01 February 2014

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Slater and a lack of British justice

Oscar Joseph Slater (1872–1948) was born Oscar Leschziner in Germany, changing his name when he moved to London in the early 1890s, where he worked as a bookmaker. Within a couple of years Slater was charged with assault but was acquitted. In 1899 he moved to Edinburgh and then to Glasgow. He presented himself as a businessman but probably ran a sleazy, illegal gambling operation and mixed with unpleasant citizens. And, it must be acknow­ledged, Slater had left his legitimate wife to live with another woman, possibly a prostitute!

This petty criminal became a victim of the British justice system.

In December 1908 a very elderly Marion Gilchrist was brutally beaten to death in a robbery in Glasgow. Although she had expensive jewel­l­ery hidden in her wardrobe, the robber had fled taking only one diam­ond brooch. Slater had three strikes against him: he had been seen trying to sell a pawn ticket for a brooch; a hammer was found in Slater’s flat and, worst of all, he sailed to New York on the Lusit­ania from Liverpool within a week of the murder, with his mistress. The police soon realised that the pawn ticket was irrelevant but nonetheless they applied for Slater's extrad­ition. Slater returned voluntarily to Scotland to clear his name.

At his trial, two important facts came out. Firstly friends confirmed that Slater had planned to sail to the USA, long before the murder. Secondly the hammer found in Slater’s flat was too small for the injuries on Ms Gilchrist’s head.

Nonetheless Slater was convicted by slightly more than half the jury. In May 1909 he was sentenced to death by hanging. However Slater's solicitors organised a massive pet­it­ion; Slater was issued a conditional par­d­on which commuted the sent­ence to life imprisonment, with hard labour for life.

In 1910 Scottish solicitor William Roughead published his Trial of Oscar Slater, detailing many fatal errors of omission and commission in the prosecution. Perhaps the nastiest element was that skinny, European-looking Slater was put in an identification parade up against nine bulky, Anglo-Saxon pol­ice­men. Roughead's book convinced many of Slater's innocence, incl­ud­ing in­fl­uential decision-makers including later prime minister Ramsay MacDon­ald; and importantly for this blog, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930).

The book written by Conan Doyle 
and published in 1912

The famous author Conan Doyle had already shown his credentials as person who cared deeply about injustices perpetrated by the police and courts.  In 1903, lawyer George Edalji was convicted on a charge of maliciously wounding a pony, despite the evidence against him being hopeless. The Staffordshire police appear to have ded­icated most of their effort to proving that George Edalji was guilty, presumably because his father, Rev. Edalji, was Indian-born. The young lawyer was eventually released from prison in 1906. But he had not been pardoned and had to report regularly to the police. He appealed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to help him, and in 1907 Conan Doyle threw himself into a great public campaign to have George’s conviction overturned. The findings from his investigation were sent to the main newspapers and the Home Office. And reported in this blog.

In 1912, Conan Doyle took up the cudgels once again when he published The Case of Oscar Slater. I don’t suppose the detective writer admired the scruffy, petty criminal with the German-accented English. Yet Conan Doyle showed that the judge characterised Slater as an im­moral man living off the earnings of prostitutes and illegal activit­ies, prejudicing the jury against him; the judge did not ask the jury to look solely at the evidence of the case itself.

Conan Doyle might have been a famous author, but he still had to have been a very brave man. He asked why the police had not searched the premises better and even suggested that the relatives of the late Marion Gilchrist had powerful friends. Conan Doyle wrote "The whole case will, in my opinion, remain immortal in the classics of crime as the supreme example of official incompetence and obstinacy." And the author persisted over the years with more letters to newspapers, his contacts in the government and direct public appeals, as we shall see.

In 1914 politician Thomas MacKinnon Wood ordered a private inquiry into the case. A detective in the original 1908 case, John Thomson Trench, provided inform­ation which the police did not reveal at Slater’s trial. However this new inquiry found that the original Slater conviction was sound; instead the whistle-blowing Snr Detective Trench was dismissed from the force and prosecuted. No good deed ever goes unpunished; Trench died in 1919, only a middle aged man.

In 1925 Conan Doyle could not ignore Slater's begging letters from gaol, asking for help. The detective author wrote to his influential friends, the press and to the secretary of state of Scotland. He made public appearances and began to gather other like-minded people to the cause. Most remarkably, Doyle  used his own money to fund Slater's legal fees!

