OSCAR SLATER

Julian Burnside

On 6 May 1909, in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Lord Guthrie received the verdict of the jury in the trial of Oscar Slater. Of the 15-man jury, 9 voted Guilty, 1 voted Not Guilty, 5 voted Not Proven.His Lordship pronounced the sentence of death by hanging. The execution date was set for 27 May. On the evening of 25 May, the Scottish Secretary commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

It was only a minor victory for the cause of justice that Oscar Slater was taken off to Peterhead to break rocks for the rest of his life: it was not until 1928 that his conviction was quashed, and he received a gratuitous payment of 6000 pounds in compensation for 19 years of wrongful imprisonment.

The conviction of Oscar Slater was one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in the English-speaking world, principally the result of an over-zealous police force responding to public reaction to a crime.

At 7.00 pm on 21 December 1908, Marion Gilchrist was savagely murdered in her flat in Queen’s Terrace, Glasgow. She had received about 40 blows to the head with a blunt object. She was 80 years old. Some jewellery and some documents had been disturbed, but it was unclear whether anything had been stolen.

Miss Gilchrist had been obsessive about security. Her doors were double-locked; she would not let anyone in who was unknown to her. Ten minutes before she was murdered, Miss Gilchrist sent her servant-girl, Helen Lambie, out to get the newspaper.During Helen Lambie’s absence, Mr Adams, who lived in the flat below, heard unusual noises from Miss Gilchrist’s flat. He went upstairs, and let himself in. As he was looking around, Helen Lambie returned. At that moment, a man walked calmly out of the living-room, walked past Helen Lambie and left the flat.

Adams went into the living-room, where he found the body of Miss Gilchrist, her head shattered, her blood all over the floor and the mantle-piece. He rushed out of the flat and into the street. The only person nearby was Mary Barrowman, a 14-year old errand girl. She had seen a man who had run out of Gilchrist’s building and “almost knocked her over”.

When the police arrived, then, they had three eye-witnesses: Mr Adams, Helen Lambie and Mary Barrowman. Each gave a description of the man they had seen.

Adams, who was short-sighted and was not wearing his glasses: he could not give a worthwhile description. He had the impression the man was a visitor who was familiar with the flat.

Lambie said the man was 25 to 30 years old, medium height, slim build, clean shaven, wearing a light grey overcoat and a dark cloth cap.

Mary Barrowman’s description differed in 4 respects: he was tall and thin, wearing a fawn-coloured overcoat and a tweed Donegal hat; in addition, his nose was twisted to one side.

Given these descriptions taken by the police, it is depressing to learn that Lambie and Barrowman later identified Oscar Slater as the man they had seen: he was 39 years old, heavily built with a deep chest, a straight nose, and a black moustache.He was described by those who later saw him in court as distinctly “foreign-looking”, an observation not made by any of the identification witnesses.

The most remarkable thing to notice at this point is that Helen Lambie was so calm at the time she returned to the flat and found a stranger there: and the stranger likewise remained calm as he walked past Helen Lambie on his way out of the flat. The truth of the matter lies buried in this odd fact, and it died with Helen Lambie many years later.

Unfortunately for Slater, his life was not without shadows, and four days after the murder he was seen selling a pawn ticket in a drinking club. The ticket was for a piece of jewellery. The ticket was for a brooch similar to one which had belonged to Marion Gilchrist. Soon afterwards, Slater left Glasgow for Liverpool, where he boarded a ship bound for America.

When the Glasgow police heard of the pawn ticket, they put all their resources into pursuing Slater. Their suspicions were further aroused when they learned of his having boarded the Lusitania under a false name: he had boarded under the name of Sando, one of the aliases he had used in the past.

Unfortunately the police, once aroused, were not to be turned aside. The pawn ticket turned out to be for a brooch which had been continuously in pawn for 5 weeks before the murder, it was not Marion Gilchrist’s brooch – it was an entirely false clue. And although Slater had boarded the ship under a false name, he had stayed in a hotel in Liverpool under the name ‘Oscar Slater, Glasgow’.It soon became clear that his departure from Glasgow had been openly planned for some weeks, so what had seemed like guilty flight was soon explained away.

