Crime and Scandal

The Sensational Murder of Sir Harry Oakes, Bar Harbor Baronet

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On July 16, 1943, two Miami police officers cruised into Bar Harbor, Maine, and down the long, tree-lined drive to The Willows, a Regency-style mansion on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Capt. Edward Melchen and Det. James Barker had traveled from Nassau in the Bahamas to visit Lady Eunice Oakes, The murder of her husband, Sir Harry Oakes, had left her a widow eight days earlier.

Police surrounded the house to keep away gawkers and the press, and the front gate was locked. The sensational story of Sir Harry Oakes’s brutal killing had made world headlines. Even a glimpse of a family member merited a mention in the press.

Harry Oakes

That morning Lady Oakes had buried her husband of 20 years in a simple ceremony near his birthplace in Sangerville, Maine. He had been killed at his home in the Bahamas, she wasn’t sure how, and the plane carrying his body home had turned around mid-flight. By the time Sir Harry Oakes’s remains finally arrived in Maine, his widow was in a state of profound shock.

As soon as she buried her husband, Lady Oakes returned to Bar Harbor and took to her bed. She had asked the detectives to call on her that afternoon. They had, after all, been asked to investigate her husband’s death by his friend, the Duke of Windsor.

The Murder of Harry Oakes

The police officers were admitted to the bedroom. They found Lady Oakes surrounded by several of her children, including her eldest daughter, nineteen-year-old Nancy de Marigny.

Nancy had learned of her father’s death when she was on her way from Miami to Martha Graham’s dance studio in Bennington, Vt. Her friend Merce Cunningham gave her the news. Nancy changed her plans and flew to Bar Harbor to join her mother at the funeral.

Nancy and her mother listened with rising hysteria to Melchen and Barker as they told their tale. The killer, they said, took a stick from the garage, climbed the outside stairs to Sir Harry’s bedroom and bashed his head in. Then the killer sprayed the unconscious baronet with insecticide and set the bed on fire. Sir Harry revived and tried to fight off his killer. He lost the struggle and died, probably in terrible agony.

And then the two police officers described how they intended to frame Nancy’s husband, Count Alfred de Marigny, for the murder of Sir Harry Oakes.

Westborough, the Bahamian mansion where Harry Oakes was murdered.

Mining for Millions

No one knows exactly how much money Harry Oakes had. But in 1943 he ranked as one of the richest men in the world and easily at the top of Bar Harbor’s wealthy summer colony. He owned the second largest gold mine on the planet. Some put his value at more than $200 million.

Quiet, stubborn, driven, generous, proud, short-tempered—all these could describe Sir Harry Oakes. At the time of his death, at age 68, some saw a mellowing multimillionaire finally relaxing into his wealth and status. Others saw a tyrannical drunk tilting at decades-old slights and insults and bent on self-destruction.

Before he was Sir Harry Oakes, Baronet of the British Order, he was just plain old Harry Oakes, son of a successful country lawyer from Sangerville, a small mill town in rural Maine. Born in 1874, Oakes had left the state in 1896, shortly after his graduation from Bowdoin College. Though he had no gold as yet, there was no shortage of brass in young Harry.

As a student, when asked what he planned to do after college, Harry was direct: “I plan to make a million dollars.”

Perhaps the glittering wealth on display in Bar Harbor and environs had fueled young Harry’s ambition. Newspapers of the day avidly reported the comings and goings of European nobility, Gilded Age millionaires, Boston Brahmins, and Main Line Philadelphians in the fabulous summer resort. Readers found no detail too small about the fashionable season just two hours from Harry’s home town.

No Fortune?

Harry was awkward and pugnacious as a college student. Not hated, but not well liked either. Harry’s friends and relatives didn’t know what to make of his boastful plans. His future brother-in-law bluntly said: “Harry Oakes is not going to make a fortune.”

After Bowdoin, Harry attended Syracuse University for two years, studying at its medical school. But the lure of gold caught up with him there, and he left the school to begin prospecting for gold in Canada in 1899.

