In December of 1909, a few days before Christmas, the murder of a wealthy old woman in Glasgow sparked a cascade of events that would go on to write an incredible story of prejudice, conspiracy and eventual justice. Featuring a starring role by none other than the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it was then and remains still, one of the most fascinating, perplexing and straight confusing incidents of cause celebre in modern history.
Doyle, Arthur C. (1912) The Case of Oscar Slater. Leopold Classic Library. London, UK
Roughead, William. (1910) The Trial of Oscar Slater. William Hodge & Company, Glasgow, UK
Toughill, Thomas (2006) Oscar Slater: The Immortal Case of Sir Conan Doyle. The History Press, London, UK
Fox, Margalit. (2019) Conan Doyle for the Defence: A Sensational Murder, the Quest for Justice and the World’s Greatest Detective Writer. Profile Books, London, UK.
‘Glasgow West End Murder. Slater Trial Opened,’ Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, Greenock, 04 May 1909, P. 4.
‘Glasgow Flat Tragedy. Slater On Trial,’ Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, Greenock, 05 May 1909, P. 4.
‘The Slater Trial. Third Days Proceedings,’ Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, Greenock, 06 May 1909, P. 4.
‘Glasgow West End Murder. Slater Found Guilty,’ Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, Greenock, 07 May 1909, P. 4.
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The Case of Oscar Slater
In December of 1909, a few days before Christmas, the murder of a wealthy old woman in Glasgow sparked a cascade of events that would go on to write an incredible story of prejudice, conspiracy and eventual justice. Featuring a starring role by none other than the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it was then and remains still, one of the most fascinating, perplexing and straight confusing incidents of cause celebre in modern history. This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Xenophobia & Anti-Semitism in Edwardian Britain
Before the early 20th Century, immigrants seeking entry into Britain had a relatively easy time of it. Indeed most of the world’s population enjoyed a freedom of movement unimaginable by today’s standards. Throughout the 18th Century the British African and French Hugeunot population grew substantially, along with an influx of German nationals, who set up a thriving community in London. In 1901 there were significant communities of German and Chinese born nationals living in Britain, along with a smattering of people who had arrived from countries within the wider Colonial Empire, including Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. The 1901 census records recorded just below 83,000 Eastern European immigrants living in Britain, many of Jewish descent, most having fled persecution from the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and its border countries. This was a number which would continue to grow throughout the early years of the 20th Century, with around 150,000 Jews alone entering by the start of the First World War.
This influx of immigration into Britain had been facilitated by the complete open-border policy that operated right up until 1905, when the first restrictions were brought in by law with the Aliens Act of 1905, a knee jerk piece of legislation that is now viewed largely as a system put in place specifically to target Jewish immigration. Whilst the law was officially drafted to restrict access to those the state saw as a burden, including convicted criminals and lunatics, it also maintained a clause ensuring that those groups of people fleeing persecution from their home countries would not be denied access. Due to this, there is some debate as to how effective the law actually was in stalling immigration at all, at the same time, however, it did work to seed the mindset in the public that a country had the right to restrict movement and keep out unwanted immigrants, paving the way for further laws that would come into effect in 1914 and 1919.
For much of the 19th Century, Britain had welcomed immigration and the new multi-culturalism of the thriving industrial cities. This was especially apparent with the well off Jewish, German and Italian immigrants who came with money and a high class of education and rose to equally high status within British society, with a handful standing in parliament. The same hospitality was, for a large period extended too to the lower classes, who were seen as facilitating the industrial infrastructure, from labour hands to the founders of some of Britain’s central industrial manufacturing firms. The East End of London transformed throughout the 19th Century, seeing German and Jewish communities go from strength to strength, as restaurants, religious buildings, gentlemans clubs and societies sprang up to support the growing foreign population, giving the area a characteristic modern, multicultural air.
At the same time, however, poverty ran rife throughout the working classes of the inner cities, who had bore the brunt of a series of recessions towards the latter period of the 19th Century and who had seen unemployment steadily rise. It was not long before connections were made between the overcrowding of the traditional lower class areas of the country to ongoing immigration. Xenophobia had been only thinly veiled amongst many since the 1850’s and by the turn of the 20th Century, it was positively transparent, as demonstrated by the formation of the British Brothers League, Britain’s first anti-imigration political pressure group, founded in 1901. Much of this anti-immigration was blatant anti-semitism and focused heavily on the Jewish immigrants, who now found themselves at the sharp end of political, press and public bad feeling as the term “alien” and “Jew” became interchangeable in everyday parlance. This anti-semetism stretched widely over the British population, from everyday grumbles of “rowdy” Jews disturbing the English Sabbath, to shouldering the blame for the Boer War upon “Jewish Capitalist interests”.
Anti-Semitism was not a new phenomenon in Britain, having roots all the way back to the medieval period, but by the early 20th Century, it was finding refreshed levels of intensity. Characterised as both cunning, cut-throat capitalists and criminal misfits, Jews in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain saw themselves painted as everything from disease ridden health hazards, to scheming criminal masterminds. They were lampooned for causing overcrowding in the inner cities and for failing to respect traditional British values. They were the quintessential other and bore the blame for just about every societal problem felt by those British who had found themselves struggling in a society that was in dire need of reform.
Whilst Scottish sentiments towards the Jewish population in Glasgow and Edinburgh were slightly tempered compared to their English counterparts, the path had followed much the same pattern. As the numbers had risen, so too had the anti-semetic feeling, especially in the poorer, inner cities. It was into this environment that Oscar Slater, a German Jew, entered into in 1908, three years after the introduction of the Aliens Act, when he arrived in Glasgow, at the time the second largest British city after London, with a population of 750,000, with his mistress, Antoine, herself a French immigrant. They were a couple whose lives were absorbed with the everyday dubious dealings of the social under and working classes, chiefly gambling and prostitution, however, as they were also foreign, they were subject to harsher criticism and therefore, seen as the embodiment of “the other” that Edwardian British society had come to fear. The anti-semetic, anti-foreign feeling that they would feel, however, would go on to be far more extreme than that felt by the overwhelming majority of immigrants in Edwardian Britain and would create a scandal that would span decades.
The Murder of Marion Gilchrist
Marion Gilchrist was born in Glasgow on January 8th, 1826. Her father, James Cilchrist was a successful engineer and the family lived in relative comfort in an upper middle class district of Glasgow. After the death of her mother, Marion, still single, lived with her father and took care of him in his old age until his death, an act which saw her inherit the bulk of her father’s wealth. In 1909, Marion was aged 82 years old. She had remained single throughout her life and now in her twilight years, lived something of a reclusive existence in her 1st floor flat in the respectable West Princes Street. The street had fallen in stature since Marions first moving in almost 30 years earlier, but nevertheless, it was still home to barristers, lawyers, doctors and other members of the Glasgow gentry. Though she had a relatively large family, with a host of nephews and nieces, she rarely saw or spoke to her family. Instead she chose to live out her days squirreled away in a state of some paranoia with her 21 year old maid, Helen Lambie, who had worked in her service for three years. The reason for Mrs Gilchrist’s paranoia revolved around her uncharacteristically ostentatious hobby of collecting jewellery. Over the years, she had amassed a collection of gems, accessories, charms and brooches worth over £3000, a figure which is put plainly into perspective when it’s considered that a good annual wage at the same time was around £150. She wasn’t a particularly well liked woman in the local area and quiet rumour spoke of how she had amassed her fortunes buying and selling stolen jewelry, though this was a story that would always remain as only a rumour, the reality lying far more with the money she had inherited from her father.
The building that she lived in, 49 West Princes Street, was a large, three story stone terrace, her own flat occupying the entire second floor. The ground floor was home to Arthur Adams, a professional musician who lived with his mother and five sisters, whilst the floor above Marion stood vacant. The flats themselves were quite grande, consisting of a large hall, a dining room, a parlour, kitchen, drawing room and two bedrooms, of which Mrs Gilchrest slept in the smaller, using the larger as a spare room.
