Midas touched: The amazing life and tragic death of Sir Harry Oakes

Sir Harry Oakes is sporting a smile of success. He was in London, England, with his wife Eunice when this picture was taken. At the time he was one of the richest men in the world.

The life and, more sensationally, the murder of Harry Oakes has been almost as glittering as the gold he uncovered in Kirkland Lake, Ontario in the early years of the 20th century.

His story has been told before, but the books and movies that have been written have been sensationalized, slanted and downright inaccurate.

Now the respected writer of Canadian history, Charlotte Gray, has tackled Sir Harry’s story with her usual focus and rigour.

Charlotte Gray

But, as is the case for finding gold in the rock of the Canadian Shield, it wasn’t easy.

For Gray, “true crime stories are wonderful opportunities to give that frame to the history (of Canada).”

There are times in Canada’s development that are less well known. One of those periods was in the years after the turn of the 20th century to the outbreak of the Second World War.

We know about Vimy Ridge and the various political developments that took place after Sir Wilfrid Laurier declared the 20th century would belong to Canada. But how familiar are we with the gold rush in Ontario’s north that essentially helped lay the foundation of the modern Canadian economy.

“There was this amazing gold rush in northern Ontario which was bigger than the Klondike gold rush, but that one has all the mystique,” she said.

“The rush in Kirkland Lake and Porcupine Lake was just sort of too close to Toronto and the romance was smothered,” Gray said.

That lack of romance certainly fits Harry Oakes. It’s safe to say he wasn’t a romantic guy.

Some of the workers at the Lake Shore mine.

Oakes was born in 1874 in the forests of Maine surrounded by the natural resources he would exploit all his life. His father was a lawyer and Harry was on his way to becoming a doctor when he caught gold fever and headed to the Yukon. For about 15 years he travelled from gold rush to gold rush finally landing in Kirkland Lake. Along the way he formed a theory about how to find gold. Eventually he was proven right.

In 1911, one of his claims came in and the famous Lake Shore Mine was found. It proved to be one of the largest, and longest lived, gold strikes ever and Oakes became a very rich man.

All of this is very appealing to Gray.

“I do find his story as a prospector amazing. It’s the determination. He was very much like the people who jump from start up to start up. There was a singleminded focus to him. He was that kind of obstinate blinkered individual who can feel that fortune is just beyond them. They are so single minded they forget everything else.”

Sir Harry Oakes.

Oakes’s story is revealing of the kind of individuals who built the Canadian economy, she said.

“We have ignored that part of our history to a great extent. In fact, the Canadian economy is built on extractive industries. It is the backbone of Canadian affluence.”

But why Harry Oakes now?

Gray said it began with a prod from an economic historian.

“He said, ‘Why are you always writing about social history? When are you going to do some business history?'”

She was concerned about how to bring business history alive. But she took up the challenge.

“I cast around and found Harry Oakes. His story allowed me to explore the extraordinary Ontario gold rush and write about that.”

She also felt for the character of this taciturn, belligerent, single-minded guy.

“The extraordinary thing is once he hit pay dirt and he becomes the richest man in the British Empire, he stopped being interested in mining. It turned out what he really loves doing is tearing up the earth and reshaping it.

Gray has explored the pioneering side of Canadian history before, especially in her work on Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill.

Settler Canadians are not that far removed from our pioneering days, but finding the truth of Oakes was not easy.

“It’s very hard because he left so little. AllI  could do was rely on the comments of others and people’s memories.

Oak Hall near Niagara Falls was the family estate before the move to the Bahamas.

“I also thought about all those people who worked so incredibly hard in the bush and were so driven. They are fascinating as archetypes. To get under his skin and make him more of a personality I felt that I got glimpses of Harry. (Things like) He loved his family, he loved machines. He loved driving himself and others.

“People in Kirkland Lake really admired him and his wife Eunice. I went up to Kirkland Lake a couple of times for research and they are still very protective of him and of the north country.

“The people I met there were generous and proud of Harry and a bit tired of people making trips up and doing quick research” and knocking off a book.

There were two things that persuaded her to write the book, she said. First was she wanted very much to have a section on the Ontario gold rush and what meant for Canada.

“The second was all that historiography on Harry’s death is actually to show how history can be manipulated in any direction you like.”

After Oakes relocated from Canada to avoid paying taxes, he settled in Bahamas where he erected a fabulous mansion and invested in real estate. He became one of the leading figures in the Bahamas.

Oakes was murdered sometime after midnight on July 8, 1943. He was struck four times behind the left ear with a miner’s hand pick and was then burned all over his body using insecticide, with the flames being concentrated around the eyes. His body was then sprinkled with feathers from a mattress.

There was an initial arrest. The finger pointed at Oakes’s son-in-law Oakes’ son-in-law, Count Alfred de Marigny who had married Oakes’s daughter Nancy against Harry’s wishes. But the case was botched and the count was acquitted. To this day, no one knows who killed Harry Oakes.

Oakes was not well-treated by biographers more interested in the sensational mystery than the man.

The first, and most influential, The Life and Death of Sir Harry Oakes was written by a Daily Express writer named Geoffrey Bocca. His portrayal of Oakes as a “complete brute” has influenced subsequent books, Gray said. This is the kind of spinning that she detests.

“I am bothered by the fact, for instance, that when I give talks about history there is often someone in the front row who immediately goes after me saying, for example, how can I defend John A. Macdonald because for residential schools.

“I know that person knows little about Macdonald. … He doesn’t know that if Macdonald wasn’t there we’d all be Americans.”

She believes in history that includes warts and all.

For example, Oakes was a massive tax avoider.

“I think that makes him quite unlikeable until you realize how savagely he was going to be taxed by the Canadian government. The feeling is that he was rich because of everything he took out of Canadian soil and he wasn’t paying anything back.”

But, she said, he created hundreds of jobs and the gold he found helped Canada survive the Depression.

“Harry is a bit of a contrast. He was in the elite, but the people who liked him best were the people who worked for him.” That’s a telling fact.

“I met several people while I was writing the book whose fathers, when the Depression hit, they came to Kirkland Lake and lined up for jobs in Harry’s Lake Shore mine.”

Finding out good information was hard work.

“It is hard. I had the same sort of thing with the book on the Massey murder.” There were few instances in that research where Gray could find the voice of Carrie Davies who shot Charles Bert Massey in 1915.

“With Harry Oakes, the main challenge was disinterring the real Harry.”

Who does she believe killed Harry Oakes?

It could have been at the bequest of Oakes’ partner in real estate, a man named Harold Christie.

But, “there is no clear evidence,” she said. “I don’t think (Christie) personally bludgeoned Harry,” but he may have hired someone or encouraged someone.

She said she has had big arguments with her husband about Christie. He asked her, if Christie was responsible why would he have spent that night at Oakes’ house and not given himself a better alibi.

Something she learned while talking to criminologists and people who think about murder quite a lot. is “Ask the question police ask: Who stood to benefit?”

The other aspect of the story is the presence of a cast of characters that included the Edward the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson.

The Duke was sent to the Bahamas to be the governor general to keep him away from his Nazi friends.

Their presence in this story is almost toxic.

The Duke was the reason “those hopeless detectives from Miami showed up” to investigate the Oakes’ murder. “They screwed up everything,” Gray said.

Poor Harry.

Murdered Midas: A Millionaire, His Gold Mine and a Strange Death Death on an Island Paradise
Charlotte Gray (HarperCollins)
In town: The author will launch her book in Ottawa at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St. at 7 p.m. on Sept. 24.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.