What followed was a fourteen-year odyssey that carried Harry from Canada to Alaska to New Zealand to Africa to the Philippines and back to Canada. Along the way, he worked as a miner in other peoples’ mines, as a medical technician in hospitals, and for over a year as a flax farmer in New Zealand—his most profitable occupation up to that point.

But he continually returned to prospecting, making a study of what types of soil and rock indicated the presence of gold and the ways in which gold mines fanned out in veins. With each passing year, Oakes grew more determined to find his millions and angrier at any perceived slight.

He dodged all the typical barriers to success that tended to slow other businessmen. He didn’t drink excessively. Oakes had little to do with women, guiltily paying for prostitutes when he needed affection, and abandoning a pregnant woman in Australia. All in pursuit of gold.

Location of the Lake Shore Mine in Ontario.

Gold Fever

Why gold? He wanted to get rich without exploiting the work of weaker men—part of a personal code of honor. The year 1918 found Harry back in Canada in Ontario’s Lake Shore District.

Harry begged and borrowed money to operate. His brother and sister sent money religiously. He sold shares of the mine he knew he would one day own to pay for his tools. And along the way he built his enemies list of anyone who slighted him.

In 1912, Harry struck a rich vein of what would be the second-largest gold mine in the Americas—the Lake Shore. It would be years before he could fully commercialize it, though. He sunk shafts, invested in equipment, and pleaded with bankers and backers to fund him.

Harry Oakes built this chateau near his Lakeshore Mine in Ontario. Now the Museum of Northern History.

When success finally arrived, Harry liked to point out that other prospectors might be smart enough to find gold, but they almost always had to sell out because they couldn’t navigate the complicated process of getting a mine actually up and running. With the Lake Shore Mine on the way to producing what would become 266 tons of high-grade gold, Harry made millionaires of his backers—his family and merchants who had accepted his mine shares as payment for services.

Enemies List

Some shares that had been given out at 40 cents would one day be worth $64 each. Meanwhile, it didn’t pay to be an enemy of Harry Oakes. Harry issued an edict that no one connected with his mine should do business with one particular shop. Its owner had denied Harry credit and embarrassed him in the process. When the shopkeeper went bankrupt, Harry laughed.

When he needed the road improved to the mine—and local suppliers balked—Harry ordered that the road be paved by his own men with ore from the mine. He later gleefully scoffed that he could get a million dollars’ worth of gold out of that road if he wanted to.

In the mining business, he was a tyrant. A meddlesome and micromanaging boss, his top managers routinely quit within months of being hired. Those who managed to stay with him he eventually fired.

Bahamas, Ho!

In 1923, Harry met Eunice McIntyre, a bank clerk from Sidney, Australia, on a cruise to South Africa. Harry’s contemporaries joked that the only way he could get a girl would be to corner her on a deserted island. Eunice, though, looked past his rough exterior and manners. Just 28, she married Harry, now 50, and moved to Ontario. There the richest man in Canada and his wife began raising children.

Harry and Eunice Oakes in the 1930s

Harry angled for a seat in Canada’s upper house of Parliament. He went so far as to renounce his U.S. citizenship, but he was denied by the prime minister. He became increasingly furious at Canada’s tax system, and at the failure of the government to appreciate the wealth he generated.

In 1935, he announced he was leaving Canada to become a citizen of the Bahamas, which was still part of the UK, but with no income tax. The uproar in Canada was instantaneous as its richest citizen decamped. Had he known his fate in the Caribbean, he might have stayed in Canada.

Who Murdered Harry Oakes?

Harry’s arrival in Nassau was no less cacophonous than you’d expect, as he continued to make enemies in the Bahamas. One would eventually kill him.

He bought huge swaths of the remote island at depressed prices and set to building houses, a golf course, a country club and an airport. He reshaped the place without restraint.

In the poor island nation, Harry was not only friends with the former King Edward VIII, he could be king himself. One day he stopped at the British Colonial Hotel for lunch. The maître d’ decided to seat Harry at the back of the restaurant because of his shabby clothes. Harry got up and left, bought the hotel, and fired the maître d’.