Mrs Chilcrist’s paranoia manifested itself in several ways. Firstly was the manner in which she stored her jewellery. Foregoing the use of a safe, which she did in fact own, she instead took to hiding various pieces away in the pockets of coats and dresses, or rolled up amongst random items of knitwear, all stashed away in the wardrobe of the spare bedroom. Secondly, was the relatively high level of security she exercised, both on the doors and windows of her flat, which were always tightly closed and locked. The front door entrance to the flat was locked with three dead locks and a bolt and chain. The front door to the flat led out onto a hallway leading to the downstairs hallway which led to a door that opened out onto the street. Mrs Gilchrist had had this door fitted with a device commonly seen in hotels at the time, often used by concierges to allow entry to late night visitors. The user would operate the door below from mrs Gilchrists lobby via a lever, allowing them to see who was walking along the corridor, this gave the paranoid Mrs Gilchrist ample opportunity to retreat into the safety of her triple locked flat, should the need arise.
Finally, Mrs Gilchrist had an arrangement with the Adams family that if she was ever in need of assistance, or under attack from an intruder, she would knock three times on the floor to alert them to her plight. This was a step that Arthur Adams assumed would never seriously need paying attention to and whilst Mrs Gilchrist had had him search her flat on several occasions in the past for suspected intruders, they had always wound up as false alarms.
Monday, 21st December, 1908, was a cold damp evening. Winters in Glasgow saw the sun set around 3:45pm, and by the time of shops closing and people headed home from work, it would be in under a pitch black sky and the dim glow of electric and gas street lights. Around 7:00 pm, Lambie set out to buy the evening paper and groceries from a nearby shop, a trip which would take her only around ten minutes. She left Mrs Gilchrist reading in the dining room, collected her keys and exited into the lobby, locking the door behind her. Minutes later, Arthur Adams, sitting with his sister in the ground floor flat was startled by the sudden thud of three loud knocks on the ceiling above. Recognising it as Mrs Gilchrist’s prearranged signal for help, he made his way out onto the street and down the building to the door that led to the upstairs lobby. When he reached the door, he found that it was left swinging ajar and pushing aside, he climbed the stairs to the second floor and rang Mrs Gilchrest doorbell. He could see through the stained glass that the hallway gas light was lit and that people were home, but could hear no sound from inside the flat and no one came to open the door. He waited a little longer, at one point hearing a sound which he took to be Lambie breaking up firewood in the kitchen. As still no one came to the front door, he turned back down the stairs and returned to his own flat, however, no sooner did he arrive, that his sisters insisted he go back and check once more. Whilst Arthur had been upstairs, they had heard Mrs Gilchrist signal once more, heavier and louder the second time and despite Arthur stating the contrary, they were sure all was not well in the flat above. Arthur rushed back upstairs and once more rang the bell, this time with more urgency, but still no answer came. In the lobby behind him, he heard footsteps and looking down over the balcony, he saw Lambie returning from the shop. Lambie was as surprised to see Arthur as he was to see her. Adams explained the noise, to which Lambie calmly assumed was nothing serious, it was likely the pulley in the kitchen, she said. She opened the front door and entered the flat, whilst Arthur stood in the hallway, waiting to make sure everything was in order. As Lambie stepped down the hallway towards the kitchen, a man strode out from the dining room, passed Lambie silently in the hallway and shot through the front door and down the steps, off out into the street below. Lambie had made no attempt to stop the man, nor showed any outward look of surprise and so, assuming he was a known visitor, Arthur had simply stepped aside to allow him to pass. Lambie then went into the kitchen and turned on the gas light, moving next into the bedroom, calling out to Arthur that everything appeared to be in order. She was, however, gravely mistaken. Arthur asked Lambie where Mrs Gilchrist was and Lambie, upon moving into the dining room answwered only with a cracking tone, “Oh! Come here!” Arthur shot into the flat and turned into the dining room after the maid to see Mrs Gilchrest laying on the ground, her head covered with a blood stained rug.
Arthur Adams first reaction was to dash into the street downstairs after the man who had just left the flat, but by the time he stepped down the stairs and onto the pavement, he had already fled and was nowhere to be seen. He did manage to run into a local policeman, PC William Neil, walking his beat, so he alerted him to the crime and both men returned to the flat, which was now being guarded by Arthur’s sister, who had retrieved the keys from Lambie as she too had left the building to walk over to the connecting street of Blythewood Drive and to the home of Mrs Gilchrist’s niece, Margaret Birrell. PC William Neil inspected the dining room of the flat, noting that there was nothing too unusual on the scene. Mrs Gilchrist’s reading glasses were on the table, along with a magazine, her false teeth and a half sovereign which lay on the floor by the lady’s hand. When he lifted the rug from off Mrs Gilchrist’s head, he noticed, much to his surprise, that the lady was still breathing faintly, as well she appeared to move her left hand slightly. He ran across the street to summon Dr John Adams and at the same time, bumped into PC Francis Brien, who joined the two men in returning to the crime scene. By the time of Dr Adams arrival, 15 minutes had passed since the discovery of the body and sadly, he noted that Mrs Gilchrist had succumbed to her injuries. Whatever movement PC Neil had seen, must surely have been her last. Looking around the room, Dr Adams saw that a heavy dining table chair had splashes of blood on its front legs and on closer inspection, found that one of the back legs was positively dripping with blood. This, he surmised, must have been used as a murder weapon and could also possibly have ansewred the question as to how the attacker had remained relatively clean in the attack, as the backrest of the chair could have shielded him from any resulting spatter.
At 7:40pm, Dr Adams called Detective Inspector John Pyper at the Glasgow Police, who arrived on the scene 15 minutes later, closely followed by his colleagues, Superintendent William Douglas, Detective Officer John Trench and John Ord, the head of the Criminal Investigation Unit. Trench inspected the area around the flat whilst the two other detectives searched inside the property, which was now beginning to throng with activity, as Lambie returned with Mrs Gilchrist’s neice Margaret Birrell in tow and later, followed by Dr Francis Charteris, one of Mrs Gilchrist’s Nephews. The police inspection found the spare room had been gently turned over. A splintered wooden box lay on the floor surrounded by strewn paperwork across the floor. Whoever the intruder had been, he had lit the gas lamp with a box of matches from his own pocket, as he had left the matchbox behind, made by a company called Runaway, a brand that Lambie did not recognise. An inventory was made of the jewellery in the flat and Lambie confirmed with the police that only one piece had gone missing, a crescent shaped brooch encrusted with diamonds. The brooch by itself, however, had a value of around £50. Strangely, police found no signs of forced entry and dno damage to either the door, or windows which remained tightly locked. All signs of struggle and blood stains were confined to the dining room and the rest of the flat appeared to be perfectly in order.
Lambie and Arthur Adams gave the police their description of the man they had seen leaving, however neither appeared to have got a very good look at him. Lambie said that he had been wearing a ¾ length grey overcoat and a round cloth hat, but that she had been unable to see his face. She confirmed that she did not recognise him as someone she knew and did not think that she would be able to identify him from the brief glance she had got that night. Arthur Adams had likewise only caught a glimpse of the man, and worse, he had not been wearing his glasses, so only offered forward a description of a man wearing a light overcoat with dark trousers, though he had thought the man had been clean shaven.
At 9:40pm, the Glasgow Police issued an internal bulletin built from the collated information,
“An old lady was murdered in her house at 15 Queen’s Terrace between 7 and t:10pm today by a man from 25-30, 5 feet 7 or 8, think clean shaven. Wore a long grey overcoat and dark cap. Robbery appears to have been the object of teh murder, as a number of boxes in a bedroom were openeed and left lying on teh floor. A large-sized, crescent-shaped brooch, set with diamonds, large diamonds in centre, graduating towards the point, is missing and may be in possession of the murderer. The diamonds are set in silver. No trace of the murderer has been got. Constables will please warn booking clerks at railway stations, as the murderer will have blood-stains on his clothing. Also warn Pawns on opening regarding brooch and keep a sharp lookout.”
