The gruesome murder of one of the worlds richest men

Much of the world was occupied by the life-and-death struggle between the Axis and Allied powers on July 8, 1943. Ever since the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour that led to America’s entry into the war in December 1941, it had seemed the Allies were winning, but nobody was complacent about the chances of victory.

Yet even in wartime for the inhabitants of Nassau in the Bahamas, there was a more pressing consideration.

A murder had been committed, and its investigation would reveal dark secrets that many of the island’s inhabitants would have preferred to remain hidden.

The Bahamas were home to wealthy British and European expatriates who had made new lives in the would-be tropical paradise.

Yet 80 per cent of the residents – numbering around 60,000 – were black, and racial and social tensions were rife.

And as I discovered while researching my new book, The Windsors at War: The Nazi Threat to the Crown, not everyone was delighted to be there. Two of the most reluctant residents in fact were the 49-year-old Governor of the Bahamas – the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII – and his 47-year-old wife, Wallis Simpson.

The royal couple had arrived in the Bahamas in August 1940 as virtual exiles, mistrusted by the British government and the Royal Family alike because of their rumoured Nazi sympathies.

They may have hoped for a quieter life in paradise, but, inevitably, this did not happen.

The murdered man was 68-year-old British gold mine tycoon Sir Harry Oakes, who had arrived in Nassau in 1935 and made it his home for tax reasons.

After his discovery of Lake Shore Mine in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Canada, Oakes became one of the wealthiest people in the world and chose to invest much of his wealth in philanthropy. His friend Eric Hallinan said of him: “He remained essentially the plain, single-minded man who had roamed the world in search of gold, and, when he found it, gave most of his wealth away.”

Yet even the generous attract enemies. His 18-year-old daughter Nancy had eloped with French-Mauritian playboy, Count Alfred de Marigny, a year earlier and Oakes and his son-in-law had a fiery relationship.

It was known, for instance, that de Marigny had threatened to “smash in” his father-in-law’s head during one especially heated argument.

So when Oakes’s body was discovered in bizarre circumstances – on a bed covered in feathers from a mattress, blown around by a nearby fan, and stabbed first with an ice pick, then with a miner’s hand pick, and then the corpse burnt with insecticide and petrol – he was immediately top of the list of suspects. It was a murder scene indicating that whoever had killed Oakes had wished to make a gruesome statement.

The killer was not without style, either; the ice pick, naturally, came from Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, one of London’s oldest and most venerable restaurants.

The Duke of Windsor involved himself in the case from the outset, both in his official capacity and because Oakes had been a friend of his and Wallis.

He also detested de Marigny, who he called “an unscrupulous adventurer [with] an evil reputation for immoral conduct with young girls”. He sought a conference with Nassau’s leading physician Hugh Quackenbush, who told him dryly: “Santa Claus is dead” – an allusion to the fact that Oakes’s legendary generosity was now at an end, thanks to his murder.

Even as – quite preposterously – Quackenbush wondered if it had been an elaborate suicide, the Duke replied “For Lady Oakes’s sake, I hope it turns out to be murder; for the Colony’s sake, suicide.”

Dismissing any idea that the local police would be up to the job of solving the crime,

Edward telephoned the Miami City Police and asked for Captain W E Melchen, chief of the Homicide Bureau.

The Duke and Wallis had met Melchen on previous visits to Miami and believed him to be diligent and competent.

Now he was summoned to the Bahamas to investigate what was described as “an unusual death”. The Duke bore in mind Quackenbush’s grim observation in his haste to solve the crime: “A body does not remain fresh for long in Nassau.”

Melchen and his assistant, Captain James Barker, did their job quickly.

Barker produced damning evidence of de Marigny’s fingerprints at the crime scene, and the local police commissioner arrested and charged him.

The island had the death penalty, and the playboy could expect to hang should he be convicted. Yet there was unease about the speed with which the criminal had been caught. Although de Marigny was not a popular figure locally, he was known as a rakish philanderer rather than a violent man.

