Cold case murder: Who killed rich Palm Beacher 75 years ago?

Updated July 09, 2018
Left: 1943 photo of Westbourne, Sir Harry Oakes’ (right) Nassau estate, where he was murdered. Home photo: Bob Davies, oldbahams.com. Oakes photo: Oakes collection, Museum of Northern History.

It was a murder case so sensational that it spanned two nations and two islands — one of them Palm Beach — and managed to knock World War II out of the top headlines.

The victim: a man who owned a vast swath of northern Palm Beach County and whose name started with “Sir.” At one point, he was called one of the two richest men in America.

Seventy-five years ago this week, Sir Harry Oakes was found dead in his bed in Nassau. He’d been bludgeoned and set afire.

The defendant: the man’s son-in-law, a society dandy so elevated he had four names, starting with “Count.” It would take a Bahamian jury two hours to acquit him. No one else ever has been charged.

RELATED: A photo gallery of the Oakes murder case

Just off camera in this saga: A developer whose name is intertwined with Lake Park. And the former king of England, exiled to the Bahamas after he gave up his throne for the American divorcee whose uncle’s hunting lodge stood within shouting distance of Lake Okeechobee. 

Author Erle Stanley Gardner reported on the Oakes murder trial as his literary creation, Perry Mason. Palm Beach Post/Miami News archives

And in the front row: novelist Erle Stanley Gardner, who’d been commissioned by the Miami Daily News to cover the trial not as himself, but as his fictional lawyer, Perry Mason.

“Watch out for a possible explosion!” Mason wrote as the trial got underway.

Oyez, oyez, oyez. Let the deliberations begin.

From gold prospector to Palm Beach County land baron

In 1919, the Massachusetts restaurateur Harry Kelsey had bought land just north of West Palm Beach for a town that would be named for him. Kelsey City incorporated on Nov. 16, 1923, as the state’s first planned community. Kelsey envisioned a metropolis of 100,000. 

Harry Kelsey, founder of Kelsey City (Lake Park) in the 1920s. 

At his peak, he owned 120,000 acres and 14 miles of oceanfront, But, like many, he was washed away by twin demons: the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane and the real estate crash  that followed. He left his city in 1931, and eight years later it changed its name to Lake Park.

Kelsey had a business partner, also named Harry: Harry Oakes.

The New Englander, born in Maine, had dropped out of medical school when word came that gold had been found in the Yukon. For the next 15 years, his search for gold failed around the globe: Death Valley, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and the Congo.

He eventually found himself back in Canada, without even train fare. An unsympathetic conductor disembarked him near Kirkland Lake, 600 miles north of Toronto. A local man convinced him gold was there. Oakes wired his mother for her life savings and staked a claim. And hit. Emboldened, he went a little farther out. And hit again. This time, it was the second richest gold lode find in the world.

By the mid-1940s, estimates placed Oakes’ worth at $200 million — as much as $3.7 billion in 2018 dollars. Some called him generous and gregarious, others ruthless.

Sir Harry and Lady Eunice Oakes, 1941. Courtesy: Bob Davies, oldbahams.com

He became a citizen of the United Kingdom, got married and in 1934 went to the sun: the Bahamas.

Sir Harry helped turn that tropical archipelago into an international resort and he would become the largest property owner on Nassau’s New Providence Island. 

And in 1939, after he gave a London hospital the equivalent of $500,000, Britain’s King George VI made him a baronet, one step below a baron. 

Oakes pumped some $12 million into Harry Kelsey’s Palm Beach County dreams. buying up much of Kelsey’s land as well as most of what’s now North Palm Beach and parts of Palm Beach Gardens. At its height, the Oakes Corporation held 80 percent of Kelsey City, along with Munyon Island. Much of the holdings was prime oceanfront. Oakes envisioned a development surrounded by a posh golf course and country club.

His five children mostly grew up in Palm Beach, where he owned mansions, and the family belonged to numerous local clubs. Of the five children, his first-born Nancy was just a teen when she fell in love with the man who later would be accused of killing her father.