The next day, Tuesday 22nd December, the body of Marion Gilchrist was formally identified by Lambie, Arthur Adams and PC Neil, whilst Forensic Scientists, Doctor John Glaister, Professor of Forensic Medicine at Glasgow University and Hugh Galt, Examiner of Forensic Medicine at St. Mungo’s College of Medicine in the Glasgow Royal Infirmary made a trip to the flat to inspect the body and the crime scene. Judging by the small spatters of blood they found around the room, they came to the conclusion that Mrs Gilchrist had been killed where she lay, via “forcible application of some instrument.” The instrument in question, however, was not found adn they thought that nothing left in the room, none of the ornaments of the fireplace, nor the fire irons were used as a murder weapon. The body was then ordered to be moved to the Royal Infirmary for a post-mortem inspection, which they themselves undertook, detailing the extent of the force used and the heft of the instrument wielded by the murderer,
“There were wounds on the right cheek, extending from the mouth, wounds of the right forehead and of the right side of the head. There was a deep hole on the left side of the face between the eye socket and the left ear. The left eyeball was entirely missing, having been driven into the cavity of the brain or having been gouged out. The right eye was partially torn out of its socket by the deep fracture of the right side of the brow.”
“Generally speaking, the face and head were both badly smashed. Several fractures of the lower jaw, upper jaw and cheekbones were found, the bones being driven into the mouth. On deeper examination it was found that the bones of the orbit, the nose and the forehead were completely smashed in and broken into many pieces. The entire hair of the scalp, which was grayish at the roots, was with the scalp, saturated and covered with blood. On removal of the brain it was found that the skull was fractured through its base, extending from the front, right through to the back. On dissecting the chest cavity, it was found that the breast bone was fractured completely through its entire thickness. On the right side of the chest, in front, fractures of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth ribs were found, the third rib being broken in three different places. From the foregoing examination, we are of the opinion that the said injuries were produced by forcible contact via a blunt weapon and that the violence was applied with considerable force.”
On Christmas eve of 1908, Mrs Gilchrist was buried in the Glasgow Necropolis. The local papers reported that the funeral had been kept ”as secret as possible”, however, “a considerable crowd gathered” despite this, to see a short service conducted by the Rev. Dr Carroll. The crowds were to be expected, Mrs Gilchrist was, after all, a wealthy, well to do old lady adn her murder had made considerable waves in the city. This had been made all the more exciting to the locals due to the fact that apparently, police had no clue as to who the murderer may have been.
Over the following days, the local press began reporting on the murder and offering their own explanations. It was clear, wrote one, “that robbery was the motive” by a suspect who “seems to have been acquainted with some of the habits of the household.” Others focused on the gruesome battering measured out upon Mrs Gilchrest, whose head “was practically smashed to a pulp.” The police had very soon after the murderer arrested two men in connection with another crime, but quickly confirmed that they had nothign to do with the murder fo Mrs Gilchrist. The investigation, however, was uncovering a slew of rather strange facts, gathered from various testimonies of witnesses and relatives.
In the months leading up to the murder, it appears that Marion Gilchrists usual paranoia had been launched into a new league after the apparent poisoning of her dog in September of that year, an incident which Lambie had concluded was an accident, that the dog had somehow picked up something to eat which had killed it off, however, Mrs Gilchrist herself was not so sure. This was further enhanced by the ongoing sighting of a man seen outside in the street, appearing to look up towards the second floor flat. This stalker of sorts was further muddled by the fact that some witnesses testified to seeing a man without a moustache, whilst others saw a man clean shaven, some said he was of “foreign appearance” and some said he was not. As far as Lambie was concerned, she thought that perhaps Mrs Gilchrist was beginning to show the signs of her age and paid these concerns of her mistress little concern.
One of the chief puzzles of the investigation initially was the question of how the murderer had entered the flat. Mrs Gilchrist’s reading glasses were found neatly placed upon the dining room table next to a magazine she had been reading when Lambie had left eth flat. The police used this to theorise that the murderer likely rang the front bell, which would explain Mrs Gilchrist taking off her glasses and setting them down casually on the table before opening the front door, but if that had been the case, with no indication of a struggle, why had she let the man in?
On the 23rd December, two witnesses gave testimony to the police concerning a man they had seen outside in the street on the night of the murder. The first was from Rowena Adams, one of Arthur Adams sisters, who lived on the ground floor. Shortly before 7pm on the night of the murder, she told police, she had seen a man with a “very pale complexion” and a “peculiar dip” in his nose, wearing a heavy brown tweed coat and “brownish tweed cap” standing in the street outside the house. Later that day, Mary Barrowman, a 15 year old girl tol dpolice that whiilst she was running an errand on the night of the murder, she had pased through West princes street shortly after 7pm and seen a man running from Mrs Gilchrists front door. Turning Westwards, he ran off into the night, but she was able to furnish the police with the description of a man 28-30 years old, tall and slim, clean shaven and wearing a “fawn overcoat, dark trousers, brown boots and tweed cloth cap of respectable appearance.” Crucially, she believed she could recognise the man if she were to see him again. Armed with the descriptions, the police now began to believe they were looking for two men, as the discrepancies in colour of overcoat seemed to suggest to them. On Christmas Day the Glasgow Police issued a second internal bulletin of the suspects,
“(First) A man from twenty-five to thirty years of age, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches in height, thought to be clean shaven, wore a long grey overcoat and dark cap. (second) A man from twenty-eight to thirty years of age, tall and thin, clean shaven, nose slightly turned to one side (thought to be the right side); wore a fawn-coloured overcoat (believed to be waterproof), dark trousers, tweed cloth hat of the latest make, and believed to be dark in colour, and brown boots.”
The same was later issued to the press, which prompted a small spate of witnesses coming forward to police who claimed to be familiar with the suspects. One such testimony came from aman named Allan McLean who called into a local police station to tell them that a man he knew, Oscar Slater had been seen recently trying to hawk a pawn ticket around the local gambling joints for a diamond brooch. Knowing Slater’s home, he took the police to the house, but when they knocked, a maid named Catherine Schmalz answered and said that no one by the name of Oscar Slater had lived there. Her master, a dentist named Mr Anderson, was on holiday in Monte Carlo. The police took it upon themselves to search the flat regardless, and found the wrapping paper taken from a watchmaker in London. Damningly for “Anderson”, the paper bore the address of the house, along with the recipient’s name , Oscar Slater. Asking around in the flats, they soon discovered that Oscar Slater had left at around 8pm that night along with his girlfriend and their luggage.
Oscar Slater, or more correctly, Oscar Joseph Leschzinner, was born on January 8th, 1872 in Upper Silesia, now a region of Poland the Czech Republic, but at the time, part of Germany. His parents, Adolf and Paulina Leschzinner, were bakers. When at school, he often played truant and was known to be something of a handful, but always managed to remain the apple of his mother’s eye. After school, he moved to Berlin to work as a timber merchant and Hamburg as a Bank Clerk, but in 1893, possibly evading military service, he left Germany and roamed across both Europe and the US, earning money through cards, gambling and dealing second hand jewellry, eventually moving to London where he stayed until 1899. Throughout his travels, he had sent money home to take care of his parents, both of whom were suffering from old age, his mother being partially blind, whilst his father was suffering from spinal injuries, he regularly kept in touch with his family and even managed to arrange and pay for his mother cataract surgery. In 1899, he moved to Edinburgh and finally onto Glasgow in 1901. Soon after moving to Glasgow, he met and married Mary Curtis. It was far from domestic paradise however, for Slater, who had by now, officially changed his name to help settle him into his new environment with less friction from the locals. Along with his wife, Slater ran in murky circles, dealing with thieves, prostitutes and gamblers on a day to day basis. Slater himself claimed to be both a dentist and gymnastics instructor, though a business card of his stated he was a “Dealer in Diamonds and Precious Stones.” Slater’s wife Mary was also prone to drinking heavily and this eventually led Slater to seperate just months after their marriage.
