Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fortune's End: The Mysterious Murder of Sir Harry Oakes

Dreams of Prosperity

Younger Harry Oakes
Younger Harry Oakes
(Bowdoin College Library
Archives)

On December 23, 1874, Harry Oakes was the third of five children born to Edith and William Pitt Oakes of Sangerville, Maine. The prominent family lived in Sangerville for several years but moved to Foxcroft, Maine during the 1880s so that the Oakes' boys could attend the well-known Foxcroft Academy. During his youth, the introverted Harry Oakes daydreamed that one day he would strike it rich. It was a dream that governed his thoughts through school and well past his graduation from Foxcroft.

During his late teens, Oakes enrolled in Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and shortly thereafter attended Syracuse Medical School. According to Kirk Wilson in Unsolved Crimes, at Syracuse, Oakes became enthralled with stories about a gold strike in the Klondike. His passion for becoming rich became an obsession. Following a restless two-year stint at Syracuse, he decided to abandon a medical career and embark on an adventure that would change his life forever.

During the summer of 1896, with the emotional and financial support of his entire family, Harry Oakes set off to look for gold. The 23-year-old prospector followed rumors of gold strikes, which led him to a number of unsuccessful searches in far away lands. His first series of expeditions for gold led him to the Klondike, where the gold rush was coming to an abrupt end. From 1898 to 1899, when his money began to run out, he found work as a medical assistant treating frost-bite cases. That same year during Oakes' travels, he was shipwrecked off the Alaskan coast. The archives of the town of Kirkland Lake, Ontario indicate that following the accident, Oakes was taken prisoner by the Russians for a brief period before being released back into Alaska

Oakes then booked passage to Australia, working as a deck hand to cover his expenses. Again, he failed to find any gold. Shortly thereafter, he set off to New Zealand and then to California, where his luck failed him once more. Leasor described a man determined to fulfill his dream. Harry worked hard at a series of odd jobs to help him fund the continuation of his escapades.

Book cover of Unsolved Crimes
Book cover of Unsolved Crimes

During his travels, Oakes experienced a number of extreme conditions which hardened the young prospector. On several occasions he almost died while searching for gold. When he was prospecting in Alaska he came close to freezing to death. When Oakes traveled to Death Valley, California he came close to dying of heat stroke. Frequently he confronted unsavory characters that would do anything to become rich at the expense of another person. According to Wilson, over the years Oakes became increasingly self-reliant and bitter from continuous hard labor, hunger, isolation and disappointment. Yet, he refused to give up on his dream of finding gold and becoming rich.

In June 1911, after hearing rumors of gold being unearthed in Canada, Oakes boarded a train to a small town called Swastika in Ontario. With only $2.65 in his pocket, he was able to find inexpensive lodgings at a boarding house for miners. Roza Brown, a middle-aged woman of Hungarian decent, owned the boarding house where Oakes rented a room. The Sangerville, Maine library archives describe Ms. Brown as a "strikingly ugly, smelly" and foul woman who was "followed everywhere by snarling dogs." She also was known to have an intense dislike for prospectors, believing them to have more brawn than brain, considering their unscientific approach to mining. However, Ms. Brown saw the hard working and determined Harry Oakes as different from the other prospectors and took a liking to him. Having some limited knowledge of the geographical terrain and mineralogy, Ms. Brown would often give advice to Harry on where she believed gold could be found. 

In January 1912, heeding Ms. Brown's advice, Harry Oakes went to Kirkland Lake, Ontario to mine. He enlisted the help of four brothers to fund his search for gold in the area. The Tough brothers, who were also prospectors, had earned their money through lumberjacking and construction, to support their mining interests. The five men struck a deal that if any gold was found in the area where Oakes had instructed them to dig, they would share the proceeds. They reclaimed land that had recently fallen into default around the lake and began their digging in sub-zero temperatures.

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