Count Alfred de Marigny was charged with his father-in-law’s murder. Courtesy: Bob Davies, oldbahams.com

Count Marie Alfred de Fonquereaux de Marigny was of French extraction but was born in Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean that then was a British possession. He was, by his own admission, a ladies’ man. After his first wife, the daughter of a London banker, dumped him, he married a New York heiress and settled in the Bahamas. That marriage also failed. He met Nancy Oakes in Nassau, and in 1942, the couple eloped to Mexico. He was 33. Nancy was a tender 18.

If the count was trying to get in good with Sir Harry, this wasn’t the way.

The two men clashed regularly. The count allegedly once said in an argument that he would “crack” Oakes’ head. The men had not laid eyes on each other for the months leading up to July 1943.

Then there was the duke.

From Indiantown to London to Nassau

When King George V died in January 1936, he was replaced by his son, who then became King Edward VIII. Five years earlier, Wallis Warfield Simpson had moved to London with her husband. The Baltimore native, already a divorcée, now was in a second, unhappy marriage. Soon she and the British royal were in love. In December 1936, less than a year after taking the crown, and with war in Europe looming, Edward VIII shocked the world when he abdicated “for the woman I love.”

This tattered copy of the Atlanta Constitution from December 11, 1936 hangs in the lobby of the Seminole Inn in Indiantown.

Simpson’s uncle was S. Davies Warfield, a Baltimore banker and president of the Seaboard Air Line railroad. In 1925, just before Martin County split off from Palm Beach County, Warfield had come to tiny, isolated “Indian Town,” which he expected would become a popular stop on his rail line. He created the Seminole Inn (a young Wallis Simpson reportedly briefly worked there and definitely stayed there) before his bigger dreams for Indiantown ended upon his sudden death in late 1927.

The Seminole Inn at 15885 SW Warfield Blvd in Indiantown. Photo by Paul J. Milette

After the abdication, the former King, now the Duke of Windsor, was made governor to the Bahamas, a title that mostly was ceremonial. Scholars say it was a way to get the German-sympathizing royal — he and the Duchess had met Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1937 — as far from the British Isles as possible.

In Nassau, the Duke met the Count and just as quickly disliked him. The feeling was mutual. De Marigny once said in front of the exiled ex-king, “I sometimes feel that our prince is nothing more than a pimple on the ass of the British Empire.” The duke called him “an unscrupulous adventurer, a gambler and spendthrift” who preyed on naive young women.

Crime scene: A burned body, a cracked skull

On July 6, 1943, Harry Oakes had made plans to join his family in the U.S. But he decided to stay another day so he could show off his 1,000-acre sheep farm to the editor of a local paper and to his old pal, Sir Harold Christie, a real estate investor he’d met in Palm Beach in the 1930s. As they would be having an early start, Oakes invited Christie to spend the night at his sprawling estate.

On the evening of July 7, as a storm raged outside, Sir Harry crawled into bed.

Sir Harold Christie told police he found Harry Oakes dead in his bed. Palm Beach Post archives

Harold Christie would tell police, and testify in court, that he, Oakes and other house guests dined, drank, and played tennis and parlor games until about 11 p.m. Christie said he remained in Oakes’ bedroom until the host had donned pajamas, then retired to his own room, where he read a magazine for a half hour, then went to sleep. He said he left Oakes in bed, reading a newspaper.

Christie said he awoke at daylight and walked down to Oakes’ room to rouse him for breakfast. He found him dead and the bed still smoldering from being set on fire. Sir Harry’s skull had been cracked in four places.

Authorities in the Bahamas called Walter W. Foskett, a West Palm Beach lawyer who represented Oakes. Foskett jumped on a plane for Nassau, after telling a Palm Beach Post reporter he’d “received no information indicating death was other than from natural causes.” The Post plugged the comments into a wire story that said censors had blocked much of the information coming out of Nassau.

The censor was, in this case, the King’s governor of the Bahamas.

The first-day story said the Duke of Windsor “cancelled appointments to take a personal hand in the investigation.” In fact, he’d solicited the services of Miami police detective Capt. James Baker, along with Miami police homicide squad Capt. Edward S. Melchen, “a personal acquaintance of the duke.” The two cops also hopped a plane.