Despite the changed complexion of the evidence against Slater, the police never again pursued another lead. On the contrary, they followed Slater across the Atlantic and brought extradition proceedings.The principal witnesses in the extradition were Helen Lambie and Mary Barrowman. Both had by now been shown photos of Slater, and they shared the same cabin on the ship to New York. If that were not enough, these two suggestible eye-witnesses were standing in the corridor of the Court when Slater was brought, handcuffed, along the corridor and straight past them into the courtroom. The witnesses identified Slater as the man they had seen on the night of the murder. Slater was extradited.

The trial was marred by the unfairness of the Lord Advocate (prosecutor), Alexander Ure K.C..He suppressed the evidence of a witness who would have contradicted the eye-witness Mary Barrowman; he suppressed medical evidence which clearly suggested that the murder weapon was not the tack-hammer which was found in Slater’s possession; he referred (inaccurately and improperly) to Slater’s shady past; he said that Slater had fled Glasgow the night his name was mentioned in the newspapers, whereas in fact Slater left Glasgow openly one week before his name was mentioned in the press.

The Procurator Fiscal (DPP) withheld evidence which pointed to another suspect: the wealthy son of a prominent Glascow family; a relative of Marion Gilchrist.

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Public dissatisfaction with the conviction arose almost immediately after the verdict; it increased as various worthies, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, took up the fight to free Slater. The government remained firm until 1914, when it held a secret enquiry into the trial. Unfortunately, Slater was not invited to participate. One of the key witnesses was Detective-Lieutenant Trench, who had led the original investigation. By 1914, he had begun to entertain serious concerns about the conviction. The prominent Glascow citizen was referred to only as A.B. in the proceedings, even though the proceedings remained strictly secret. Despite the evidence of Det. Trench, the Commissioner recommended that no action be taken.

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In the years from 1914 to 1925, Slater occasionally managed to get word to the outside world, and pleaded for his cause to be pursued. But the Great War and its aftermath counted more than Slater’s fate, and so he remained in Peterhead breaking rocks, day by day, until July 1927 when William Park published a book titled The Truth about Oscar Slater. The book revealed that the investigation (and the later Commission of Enquiry) had evidence strongly suggesting that the stranger who was in Marion Gilchrist’s flat on the night of 21 December 1908 was her nephew Mr A.B., who closely fitted the description given by Helen Lambie; who had a dispute with Marion Gilchrist about the terms of her Will. Of course, that would explain perfectly why the servant girl Helen Lambie was unsurprised by the appearance of a person in the flat when she returned with the papers on the night of the murder.

Public interest in the case was re-ignited. On 23 October, a statement by Helen Lambie was published in the Empire News. She said that the stranger in the flat was a person she had seen there a number of times before; she had named him to the police; the police had told her she was talking “nonsense”; the police had persuaded her that Slater was not unlike the man she had named; and that accordingly she identified Slater as the man.

Events followed rapidly.

Slater was released on probation on 14 November. On 30 November a special Act was passed to enable the recently created Scottish Court of Criminal Appeal to hear an appeal from a conviction entered in 1909.

The appeal had features of its own which deserve longer treatment than this short article allows. It is enough to say that the appeal succeeded, and Oscar Slater was later given an ex gratia payment of 6000 pounds in compensation for nearly 19 years of imprisonment. Despite all, the Scottish Office refused to pay Slater’s costs of the appeal.

Slater died in 1948.

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By the time of Slater’s appeal, Det. Trench was dead. He died disgraced and broken. His concerns about the case had been entirely right; his attempt to see an injustice corrected led to his being hounded out of the Glascow police force. After he gave evidence to the secret enquiry, he was charged with reset (receiving stolen goods). The offence consisted in his having recovered stolen goods and returned them to their owner: a fact which caused the insurer to write his superiors a letter commending his good work!

Trench was acquitted by direction, but the episode broke him. He died in 1918.

Julian Burnside