November 18, 2019

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Gold tycoon's murder a marvellous mystery

You’ll likely feel guilty for enjoying this true-crime account about an unsolved murder, but when a story is told with fulsome information and explained well, it’s hard not to smile. When it’s written by historian and biographer Charlotte Gray, you’ll smile more.

That’s because the noted chronicler of Canadian stories has turned her eye to the murder of Sir Harry Oakes on July 7, 1943. Oakes, a Canadian gold-mining millionaire, was dispatched at his Bahamas mansion in either a faked ritual killing or a messy murder. The case became an international sensation because of the intriguing political circumstances and the questionable upper-crust characters, including some royals, who could have been complicit.

Sir Harry Oakes.</p>

Sir Harry Oakes.

Gray does Oakes’s colourful life justice by placing it within its historical context. Born to a well-off family in 1874 in Maine, he eschewed a profession, smitten by gold fever in the era that had witnessed the California, B.C. and Klondike gold rushes. Oakes roamed the globe, tramping through wilderness and muskeg, hobnobbing with drifters and other fortune hunters. He stood out, however, from the hard drinkers who either sold out or lost hope. Short in stature but physically strong, Oakes was described by his peers as teetotalling and humourless, with "a destiny that was almost a burden."

Gray relates her own quest to find documents, locations and people central to Oakes’s life. Importantly, she presents facts instead of engaging in the unsubstantiated theories that circulated wildly over the decades.

Her writing is vivid; she paints a picture of "the tangled bush, unnamed lakes and impenetrable forests" in northern Ontario, land stolen by governments from the Indigenous inhabitants for loggers and miners to exploit. Oakes ignored cobalt, nickel and other minerals being discovered, his single-mindedness paying off in finding Canada’s richest gold vein near Kirkland Lake in 1916.

He never lost his gruffness, physical drive or prospector’s breeches, but did trade damp tents for fine cigars and a 20-room manor, also bestowing wealth on the town, buying land for a golf course, church, hospital and hockey arena, among other philanthropic measures of his choosing.

Oakes’s drive for money was insatiable. To avoid personal taxes, he decamped first to Florida and in 1935 to the Bahamas, then a backwater British colony with no income taxes at all. Applying his characteristic industriousness, he built an airstrip, golf course and stately residence. Gray describes Oakes as irreverent, flouting the rules of the white-dominated society, engaging with black workers where it suited him.

The Second World War brought change to the islands. The Duke of Windsor arrived as governor general, sent to save the Royal Family the embarrassment of having the former king and his Nazi-sympathizing wife in England. The couple expressed disgust at having to live in an unsophisticated boondocks, but joined an entrepreneurial local and a cabal of curious expats in Oakes’s social circle as the war altered the balance of power on the island, introducing new tensions.

But who murdered Sir Harry? Gray recounts what was probably a deliberately botched investigation that saw his son-in-law charged but acquitted. Books have been written and four movies made, but none point clearly to Oakes’s killer. Despite time passing, interest has never waned.

A prolific writer, Gray’s many earlier titles (2004’s The Museum Called Canada, 2016’s The Promise of Canada, 2008’s Extraordinary Canadians: Nellie McClung and more) display a popular but solid approach to historical research. She doesn’t offer answers, but her meticulous mapping of people and events makes her account of this moment in history an informative and enjoyable read.

Harriet Zaidman is a children’s and freelance writer in Winnipeg. Her new middle-grade novel, City on Strike, is set during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

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