After throwing a Gatsby-esque celebration in his Nassau, Bahamas mansion on July 8, 1943, American-born Sir Harry Oakes, First Baronet of Nassau, was beaten to death and lit on fire in his bedroom. Despite the brutality of the murder, and having a family friend spending the night in a nearby guest room, Oakes’ murderer was unseen and unheard.
Fabulously rich and influential, Oakes was a philanthropist, business magnate and gold miner who heavily invested in the infrastructure, housing and farming industries of the Bahamas, where most of the population lived in poverty. He made most of his money during World War I and the Great Depression, a time when many were struggling to get by.
Was Sir Harry Oakes done in by an angry populist? A close family friend? Or was the tycoon’s murderer a member of his own family?
A fellow party guest implores Sir Harry Oakes to share the funny story he told her the night before. He doesn’t think the story is funny but begins to tell it anyways at the urging of other guests. Above the sounds of laughter, music and dancing, howling winds and other tell-tale hallmarks of a tropical storm can be heard from outside. Oakes’ story is cut short when there is a loud crash, followed by breaking glass and the cries of disgruntled party-goers. A flustered servant explains that the glasses were jostled from his grasp, but Oakes reassures him that he has plenty more and offers him a drink.
In a flashback, one miner talks to another about pocketing some of the gold he dug up from Sir Harry Oakes’s Lake Shore Mine in Alaska. Although Oakes has become rich from his gold mining business– netting about $60,000 a day – he pays his employees poorly, and the man is desperate for a new pair of blue jeans to protect him from the elements. His companion rightly doubts his theft will go unnoticed. When Oakes sees the miner in a pair of hole-less blue jeans, he orders him to fill an extra two pails of gold that day.
In 1923, Oakes marries a much younger woman named Eunice McIntyre in Sydney, Australia and wastes no time in starting a family and becoming the richest man in Canada. Oakes is still living abroad when the 1929 U.S. stock market crash hits, so his personal wealth is wholly unaffected by the economic catastrophe. By 1935, Oakes moves his family to the Bahamas, a British colony where the income tax rates are nearly nonexistent.
He soon becomes well known as an angel investor for the sparsely populated Bahamas community. After refurbishing and expanding the region’s small existing airport, propping up local hospitals, constructing low-income housing developments, and building a country club and a golf course, Oakes is knighted in recognition for his work.
His development projects pump money into the island economy, and he amasses more and more land. By 1941, he owns 40% of the land deeds in New Providence, the largest island in the archipelago. Wanting to expand his airport even further, Oakes sets his sights on filling in the nearby swamp so another airstrip can be put in. Despite the foreman’s advice against it, who warns it will sink over time, Oakes gives the order for it to be done.
On the night Oakes is murdered, family friend Harold Christie spends the night in a guest room, taking shelter from the tropical storm. When dawn breaks, Christie goes to the master bedroom and finds Oakes’s body lying in bed. Having been doused in gasoline and lit on fire, Oakes is unrecognizable from the waist up and his charred flesh smolders. Christie retches from the smell and runs from the room to call the police.
Before being overcome by his killer, Oakes fought mightily for his life. Torn pillows and smears of blood on the bedside decorative lacquered screen indicate a struggle took place. Between the struggle, bludgeoning, and the smell of burning flesh, it’s peculiar Christie perceived none of it. The police officers who arrive on scene immediately suspect Christie murdered Oakes and grill him with questions. Christie is flustered but adamant about his innocence.
After examining the body, officers determine by the four indentations on the side of Oakes’s skull that he likely died of blunt force trauma and was burned post-mortem to make it look like a crime of passion. Surprisingly, no money or valuables were stolen.
In another flashback, Oakes, his wife and eldest daughter Nancy have a disagreement about the latter’s choice in husband, Count Alfred De Marigny. Oakes hates the man for numerous reasons. Not only is De Marigny twice seventeen-year-old Nancy’s age, he was married two times before and eloped with Nancy without a word to her parents. Oakes throws a glass and Eunice tries to calm him down. It’s the beginning of a heated lifelong feud.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie speculate whether the animosity between the two men escalated into physical violence, resulting in De Marigny murdering his own father-in-law. But while De Marigny had motive, the show hosts remind listeners that Harold Christie had opportunity.
On next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, Carter and Wenndy will explore both suspects more in depth.