The British Colonial Hotel, now a Hilton

He decreed that only black employees could work in the hotel, infuriating many of the white employees. When he found out there weren’t enough black workers who knew how to run hotels in Nassau, he set up a training center to teach them to run his new business.

Determined to spite the Canadian politicians who had passed him over for friendship, Harry began a campaign to win a knighthood. A steady flow of charitable gifts to British institutions made the king take notice. He donated more than $1 million to charities in the Bahamas, and in 1939 Harry won a knighthood, 1st Baronet of Nassau.

The Baronet of Bar Harbor

Harry and Eunice now had houses in London, Florida, and Ontario in addition to their main homes in the Bahamas. But Eunice was not a fan of the sweltering Nassau summers. She wanted a cooler summer location for the family.

You can travel from Sir Harry’s birthplace in Sangerville, Maine, to Bar Harbor in two hours. But Harry Oakes definitely took the long way. Sixty years passed between Harry’s birth in 1874 and his arrival to buy a summer cottage in Bar Harbor. Sir Harry bought the gracious 27-room cottage called The Willows in 1938. That set the pattern for Harry’s life until his murder in 1943. The family would spend the cold months in Nassau, and Eunice and the children would return to Bar Harbor in the spring, followed by Harry later in the summer.

Map of Bar Harbor

In Bar Harbor, Harry continued to spread his money—and to show stuffed-shirted summer swells how his money insulated him from the customary requirements of polite society.

By this time, Bar Harbor was past its heyday as a summer resort for the wealthy families of Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Letters to the local newspaper complained of the number of empty cottages. Storefronts were vacant. A public solicitation was created to shame the Congregational Church on Mount Desert Street into cleaning up trash and debris that accumulated in the churchyard.

But vestiges of the robust summer colony remained. Two of the Oakes’s neighbors—the Atwater Kents and the Ned Stotesburys—happily squandered their millions on furnishing their mansions and throwing lavish parties during the Great Depression.

A Rough Side Show

Harry attended the Bar Harbor birthday parties, talent shows and dinners, occasionally letting his rough side show. He often ate using only a knife and spat pits and seeds across the banquet table.

Some said he simply spent too many years in rugged mining camps to knock off the rough edges he picked up. Others said he just didn’t care to.

Nevertheless, the Oakeses fit in at Bar Harbor. As America went to war in World War II, there was an intense interest in foreign affairs. And along with the usual fashion shows, charity soirees and concerts, the Malvern Hotel, where the Oakeses occasionally stayed, played host to a summer series of public affairs lectures supported by Harry Oakes.

He often gave generously to charities, demanding only anonymity in return. And he pursued his passion for golf when he visited Maine. A hole at the venerable Kebo Valley Golf Club is named in his honor.

As the war started, discussions of charity drives like Bundles for Britain gave way to investigations into who was abusing fuel coupons and the dangers of black markets forming. And the downtown Criterion Theater began featuring somber fare such as Guadalcanal Diary, Somewhere in France, and Hitler’s Hangmen.

But Sir Harry Oakes’s murder on July 8, 1943, literally knocked World War II out of the headlines.

When Harry Met Freddy and Eddy

It was in the Bahamas that Harry Oakes met the two European aristocrats who would play central roles in the scandal surrounding his murder and the aftermath: Count Alfred de Marigny and the Duke of Windsor.

When he arrived in 1935, the Bahamas were little more than a colonial backwater. But as World War II ravaged the cities of Europe, the Bahamas suddenly became very desirable. Wealthy Europeans looking for refuge from the war funneled into the islands. British wives, looking to escape the dangers of the cities, moved to the Bahamas where they could relax and play safely out of the range of German bombs—and their husbands.

Further adding to the intrigue, the Duke of Windsor arrived in 1940 to take on the role of colonial governor. The Duke had previously been Edward VIII, the king of England. He created a sensation when he abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Warfield, a twice-divorced American. The Duke had embarrassed the British government by showing sympathy for the Nazis and favoring appeasement before the war. He was stationed in the Bahamas—an unusual post for a royal—where he could be kept out of sight of the British people.

The Duke of Windsor in 1945

Though the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were admired as icons of style, the Duke would be found wanting on matters of law enforcement.

