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Murder in paradise. By Charles Owen

Articles | By Charles Owen

Harry and Eunice Oakes in Toronto

Sir Harry Oakes, a tycoon friend of the Duke of Windsor, was killed in the Bahamas 80 years ago. That night, a young Charles Owen was nearby

The night of 7th July 1943 was heavy with an approaching storm.

My sister and I were in our beds. Our mother came to kiss us goodnight before going out to dinner. I asked her if she was going to Government House. The incumbents were the Duke of Windsor, now Governor of the Bahamas, and the Duchess.

‘No,’ she whispered, ‘and what a relief. Wallis always teases me because I have nothing decent to wear. It all went down with the ship.’ She was dining with friends, she said, ‘and after that we are going to play Murder’.

Lying awake in the dark and the heat, we could hear the cockroaches running up and down behind the wainscoting. The maid had shaken disinfectant powder in cracks in the walls and the creatures, like us, were finding it difficult to settle.

We were renting an old plantation house in Nassau. Fifteen months earlier, we had been aboard the Blue Funnel liner Ulysses, two weeks out from Australia, bound for Liverpool, when the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and sent to the bottom. We were rescued by a US Navy corvette and taken to Charleston, South Carolina.

Later we moved to Nassau, which was in the sterling area, to wait for a convoy to take us back to England. I was eight years old. Several of my contemporaries on the island became well known later.

Jimmy Goldsmith and I shared a bench in the schoolroom. I remember one morning when he was looking forward to tennis lessons and his mathematics teacher had to tell him off for practising strokes with his racket instead of paying attention.

That night in July, the storm struck Nassau shortly after midnight – thunder and lightning, the waves surging up the beach and the rain coming down in sheets. By the time it had blown itself out, Sir Harry Oakes, Bt, one of the world’s richest men, had been bludgeoned to death and set on fire in his beachfront home.

Born in Maine, Oakes made his fortune in Canada as a gold-prospector, living under canvas in freezing conditions, often existing only on scraps. Settled in Nassau, where his huge wealth was sheltered by minimum rates of tax, he was a large employer of native labour.

A keen amateur golfer, Oakes was due to play the Duke of Windsor on the day his body was found. He owned the course and had the habit of irritating his opponents by using his bulldozer to change holes and bunkers overnight between rounds.

Count Alfred de Marigny, born in Mauritius, twice divorced, good looking in a rakish sort of way, with a yacht named Concubine and a hereditary courtesy title, was known to his friends as Freddie. He was also Sir Harry’s son-in-law, having married the Oakeses’ daughter, Nancy, as soon as the beautiful young woman had come into her inheritance.

Relations between Marigny and his father-in-law were strained and the two hadn’t spoken for several months. On the night of the murder, shortly after 1am, Marigny had driven two dinner guests to their home about a hundred yards from Oakes’s house. The timing and the location, along with his known antipathy to Oakes, were potentially incriminating. Marigny was arrested, remanded in custody and escorted to jail.

The Duke of Windsor, whose open dislike of Marigny was no secret, secured the services of two detectives, members of the Homicide Bureau, Miami. At the magistrate’s hearing, the court learned that Marigny was in dire financial straits and that Oakes was in the process of changing his will, putting Nancy’s share of her inheritance beyond her reach until she was 30 – which was 11 years distant. Moreover, Marigny had been heard making threats against Oakes.

At the end of August, Marigny was committed for trial when the Quarter Sessions opened in October. He was returned to his cramped prison cell and its sweltering heat for a further five weeks. A rope was ordered from the chandler for the hanging.

The murder inquiry revealed that, on the night of the murder, Oakes’s wife had been away. Oakes had had some guests to dinner and one of them, Harold Christie, a real estate developer, had stayed the night to avoid driving home in the storm. It was Christie who had found Oakes’s body the following morning.

In the trial, it proved impossible for the police to establish definitively how and where Oakes had been killed. Under rigorous cross-examination of Marigny, the fingerprint evidence against him fell apart and he was acquitted.

He received a telegram offering congratulations that he had ‘won by a neck’. The jury took a more jaundiced view and recommended that he be deported.

The crime remains unsolved. Over the years, people who have continued to probe for answers have met with unexplained 'accidents'.

Despite this discouragement, there are others who are still trying to unravel the secrets of what has been called the greatest murder mystery of all time.

This story was from August 2023 issue. Subscribe Now