Guilty until Proven Innocent

April 1, 2023

On the rainy evening of December 21, 1908, Miss Marion Gilchrist, an elderly lady living in a flat in Glasgow, was found lying on her dining room floor with horrific blunt-force injuries. Blood was spattered all over the area where she lay and was soaked into the back leg of a nearby dining chair, the probable weapon. She had endured some 20 to 40 blows in a “furious … continuous assault” that smashed almost every bone in her face and skull.

Miss Gilchrist’s murder led to the arrest and conviction of an innocent man. But after nearly 20 years in prison, he was exonerated, thanks to Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the greatest fictional detective in English literature, Sherlock Holmes. In The Case of Oscar Slater, he dissected the evidence, much as Holmes would have done, and his book ultimately led officials to review the case and free the man.

On the night of the murder, the family living in the flat below had heard a loud thud and three knocks coming from above – the knocks being a signal Miss Gilchrist had prearranged with the family in case she needed help. The head of the family, Arthur Adams, went up to see what had happened. He rang the bell, to no avail. Miss Gilchrist’s servant, Helen Lambie, who had gone out for about 10 minutes to buy the evening newspaper, arrived and unlocked the flat door. A “well-dressed” man came out of the spare bedroom, walked past Lambie and Adams without saying anything, went downstairs, and left the house. Lambie then discovered the dying Miss Gilchrist in the dining room.

Neither Lambie nor Adams recognized the man, and neither could give a definite description of him. Adams described him as “well-featured and clean-shaven.” Just before the discovery of the murder, Adams’s sister had seen a man loitering in front of the house. This man had “a long nose, with a most peculiar dip.” Another description, given a few days after the murder, came from 15-year-old Mary Barrowman, who claimed she had seen a man running down the steps of the house on the night of the murder. He had a “nose slightly turned to the right.” Neither Lambie nor Adams had mentioned any peculiarities in the nose of the man they saw.

The police thought the motive for the murder was robbery. Though she lived modestly, Miss Gilchrist collected fine jewelry. Some of it was found scattered around the spare bedroom, along with a broken wooden box and papers. A diamond brooch was missing.

The police put out a description of the suspect in the press. Then came a breakthrough. A member of a local gambling club reported to police that a fellow member, Oscar Slater, a German Jew with a “nose twisted to one side,” had attempted to sell a pawn ticket for a diamond brooch.

And so Oscar Slater’s nightmare began. On the flimsiest of evidence, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. This created an outcry that led many prominent people to agitate for a review of the case. One of these was Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle had already been devoting himself to righting real-life miscarriages of justice. In his 1924 memoir, Memories and Adventures, he noted, “The sad fact is that officialdom in England stands solid together, and that when you are forced to attack it you need not expect justice…” Thanks to him, a young Anglo-Indian lawyer named George Edalji, who had been wrongfully convicted of maiming livestock, was pardoned in 1907 after serving three years at hard labor. Conan Doyle’s efforts on Edalji’s behalf were in part responsible for the establishment that same year of England’s Court of Criminal Appeal.

Fresh from this success, Conan Doyle turned his attention to Oscar Slater’s case. There had already been some action on it: A petition sponsored by a Glasgow rabbi that garnered some 20,000 signatures, as well as a detailed brief (called a “memorial”) from Slater’s lawyers, prompted the government to stay the execution just two days before it was to take place in May 1909. In 1910, a volume of the Notable Scottish Trials series was devoted to Slater’s trial, edited by criminologist William Roughead, who became one of the greats of the true crime genre. Although Roughead couldn’t come right out and say there had been a miscarriage of justice – government officials had provided substantial information for his book, and he didn’t want to alienate them – he did hint at it.

Conan Doyle had no such strictures. Prompted by Roughead’s book, he wrote a 103-page pamphlet, The Case of Oscar Slater, published in 1912. In it, he tore the evidence to shreds with clarity and precision. He also appended the “memorial” of Slater’s lawyers.

