Sir Harry Oakes, left, and his friend the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII of England. Credit: Museum of Northern History | Museum of Northern History

Harry Oakes started life as a shy, small town kid, growing up in the 1870s and 80s in the Piscataquis County towns of Sangerville and, later, Dover-Foxcroft, the third of five children.

His life ended in 1943, as one of the wealthiest men in North America, and as the victim of a mysterious, violent murder that remains unsolved.

Who was this remarkable self-made man — and how did he go from Piscataquis County to owning a gold mine, hobnobbing with royalty and living in a palatial Caribbean estate?

Humble beginnings

Harry Oakes was born in Sangerville in 1874, the son of William and Edith Oakes. According to a history of Oakes’ life published by the Sangerville Public Library, the Oakes family had lived in the town since 1808, but moved to Foxcroft (as it was called before being renamed Dover-Foxcroft in 1922) in 1880 so William Oakes’ two sons could attend Foxcroft Academy.

Oakes graduated from Foxcroft in 1892, and went to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where he received his degree and went to Syracuse University Medical School for two years. Though by contemporary accounts Oakes was soft-spoken and introverted, he clearly had big dreams.

In 1898, Oakes struck out for Alaska, with a plan to prospect for gold during the then-booming Klondike gold rush. For 13 years, Oakes traveled the globe, searching for gold and taking odd jobs where he could find them, including as a medical assistant in the Yukon Territory, treating frostbite cases, and working as a deckhand on a ship bound for Australia, where he also prospected. After two fruitless years in California, in 1911, a nearly penniless Oakes set off for northern Ontario, Canada, still on the hunt for gold.

It was in the mining outpost of Kirkland Lake that he finally, literally struck gold, establishing a mine which over the next 20 years would become the most productive gold mine in the Western Hemisphere. By the end of the decade, Oakes was reportedly netting $60,000 a day in profits from the gold coming out of the mine — close to $1 million in 2020 dollars, adjusted for inflation.

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Rags to riches

In the 1920s, Oakes was a single man in his mid-40s, with more money than he could possibly spend. He bought luxury cars and built a Chateau-style mansion near his mine. On a cruise in 1923, he met his future wife, 25-year-old Eunice, and they soon moved permanently to Canada. Between 1925 and 1932 they had five children: Nancy, Sydney, Shirley, William and Harry.

Within a few years, Oakes grew tired of paying high Canadian taxes on his constantly accruing wealth. In the late 1920s, the family moved to the Bahamas, where there were no taxes. Still, Oakes regularly traveled between his new home in the Caribbean, his mine in Canada, his mansion at Niagara Falls, his properties in Florida and the “cottage” he purchased in Bar Harbor — an estate called the Willows, which today is part of the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel complex.

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In the Bahamas, his impact on the development of the island nation — then still a part of the British Empire — was enormous. In addition to major infrastructure investments including expanding the airport in Nassau, and developing a number of housing projects, he also built hotels and a golf course, and established a bus system around the island of New Providence, two-thirds of which he owned at that time.

After Oakes, by then a British citizen, donated $500,000 to St. George’s Hospital in London — around $9 million today — he was made a baronet in 1939 by King George VI as a reward for his philanthropic endeavours, and was thereafter known as Sir Harry Oakes. By 1940, the former small-town boy from central Maine had an estimated fortune of between $200 million and $300 million dollars — between $3 billion and $4.5 billion dollars in 2020, making him one of the then-richest people in North America.

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A scandalous murder

On July 8, 1943, Oakes was preparing to fly from the Bahamas to his summer home in Bar Harbor, where his wife and four of his five children were already staying. He never made it back to Maine, however, as sometime in the wee hours of that morning, he was bludgeoned to death.

Though the subsequent police report is considered somewhat suspect, it is generally believed that Oakes was killed by four massive blows to the head, and was found in his bedroom, with his body partially burned. His body was taken to Bar Harbor for a funeral, and he was buried in the Dover Cemetery in Dover-Foxcroft. His grave can still be visited today.