Rumors flew through the town that the murderer had been Christie, or a jealous husband. Even voodoo was suspected. But by that afternoon, police had made an arrest. It was the Count.

De Marigny didn’t make things easy for himself. He couldn’t find the shirt and tie he wore that night. He allegedly told a police official “the old (expletive) should have been killed anyhow.” He asked investigators if a person could be convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence alone, without a weapon. And he admitted he’d removed several cans of gasoline from his home the day Sir Harry was bludgeoned and set afire.

On top of that, police later would say hairs on his arms were singed. And a fingerprint matching his was found on a folding screen in the victim’s bedroom.

But de Marigny believed he, too, was a victim.

Count Alfred de Marigny said in his memoir he believed Sir Harold Christie killed Sir Harry Oakes. Contributed.

“I did not then, nor do I now, doubt that others of higher rank, and stronger influence, were willing to let me hang for a crime I had not committed,” he wrote in his 1990 book, “A Conspiracy of Crowns.”

De Marigny wasn’t alone.

In his 2006 book, “Blood and Fire,” longtime British-Bahamian journalist John Marquis cites other writers as blaming the ex-king’s well-seasoned incompetence for the way the investigation was, in the opinion of many, completely bungled. But Marquis contends it’s almost a certainty that the Duke of Windsor “was involved in an enormous conspiracy and cover-up and that he was prepared to send an innocent man to the gallows to save himself, and his friends, from the kind of intense scrutiny that might well have resulted from a full and proper investigation.”

The Duke of Windsor and wife Wallis Warfield Simpson at Horsehoe Plantation, near Tallahassee, in 1947. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Marquis also says it’s highly likely the two Miami cops participated in the cover-up, under direction from the duke.

The trial was set for Oct. 18. The day it opened, yet another figure joined the saga. He was a lawyer who lived only on paper.

A long trial, a quick acquittal

“Sullen thunder rumbled in the distance. The night draped a tropical curtain over Nassau. In the bedroom of the huge house slept Sir Harry Oakes,” began the dispatch of mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as Perry Mason as part of the Miami Daily News’ publicity stunt.

Erie Stanley Gardner.

The alleged motive had been that the count wanted to get a piece of the Oakes millions. But Oakes had changed his will long before the murder, perhaps cutting out Nancy and her husband altogether. “Perry Mason” said it would have made more sense for de Marigny, or “Freddy” as the fictional lawyer called him, to grovel before Oakes, get Nancy back into the will, and only then kill the 69-year-old man.

Defense attorneys said the case against the count was completely circumstantial and that prosecutors and their Bahamian and American investigators had bungled their efforts to nearly comic proportions.

Gardner wrote that “Perry Mason, pacing the floor, points to certain places where the testimony fails to etch the murder’s shadow into a clear outline.”

Prosecutors pointed to the singed body hairs, and said that the all-night burning of a light in de Marigny’s room indicated he was up destroying evidence. But “Perry Mason” said no murderer would be enough of an oaf to leave the lights on. De Marigny testified dinner guests had seen him singe his hand on a candle. Gardner/Mason also wrote that witnesses testified the count was out of view for a short time; enough to go to Oakes’ house and bash in his head, but not enough, Perry contended, to set the man’s bed afire.

And a fingerprint expert admitted he could not prove the incriminating print actually came from the crime scene, and the second detective testified his partner did not mention the find for weeks.

Gardner also wrote that the two Miami officers, trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat, “got the rabbit and the hat so hopelessly mixed up that no one, including the officers, themselves, will ever know just where the rabbit begins and the hat leaves off.”

The murder weapon never was found. Because the autopsy was private, and rushed, scholars have argued the holes in Oakes’ head might have been made not by a bludgeon but by bullets. This on an island where only the elite had guns.

From the beginning, a substantive faction had fingered not the count, but the man who had reported discovering Oakes’ body.

Harold Christie had numerous loans with Oakes. Had Oakes called in those loans, Christie would have been wiped out. Police said Oakes likely had died between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., and a woman had sworn that in the early hours of June 8, she saw Christie, who should have been snoring at Oakes’ place, driving along a downtown street.

