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The Innocence Of Oscar Slater, And How Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Helped Set Him Free.

The story of how the Sherlock Holmes scribe fought on behalf of the innocence for multiple men accused falsely of crimes, simply because of their race.

By Martin S. WathenPublished 3 years ago 8 min read

December 21st 1908. The biting chill of a Glasgow December wielded it’s glacial grasp on the home of Marion Gilchrest. She lay in a pool of her own blood. Clear signs of physical beating besieged her face. Dead before her discovery at the hands of her servant – Helen Lambie. The 82 year old had amassed a hefty fortune over her lifetime and, in turn, quite the collection of jewels. This, seemingly the motive for such a heinous act of violence. This further evident when Gilchrest’s horrified maid credited a single article missing amongst her collection of jewels. One golden brooch. A piece in the shape of a crescent moon, with several diamonds tracking down one side. Such an article, at the time, approximately valued £3,000 – hundreds of thousands when adjusting to today's inflation. The foundations of such a transgression seems torn from the pages of a turn of the century crime novel. A story from the genius of Agatha Christie, or Raymond Chandler. But this was far from fiction. Ironically, with the venomous tentacles of prejudice, it took one of the genre’s best to bring the investigation back to reality. The real-life work of an iconic author to save the life of a wrongfully convicted man. This author, Sherlock Holmes’ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Leaping forward, we find ourselves in 1925. Sealed within the confines of one of the many dank, tatty cells of HMP Peterhead. A prison colloquially dubbed “The Glasgow Gulag”. Home to those unfortunate enough to find themselves bestowed with the sentence of lifelong “hard labour”. A home originally designed to hold 208 prisoners but typically averaging 350 and at one time 455. A home to ‘Oscar Slater’. The supposed killer of Marion Gilchrest. A German immigrant nabbed for the crime after pawning a brooch that bore vague similarities to Gilchrest’s own. See, Slater was a gambling man, and with such vices, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to assume he had murdered the wealthy Glaswegian to fund further pursuits. Only one problem arose for investigators following this seeming revelation. Gilchrest’s brooch had a distinctive variance to Slater’s. The pawned item had three rows of diamonds on one length, whilst the stolen simply had one. Nevertheless, deadlines must be met, pressures strained, and Mr Slater’s superficial individualities resembled the sort of man the police craved to toss away. So, Slater’s livelihood was sought dispensable. After all, he was German-Jewish gambling immigrant. With the rise of anti-Semite ideology plaguing Europe through the early 20th century, the case reeked of the repugnant stench of racial hatred. A stench known to irk Conan Doyle. So, from within this cell, the wrongfully accused Oscar, made one final bid for freedom and smuggled a letter for the author.

By the time the letter reached the Holmes’ scribe, the case was already firmly planted onto his radar. In fact, Conan Doyle’s disgust in the situation was documented as early as 1912 – with a lengthy plea published that same year in Slater’s defence. Though, decades later, the struggle evidenced that it was difficult to oppose the power of a corrupted establishment - especially armed only with the fiery rage of public outcry. No matter how much we believe David could always topple Goliath, we overlook David’s natural apprehension facing the seemingly insurmountable task moments ahead of the battle. Proving Slater’s innocence would be a challenge, despite the evident presence of deceit. The would-be defender would need to elaborate on the investigation’s failures and the racist overtones of its conclusion. To detail further, Conan Doyle would then need to elucidate the faults of a systemically racist structure to beneficiaries of it. A task, despite the challenge, he declined to shy from.