In an attempt to evade his estranged wife, he moved around a lot between 1901-1905, living in New York, London and Paris, all the while using various names and finally, returned to Glasgow in October of 1908, where he planned to settle down with his new mistress, French born Andree Antoine, an actress he had met in London in 1904, though it was much more likely that she was a working prostitute. The pair rented a flat at 59 St Georges Road under the pseudonym of “Anderson” with their maid, Julien Schmalz, however, just two months after settling down, on December 21st 1908, Slater received a letter from a friend in London informing him that his wife was hot on his tail. Conveniently, an American friend named Mr Devoto, living in San Francisco had recently written to Slater asking him to join him in America and go into business with him and it now appeared to Slater to be not such a bad offer to accept. Whilst preparing for his move, he got his hair cut at the barbers, telling him about his move, sent his watch to Londoin for repair and pawned an old brooch he had owned, adn pawned several times in the past. He attempted to sell the ticket around his local haunts, but to no avail and so, on the 25th December, he left his flat with Antoine to catch the train to Liverpool where they would sail to New York. In order to throw his wife off his tail, he gave the maid a week’s notice and instructed her that if anyone came calling for him, she should deny that anyone by the name of Slater had lived there and that the actual resident, Mr Anderson was on holiday in Monte Carlo.
Once in Liverpool, Slater dropped his guard slightly, signing into the Liverpool North-Western Hotel without using any pseudonym and even told a chambermaid the name of the ship the couple were sailing on. Earlier that day he had booked two second class tickets aboard the Lucitania to New York, the gateway to what would be, he hoped, a new life. As it turned out, it was to be a new life for Oscar Slater, but not quite the one he had imagined.
Slater: Suspect No.1
Slater’s Night time flight from Glasgow to Liverpool was seen by the police as the moves of a guilty man. This was reasonably fortunate, as they had suffered a blow to their investigation when they found out that their main piece of evidence, namely the brooch that Slater was known to have pawned in recent days, had in fact, never belonged to Mrs Gilchrist at all. When the police caught up to the Pawnbroker who had possession of the Brooch, he confirmed that Slater had pawned it almost a month before Mrs Gilchrist had even been murdered and to further hammer the point home, Lambie negatively ID’d it, confirming well and truly that it was not the missing piece of jewelry. Still, for reasons beyond most people’s comprehension, the police decided to pursue Slater for the murder. He was, after all, a German Jew and known to frequent gambling clubs and associate with prostitutes, so why not.
The Press themselves had picked up on this fact, calling the Brooch clue to be “entirely worthless.” This fact, though seemed to go by quietly in the grander, more exciting narrative of a police force tracking a murder suspect across the Atlantic.
Slater and Antoine’s ship, The Lusitania, departed from Liverpool at 4:40pm on the 26th December. Telegramming the Liverpool police, the Glasgow authorities confirmed that a pair matching the description of Slater and Antoine had boarded under the name “Mr and Mrs Sando”. The Glasgow arm next sent a cable to New York, requesting them to carry out the arrest of the pair upon their arrival, along with a short description and their cabin number and asking them to search their persons for pawn tickets.
On January 2nd, 1909, The Steam Ship Lusitania arrived in New York. Before any of the ship’s occupants were allowed to depart, the New York Police boarded, searched Slater, promptly finding the by now, innocuous pawn ticket and arrested both he and Antoine, sending Slater to the Manhattan Detention Centre known as The Tombs and Antoine to Ellis Island to await an extradition hearing. On the 13th January, Detective Inspector Pyper and Chief Criminal Officer of Glasgow, William Warnock along with the three key witnesses, Lambie, Arthur Adams and Mary Barrowman, sailed for New York arriving twelve days later. The day after their arrival, the extradition hearing for Oscar Slater began in the Federal Building of Lower Manhattan.
For the hearing, Slater had arranged for two American lawyers to speak in his defence. Quietly, they admitted to him they were confident of winning the case. They knew that the Crown’s primary piece of evidence was the Pawn ticket and knowing how the ticket was now a complete duffer, they advised him to fight his case. The police also knew this, so instead, they decided to hinge the case on witness ID. Before the hearing, they showed both Adams and Barrowman a photograph of Slater, they didn’t bother to show Lambie as she had already coinfirmed she had not seen the suspects face on the night of the murder. As SLater was led to the courtroom, police pointed him out as he passed the witnesses in the hallway, though due to him being chained to an American police officer at the time, it was probably an unnecessary step. During the hearing, a peculiar story unfolded. Lambie, who previously had stated she had not seen the intruder’s face, now claimed that she was able to positively identify Slater, fingering him in the room. She also went on to alter her description from the night of the murder, placing it perfectly in line with that of Mary Barrowmans, the witness who was next to take the stand and who also fingered slater, saying “that man here is very like him”. Arthur Adams was a touch more reserved in his identification, stating that he felt Slater was “not at all unlike” the assailant he had seen in Mrs Gilchrists flat on the night of the murder.
Despite the weak case against him and the only evidence being that of the three witnesses, on February 6th Feb, Slater chose to inexplicably concede defeat to the crown and submit himself for extradition to stand trial back in Glasgow. Though he never gave a reason for this explicitly, it is theorised that he perhaps, rather naively had decided to return to Britain in order to clear his name, whilst others have theorised he perhaps was simply running out of money to pay his lawyers. Whatever the reason, the situation was concluded and on 11th February, his extradition was approved. Ten days later, Slater was siling up the River Clyde towards Glasgow. Before reaching the city, his ship docked in Renfrew, 5 Miles to the West of Glasgow, in order for the police to avoid the inevitable crowds on the Glasgow docks. When the police finally got Slater back to the Glasgow Police Headquarters, assissted by Detective Inspector Trench, his luggage was unpacked and a small hammer was found amongst the articles he had packed for his trip to America. This, they surmised, was a potential murder weapon, perhaps Slater had intended to throw it overboard on his journey to America. Why then, it was still in the suitcase is a different question entirely.
On the 22nd of February, after a steady stream of botched Identifcation lineups, whereby the police showed each witness Slaters photograph beforehand, a remarkably common practice in Edwardian policing, Slater was formerly charged with the murder of Marion Gilchrist and sent to Duke Street Prison, Glasgow to await trial. Meanwhile, Slater’s hammer, hat and raincoat were sent to Glasgow University for Forensic testing. Ewing Spiers, Slaters lawyer in Glasgow, told the press,
“The more I see of Slater, the more convinced I am of his innocence. I do not say this, remember, as the agent of his defence. As man speaking to man, as I have done with Slater, I cannot help feeling that some dreadful mistake has been made by someone. He is not at all the type of man who would associate with such a crime.”
The Trial of Oscar Slater
At 10am on May 3rd, 1909, the Trial of Oscar Slater began at the Edinburgh High COurt of Justiciary in front of the Honourable Lord Charles John Guthrie. Chief prosecutor for the Crown was Alexander Ewer and Slater was defended by Ewing Spears. Slater was said to “look well” and calmly watched the early proceedings with “keen interest.” One of the early witnesses on the first day was jeweller William Sorely, who had known Mrs Gilchrist for a number of years and who had taken care of her jewelry when she went away on holiday. He confirmed with the court that the brooch belonging to Slater, which he had pawned, did not and had never belonged to Mrs Gilchrist and he also confirmed that he had told police officers this fact when asked about it during the early investigation. Next came Mrs McHaffie, a neighbour of Mrs Gilchrist who lived about thirty yards away on the opposite side of the street. She told the court that for several weeks prioor to the murder she had seen a man loitering in the street outside Mrs Gilchrists home and after seeing Slaters photograph in the paper in a story connecting him with the crime, she had been sure he was the man she had seen int he street, however, wehen presented with Slaters coat, she said that it was not the same coat she had seen the loiterer wearing. Four further witnesses were called, all relatives of the first and all gave similarly vague and relatively unconvincing identifications of a man they had seen loitering in the street, who at times, they said, “was like the man”, though they admitted they could not swear by it.
