Glasgow, 1908. Three shopping days before Christmas. Mr Arthur Montague Adams was tying up a Christmas present when he heard a banging noise coming from the flat above. Marion Gilchrist lived upstairs, an 83 year old lady who had made a prior arrangement with the Adams family downstairs – I’ll knock on the floor if I am in trouble.
They were uncertain whether this was the signal and Mr Adams, a flautist in the Scottish Orchestra, was sent up to check. He knocked, didn’t receive an answer and went downstairs only to be sent back up by his sister. He met the old lady’s young servant, Nellie Lambie, on the close stairs. She had just popped out for a newspaper and she unlocked the door for Adams to check inside the flat. As they entered the hall, a man appeared from the bedroom. He rushed past them and raced down the stairs, out into the street. It was noted by Mr Adams that Nellie Lambie didn’t seem surprised and he got the impression that she knew the man. That fact was ignored by the following investigation (the fact that a man had got into the flat at all suggested Marion Gilchrist both knew and trusted him). It’s also worth remembering that Mr Adams was very short sighted, and he had left his specs in the flat downstairs. They did agree that the man had the appearance of a ‘gentleman’.
The pair then found Marion lying in the dining room, a rug thrown over her head and blood everywhere. Mr Adams rushed down the stairs trying to follow the mysterious man but the street was empty. The old woman had been battered around the head and was still alive, but had passed away by the time the doctor arrived. Dr Adams, unrelated to Mr Adams, concluded that the blood-stained chair (complete with handprint) at her side was the murder weapon. Dr Adams was not called as a witness in the trial and had no further bearing on the case. Quite a few relevant witnesses were not called to give their assistance in the case which is one of the reasons why the Oscar Slater case is regarded as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice ever seen in this country, and is a prime example of why every accused needs a robust defence.
Marion Gilchrist had a good collection of jewellery over £3000. It was sewn into the curtains, wrapped in the bed linen, secreted all over the flat. But there was only one piece missing; a diamond brooch. Statements were taken from Nelly Lambie (didn’t get a clear look at the man but ignored the fact that her initial reaction was she knew him) and Mr Adams (wasn’t wearing his spectacles). Further investigations brought to light a fourteen year old messenger girl Mary Barrowman who had been in the street and said she saw a man flee the scene. Her description was totally different to that of Lambie/Adams and the police decided they were looking for two different men. When that didn’t fit their suspect, they mashed the two descriptions until they got something that did resemble their suspect.
The newspapers were very keen to get the murderer, a respectable old lady had been brutally murdered while her servant slipped out for ten minutes. They published a description of the man they were looking for and asked all pawnbrokers to look out for the brooch.
A bicycle dealer called McLean said a member of his club, a German Jew called ‘Oscar’ had been trying to sell a pawn ticket for a diamond brooch. The police followed this lead but were upset to find the brooch was not the same one and the one in question had been pawned on 18th November. However, they were delighted that Oscar Slater and his mistress had already left Glasgow for Liverpool to board the Lusitania and sail to New York. He was actually running away from his wife but the cops decided this was a flight from justice.
From then on a series of events occurred that if they appeared in a crime novel would have the editor running out of red ink saying this would never happen! Oscar’s picture was printed all over the newspapers, stories of his flight from justice. He was arrested in New York and all were satisfied that the dastardly deed had been done by a foreigner. The police sent all three witnesses Adams, Barrowman and Lambie to New York to identify the man even though Adam’s didn’t have his glasses and admits he did not have a good view, and as Barrowman’s and Lambie’s description were so different, they could not possibly apply to the same man. To solve that problem they put the two young girls in the same cabin for the 12 day journey. At the trial they said they never discussed the case! At the ID, a cop pointed at Slater and said ‘is that the man?’ So that was unbiased…..not!
(Later in court Lambie and Barrowman both identified him with confidence, but Adams was still reluctant.)
Slater was extradited. He claimed he was innocent and seemed genuinely happy to get back to Glasgow to clear his name.
Oscar knew so little about the crime he got the date wrong when he gave his alibi. He not only had a strong alibi for the night the murder happened, but also for the night he thought it happened. His only criminal record was a pound fine for being in a fight and a further fine of five shillings for being found in a gambling club. His so called flight from Glasgow had been planned for a long time. Slater didn’t change his behaviour one iota after the murder, going about his usual routine for the Christmas period, sending gifts home to his parents.
On that basis, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang on Thursday May 27th. Slater proclaimed his innocence from the dock. He had been so sure of acquittal he had stayed sitting in the dock and just waited for the jury to come back. One hour ten minutes later they did- with a guilty verdict. Oscar and others in the court were stunned. In that jury (15 in Scotland) nine voted guilty, five not proven, one not guilty. Petition tables were set up on street corners in Glasgow city centre, 20 000 signatures were gathered
Stories started to come out (now well documented) that other witnesses who could prove Slater innocent, were never brought to give evidence. But the death sentence was lifted, Oscar was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The ‘Trial of Oscar Slater’ was published in 1910 but the prison authorities removed William Rougheads intro when Slater got hold of a copy. He no doubt read the reviews. An injustice had been done, Arthur Conan Doyle got involved.
DL Trench, one of the best murder detective Scotland has ever had
But a Glasgow cop was quietly working away behind the scene and become the real hero of the piece. John Trench had attended the initial incident. He deeply suspected that Nellie Lambie had known the man who ran past her, and that it was not Oscar Slater. (Nellie’s boyfriend was Slater’s favourite suspect but it was not him.) As detective lieutenant Trench, he was sent to a murder near Dundee in 1912 and noticed the MO was exactly the same as the Marion Christie case. Trench found documents that had not been made available to the original trial but as he gained evidence of police malpractice, he himself was sacked and discredited. When he died he left the papers to his widow with instructions to pass them on to Conan Doyle thus setting in motion a chain of events that led to some pertinent questions about the Slater’s case to be put in front of the Scottish Secretary of State. Did any witness to the identification on the night of the murder name a person other than Oscar Slater? Were the police aware this was the case, if so why was the evidence not forthcoming in court? Did Slater fly from justice?
On June 8th 1928, the appeal was heard and the verdict was quashed on a technicality. Slater wanted a ‘not guilty’. He never got it.
He moved to Ayr, got married and went on to live a happy life. After nearly twenty years in jail for a crime he did not commit.
There is now a John Thompson Trench prize for Civil Law at Glasgow University in honour of the policeman who did so much to bring the injustice to light.