Upon arriving in the Bahamas, the Duke and Duchess immediately declared the governor’s residence to be uninhabitable. It needed a complete overhaul. Sir Harry Oakes rode to the rescue. He had several homes on the island, and he offered the Duke the use of his best house while the governor’s mansion was renovated. Sir Harry had bought island property for a pittance before the war, and soon found himself sitting on a gold mine of a different kind.

Alfred de Marigny

By then, another aristocratic European had already entered Harry’s orbit when Alfred de Marigny—or Freddy—landed in the Bahamas. He, too, left war-torn Europe for the peace and sunshine of the Caribbean.

Freddy had a title of his own and a reputation as a playboy. He was a count from his mother’s family. He had amassed some savings working in finance, divorced his first wife, and slept with, then married, his banker’s wife.

Freddy de Marigny

When Freddy and his new wife moved to Nassau, Freddy was in love—with the Bahamas, not with her. A brief and stormy marriage gave way to a quick divorce. In the fall of 1940, Sir Harry’s wife, Eunice, extended a dinner invitation to Freddy, then well known around Nassau as an eccentric, as well as an accomplished sailor.

Freddy dined with the Oakeses, including daughter Nancy. He was 30; she was 15. Later he said he noticed her beauty, but didn’t give her much more thought. She, however, had a serious crush. Later in the year, she visited him at the hospital in New York where he was being treated for stomach pains. And a year later she would again flirt with him at her coming-out party.

Nancy flattered Freddy by revealing she knew all about his sailboat racing, and he was smitten. A long-distance courtship ensued, with Freddy traveling again to New York in 1942. There, Nancy proposed. Freddy accepted.

Trouble

There would be no Bar Harbor society wedding for Nancy Oakes. The day after she turned eighteen, they eloped in New York City. Lady Eunice Oakes collapsed at her summer home at The Willows when she learned of the wedding.

Nancy Oakes

It’s easy enough to imagine how Count de Marigny, with his French accent and cultured deportment, would appeal to Nancy, who was horrified by her own parents’ manners. And it’s easy enough to imagine how a lithe and beautiful 17-year-old would appeal to the thirty-two-year-old Freddy.

It’s much harder to imagine what happened next.

By most accounts, Freddy and Harry’s relationship was neither especially friendly nor unfriendly. After announcing their elopement, Freddy and Nancy were invited to Bar Harbor for their honeymoon. There, the Oakes family welcomed them politely, if not warmly. Freddy got along well with Nancy’s four siblings, taking them sailing off the Maine coast.

A trip to Mexico ended badly, with Nancy contracting both typhoid fever and trench mouth. The marriage was then stressed by a pregnancy, which Nancy, at the urging of her parents, terminated.

Further trouble soon arrived in the form of a letter from Freddy’s second wife, Ruth. It accused him of being unscrupulous and immoral. The letter turned Lady Oakes against her son-in-law, and a feud ensued between mother and daughter. Nancy demanded that the family welcome Freddy.

The Final Chapter

On July 8, 1943, the final crisis was to occur in Sir Harry’s life. He was ticketed to fly to Bar Harbor the next day to join Eunice and the children at The Willows. He never got the chance. That night during a torrential tropical storm, someone killed him, bashing him on the head and then setting him on fire.

The crime scene

The murder made international headlines—that is, after the Duke finally let the news out. Faced with the sensational crime on his turf, Edward, Duke of Windsor, proved to be at the least incompetent and perhaps unscrupulous. Rather than rely on the local police or Scotland Yard, the Duke invited a Miami detective he knew to come to the island and handle the investigation.

The Duke first thought Harry had killed himself. Sir Harry had been riding around his golf course recently on a bulldozer, toppling trees. He seemed more than usually unhinged. The Duke pondered: Eunice wanted to leave the Bahamas, so perhaps Harry had gone insane.

Disabused of this notion by the gruesome facts surrounding the death, the Duke then came to suspect Freddy, whom he loathed.

