When news of Sir Harry Oakes’ murder reaches the Nassau press and populace despite the illustrious Duke of Windsor’s efforts to keep it under wraps, the islanders are quick to peg the gold baron’s son-in-law, Count Alfred de Marigny, for the murder. Police jump on the island-wide bandwagon and the Crown doesn’t discourage it. Just three days after Oakes’s murder, Count Alfred de Marigny is arrested and facing odds deliberately stacked against him. Police plant and destroy evidence in hopes of securing a guilty verdict, and de Marigny’s trial becomes such an international spectacle that it takes front-page space away from World War II. Only an American private investigator, a defense attorney, and Harry’s daughter Nancy Oakes stand between de Marigny and the hangman’s noose.
According to Harold Christie, all the party guests left by 11pm on the night Harry Oakes died--except for Christie himself. Tired and inebriated, Christie explains to the police that he was in no shape to go home and stayed in a guest bedroom. He woke only once during the night, because of the torrential tropical storm, but at no point did he leave his room until morning, nor did he hear anything suspicious.
The episode flashes back to the morning Oakes’s murder is discovered. Head pounding from a hangover, Christie swears to himself that he’ll never drink again as he walks down the hall to Oakes’s bedroom door. He knocks, asks after Oakes, and makes breakfast suggestions. When there is no answer, Christie merely thinks Oakes is suffering from a far worse hangover and leaves to get water. It’s not until he tries to get his friend to drink the water, and clean him up with a towel, that he realizes Oakes is not only dead, but partially burnt to a crisp and covered in feathers.
The investigation into Oakes’s murder is spearheaded by an illustrious friend – the Duke of Windsor, formerly known as King Edward VIII until his abdication in 1936. The Duke of Windsor sends away a reporter looking for a comment on the investigation. In private, his wife, Wallis Simpson, convinces him that waiting until the case is solved before addressing the press is far too long. She points out that even identifying a suspect could take weeks, alluding that the island police are incompetent. Simpson suggests that they bring in Captain James Barker and Captain Edward Melchen to take over the case, two police detectives they hired for a protective detail during past travels through Miami. The Duke of Windsor agrees and also sends a doctor of his choosing over to examine Oakes’s body. This doctor rules the death a possible suicide, but a second doctor’s prognosis deems suicide highly unlikely.
When Captain James Barker and Captain Edward Melchen inspect the crime scene, they focus on a bloody handprint on the wall by Oakes’s bed and the muddy footprints leading up the stairs. It’s not long before they proclaim Oakes’s death a homicide. The case seems all too easy until the detectives realize it’s too humid to dust for prints and that Captain Melchen forgot his latent-fingerprint camera on his desk in Miami.
Despite his efforts, the Duke of Windsor is unable to keep the story of Sir Harry Oakes’ murder out of the newspapers and the populace believes Oakes’s son-in-law, Alfred de Marigny, is the culprit. Just three days after Oakes’s death, authorities arrest de Marigny before conducting a proper autopsy, murder weapon search, or fingerprint analysis.
In another flashback, 32-year-old de Marigny and 17-year-old Nancy Oakes flirt after the former wins a sailing competition. The attraction is not fleeting. Two days after Nancy turns 18, they elope in New York without telling her parents. This, coupled with de Marigny’s notoriety as a libertine and twice divorcee, garners hatred from his father-in-law, Sir Harry Oakes, from the start. Their relationship deteriorates further when Oakes forces Nancy, both pregnant and afflicted by typhoid, to have an abortion. As ill as she is, Nancy cannot give birth to the child and live. Oakes also accuses de Marigny of rape.
Unsurprisingly, the two men never speak to each other again, and their feud becomes well known on the island. Some islanders allegedly overheard de Marigny threaten to “crack Sir Harry’s head.” Many also believe de Marigny would inherit Sir Harry Oakes’s entire estate now that he was dead. Police happily oblige the rumor mill. Even when Alfred de Marigny provides a solid alibi, detectives Barker and Melchen bring de Marigny to the Oakes household and trick him into leaving fingerprints on a pitcher and glasses of water, which they lift and plant as evidence at the crime scene.
Nancy is in Miami studying dance when she learns about her father’s death, and she initially goes to the family’s summer home in Maine to be with her mother. However, the news of her husband’s arrest brings her to Nassau. She is alone in her belief of his innocence. When Nancy visits de Marigny in jail, she tells him that she’s hired an American private investigator named Raymond Schindler to clear his name and conduct a separate investigation into her father’s death.
Nassau police deny Schindler access to the Oakes mansion for a week. When he finally gets inside, officers are scrubbing the walls outside the murder victim’s bedroom. After he yells at them, they say they were following orders to remove all fingerprints except for those of Alfred de Marigny to prevent “confusion” of evidence.
The trial begins on October 18, 1943 and, to appease the island’s hatred for the man, de Marigny is brought into court in a cage on top of a three-foot stand. Witnesses claim to have seen him drive past the Oakes mansion several times on the night of the murder. The defendant explains that he was driving guests home after the party he hosted. Detectives Barker and Melchen lie about finding de Marigny’s fingerprint on the Chinese screen in Oakes’s bedroom.
Godfrey W. Higgs, de Marigny’s defense attorney, proves that his client’s fingerprints weren’t lifted from the Chinese screen when he demonstrates how the prints should also show the scrollwork from the screen’s surface. Since none of the prints Detectives Melchen and Barker presented had it, Higgs openly accuses them of fabricating evidence in court.
Higgs’s cross-examination further reveals that before any crime scene fingerprints were processed, Detective Barker told Nancy and Lady Eunice Oakes at the funeral that he identified the fingerprints on the Chinese screen as de Marigny’s. The Count’s alibis also confirm his whereabouts on the night of Sir Harry Oakes’s murder. Outing the Miami detectives for their corrupt homicide investigation summarily results in public humiliation and shame.
After a twenty-five-day trial, the jury returns with a “not guilty” verdict in just over an hour and de Marigny is released. Shockingly, nothing more is done to find the real murderer, which leaves us with the question: who killed Sir Harry Oakes?
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie give listeners a rundown of the most popular theories. The first speculates that Oakes was sacrificed in a voodoo ritual, which Carter and Wenndy dismiss as the racist thinking of the town and not a valid possibility. The second theory, perpetuated by Count Alfred de Marigny, claims Harold Christie hired someone to kill Oakes for him. In addition to his proximity to the murder when it took place, Christie planned to start mob-run casinos in the Bahamas with Miami mobster Meyer Lansky, a plan that Oakes allegedly backed out of and tried to block entirely. In 1950, prominent island resident and painter, Hildegaard Hamilton, claims Harold Christie murdered Sir Harry Oakes, and Police Chief Robinson backs her story, but no action is taken.
A more sinister theory suggests that Oakes was murdered for discovering that Swedish businessman, Axel Wenner-Gren, had Nazi connections and was spying for the Germans. However, there’s no evidence tying Wenner-Gren to the crime scene.
Carter and Wenndy place their bets on Harold Christie. Not only did he have the means and proximity to commit the crime, he also had plenty of motive. Aside from shady dealings with mobsters, Christie owed Oakes a lot of money. This wasn’t an issue until Oakes suddenly demanded Christie to pay it back, not long before his untimely demise. Perhaps unable to settle the debts, Christie murdered the lender and let the well-known feud between the gold baron and his son-in-law steer suspicion away from himself.
But who do you think really murdered Sir Harry Oakes? We’d love to hear your theories on Twitter @ParcastNetwork or on Facebook at Facebook.com/Parcast.