Detective Trench took the stand next, telling the court of his experiences with the police identification lineups in the days after Slater’s return to Glasgow. Under cross-examination, he admitted that during the lineups, Slater was the only foreign man in the room, and when asked if this was not irregular, biasing anyone looking for a criminal to have no choice but to pick Slater. He was asked if it would not be fairer to fill the room with men more like the suspect, to which Trench merely replied that “this was not the practice in Glasgow.” It was then pointed out that Slater’s photograph had been printed in all the Glasgow papers long before the lineups even took place.
When it was Lambies turn to testify, things became truly interesting. Her story had once again shifted, as she now told the court that she in fact, did get a good look at the intruder as he left the flat and positively identified Slater’s coat, saying it was “not only like the coat, it is the coat.” Whilst she admitted that she couldn’t identify Slater as the man that she had at times seen in the street outside Mrs Gilchrists house, she could identify him as the man she had seen in the flat on the night of the murder. When put under cross examination and questioned about her previous statements whereby she had told police she hadn’t clearly seen Slater’s face, she now told the court that she hadn’t seen the front of his face, but had clearly seen the side. It had all just been a misunderstanding, apparently. And with that, the court closed for the first day.
The second day of trial opened to what the papers called “an immense crowd.” Places in the courtroom, which were limited to the public were instantly filled.
“Just at Ten O’Clock, Slater entered the dock. His demeanour was again marked by the utmost coolness. He did not seem greatly perturbed by the occasion. As usual, he was faultlessly dressed, carrying his overcoat on his left arm.”
Slater’s perceived confidence perhaps lay in the knowledge that the police really had little evidence to support their case outside of witness testimony and if the previous day had been anything to go by, he was well in the clear. He was seemingly forgetting the prejudices of the day, however, and things were not going to be as plain sailing as he seemed to be imagining.
Rowena and Arthur Adams, the downstairs neighbours gave their testimony, Arthurs re-enactment of the night of the murder proving most enjoyable, as he delivered his testimony with “dramatic power.” If Arthurs testimony had excited the court, it was little to what would come when Rowena entered the box, describing a man she had seen outside the house just before 7pm on the night of the murder and stating that she believed she could recognise the man, “but I may be liable to error.”. When asked if Slater was the man she had seen, she replied, that she needed to see the other side of his face, to match the side she had seen on the night,
“Prisoner at this stage immediately turned round and faced the body of the court. Witness scrutinised him carefully, and after about ten seconds said, “I do believe – I am afraid to say – but I believe he is the man that was standing at the railings. It was only a passing glance at him.”
“I thought that the man was rather delicate. He had not the robustness of youth. He was not standing as a robust young man would stand. I was therefore rather surprised when I saw Slater at the court. But I do not go back on my original statement that he was very like.”
She then mudled her testimony somewhat by saying that the coat belonging to Slater was not the coat she had seen the man wearing on the night of the murder, as its collar was not hemmed.
Mary Barrowman next gave testimony. She was adamant as ever in her convictions that she had seen Slater on the night of the murder running from the house, that she had gotten a good look at his face underneath a street lamp and that she recognised Slater as the man easily in the identifications during the extradition in new York and back in Glasgow.
The rest of the day’s proceedings concerned Slater’s apparent flight from justice, for which the defense argues that Slater had, in fact, made himself and the details of his leaving for America, very public in the run up to and during his trip to America. The hammer was inspected and could not be confirmed whether or not it had been washed, however, Professor Glaister, the Forensic Scientist who had carried out the autopsy on Mrs Gilchrist stated that he did believe the small hammer capable of inflicting the injuries “in the hands of a strong man and wielded forcibly.” Under cross examination, however, he conceded that eh did not know with any confidence whether or not the hammer was the likely murder weapon, nor was he able to confirm whether or not it had been washed.
By the third day, Slater was apparently beginning to feel the strain of the trial, his appearance, it was noted, was “not quite so smart” as the days prior, however, he was still “quite respectable, dignified and courteous.” The morning passed relatively quietly, the witnesses called mainly gave background information on Slater’s living at his Glasgow address and his purchasing of tickets aboard the Lusitania. Just before lunch the case for the Crown was concluded with Slater reading a statement to the courtroom,
“My name is Oscar Slater. I am a native of Germany, married, thirty-0eight years of age, a dentist, and have no residence at present. I know nothing about the charge of having assaulted Marion Gilchrist, and murdered her. I am innocent. All of which I declare to be true.”
After lunch, the Defense called witness HUgh Cameron the the box, who stated that he had spent the day and night of the murder in the company of Slater, going to a skating rink, a music hall and then after playing cards unti late into the night and next morning. Doing Slater no favours, he then went on, unusually, without any concern from the judge, to describe Slates chaotic way with money, borrowing and paying back money to pay off gambling debts and pawning jewels, as well as being in the company of prostitutes, possibly even living off their incomes. He did however, confirm that two weeks before the murder, Slater had told him he was going to America to meet his friend in business and to run a club in San Francisco. Slaters maid then told the court that the hammer in question was sued by Slater to break coals at home and that in the days surrounding the murder, she had not noticed anything unusual in his movements or behaviours. The third day drew to a quiet close, with the proceedings preparing to wrap up the next day.
The fourth and final day of the trial began much like the previous three, with large crowds outside the courtroom scrambling to take a seat in the packed house. Slater was, by now, looking “not so well.” The first witness was Dr William Robertson, a Doctor of Science and medicine at Edinburgh University. In his testimony, he confidently stated that he did not think the hammer capable of causing the wounds to Mrs Gilchrist, he confirmed that the wounds were out of proportion with the head of the hammer and that he had inspected the hammer and found coal dust, therefore he was quite sure it had not been washed and that there were no signs of blood anywhere on the hammer at all, anyway, he pointed out, it would have been impossible to remove all signs of blood from the crevices of the hammer. He also stated that if the murderer had used the hammer, he would be likely covered with blood at the end of the attack. This testimony was followed by Dr Alexander Veitch who also backed up the same sentiment, stating that he did not think it probable that the hammer would have caused the wounds to Mrs Gilchrist and it would have, in his opinion, needed to have been at least twice the size. With the two doctors done, the defense closed and the closing statements were made to the court.
The closing statement for the prosecution went on for two hours, whereby Slater was deemed as living a life that had “descended to the lowest depths of human degradation” by associating with prostitutes and living from their proceeds. If he was capable of this, he argued to the jury, surely he was capable of commiting the brutal murder of Marion Gilchrist too? The motive was obvious, he said, the murderer was “on the hunt for jewels” and therefore had to be a man who knew how to deal with them.
After lunch the defense rose to give his own closing statement. Immediately he referenced the prejudices against Slater for him being a Foreign Jew, urging the Jury to try the man on the evidence, no tthe campaigns against him in the papers and out on the streets. He reiterated that Slater’s supposed flight from justice had been taken out calmly and publicly, not, he argued, the usual manner in which a murderer might act if trying to conceal his escape. He then turned to the eye witness testimonies and though careful to point out that he did not think them dishonest, he made it clear that the statements they made were not at all consistent.