Alfred de Marigny had, in fact, argued several times with Sir Harry. But so had almost everyone who knew him. Freddy didn’t have an airtight alibi for the murder, but no one had seen him around Sir Harry’s house the night of the murder. The question arose: Didn’t he and Nancy stand to inherit millions if Sir Harry died? Police pounced on Freddy and charged him with murder.

Framed

The case against Freddy went to trial. It was a gift to the tabloid press, with the elements of private investigators, crafty lawyers, and beautiful young Nancy against a backdrop of an island paradise where the wealthy fled to avoid the war.

The case unraveled fast. Freddy testified that he had renounced any claim to Nancy’s future fortune. Further, under the terms of her father’s will she would only receive $1,000 a month until she was thirty-seven, when the residue of his estate would finally be distributed among his children.

Then under questioning, the validity of the single piece of physical evidence the police had against Freddy—a fingerprint from a screen next to Sir Harry’s body—was crushed.

The two police officers had blundered. When they made that unforgettable visit on July 16 to Lady Oakes in her Bar Harbor bedroom, they told her about the fingerprint. But they testified in court that they didn’t identify the print until July 19.

Atlantic Oakes, once The Willows, Harry Oakes’ Bar Harbor mansion

Unable to present a clear picture of how and where the fingerprint was found, the defense created the impression that the police lifted the print from a drinking glass and fabricated the evidence. The detectives, Freddy’s lawyers suggested, pretended they had found the print on a shade in Sir Harry’s room to frame him.

In truth, it appears the detectives believed Freddy was guilty and would confess if confronted with enough “evidence.” But Freddy, in his memoirs, said he simply knew the lie would have to surface because he had not been anywhere near the bedroom on the night of the murder.

The aftermath of the case was probably inevitable. The jury found Freddy not guilty, but he was thrown out of the Bahamas as an undesirable. He fled to Cuba and spent a few months palling around with his old chum Ernest Hemingway. Nancy, meanwhile, had more interest in Ernest’s young son Jack, and the two began a brief, torrid affair.

While able to match Nancy’s appetite for sex, Jack said he couldn’t match her funds, and so the two parted. He headed off to Montana and college.

Nancy traveled to Montreal, and Freddy pursued her there. He wound up sleeping with a journalist who splashed his name across the newspapers. She reported his pillow talk that the Canadian government soon planned to deport him.

Nancy announced she planned to have their marriage annulled. He announced he would fight. He lost and spent the next 20 years trying to find a country that would take him in, finally securing US citizenship in 1975.

Still an Unsolved Mystery

For Sir Harry Oakes, there was no tidy ending. His body was flown back to Maine and buried. His death remains unsolved to this day. He had many enemies, but none seemed likely—or able—to kill him. Freddy speculated that Harry’s real estate partner killed him upon learning that Sir Harry planned to leave the Bahamas. He also alleged the Duke of Windsor deliberately muddled the investigation. He thought the duke feared that if Freddy were cleared, investigators would begin looking elsewhere. The Duke, Freddy found, had illegally squirreled money away in Mexico in violation of currency control laws. The Duke planned to use the money after the war—assuming the Germans would win.

With numerous theories floating around, there is to this day no definite answer to the question: Who killed Harry Oakes?

He did leave a legacy of sorts in Bar Harbor. Eunice—Lady Oakes—donated The Willows to Bowdoin College as a conference center. The college sold the Oakes Center to a developer, who turned it into a hotel now known as Atlantic Oceanside Hotel & Event Center.

Harry Oakes finally came full circle, buried in a cemetery near his birthplace in Sangerville. Lady Eunice Oakes died in Nassau in 1981.

His story has appeared in film and books, including Bar Harbor Babylon, by New England Historical Society writers Leslie and Dan Landrigan. This post is an excerpt from that book.

Images: Sir Harry Oakes Chateau By KALM1986 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88953293. Alfred de Marigny By Georgeismahname – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38224507. British Colonial Hilton By Mike Miley – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mike_miley/4217031380/ Flickr], CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15012669. Map of the Lake Shore Mine By NordNordWest – NordNordWest, usingUnited States National Imagery and Mapping Agency dataWorld Data Base II dataStatistics Canada/Statistique CanadaAdded File:Ontario, Canada.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7873011.

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