Oakes’ close friend, Bahamas governor the Duke of Windsor — a.k.a. former King Edward VIII of England, who famously abdicated the throne in 1936 so he could marry Wallis Simpson — took charge of the investigation. He recruited American detectives to pursue the case, since Scotland Yard couldn’t travel to the island nation due to World War II.

Two days later, the detectives had arrested Alfred de Marigny, a charismatic French playboy who had eloped with Oakes’ daughter Nancy the year prior. The case made international headlines, given Oakes’ immense wealth and the scandalous nature of de Marigny and Nancy Oakes’ marriage. With little evidence to support the prosecution’s case, however, de Marigny was acquitted in late 1943. The couple reportedly then left the Bahamas to stay in Cuba with their friend, Ernest Hemingway. They divorced in 1945.

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Nazis, money laundering, the mob — who did it?

There are several theories as to who was actually responsible for Oakes’ death. The first, proposed by de Marigny years after the trial, is that Oakes’ friend Harold Christie, who was staying at the estate on the night of the murder, committed the act. De Marigny claimed he saw Christie and two other men speeding away from the estate that night, and alleged that Oakes, Christie and the Duke of Windsor were conspiring to smuggle millions of dollars out of the Bahamas into Mexico. De Marigny claimed that Oakes had backed out of the deal and was planning to tell the authorities.

An additional theory suggested that the Duke and Christie were planning to smuggle those millions into bank accounts in Nazi Germany. The FBI’s files documenting the Duke’s long association with Hitler and his cronies — the Marburg papers, as seen in episode six of the Netflix series “The Crown” — had been revealed to the British Royal Family in 1946, and were made public in 1957.

Another theory claims that Christie was actually the one opposed to the movement of the money into Nazi hands, and that Oakes was willfully in on the scheme. Christie may have had Oakes killed to prevent that transfer.

A different theory, proposed by author Marshall Houts in his 1972 book “Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes?”, is that notorious Miami gangster boss and Lucky Luciano associate Meyer Lansky was behind the murder. Lansky wanted to build a hotel and casino in the Bahamas, but Oakes was strongly opposed to allowing casino gambling in the island nation. Lansky sent henchmen to Oakes’ Bahamian estate to simply “rough him up,” but in the course of the assault, ended up killing the 68-year-old Oakes. Lansky tried to pin the murder on de Marigny, but after de Marigny was acquitted, the case was not pursued any further.

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A cold case lives on

Oakes’ murder continues to be a source of fascination, nearly 80 years later. Multiple books have been published on the subject, including Houts’ 1972 book “Who Killed Harry Oates”, John Marquis’ 2005 book “Blood and Fire: the Duke of Windsor and the Strange Murder of Sir Harry Oakes,” and, most recently, Charlotte Gray’s 2019 book, “Murdered Midas: A Millionaire, His Gold Mine, and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise.”

Movies have been made as well, including “Eureka,” released in 1984 and directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Gene Hackman as the character based on Oakes, and Rutger Hauer as the character based on de Marigny. Another movie, “Passion and Paradise,” starred Armand Assante as de Marigny and Rod Steiger — doing a terrible Maine accent — as Oakes.

Oakes’ wealth went to a number of ventures. In addition to all the development he spearheaded in the Bahamas, Florida and Niagara Falls, Dover-Foxcroft benefited from his philanthropic ventures. When Foxcroft Academy built a new campus in the 1920s, it was sited on the former Oakes family farm, near the Dover Foxcroft-Sangerville town line. The school’s football field is named for Oakes as well.

One thing none of the books, movies and articles published on the crime have been able to come to an agreement on, however, is who killed Oakes all those years ago. The truth lies buried in a cemetery in Dover-Foxcroft, with a man from Maine who set out to make his fortune over a century ago.

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.