The turning point was in 1927 when the book The Truth about Oscar Slater by Glasgow journalist, William Park, was published. This book finally led Scotland’s Solicitor General to find that there was not enough evidence to find Slater guilty of the 1908 murder. A Criminal Appeals Act was passed that year; Slater's conviction was quashed in July 1928; and the unfortunate man received an enormous amount of money (£6,000) to compensate him for 19 years of wrongful punishment at Peterhead Prison.

Slater did not share his £6,000 compensation with Doyle, presumably because Slater had been in a hideous gaol for 19 years while Doyle was running around Europe skiing, playing soccer and enjoying family life. Nonetheless Doyle felt that Slater had not shown him, his main supporter and saviour, the proper gratitude.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It seems that not much has changed in 100 years. Cases are still prosecuted viciously based not on evidence but on a desire to punish some terrible crime. And we probably could have guessed that Slater would have been ungrateful after all of Conan Doyle's efforts. Even though the right course is obvious to us reasonable, thinking people, the same irrationalities are committed over and over.

elegancemaison said...

Hels thank you for another thought provoking post!

However I must protest that this is not an example of 'British justice'. There is no such thing. The Scottish legal system up to the Appeal Courts is quite separate from that of England and Wales.

Scottish criminal juries have always been able to return a 'majority' verdict. This is not true of the English system. There are other variations as well because the Scots system is inquisitorial like mainland European legal systems such as the Netherlands and France. Not adversarial as in England and Wales.

I wonder if that was part of Conan Doyle's interest as Slater would not have been found guilty with less than a unanimous jury verdict in England. Just a thought!

Hels said...


when a crime is terrible, I imagine that the community is terrified and the police are under terrible pressure to solve the case. That, as you say, is as true now as it ever war.

Perhaps our legal systems are much more sophisticated now so that errors are not made, but there was something very scary when we examine who were Conan Doyle's victims.

George Edalji was the socially inept son of an Indian man married to an English woman. And a bit weird as well - father and son always slept in the one bedroom... mother slept elsewhere. Oscar Slater was a poor immigrant living with a prostitute and getting involved in borderline businesses. The police zero'd in on these easy targets because they weren't pure white, middle class model citizens.

Hels said...


Interesting point, thanks. Conan Doyle was born, raised and educated in Edinburgh, in arguably the best university medical school in the world. But he knew nothing about the law, except what he picked up as a very intelligent lay person.

We have to assume that before he wrote the book and later threw himself into a great public campaign, Conan Doyle briefed himself very well on the Scottish legal system.

He wrote endless crime fiction from 1889 till his death in 1930. Yet apart from the two cases mentioned, Conan Doyle never got involved in real life cases again. Perhaps the endless legal issues exhausted him.

Andrew said...

Two good deeds, one punished, the other unappreciated. Many bad deeds, without personal consequences. Of course I am pleased we live in enlightened times where no such miscarriages of justice occur!

Hels said...


right! No racial stereotyping by police, no judges on the take, no barristers wanting to be on the High Court one day, no lying witnesses etc etc.

Thank goodness we have moved past the abomination of capital punishment. The last hanging in Britain was 1964 and in Australia 1967.

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Hels said...

UK Political News

thank you for commenting.

If you wanted to read about Oscar Slater and Arthur Conan Doyle, start with "The Case of Oscar Slater" (reference in the blog), then follow the article's recommendations for further reading.


umashankar said...


I was glued to the post and it has been a revelation. Guess we have been like that since we lived in the caves.

Thanks for bringing up a new facet of Sir Doyle. He is already the author of my favourite detective -no one comes closer. I am going to hold him in higher esteem for the rest of my life.

Thanks for sharing this beautiful post.

Hels said...


Thank you.

I think as hard as he battled to right the wrongs done by the police, witnesses, judges, juries, politicians and newspaper editors, Slater had sod all chance of succeeding :( He was fortunate that he wasn't hanged.

But Conan Doyle was a brave man too. His reputation, so carefully built up over his long career, could have been destroyed in a heartbeat. Supporting a German-speaking petty criminal against the respectable police and lawyers was a huge risk to take.

Anonymous said...


Thought this might be of interest.

Kind Regards

Hels said...


that is amazing: unique photographs from the OSCAR SLATER trial in 1909. I am very impressed that someone has the original photos and I am even more impressed that you located them.

The photos "were taken by Raymond De Pinto in 1909 at the trial.
Raymond was a keen and quite well know photographer in Edinburgh at this time. He later, like his brother join the Leith Police".