Scotland’s jurors at the time had a three way decision to make. They could lay down a guilty verdict, a not guilty verdict, or a not proven verdict. If the majority of the jury voted guilty, then the person on trial was convicted. The defense pleaded to the jury that if they could not confidently assume a verdict of not guilty, then at the very least, they should be able to settle on not proven. Either way they would be saving an innocent man from being condemned to death.
After the closing statements, the judge then addressed the jury. It was a damning speech that echoed much of the Crown’s closing statement as a scathing character assassination. He tore into the witnesses’ lifestyles as well as savaging Slater, Antoine and Slaters maid, before somewhat laughably telling the jury that the case was “entirely in their hands.”
At five minutes to five, the jury stepped out to make their decision. Within fifteen minutes they returned, delivering a verdict of nine guilty, one not guilty and five not proven. Upon hearing the verdict, Slater shouted to the courtroom
“I came on my own account from America, I assure you I know nothing about the affair. You are convicting an innocent man!”
but it was too late, donning his black cap, the judge read the sentence,
“The said Oscar Slater, to be carried from the prisons of Edinburgh, thence to be forthwith transmitted to the prison of Glasgow, therin to be detained until the 27th day of May 1909. Upon that day tween the hours of 8 and 10 o’clock ‘fore noon, within the wall of the said prison of Glasgow, by the hands of the common executioner, to be hanged by the neck upon a gibbet ‘til he be dead and his body thereafter to be buried within the walls of said prison in Glasgow.”
Finally, Slater was given the right to speak, standing, he addressed the judge directly,
“My Lord, what shall I say? I came over from America on my own account. I know nothing about the affair – absolutely nothing. I do not know how I can be connected with the affair. I know nothing about it. I came on my own account from America.”
He then slumped back into his chair and awaited his removal from the court.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the Rescue
With no court of appeal in Scotland at the time, it was a bleak outcome for Oscar Slater, who in four short days had gone from a position of solid confidence, to staring down the barrel of a death sentence. Rather bizarrely, however, and perhaps all too late, the public opinion had begun to shift after the trial. There was now a considerable voice that backed Slater’s innocence, with press coverage even going as far as sending a reporter to his parents home to carry out an interview. Buoyed by this, Slater’s lawyer, Ewing Spiers, wrote to the Secretary of Scotland on the 17th May in an effort to have the death sentence overturned. In the letter, he made the case for Slater’s innocence as well as pointing out that he had asked Slater not to speak on his own behalf during the trial due to him speaking with a heavy accent, a fact which he knew would have a negative effect on a prejudiced jury. He also included a petition that had been signed by 20,000 members of the public asking for the commutation of the sentence on the grounds that the evidence brought against Slater was not enough for a guilty verdict and that the character assassination undertaken in the courtroom would have had considerable sway over the jury. On May 25th, just 48 hours before his execution, Slater received word that his sentence had been overturned and replaced instead with life with hard labour. It was a welcome decision, but quite a strange one. Evidently, the Secretary of Scotland had deemed Slater not guilty enough for a death sentence, but guilty enough for life imprisonment instead.
On 8th July, 1909, Oscar Slater was transferred to Peterhead prison. Built in 1888, Peterhead Prison was Scotland’s only convict prison, erected in response to a local need for cheap labour in order to construct the port’s breakwater. It consisted of 208 cells, each measuring 4 foot by 8 foot, furnished with a sleeping hammock, small metal table and barred window. Slater, designated Prisoner 1992, was assigned to the quarry where he spent his days breaking granite rock. Days followed a predictable pattern, 5am was lights up and a breakfast of porridge was served. The morning shift followed from 7am to 11:30am, when the prisoners were marched back to their cells by armed guards for lunch of broth, bread and beef. The afternoon shift was from 1pm til 5pm at which point prisoners were served bread and coffee in their cells and given until lights out at 8:30 pm to read, or write letters, a treat they were permitted to do once every 6 months.
During the first few years in Peterhead, Antoine requested to visit on several occasions, though she was always denied. Eventually as time passed, she faded from the picture. In December of 1909, Ewing Spiers, passed away from an apoplectic fit and so the case of Oscar Slater was taken up by his colleague, Alexander Shaugnessy. It would be three long years before Shuagnessy began looking into the files with any conviction and during this time, Slater served his time in prison quietly, writing home to his parents when he could, who always wrote back with positive encouraging words, both parties as sure of Slater’s innocence as they ever were. The problem was, how on earth were they ever going to prove it?
In 1910, William Roughead published his book on the case named “The Trial of Oscar Slater”, which gave a lengthy overview of the case and pointed out many of the inconsistencies in the evidence and problems with the guilty verdict. It also included an entire transcript of the trial. Roughead was a Scottish Solicitor, amateur Criminologist and one of the best read True Crime writers of the day. It was an influential publication that went on to convince many people of Slater’s innocence, not least, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, born in 1859, was a British writer of unprecedented fame at the turn of the 20th Century. The creator of the Sherlock Holmes series, he had risen to top of the literary pile as the world’s most in demand and best paid writer since the publication of the first Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet” hit the pages of “Beeton’s Christmas Annual” to little fanfare in 1887. Prior to his writing career, Conan Doyle had studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School under Professor Joseph Bell, graduating in 1881 and going on to complete his doctorate in 1885. In 1900, Conan Doyle began campaigning for political matters, at first centering around the Boer War, a war in which he had personally served as a volunteer field doctor. He went on to publish several political works and along with running as a candidate for parliament twice, began campaigning for social justice. Due to his significant clout as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, he soon found himself requested in real life cases of criminality and long a fan of true crime, with a library of books on criminal cases and newspaper clippings. In the early years of the 20th Century, he wrote several pieces involving real life crime and in 1904 became a member of the Crimes Club, a London based dining society that busied themselves with the discussion of historical criminal cases. Unsurprisingly, he welcomed the opportunity to flex his amateur sleuthing credentials. Between 1904 and 1906, he aided the police in solving several cases that had previously appeared to be long cold, or resting at a dead end. In 1906, he acted as a spearhead for the pardon case of George Edalji, an English solicitor who had been convicted for a series of animal mutilations in 1903. Known as the “Great Wyrley Outrages”, the crimes had seen horses and livestock slashed and maimed, with Edalji named in a letter to the police as one member of a gang who were perpetrating the crimes. Arrested after a string of circumstantial and highly suspicious evidence fell against him, Edalji was sentenced to seven years hard labour, though he was paroled after just three. Conan Doyle joined the campaign in 1907 when after meeting Edalji, he observed him reading a newspaper inches from his face. Concluding that aman with such poor eyesight could not have undertaken the attacks on the animals, he became an active investigator, visiting crime scenes and carrying out various practical experiments, along with interviewing various witnesses. His involvement undoubtedly went some way in persuading the authorities to commission an inquiry into the case, which eventually led to a pardon of Edalji in May 1907 and the subsequent establishment of a court of criminal appeal in England.
In 1912, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began looking heavily into the case of Oscar Slater after reading of the trial in Rougheads “The Trial of Oscar Slater” and becoming convinced of his innocence. Although he later claimed to enter into the matter “most reluctantly”, the more he read, the more he became convinced of Slater’s innocence and that the case was “Even worse than the Edalji one.”
“It will, in my opinion, be a serious scandal if the man be allowed upon such evidence to spend his life in a convict prison.”
After speaking with several recently released inmates of Peterhead who had known Slater during their confinement, and being assured by them that they too believed him to be innocent, he began amassing as much information on the case as he could. It was a timely introduction, as Slater appeared to be struggling at Peterhead Prison. He had written applying for an appeal on several occasions, each time being denied. The years of imprisonment had begun taking their toll and now he appeared to be losing grip on the thread of sanity keeping him afloat. Reports written on Slater’s conduct showed him suffering from apparent paranoid delusions, breaking prison property, refusing to work and at times, assaulting prison guards. His only solace was in the letters he wrote to and received from his family in Germany.
