The Merrickville Legion was packed on Saturday afternoon to welcome one of Canada’s most respected authors to the municipality. Charlotte Gray is the author of ten acclaimed books of literary non-fiction about Canadian history. She is Adjunct Research Professor in the Department of History at Carleton University and is the recipient of the Pierre Berton Award for distinguished achievement in popularizing Canadian history. She is a Member of the Order of Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Charlotte stopped in Merrickville on Saturday as part of her book tour across Eastern Ontario promoting her most recent book “Murdered Midas: A Millionnaire, His Goldmine and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise”. The visit was arranged by the Merrickville Library’s Book Club, which read several of her books this summer and enjoyed them so much they decided to reach out to her to see if she would come to Merrickville. “I was thrilled by the invitation,” Charlotte said.
Charlotte began her talk by telling the audience a little bit about why she fell into writing books about Canadian history. Born in England, Gray came to Canada in 1979. She studied history at Oxford University and always felt that it was important to acknowledge that today’s world was shaped by yesterday. “The big challenge is how I can find a way to explore the past in a way that general people can enjoy,” she said. She found this to be a challenge, especially in Canada, where many Canadians feel an intense disinterest in their own history. “As an outsider, I always found it interesting,” she said.
Charlotte’s first books, published in the 1990s, were biographies, because she felt that they were a good way to engage readers with history. “The texture of a person’s life is always a compelling story,” she said. As time wore on, she noticed that people’s appetites were changing and that history books were disappearing to the back of the bookstores. In their place were tales of murder and true crime, showing up, not only in books, but also movies and tv shows. “I thought, if I could find a true crime story, I could use it as a vessel for public history,” she says.
In 2013, she published a book about the murder of Charles Bert Massey, which flew off the shelves. “There was lots of drama, but also lots of social history,” she said about the book. After taking a break from murder, trials and crime to write a book called “The Promise of Canada”, for Canada’s sesquicentennial year, Charlotte started looking for a murder or crime that could help her tell the story of the growth of Canada’s business community. “Maybe I can combine a biography with true crime, and find a character that is an entry point into that history,” she thought.
That was how she stumbled upon Harry Oakes, an American-born gold mine owner and entrepreneur who made his fortune in the northern Ontario gold rush in the early 20th century. Harry, family (wife and five children) and fortune ended up in the Bahamas to escape being heavily taxed by the government. His life ended tragically in 1943 when he was found brutally murdered in his bed. No one was ever convicted for his murder and, to this day, no one really knows who is responsible for the murder of the self-made Canadian billionaire.
Charlotte says her book is meant to highlight the rise of the extractive industries in Canada, and how they shaped Toronto into the prosperous city it is today. She also wanted to tell the, often mis-told, story of Harry Oakes and bring him to light as an interesting character in Canada’s history.
Charlotte ended her talk with several questions from the audience, which she says is her favourite part about giving presentations. “The only thing you can’t ask me is who I think [murdered Oakes],” she said. “For that, you will have to read the book