Oakes was born in Maine in America in 1874, one of five children of a successful lawyer. He studied medicine at Syracuse University but left before graduating to join the many thousands of hopeful prospectors in the Klondike Gold Rush to Alaska.
He spent the next fifteen years trying to make his fortune, from the gold fields of California to the outback of Australia until he finally struck lucky when he arrived at Kirkland Lake in Northern Ontario, Canada, in 1911. His Lake Shore Gold Mine became the most productive in the western hemisphere and by 1920 Oakes had become the richest person in Canada.
But while these it facts alone that make the man interesting, it is the circumstances surrounding Oakes’ death and the involvement of a former king that form the mystery.
Oakes was found dead in his mansion in Nassau on the morning of 8th July 1943. His head had been stoved in and his body covered in feathers from a pillow. His body had been doused in petrol and set alight and only the heavy rain from an open window prevented the room from being destroyed. A lacquered screen nearby was covered in blood and handprints and there were muddy footprints on the stairs and traces of petrol elsewhere in the house. Sinisterly, the post-mortem found blisters on the body that were not caused by the fire.
The Governor of the Bahamas was the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII. Well known for his Nazi sympathies, he had been given the job to get him away from Britain to somewhere he could do the least harm to the war effort. He was a friend of Oakes and took the unusual step of heading the investigation that would ultimately implicate him in an attempt to pervert the course of justice and frame an innocent man for the crime.
The local police were perfectly capable of handling the case and yet Windsor decided to bring in outside help. And yet instead of calling on experts from Scotland Yard or British security personnel based in New York and Washington, he chose instead to appoint two detectives from the Miami police.
Within thirty-six hours they had arrested and charged Oakes’ son-in-law with the murder. Count Alfred de Marigny was a French-Mauritian businessman and playboy who had eloped with Oakes’ daughter Nancy when she was eighteen-years-old, much to Oakes’ disapproval, and it was well-known that the two men were at odds.
Nancy brought in her own private investigator and fingerprint expert but when they visited the scene of the crime they found the police cleaning the room and effectively destroying all the evidence. They could not discover who had ordered the clean-up but the assumption was that it must have been someone high up. Moreover, the first choice of barrister chosen to defend de Marigny had been snapped up by the Crown Prosecution.
Meanwhile, the two Miami detectives were carrying out what can only be described as a botched investigation. To start with, they had forgotten to bring their latent-fingerprint camera, a vital piece of equipment, and the photographs they did take of the handprints were ruined when the plates were exposed to light. They also allowed people to visit the crime scene without taking their fingerprints for the purpose of elimination and they did not object to the police clean-up of the room.
The fingerprint that supposedly implicated de Marigny was only discovered after he had been in custody for several hours and after the Duke of Windsor had had a private conversation with the detectives. Moreover, they had used rubber to lift the fingerprint rather than the usual sticky tape and so destroying the print in the process.
The detectives gave muddled evidence as to where the damning fingerprint had come from and an expert for the defence testified that it could not have come from the lacquered screen as they claimed but most likely from a glass used by de Marigny while he was in custody. With the evidence discredited it was inevitable that de Marigny would be acquitted.
So who did kill Harry Oakes? It remains an unsolved case although there are lots of theories in books and plays as to who the culprit might have been. More interesting is the role of the Duke of Windsor. Was he simply being a conscientious governor when he took over the investigation or was his motive more sinister? Theories abound, such as whether Oakes had been involved in the duke’s money-laundering to fund his lavish lifestyle that went beyond that which he could afford on his small allowance from the British government.
Or perhaps Oakes had discovered that the duke was a Nazi spy through his relationship with Swedish millionaire industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren who had brokered the friendly relations between Germany and Sweden? Again, we shall probably never know, but speculation can be fun!