Conan Doyle first started work on the Slater case by corresponding with William Roughead, who sent him documents and transcripts of interviews he had undertaken during the time he spent writing “The Trial of Oscar Slater.” Along with pouring over the newspaper coverage of the case and transcripts of the extradition trial in New York in an effort to separate the facts of the case from the heavyweight pile of conjecture that sat atop. Once he had separated the details, it was then a simple matter of constructing a proper diagnostic narrative. In August of 1912 he published “The Case of Oscar Slater”, a
In the pamphlet, Conan Doyle exposed numerous aspects of the case to a bright spotlight. The behaviour of Lambie when she entered the flat drew particular attention, a case of “negative evidence”, whereby Lambies non-action as the intruder walked out of the front door of the flat without so much as an expression of shock from the maid could only be explained by the theory that Lambie must have been either involved in the crime, or must have known the intruder and not found his presence in the flat as shocking or threatening. He went on to scald the inconsistencies in the testimonies of the eyewitnesses, claiming,
“The further they got from the event, the easier, apparently, did recognition become.”
He suggested that Lambie and Barrowman, sharing a cabin aboard the steamship to America must have seen the pair discuss their witness accounts, thereby explaining the incredible change of tact from Lambie at the Extradition trial that saw her story fall perfectly in line with that of Mary Barrowman. He hammered the police for committing to an arrest with little to no evidence once the bottom had fallen out of the brooch clue and pointed out that the intruder had seemingly known the layout of the inside of the flat. Why else, he wrote, would the intruder have thought to go to the spare room rather than Mrs Gilchrist’s bedroom? He also addressed the lack of struggle in the hallway and the method of intrusion in the first place, a fact that had been completely overlooked by the police and at the trial. This he suggested, could be answered by the possibility that the intruder had his own set of duplicate keys. The most bombastic theory, however, concerned the motive for the crime. Until now, all police investigations had considered the motive to be jewelry theft. Conan Doyle, however, asked why the intruder had attempted to tear open the wooden box and strewn the paperwork across the floor in the spare room, when a large collection of jewelry was out in the open, on a nearby dressing table.
“One question which has to be asked, was whether the assassin was after the jewels at all.”
What if, asked Conan Doyle, the intruder had been after the papers all along? What if the brooch theft had been a red herring, intended to give the illusion of robbery, or simply a crime of opportunity. The brooch was left out in the open, maybe it was too tempting not to simply pocket it as the intruder left the house? But if not a jewelry theft, what else could the intruder have been after?
“It might be urged that the type of man described by the spectators was by no means that of the ordinary thief. When he reached the bedroom and lit the gas, he did not at once seize the watch and rings which were lying openly exposed upon the dressing-table. He did not pick up a half- sovereign which was lying on the dining-room table. His attention was given to a wooden box, the lid of which he wrenched open. (This, I think, was “the breaking of sticks” heard by Adams.) The papers in it were strewed on the ground. Were the papers his object, and the final abstraction of one diamond brooch a mere blind ? Personally, I can only point out the possibility of such a solution. On the other hand, it might be urged, if the thief’s action seems inconsequential, that Adams had rung and that he already found himself in a desperate situation. It might be said also that save a will it would be difficult to imagine any paper which would account for such an enterprise…”
In summary, he wrote in appeal,
“Let me say in conclusion that I have had no desire in anything said in this argument, to hurt the feelings or usurp the functions of anyone, whether of the police or the criminal court, who had to do with the case. It is difficult to discuss matters from a detached point of view without giving offence. I am well aware that it is easier to theorise at a distance than to work a case out in practice whether as detective or as counsel. I leave the matter now with the hope that, even after many days, some sudden flash may be sent which will throw a light upon as brutal and callous a crime as has ever been recorded in those black annals in which the criminologist finds the materials for his study. Meanwhile it is on the conscience of the authorities, and in the last resort on that of the community that this verdict obtained under the circumstances which I have indicated, shall now be reconsidered.”
“The Case of Oscar Slater” was a remarkable showcase of logic and reasoning that only underscored the lack of the same from the police investigation. It was also remarkably on point, as Mrs Gilchrist did have a will and as it turned out, it had been recently altered. Twice, in fact, in the months leading to her murder.
In late May of 1908, Marion Gilchrist had drawn up a new will which divided up her £15,000 estate, almost £1,200,000 by today’s rates,between her neices and nephews, however, on November 20th, just one month before her murder, she altered the will for a second time, this time leaving the vast majority to Maggie Ferguson, a maid that had previously worked in her service for over five years and who still counted among the rare friends of Mrs Gilchrist who visited her at home. Her daughter, Marion Ferguson was even named after Mrs Gilchrist.
Despite it’s cutting commentary and bold allusions, Conan Doyles pamphlet on the murder case fell somewhat flat upon publication. The case saw a limited revival of interest in the press, but eventually faded back out of the public eye. Slater was not entirely without his committed supporters though, and in 1914, Detective Lieutenant John Trench, who had been involved in the original investigation took it upon himself to join the fray.
Trench had started looking into the files of the case once Slater’s trial had ended due to his lingering doubts over the conviction. Unsatisfied that justice had been done, he worked to document all the paperwork that he could after he noted that many documents were being retroactively altered or suppressed. Five years after the trial was over, Trench found the time right to come forward with his information and bring to light a slew of police bungling and coverup. One of Trench’s most sensational reports was that of an interview undertaken on December 23rd by himself upon Mrs Gilchrist’s niece, Margaret Birrell. During the interview, Birell told him that the maid Lambie had confided to her on the night of the murder when she went to alert her of the crime directly after it had taken place, that she not only recognised the intruder in the flat, but that she had also named him as one of Mrs Gilchrists nephews. On January 3rd, Lambie told Trench the same information in a second interview, naming the intruder as Francis Charteris, a member of Mrs Gilchrist’s extended family and of Glasgow high society. When Trench took Lambies statement and wrote it up in his report, he was told by his superior officers that “the matter” had been “cleared up” and redacted his name from official records, replacing it only with the initials “A.B.” and the entire thing was never disclosed to the defense during the trial. He also claimed to have evidence that Mary Barrowman had not seen the murderer fleeing the flat after the murderer. In fact, she was not even in the street at all. Trench sent his information to David Cook, a Glasgow lawyer, who forwarded it on to both the Secretary of Scotland and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Armed with the new information, the secretary for Scotland launched a new inquiry into the case, but deemed it reasonable to hold it behind closed doors. This was an ominous sign as far as Cook and Conan Doyle were concerned and thus, it proved true. On June 17th, 1914, despite the new evidence put forward by Trench and despite new testimony from two witnesses who said they saw Slater outside his own flat at the time of the murder, the inquiry judged that correct justice had been carried out. Within a month of the inquiry’s verdict being made, John Trench was suspended from duty and on September 14th, he was dismissed from the police department. A few months later, both Cook and Trench were arrested for selling jewelry that had been retrieved as evidence in an old case. They had sold the jewelry, but it was an authorised transaction as part of an investigation that had been working as something of a sting on a known fence and the jewels were eventually returned. Trench’s superior officers now claimed that they had not known of the arrangement and though the pair case was dismissed in court after the judge instructed the jury to find the men not guilty, it was a stain on his otherwise distinguished career.
Conan Doyle wrote to the press expressing his anger on the verdict of the inquiry and gave up entirely on the case after confidently stating that when a full and impartial inquiry finally did come, he was sure that Slater would be found not guilty and the entire case would constitute a public scandal. It would not be for another ten years, however, before the case would find renewed interest with the public.