In his book “Blood and Fire,” author John Marquis suggests the Duke of Windsor helped cover up the Oakes murder. Contributed.

At trial, Christie did little to help himself. Marquis wrote in “Blood and Fire” that Christie was far from calm during his testimony; his knuckles were white as he gripped the rail of the witness box, his suit was dark with sweat stains and he repeatedly mopped his wet face.

The trial lasted 22 days. on Nov. 11, jurors deliberated for an hour and 55 minutes. The verdict: Not guilty.

Afterward, a local paper would call the whole thing “the greatest fiasco in a criminal trial in this colony.”

The count, now a free man, fell into the arms of his young wife, who had supported her husband to the chagrin of her mother. The two walked out to a packed courtyard. De Marigny didn’t hear the jury foreman’s addendum: the count should immediately be thrown out of the Bahamas.

Jurors said later they’d voted 9-3 for acquittal — unlike the United States, a verdict did not have to be unanimous — and had added the deportation recommendation at the request of a holdout who was morally and religiously offended by de Marigny.

Initially, de Marigny fought the deportation order. But when he was convicted of violating wartime rationing laws, he stopped resisting. Neither America nor his native Mauritius would have him. So he and his wife sailed for Cuba on Dec. 6, just 25 days after his acquittal.

Count de Marigny and his wife Nancy arrive in Cuba after their expulsion from Nassau. Courtesy: Bob Davies, oldbahams.com

In 1945, he enlisted in the Canadian army. Four years later, he showed up in Hollywood, his marriage to Nancy annulled. He met his fourth and final wife in 1952 in Miami. They later settled in Houston, where his profitable stock portfolio provided a life of luxury out of the limelight.

De Marigny would return to Nassau in 1990, to pitch the memoir he had written. Reporters had called in 1989 when the TV movie “Passion in Paradise,” based on James Leasor’s “Who Killed Harry Oakes?” came out. The count died a rich recluse in 1998.

Epilogue: A case officially unsolved

For years after the trial, people came forward to say they knew — knew! — who killed Sir Harry Oakes.

Over the years, there were several leads: a Bahamian crime kingpin, a mysterious blonde, a political operative, or various combinations. A crooked business partner about to be exposed. A jealous husband who mistook Harry for his wife’s lover. Or someone seeking riches in gold the tycoon had hidden away somewhere in the Bahamas.

Another suspect had been no less than Meyer Lansky. The famed mobster, then based in South Florida, wanted to bring casinos to the Bahamas, but Oakes would have resisted that, fearing it would destroy the islands’ image.

Officially the case remains unsolved.

De Marigny “never could have committed the crime at the time and in the manner claimed by the prosecution,” Erle Stanley Gardner, back in New York, wrote the day after the trial. “On the other hand, Harry Oakes didn’t die a natural death.”

And John Marquis wrote in “Blood and Fire” that “to this day, Harold Christie remains the prime suspect.” He suggested it was Christie or perhaps a hit man he’d hired, the latter something de Marigny would proffer in his own book.

Anyone convinced of Christie’s guilt, and hoping cosmic justice would catch up with him, was disappointed. He flourished in real estate as the Bahamas exploded in popularity and value, and died of a heart attack in 1973 while visiting Germany.

In the mid-1950s, large tracts of the former Oakes property in Palm Beach County were sold to billionaire John D. MacArthur, who turned some of it into the city of Palm Beach Gardens.

Fourteen years after the trial, Gardner’s fictional character would become a TV star, too. “Perry Mason” would run from 1957 to 1966.

In 1959, Gardner spoke at a Rotary Club luncheon in Miami. Asked his favorite stories, he listed the one that really happened: the Harry Oakes murder.

“The plot was perfect. There was blood and the thunder of a rampaging tropical storm,” Gardner said. “Who could need more?”

***

Primary sources: the archives of the Palm Beach Post and the Miami News, “Blood and Fire,” by John Marquis, and “A Conspiracy of Crowns,” by Alfred de Marigny.