It was July 8, 1943, an hour after dawn; a time and a season for everything to be quiet and slow-moving on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. But not this morning. Frantic phone calls destroyed the drowsy, sultry calm. The largest landowner in the Bahamas, a man worth $200 million, had been found dead, and the cause was anything but natural.
Sir Harry Oakes, 68, born and raised in Maine, possessor of a Canadian gold-mine fortune and a British title, had been bludgeoned to death in the bedroom of Westbourne, his bougainvillea-adorned Nassau estate. From the looks of the crime scene, hed also been set on fire. The walls bore bloodstains. Feathers were everywhere, their source a torn pillow, although some of the wilder rumors claimed they came from a chicken, evidence of a voodoo ritual.
To deal with the shocking murder and control the soon-to-balloon scandal, an aide woke up the governor of the Bahamas. The governor just happened to be a British royal, and an infamous one at that: the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, who in 1936 gave up his throne for the woman I love, American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The couple put on a good face for the public during their five-year-long stint in the Bahamas, but privately vented about their exile to this hot little hell.
The Duke of Windsors handling of the caseor, as most would describe it, mishandling of the casewent a long way toward firmly placing the killing of Oakes in a hall of fame of tantalizing mysterious murders. Oakess son-in-law, Alfred de Marigny, was swiftly arrested and tried for murder, but after a headline-saturated trial was found not guilty. No one else was ever charged, but theories on means and motives rage up to the present day. A cottage industry of books, novels and movies have tackled the case, dubbed the unsolved murder of the century in one review.
One of the reasons the 1943 crime still exerts such a powerful fascination is that this pot brims with everything. Toss away every notion, every preconception, you may have about the Bahamas in the 1940s, declares Bahamianology, a website devoted to Bahamian history. Put every idea as far away in your mind ashumanly possible. The Bahamas was, in stark reality, a seething cauldron of Nazi sympathizers, British spies, money launderers, narcotics traffickers, gambling mobsters, land swindlers, murderers and paid-for-hire assassins.
The book Murdered Midas, published in late 2019 by the Oxford-educated Canadian historian Charlotte Gray, has brought a new round of attention to the unsolved murder. In her excellent book, Gray not only crafts a carefully constructed whodunit, she takes a deep dive into Sir Harry Oakes himself, the first book to put Oakes in context as a major force in early 20th-century North American finance.
One of her motives was to establish Oakes as a person with many dimensions. In the decades since his murder, the millionaires image has become more and more loathsome. In books on the case he comes across as greedy, harsh, brutish and driven by grudges, almost suggesting he deserved his end. He wasnt likable, Gray says in an interview with DuJour. I wanted to find out why he had such a reputation.
As a young man from a middle-class family, Oakes attended medical school for two years, but left in 1898 to follow his obsession: finding gold. He spent nearly 15 years working grueling hours in territories all over the worldabstaining from alcohol, near-friendlessin pursuit of his gold rush dream before he got his break at Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario. Gray compares his single-mindedness to todays Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs.
Once hed made his fortune, Oakes chose not to expand his financial reach beyond his mines or establish himself as a cultural heavyweight like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie or the Guggenheims. He bought property and became a local benefactor in Niagara Falls and Palm Beach, Florida. But his obsession became finding a way to seal off his money from taxation. This was what propelled Oakes to the Bahamas, a country with no income tax, in 1935. He was one of the first major tax exilesnot just in the Bahamas, but anywhere, Gray says.
Real estate developer Harold Christie, a man of legendary sales talent, courted Oakes until he persuaded the richest man in the British empire to establish residency in the Bahamas, then a crown colony. A 700-island tropical archipelago 50 miles off the Florida coast, the Bahamas at the time had 70,000 residents, three-quarters of them of African descent. The economic boom fueled by running rum and other booze into the U.S. during Prohibition was over. A small white elite in Nassaunicknamed the Bay Street Boysran everything, shrugging off the poverty of most islanders.
Oakes bought a lot of property and built a golf course and an airport. He took his family with him to New Providence, a wife and five children. His favorite child seems to have been Nancy, a lively redhead. To her parents dismay, at the age of 18, Nancy married Alfred de Marigny, 32 years old and twice-divorced. According to Murdered Midas, he bore a Don Juan reputation in the Bahamas; he named his yacht Concubine and, according to persistent rumors, would drug young women before assaulting them.
De Marigny wasnt the only unsavory person living tax-free in the Bahamas in the 1930s. Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren, owner of a 700-acre island that today is known as Paradise Island, was a well-known Nazi sympathizer. Wenner-Green made deals with the Krupps and counted Hitlers No. 2, morphine addict and Luftwaffe overseer Hermann Gring, as a close friend.
Interestingly, in her book, Gray reveals little-known ties between Oakes and Nazi sympathizers forged before he moved to the Bahamas. The Oakes family had lived in Britain just long enough for the millionaire to receive his title. The sinister friendships with pro-Nazi appeasers that he made in London during the 1930s, which probably secured his baronetcymay have been a factor in his death, Gray writes.
The afternoon that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrived in Nassau in 1940, when Britain was fighting Germany for its very existence, the question of Nazi sympathies became pressing indeed.
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