In 1924, Conan Doyle published his autobiography and in it, he once more included a section on his involvement in the Slater case. It was the beginning of a series of events that would eventually lead to a new inquiry. By the mid 1920’s, Oscar Slater had been pulled off quarry work and had served 15 years of his life sentence at Peterhead. When his friend, William Gordon was due for release, Slater wrote a note to him on a scrap of paper in pencil. After reading it, Gordon rolled it into a small ball and concealed it under the plate of his dentures in order to smuggle it out of the prison. As he left through the gates as a free man, he submitted himself for a search and casually walked out, no guard in their right mind would have asked to see under a released prisoner’s dentures. He immediately took the note personally to Conan Doyle’s house in Windlesham, delivering it by hand. The note read,
“Gordon my boy, I wish you in every way the best of luck and if you feel so inclined, then please do what you can for me. Give to the English public your opinion regarding me personally and in other respects. You have been for 5 years in close contact with me and so you are quite fit to do so. Friend, keep out of prison, but especially out of this god forsaken hole. Farewell Gordon. You’ll likely never see us again but let us live in hope that it may be otherwise. Your friend, Oscar Slater. P.S. Please don’t forget to write, or see Conan D.”
A few months later, an anonymous letter turned up at Peterhead addressed to Slater,
“Just a few lines to try to cheer you up. You have staunch friends in the outside world who are doing their utmost for you, so you must not lose heart. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bids me say that you have all his sympathy, all the weight of his interest will be put on the scale on your behalf. We should like to get a line from you if you are allowed to write. In the meantime, keep up your heart and hope for the best, rest assured we are doing our utmost for you.”
It would no doubt have been a great morale boost for Slater had he read it, however, the letter was intercepted by the prison authorities and never delivered to Slater. In 1925. Conan Doyle once again wrote to the secretary for Scotland, now suggesting they release Slater as he had already served out 15 years, a term that constituted a full life sentence for those who were released early on grounds of good behaviour. Although he received no reply, he did receive a letter from a Scottish journalist named Conan Park, who told Conan Doyle that he was in the process of writing a new book on the Slater Case that would blow the whole thing open. Conan Doyle sponsored Park and in 1927, published his book titled “The Truth About Oscar Slater” in July of 1927. It was a cutting damnation of the Scottish Authorities involved in the original case and called for a proper, full and public inquiry. Finally, after 18 years, the time was right for Slater. The press jumped all over the case and the public imagination soared. With most of the main players and much of the prejudices against jews in the Edwardian era long diminished, a new enthusiasm for justice was found. The Daily News of London ran a daily investigative serial on the case from September to October and the Empire news a Manchester paper tracked down Lambie in Pittsburgh, America and published an article with new statements from her headlined “Why I believe I blundered Over Slater” in which she confirmed the statements uncovered by John Trench 13 years earlier.
“When interrogated by the police regarding the identity of the man she saw leaving the house of her mistress on the night of the murder, she mentioned the name of a man who was in the habit of visiting her, she writes – “It is quite true that I did so, becasue when I returned from buying the evening paper and encountered the mstrange man coming from the house he did not seem strange to me. Otherwise, I should have wanted to know more about his presence there, and certainly would have examined his features more closely had I not been taken off my guard by the idea that this was a man who was in the habit of visiting my mistress. When I told the police the name of the man I thought I recognised they replied, “Nonsense! You don’t think he could have murdered and robbed your mistress!” They scoffed so much at the notion of this man being the one I had seen that I allowed myself to be persuaded that I had been mistaken. Were I asked today whether I thought Oscar Slater was the man I saw coming from the house of my murdered mistress, I should be forced to say I am convinced that it was not Slater. The man I saw was better dressed and of a better station in life than Slater.”
In November, Conan Park tracked down Mary Barrowman and published a piece in The Daily News, where she said that she was treated poorly as a witness by the police and had much of her story drilled into her, forcing her to change her statement. Matters had come to a charging head and it was now too much for the government to withstand. On November 10th, Oscar Slater was authorised for release, and the following Monday, 14th November at 3pm, he was released from Peterhead Prison after serving 18 years, 4 months and 6 days.
Oscar Slater’s release proved to be an unprecedented scandal. The press jumped on the story and Conan Doyle wrote to Slater telling him that though he was finally free, he was still not pardoned and he intended to continue to fight until he received a full pardon and compensation for his time served. Slater’s legal fees were covered by Conan Doyle himself and through public donations. As had long become the norm, nothing in the Slater case was ever straight forward and so it proved at the appeal, when Lambie refused to give evidence. Park tracked her down in Peoria living in the rear of a barber shop, but when asked if she would return to give fresh testimony at the inquiry, she refused, recanting her previous statement and now claimed that Slater was the man she had seen on the night of the murder. It mattered little in the grand scheme, however, and the trial subsequently foudn that the hammer originally claimed to have been the murder weapon was now foudn to be nothing more than a household hammer, instead the focus falling on the bloody chair in the flat. The lineups in the extradition hearing were heavily criticised and on July 20th, the court found that the original Jury had been misled by prejudicial statements in court. They had, however, upheld three of the four counts under inquiry. For Slater, now charged up , it was not enough simply to be free, he wanted the world to know that he was not guilty of muder, nor of being a pimp. After a lengthy fight, his case was eventually settled and Slater was awarded £6000 in compensation.
Just months after the trial ended, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died aged 71 years old.
In 1934, Mary Barrowman died, but not before confessing that she had never been in the street to see the murderer. The entire witness fiction she had created at the behest of her mother in order to stake a claim in the reward money.
Oscar Slater went on to live a long life in Scotland as a restorer and seller of antiques, living out his days in Ayr where he remarried, eventually passing away on 31st January, 1948 of a pulmonary embolism, aged 76. He had, sadly, outlived most of his family who, having lived in Germany, had been murdered during the Holocaust.
In 1999, John Trench was honoured with a plaque in the Scottish police Museum for his part played in the founding of the Scottish cCriminal Court of Appeals.
Who Killed Marion Gilchrest?
With the release of Oscar Slater, it is easy to forget that with his pardon, the question still remains. Who did kill Marion Gilchrist? It is a question that can only lead to intense speculation and neverending theorising on so many aspects of the case. How did the intruder gain access to Mrs Gilchrists flat on the night of the murder? Did the intruder know the layout of the flat and what exactly was his motive? Just how much did Lambie know? For it is undoubtedly true that she knew a great deal more than she ever let on, even in her latter statements.
What of the conspiracy to cover up the involvement of Francis Charteris? If the story holds any truth at all, it would still today likely be a healthy scandal. The Charteris family were prominent members of Scottish society, Francis’ father was a distinguished doctor and head of Materia Medica at Glasgow University, with his portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Francis himself was a doctor and would later go on to become Professor of Materia Medica at the University of St. Andrews, whilst his brothers, Archibald and John went on to become Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney and the Chief intelligence officer during the first world war. The entire thing reads as if a frothing conspiracy theorist had written a fanfiction, however, his presence in the flat on the night of the murder ecplains many aspects which would otherwise baffle to the point of impossibility. Why else would Lambie not have questioned his being there? Why else would there not have been signs of a struggle and why else would the intruder have raided an innocent box of locked paperwork, rather than a wardrobe full of jewelry? And why were any statements or reports that included his name both redacted and withheld from the trial?
If on the other hand, it was not Francis Charteris and the matter was met with such nonchalance by the police at the time because, like they said at the time, it had been dealt with, then who can it have been? It seems highly improbable that whoever it was rang any bell to get into the flat, as there is simply no way that Mrs Gilchrist would have let him in after seeing a stranger on the stairs. Was it someone that Lambie herself knew and was she somehow involved in an inside job? If this was the case, however, it seem s strange that there wasn’t more jewelry stolen and just as improbable as all other speculation that she and her partner would have been interested in paperwork.
It is a case that ends in relief on one hand and extreme frustration on the other. At least we can say that on the part of Oscar Slater, justice was seen to be corrected, but as for the murderer, it appears he will forever slide into anonymity, evading any justice for his brutal murder of a old lady, over one hunfdred years ago.