commissioner of Fences, Agent to Take Acknowledgements of Labor Contracts, Notary Public for the Island of Hawaii, and Pound Master for Honokaa, and records show that he was somehow also a butcher and a bonded auctioneer.
On the night of October 28, 1889, Mills played what was likely the pivotal role in the most notorious event in Honokaa's history when he and three other men murdered the town's prominent Japanese merchant, Katsu Goto. The men alleged that Goto had been fomenting labor unrest at Robert Overend’s plantation outside Honokaa, but it is probable that Mills viewed the shop-owner as competition to his own commercial undertakings. Whatever the true motivation, Goto was lynched that evening under cover of darkness. In a cruel and ironic twist, while awaiting trial Mills was responsible for the appraisal of all property owned by Goto, the man he had helped hang. In a trial that gained international significance, Mills was eventually convicted of manslaughter, but justice was not to be satisfied. Originally sentenced to 9 years at hard labor in Oahu Prison, Mills was pardoned by Sanford B. Dole, then President of the Republic of Hawaii, on July 4, 1893. Though free, by that time Mills was a poorer man and a pariah in Honokaa, and he stayed on Oahu. In late 1893 he opened a grocery store with a partner in Honolulu, yet was unable to meet the mortgage and lost the store shortly after. He then relocated to Pearl City and opened a boarding house and saloon near the train station. Despite accusations of running an unlicensed saloon and the public record of his conviction he still achieved appointment as the Notary Public for Pearl City. He never returned to Honokaa, and died in 1912 in Pearl City at the age of 61. He is buried in Makiki Cemetery in Honolulu.