See, this was not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first foray into battling the forces of legal injustice. In fact, two years prior to the murder in question, the writer was in somewhat of a similar situation. Grieving the loss of his wife, Conan Doyle happened across the case of “George Edaji” in Great Wyrley. Edaji was convicted for a villainous spree of mutilating cattle which terrorised the town in 1906. Once more, letters suggested the perpetrator was preparing to alternate from animals to women. The threat of an impending serial killer loomed large, and Edaji was immediately rushed away for imprisoned in its name. Interestingly, however, another horse found itself victim to the culprit’s blade during Edaji’s incarceration, which caught the attention of the novelist. Once more, upon their meeting, Conan Doyle instantaneously observed the Indian man’s difficulty in reading his newspaper in the prison’s dim light. In a manner that one could only deem of the same spirit as his own ‘Sherlock Holmes’, Conan Doyle deduced the wrongdoer’s eyesight could not be of the impaired quality of the vision pertained to the man sat before him. The would-be attacker would require a superior ability to navigate through darkness in order to perform such depraved acts. Such an individual would stumble through nightfall with stealth and efficiency, not clumsily and uncertain. Needless to say, like the case of Oscar Slater, the injustice was rooted in racial prejudice and, with this realisation, Conan Doyle wrote a series of letters presenting his findings to the authorities. These efforts soon gathered steam, and after some time and stubborn friction, Conan Doyle’s support eventually proved a success. Edaji was released a year after his incarceration with no apology and Conan Doyle was not thanked by the courts for his persistence.

With this previous success in mind, Conan Doyle knew that despite the challenging odds he could very well be the key to Oliver Slater’s freedom. The foundation’s groundwork for the journey were already set. Slater was not, admittedly, bereft of support devoid of his literary ally. No, in order to reverse his initial sentence of death, a petition in his name topped 20,000 signatures. More terrifying a detail, despite the petition succeeding its objectives, action regarding the case was ultimately taken only 48 hours ahead of Slater’s scheduled hanging. All this atop the straightforward point that Slater was clearly only guilty of pawning a brooch. A brooch proven to be nothing like the one that was stolen. A brooch which was quite likely his own property. Such an outlandish conclusion from investigators harkens quite directly to one of Conan Doyle’s most iconic quotations - “to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts”.

Alongside his publication of “The Case Of Oscar Slater” in 1912 (which was inspired by solicitor ‘William Roughead’s’ own defence publication in 1909), Conan Doyle’s public frustration brought more awareness to the case and further snowballed into a public outcry which the court could no longer overlook. Conan Doyle prepared a defence worthy of challenging the court’s skewed perspective on the events that transpired on that December night in Queen’s Way Terrace, Glasgow. The points put forward motivated other high profile individuals to pursue justice until a breakthrough with William Park’s “The Truth About Oscar Slater”. This piece was the driving force that led to Scotland’s ‘Criminal Appeal Act’ of 1927 – which eventually became the ultimate demarche for Slater’s eventual release in July 1928.

Slater went on to live the remainder of his life free of legal constriction and passed away in January 1948. Despite another two decades of life, post release, his experience was amongst one of the most disastrous documented miscarriages of justice in Britain’s history. For his suffering, Slater received £6,000 in compensation – equating only to £300 per year served. Back home, in Germany, nearly all of the man’s family were later murdered at the twisted hands of the National Socialist regime throughout the Holocaust. So, it is no question that despite enduring the nightmare of wrongful imprisonment for two decades, the lingering aroma of anti-sematic hatred persisted to haunt the remainder of his lifetime. Although all credit cannot be put in Conan Doyle’s direction, it’s clear that his work and ability to utilize his talent and social-standing for good was a monumental force leading to the clearing of Oscar Slater’s name.

Following the release of Edaji in 1907, The New York Times likened Conan Doyle to the legendary character he conceived. The investigative nature of Conan Doyle’s mission for justice reminded many of Holmes’ methodical approach to righteousness. To most, the iconic crime writer’s legacy roots itself entirely within the frames of the fictional adventures born within the Edinburgh-bred genius’ imagination. Though, for two families, his legacy was more personal. A reminiscent nature left behind of somebody that championed the underdog. A man willing to look beyond race and simply the circumstances before him. A man that saved the lives of two innocents whose only crimes were representing a heritage the powerful deemed reprehensible and disposable. A man who perhaps should be remembered more so for his kindness off the page than his talents on it. A real-life sleuth ahead of his time. A gentleman willing to sacrifice his own reputation to expose clear wrongdoing at a time where systematically-induced prejudice soured the hearts of many institutions entrust with our wellbeing.


About the Creator

Martin S. Wathen

A writer practicing in both prose and script. With a deep passion for film and screenwriting, I use this platform to publish all unique ideas and topics which I feel compelled to write about! True crime, sport, cinema history or so on.

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