Oscar Slater Case
In 1925 William Gordon was released from Peterhead Prison in Scotland.
Unbeknownst to the authorities Gordon smuggled out a message from
fellow prisoner, Oscar Slater. The message, written on waterproof
paper and hidden under Gordon's tongue, was a plea for help. It
was to be delivered to none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle first heard the name Oscar Slater years earlier. He
became aware of the case when Slater was sentenced to death for the
murder of Marion Gilchrist.
The crime occurred on December 21, 1908 in Glasgow. Helen
Lambie, the sole servant of the elderly Miss Marion Gilchrist, left her
employer for a few minutes to get a newspaper. Shortly thereafter,
Arthur Adams, who lived in the apartment directly below Miss Gilchrist
said he and his sisters heard three knocks on the ceiling.
Thinking that Miss Gilchrist wanted his assistance, Adams went to
investigate. When he arrived at Miss Gilchrist's door he rang the
bell. Although no one came to the door he heard noises inside
the apartment. He returned downstairs, but his sisters urged him
to check on Miss Gilchrist one more time. He returned upstairs and
was in front of the door when Helen Lambie returned from her errand.
At about this time they glimpsed a man in the building's hallway.
However it didn't strike either of them as unusual.
Perhaps it was another tenant or a visitor. At any rate, Adams
told Helen what had been going on and together they entered the apartment.
To their horror they discovered that Miss Gilchrist had been
bludgeoned to death. Her personal papers had been rifled and a
diamond brooch was stolen.
There was a public outcry against the brutal murder. The police
and the public wanted the crime to be solved quickly and the murderer put
behind bars. Within five days the police announced that they were
looking for a suspect. His name was Oscar Slater.
At first glance it did seem that the police had found their man.
Slater lived near Miss Gilchrist. He was known to the police for
running an illegal gambling operation. He recently pawned a
diamond brooch. Even more damning was the fact that soon after the
murder Slater left the country under an assumed name.
Slater was discovered in America. Once he was made aware of the
accusations against him Slater willingly returned. He was positive
that he could prove his innocence.
The brooch that he pawned did not match the description of Miss
Gilchrist's brooch. He also had witnesses who could testify as to
his location at the time in question.
The police were not swayed by Slater's evidence. They were sure
that he was the culprit. In addition to Slater's criminal history
was the fact that the police had witnesses. After some
coaching by the authorities, these people, including Helen Lambie,
were sure that they'd seen Slater leaving the scene of the murder.
Also the police believed they found the murder weapon after a
small hammer was found in Slater's possession.
The trial was held in 1909. Despite the conflicting evidence
Oscar Slater was found guilty of the murder of Marion Gilchrist and
sentenced to death. Slater's lawyers started a petition that urged
mercy. Two days before he was scheduled to die, Slater's sentence was
changed to imprisonment with hard labor for life.
Slater's lawyers also contacted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While
Conan Doyle didn't approve of Slater or his lifestyle it was clear that
he was not the murderer of Marion Gilchrist. In 1912 Conan Doyle
published The Case of Oscar Slater. It examined evidence
brought forward at the trial and point by point proved that Slater was
not the killer.
For example, Conan Doyle explained that Slater traveled under an assumed name
because he was traveling with his mistress. He was trying to avoid
detection by his wife, not the police. And while it was true that
Slater did posses a small hammer it wasn't large enough to inflict the
type of wounds that Miss Gilchrist had sustained. Conan Doyle stated
that a medical examiner at the crime scene declared that a large chair,
dripping with blood, seemed to be the murder weapon.
Conan Doyle also concluded that Miss Gilchrist had opened the door to
her murderer herself. He surmised that she knew the murderer.
Despite the fact that Miss Gilchrist and Oscar Slater lived near one
another, they had never met.
The Case of Oscar Slater caused some demand for a new trial.
However the authorities said the evidence didn't justify that the case
be reopened. In 1914 there were more calls for a retrial.
New evidence had come to light. Another witness was found that
could verify Slater's whereabouts during the time of the crime.
Also, it was learned that before Helen Lambie named Slater as the man she'd seen in the hallway
the day of the murder she had given
the police another name. Unbelievably, the officials decided to let the
Conan Doyle was outraged. "How the verdict could be that there
was no fresh cause for reversing the conviction is incomprehensible.
The whole case will, in my opinion, remain immortal in the classics of
crime as the supreme example of official incompetence and obstinacy."
Throughout the years Conan Doyle raised the issue of the injustice
against Oscar Slater. However he was not successful in his
efforts. Then in 1925 he received the message smuggled out of
Peterhead Prison. Oscar Slater didn't offer any new revelations.
There was no new evidence. It was just a note from a desperate man
who wanted justice. He begged Conan Doyle not to forget him and to try one more time to free him.
Conan Doyle could not ignore Slater's heartfelt request. He
fired off a fresh barrage of letters. He wrote to his influential
friends, the press and to the secretary of state of Scotland. He
made public appearances and began to gather other likeminded people to
the cause. The movement slowly began to gather steam. The
turning point was in 1927 when a book by Glasgow journalist, William
Park, was published.
The Truth About Oscar Slater reexamined the case. Park
came to the same conclusion that Conan Doyle did years ago, Miss
Gilchrist had likely known the murderer and had invited him into her home.
Park speculated that Miss Gilchrist had argued with this person about a
document that she possessed. During the argument she was pushed
and hit her head. Her assailant was then forced to make a
decision. What would be worse? To have Marion Gilchrist
recover from her wounds and charge him with assault or to kill her and
be done with the matter? He chose to kill her. Libel laws
prevented Park from naming this person in the book, however he believed
the murderer to be the victim's nephew.
The book caused a huge uproar. Newspapers were full of
information about the case. Witness came forth to talk about the
police coaching them into naming Slater as the man they'd seen around
the building that fateful day.
On November 8, 1927 the secretary of state for Scotland issued the
following statement: "Oscar Slater has now completed more than eighteen
and a half years of his life sentence, and I have felt justified in
deciding to authorize his release on license as soon as suitable
arrangements can be made." Within a few days Oscar Slater was a
However the case was not totally a happy ending as far as Conan Doyle
was concerned. Slater was released, not pardoned. As a
result the case had to be reopened and retried. At that point
Slater could apply for compensation from the government for the years of
wrongful imprisonment. Conan Doyle and others gave money to Slater
for his legal fees.
In the end Slater was cleared of all charges and awarded £6,000 in
compensation. Conan Doyle assumed that Slater would reimburse his
supporters for his legal fees. After all, it was what Conan Doyle
would have done. However Slater saw the matter in a different way.
He thought it was ridiculous that he had to pay court costs at all and
so he shouldn't have to pay them back.
Conan Doyle didn't need the £1,000 that he had given for Slater's
legal fees. What bothered him was that that Slater seemed
ungrateful for the support that he was given. Honor was very important
to Conan Doyle and he believed that Slater had behaved in a dishonorable
manner. Conan Doyle wrote to Slater saying, "You seem to have
taken leave of your senses. If you are indeed responsible for your
actions, then you are the most ungrateful as well as the most foolish
person whom I have ever known."
Had Conan Doyle been alive in 1948 he probably would have disagreed
with the newspaper notice about Oscar Slater's death: "Oscar
Slater Dead at 78, Reprieved Murderer, Friend of A. Conan Doyle"