The Curious Case of Oscar Slater

By Eilidh McLaughlin

Sherlock Holmes, one of the great fictional characters of British literature, has recently returned to the forefront of popular culture. At the height of his popularity, many were confused between the character and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This was exacerbated by Conan Doyle applying the infamous Holmes method to actual cases. One of the most famous: the conviction of Oscar Slater for the murder of Marion Gilchrist.

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Marion Gilchrist was a wealthy 82-year old woman who lived in the affluent area of West Princes Street in the west end of Glasgow. She was brutally bludgeoned to death in her flat, where she stayed with her maid, Helen Lambie. Her personal papers had been ransacked. Although there was a great deal of precious jewellery in the flat, only one item was missing: a diamond brooch.

There was public outcry and within five days a suspect was named: Oscar Slater. He was a German Jew, an illegal gambling den operator and a probable pimp who lived near Gilchrist. Not only that, he had recently attempted to sell a pawn ticket for a diamond brooch and escaped to America under an assumed name. It looked as if the police had their man. In an extradition hearing, he demanded permission to return to Scotland to clear his name. At the trial, there were found to be a number of inconsistencies in the prosecution's case that were covered up or simply disregarded, such as the pawned brooch which was discovered to have belonged to Slater's girlfriend. There were suggestions that the prosecution's witnesses were coached into naming Slater as the man seen fleeing the building. Institutional prejudice influenced Slater's trial. He was sentenced to death on 27 May 1909. Forty-eight hours before he was due to meet his fate on the scaffold, his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment with hard labour. His lawyer, Ewing Speirs, gathered 20,000 signatures petitioning for commutation of the death sentence to a life behind bars on the grounds of circumstantial evidence.

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The case then came to the attention of Arthur Conan Doyle, who decided to apply 'the Sherlock method' learned from his teacher at the University of Edinburgh, Joseph Bell. He uncovered new evidence, uncalled witnesses and questioned the prosecution's evidence. His findings were published as a plea for Slater's pardon in The Case of Oscar Slater in 1912. It caused a sensation and there were calls for a retrial, promptly ignored by the authorities in Glasgow.

During a secret enquiry in 1914, a respected police officer, Detective-Lieutenant John Thompson Trench, provided previously withheld evidence from the original police case stating that the family of Marion Gilchrist all suspected and accused each other. Trench was sacked, discredited and eventually framed for his part in this inquiry. He secreted documents from the original case proving his integrity. Trench died in 1919, but his widow forwarded this document to Conan Doyle.

This document, along with alleged secret messages smuggled out of Peterhead Prison from a desperate Slater reignited Conan Doyle's interest. A Glasgow journalist, William Park, published The Truth about Oscar Slater, which revisited much of Conan Doyle's evidence. Once more, Conan Doyle took up the case and exerted his influence, writing to politicians and even using his own money to fund Slater's legal fees. One of those politicians was Ramsay MacDonald, who wrote to the Scottish Secretary in October 1927 highlighting that the police and the Scottish legal authorities had colluded to withhold evidence and influence witnesses which resulted in Slater's conviction.

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In November 8, 1927 the Secretary of State for Scotland authorised Slater's release. Slater left Peterhead Prison with £6,000, but his name was never cleared. Oscar Slater died an embittered man in 1949 in Ayrshire, aged 78. His local paper described him as a reprieved murderer and friend of Arthur Conan Doyle. However, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw Slater as an ingrate having paid a proportion of Slater's legal fees, but never sharing in the compensation (.pdf).

Even to the present day, the curious case of Oscar Slater raises controversy. Many defence lawyers, including acclaimed former criminal defence solicitor, Joe Beltrami, are vehement in their belief that this constitutes one of the most notable of miscarriages of justice in Scottish legal history.

Several names have been put forth as the real murderer of Marion Gilchrist and authors continue to put forward new theories about this mystery that could have leapt from the pages of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.

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