On the 21st. December 1908, an 82-year-old woman, Miss Marion Gilchrist, was battered to death in her Glasgow apartment by an apparently unknown assailant. It was discovered by the police that a small diamond brooch (only part of her large collection of jewellery) was missing. Her servant, Helen Lambie, was out for ten minutes buying a newspaper. The family in the apartment below, the Adams, heard noises and Mr. Adams went to investigate. Both he and Lambie were passed by a man who was just leaving the Gilchrist apartment. They entered and found the body lying by the fireplace with the head smashed-in.
Slater and his French girlfriend had been living together in Glasgow for about six weeks. He claimed to be a diamond-cutter, but was considered by the police and others to be disreputable and a thoroughly 'bad lot'; mainly because he was both German and Jewish.
On the 22nd. December a fourteen-year-old girl, Mary Barrowman, told the police that she had about the time of the murder bumped into a man hurriedly leaving the Gilchrist address. However, Adams and Lambie described the man they saw as "about 5'6", dark, wearing a light grey overcoat and a black cap". Barrowman said he was "tall, young, with a fawn cloak and a round hat".
The police discovered that Slater had tried to sell a pawn-ticket for a diamond brooch four days after the murder, then he and his girlfriend had sailed for America on the Lusitania. They decided that he was the culprit. After telegraphing the American police to arrest Slater they showed his picture to their three witnesses. The two girls identified him, but Adams didn't. Barrowman and Lambie were then given a free trip to America for the extradition proceedings.
The first British court hearing was in the Edinburgh High Court on the 3rd. May 1909. By this time the police had decided that a small hammer that Slater possessed was the murder weapon. They had also found a dozen witnesses who claimed they had seen Slater in the vicinity of Miss Gilchrist's address on the day of the murder (unsurprising, as he lived only 4 blocks away).
The trial was a complete travesty of justice. Despite the defence proving that the pawn-ticket belonged to a brooch pawned one month before the murder and that Slater had arranged his American voyage 6 weeks before the murder, the authorities had decided he must be convicted, because he was a 'bad-lot'.
Slater's alibi that he had been at home with his girlfriend and her servant, at the time of the murder, was dismissed as being untrue. The Lord Advocate, Alexander Ure, was determined that Slater should hang. The Jury was split but a majority found him guilty, and he was sentenced to hang on 27th. May.
Almost immediately a petition for clemency was started and eventually raised 20,000 signatures. One day before the planned execution the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Arthur Conan Doyle was approached by friends of Slater to see if he could help achieve some justice. He read about the case in the textbook Notable Scottish Trials and was worried by the fact that Slater had been convicted on only suspicion and flimsy circumstantial evidence.
Generating some interest in the case proved to be a long slow process. Many people felt that Slater probably had had something to do with the murder and also was an unpleasant person with a very flexible moral code. After investigating the case thoroughly over a period of three years Doyle created an uproar by publishing his book The Case of Oscar Slater. There were now numerous demands for a pardon or a re-trial, but the authorities refused.
Eventually, over the period of about 15 years, various facts were uncovered. A grocer named MacBrayne confirmed Slater's alibi, saying he had seen Slater on his own doorstep at the time. Miss Barrowman and Miss Lambie were traced and now admitted that they had been bribed to falsely identify Slater. A detective, Trench stated that he had never believed Miss Lambie's identification. For this honesty he was persecuted by his fellow officers, charged with concealment of evidence, and hounded out of the police force. When all the new evidence was published in the newspapers Slater was released from prison after serving 18 years. The newly constituted Scottish Court of Criminal Appeal pardoned Slater on the grounds that the original judge had misdirected the jury. No compensation was ever given to Slater. Doyle despaired at the evil of the authorities who always refused to admit that they had been wrong.
Various theories have been advanced, some even naming particular persons. None of them are very convincing. However, there are a few things that we know and others that we can reasonably assume. First, we know that Miss Gilchrist was financially well-off. She had been collecting jewellery for some years and by her death had a collection worth around £3,000 (at least £60,000 in today's values). To achieve this she frequently bought pieces from more or less 'shady' dealers. Her servant, Lambie, subsequently admitted that she was expected to 'make herself scarce' when one of these people was due to call. Second, we can assume that the murderer let him or herself in with a doorkey, or was let in by Miss Gilchrist. This means that they were known and probably expected by her.
Therefore, the murderer was a friend, a relative or someone she had done business with before.
The Case of Oscar Slater.
Rev. 4 : October 1999.
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