The Duke’s methods of bringing about justice came under scrutiny; one British civil servant cabled to London: “The Governor is at some pains to explain why he took the rather unusual step of calling in men from outside, which I must confess I don’t very much like. But in the circs [sic] I will not question his judgement.”

The so-called “trial of the century” began in October. Both Edward and Wallis expected de Marigny to be convicted.

The duke wrote in August that the playboy was “a despicable character… with the worst possible record, morally and financially, since his adolescence.”

However, Edward also acknowledged the “sordid beyond description” case had split the Bahamas, adding: “Whether de Marigny is guilty or not, local opinion is sharply divided for and against him”.

Indeed, the governor especially feared civil disobedience from the local population, warning Oliver Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies, “If the coloured people are ever given the slightest reason to suspect the jury, then the consequences may be grave.”

De Marigny was unpopular with the locals, but the “unsavoury group of people” de Marigny consorted with wished to see him acquitted, and if there was any suspicion of justice not being done, chaos would ensue.

Wallis, meanwhile, wrote to her aunt that, “I am afraid there is a lot of dirt underneath… one wonders how far it will all go… I do not think there is a big enough laundry anywhere to take Nassau’s dirty linen.”

It may almost have been a relief, then, that the trial fell apart within a week.

The prosecution’s sole piece of real evidence – a fingerprint discovered on a Chinese screen in Oakes’s bedroom – was revealed to have been lifted from elsewhere in the property by Barker. De Marigny was no longer placed at the scene of the crime at the time he was accused of it which wrecked the prosecution’s case beyond repair.

After a two-hour deliberation, he was acquitted, albeit with a strange codicil: the jury suggested that he be deported from the Bahamas immediately.

But before he could undergo that ignominy, de Marigny voluntarily left for Cuba, where he soon resumed his playboy existence, taking Oakes’s daughter with him; unsurprisingly, the marriage did not last and the two separated in 1945, eventually divorcing in 1949.

Oakes’s murder has never been solved.

It continues to inspire countless true-crime books to this day, which come up with increasingly far-fetched suggestions for the motives for the killing, as well as being a plot strand in William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart and the inspiration for the Gene Hackman-starring crime film Eureka.

One of the most fanciful theories is that Oakes and Edward were somehow involved with the Mafia, that Oakes’s murder was a gangland execution and that a frightened Duke attempted to force through a conviction before he could merit the same treatment.

Another, proposed by Nassau newspaper editor John Marquis, was that the murder was orchestrated to prevent Oakes from moving his money off the island and that the Duke of Windsor was complicit in a cover-up by hiring corrupt detectives.

But these theories are based on little but hearsay and rumour.

It is easy to agree with the historian Philip Ziegler’s verdict that Edward, “Can fairly be accused of impetuosity, and bad judgement, and of allowing his dislike of de Marigny to impair what should have been his complete impartiality”.

Nevertheless, on balance, it’s quite possible de Marigny was responsible for the murder of his father-in-law, but that he was clever enough to be able to cover up his tracks and leave no evidence of his involvement behind.

The mixture of the brutality of the killing and the strangeness of the details – and the Simpsons ice pick – all suggested that the man responsible for Oakes’s death was someone ostensibly civilised, but driven to frenzied violence.

Oakes’s obvious distaste for de Marigny’s relationship with his daughter might suggest the crime was committed out of a mixture of cold calculation and anger.

In any case, de Marigny married his fourth wife shortly after divorcing Nancy. Oakes’s widow Eunice never remarried, and remained in the Bahamas until her death in 1981, at the age of 82.

The Duke of Windsor remained Governor of the Bahamas until 1945, after which he and Wallis resumed an indolent lifestyle of drifting round the globe.

But their involvement in what remains one of the most notorious unsolved crimes of the century still defines their time in Nassau.

As Wallis sardonically quipped after the news was revealed: “Never a dull day in the Bahamas.”

  • The Windsors At War by Alexander Larman (W&N, £25) is out now. To order for £22.50 with free UK P&P, visit or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832

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