Murdered Midas by Charlotte Gray

by Edith Cody-Rice 

When we were young, many of us got the idea, through osmosis, that Canadian history was boring: no civil wars or wars of conquest, no huge heroics – life that was fascinating happened elsewhere. Well, in addition to Pierre Berton, it is an English woman, transplanted to Canada through marriage, who is revealing to us what an extraordinary country, inhabited by remarkable characters, we have the privilege to call our own.

Charlotte Gray is now a much loved Canadian historian, a recipient of the Order of Canada, and has written award winning literary biographies of the mother of McKenzie King (Mrs. King), Canadian aboriginal poet Pauline Johnson (Flint and Feather), Alexander Graham Bell (Reluctant Genius) in addition to penning several books on Canadian social history.

Charlotte has been a close friend for more than 35 years so I normally would not review her books, but she will be appearing in Almonte at the Old Town Hall on December 1, courtesy of  Mill Street books and her latest book Murdered Midas certainly deserves a review in anticipation of  that event.

Murdered Midas is the biography of Harry Oakes, an American prospector who found a spectacular seam of gold in Kirkland Lake, Ontario in 1916, became one of the British Empire’s wealthiest men as a result and who was brutally murdered in his home in the Bahamas in 1943. The murder has never been solved.

As Charlotte points out, the Oakes’ murder is famous, but very little has been written about the man himself. Many Canadians have heard of Harry Oakes and know vaguely about his great wealth created by his prospecting find and of his murder. The real full  story of the life of Harry Oakes is fascinating and is intertwined with the history and development of Ontario. It is Harry Oakes and his mines and those of other Northern Ontario miners  that made Toronto the world centre for the trading of mining stocks. During the great depression, income from Oakes’ mining company Lakeshore, and other Ontario mines propped up the provincial economy.

Oakes, born in 1874, was from a middling family in small town Maine, a family that supported him through his odd choice of prospecting career. He traveled the world digging for gold for 13 long uncertain years before he struck it rich, in the face of expert doubters, at Kirkland Lake. By drilling under the lake, he hit a gold seam of high grade ore twelve metres wide. What many Ontarians do not know is that the gold finds in Northern Ontario were huge, much more important than the Yukon Gold rush yet not surrounded by similar lore.

The saga of Oakes’ early years, his find and his subsequent life of great wealth is astonishing from start to finish. His becoming a British citizen, his purchase of large tracts of land in Niagara Falls, some still held in his family, his flight to the Bahamas to escape the greedy taxmen , his lifestyle, outlook, philanthropy, his friends, business partners and at last his death and the bungled murder investigation are all on the edge of the unbelievable and they make a great story, well told by Charlotte. She has an easy conversational style which makes reading her work a great pleasure. This is an engrossing and very readable book.

Tickets for the Charlotte Gray event may be purchased from Mill Street Books  

Murdered Midas is published by HarperCollins Publishers

307 pages