First, Conan Doyle noted the curious behavior of the servant, Helen Lambie, at the scene. When Arthur Adams told her he had heard a loud noise, as if the “ceiling was like to crack,” she speculated that the clothesline pulley in the kitchen must have fallen down – not something likely to crack a ceiling. She expressed no surprise upon seeing a stranger emerge from one of the bedrooms, but let him pass without challenge. And instead of going to the dining room, where Miss Gilchrist had been sitting when Lambie left, she went first to the kitchen, ostensibly to check the pulley, and then to the spare bedroom. It was only after Adams asked where her mistress was that she went into the dining room and discovered the body.

Second, the descriptions of the suspect, though they generally fit Slater, were vague and inconsistent. In the end, Conan Doyle noted, the only points of similarity among them were that the suspect was clean-shaven, slim, and about 25-30 years old. Slater was 37 and had a mustache. Neither Adams nor Lambie, who had had the clearest view of him, had mentioned any peculiarity in his nose, though Slater did have a broken nose. And when they and Barrowman were brought in to identify Slater, they were first shown his photograph, and then saw him being led through a corridor by the police, casting grave doubt on the reliability of the formal identification. Even then, though the witnesses could say he resembled the man they had seen, they could not conclusively identify him.

Third, one of the most damning flaws in the evidence was that the diamond brooch that Slater had pawned was not Miss Gilchrist’s, but his own. And the police confirmed this very early in the case. This should have ended the matter immediately, as there was no other evidence connecting Slater to the crime.

But the police pursued it, in part because Slater had left for America right after the murder and had traveled under an assumed name. Slater, however, had been talking about the trip for some time, according to those who knew him, and he was traveling with a woman who was not his wife. His explanation that he used an alias (something he had done before in the course of his louche gambler’s life) to prevent his wife from finding out about his mistress was perfectly reasonable.

Conan Doyle meticulously went through many other inconsistencies and weaknesses in the evidence, including the lack of blood on the suspect’s clothes despite the very bloody scene. But the crown of his efforts was a potential defense theory that Slater’s attorneys never pursued: “One question which has to be asked was whether the assassin was after the jewels at all.” He pointed out that the suspect, in the very short time he had while Lambie was out, went to a spare bedroom, ignored several visible pieces of jewelry, and broke open a wooden box containing papers. How did he get in, if Lambie had locked the door as she claimed? What was he looking for, and how did he know where to find it? As Conan Doyle put it, “One is averse to throw out vague suspicions which may give pain to innocent people, and yet it is clear that there are lines of inquiry here which should be followed up, however negative the results.” He concluded that “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 best-seller, thanks to Conan Doyle’s fame and the low price of the pamphlet. But some critics were not impressed. The Times opined that his objections to the evidence “have probably been considered already, and with extreme care.” Another less circumspect newspaper referred to Slater as “a slimy blackguard of whom the community is well rid.” Nonetheless, Conan Doyle pressed on with his efforts to obtain a review of Slater’s case, spending his own money and supported by many people, including one of the original jurors. Slater languished in prison until 1927, when the original witnesses against him began retracting their testimony, and the government suddenly paroled him without public explanation. Upon Slater’s petition to the Secretary of State of Scotland, he was granted an appeal, thanks in no small part to the publicity Conan Doyle’s dogged efforts had garnered. On July 20, 1928, the verdict was quashed. Oscar Slater was truly free at last.

The postscript to this victory is a sorry one. The government awarded Slater £6,000 (just under half a million pounds in today’s money) as compensation. Conan Doyle asked him to remunerate those who had laid out money for his exoneration, including himself. Slater couldn’t understand why he should pay when they could apply to the government for reimbursement. The government refused to pay the costs, however, leaving Conan Doyle to threaten publicly to sue Slater. Slater ultimately sent him £250. And although the two men apparently never corresponded again, Slater was not bitter, and contributed to a memorial fund when Conan Doyle died in 1930. Slater retired quietly to a bungalow in Ayr, where he made a late and happy marriage to a young woman and tended his garden. He died peacefully in 1948.

Thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders and Project Gutenberg, The Case of Oscar Slater, possibly Conan Doyle’s greatest work given the grave wrong that it helped to right, is now freely available to everyone.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

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