How Sherlock Holmes’ Creator Saved the ‘Scottish Dreyfus’

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Oscar Slater, the "Scottish Dreyfus" who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly 20 years.
Oscar Slater, the "Scottish Dreyfus" who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly 20 years.Credit: William Roughead / "Trial of Oscar Slater"
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Oscar Slater had all the characteristics needed to become a “suspect” of a heinous crime. He was Jewish, German, an immigrant and a gambler. His police file included complaints about assault under aggravated circumstances, he changed his name several times and hung around with dubious underworld characters. There were also rumors that he was a pimp.

So nobody in Scotland raised an eyebrow when he was arrested on suspicion of perpetrating the robbery and murder in December 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy elderly woman from Glasgow.

His possession of a piece of jewelry similar to the one stolen from the murdered woman, combined with the fact that he sailed to America under an assumed name immediately after the murder, were sufficient to convict him – turning a blind eye to many other findings that clearly proved he wasn’t the murderer.

His hasty, fabricated trial ended with the heaviest sentence: death. Slater, who was 36, had already planned his own funeral but at the last minute, two days before the date of his execution in May 1909, his punishment was commuted to life with hard labor.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.Credit: Walter Benington

He spent the next 18 years in a fortress that was dubbed the “Scottish Gulag,” where he suffered from harsh conditions, including hunger, cold and heat.

Slater later testified that he had planned to commit suicide if he wasn’t released after his 20th year in prison. Fortunately, in 1927 he was unexpectedly released, and was later acquitted of all blame and received compensation from the government.

Due to his Jewish origins and the anti-Semitic element lurking behind his false conviction, he was dubbed the “Scottish Dreyfus.” The person who played the role of Emile Zola – the French writer who fought to defend Alfred Dreyfus – in Slater’s criminal drama was none other than Edinburgh-born Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes.

It has been 110 years since the start of this affair, which forever tarnished the British justice system. But very little has been written about it and Slater remains largely unknown to the wider public.

A court scene during the trial of Oscar Slater.Credit: William Roughead / "Trial of Oscar Slater"

American reporter Margalit Fox, until recently a senior obituary writer for The New York Times, discovered the story entirely by chance. In a recent email interview with Haaretz, she wrote: “I first learned of the Oscar Slater case more than 30 years ago, when I was recently arrived in New York as a young adult.

"Commuting to work on the New York City subway one morning, I had brought with me John Dickson Carr’s 1949 biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Toward the end of the book, almost casually, Carr mentions that Conan Doyle was deeply involved in righting the wrongful conviction of a German Jewish immigrant, Oscar Slater, for a 1908 murder in Glasgow.

"I was astounded. The creator of Sherlock Holmes had used Holmesian methods to free a man who had languished in a brutal Scottish prison for more than 18 years? Why in the world wasn’t this case better known? But I didn’t have a career as a writer – I hadn’t even gone to journalism school yet – so I was scarcely in a position to tell this story myself. So I filed it away in that place that Holmes calls the ‘brain-attic.’”

In 2013, when she was looking for a subject for a new book, she recalled Slater’s story. Fox spent the following years in archives all over Great Britain in order to collect every piece of information about the story. She perused thousands of documents – criminal, legal, personal and literary – and even did field work at sites where the story took place.

Marion Gilchrist, who was murdered in Glasgow in December 1908.Credit: William Roughead / "Trial of Oscar Slater"

She published her comprehensive historical-detective study recently in the book “Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer” (Random House).

Conan Doyle is known as a writer of detective stories, but in real life he was also a successful detective. The more popular his books became, the more he was inundated with requests from people who wanted his help solving mysteries, or doing justice in a situation where the police had given up or in cases where the authorities themselves had distorted the law and behaved arbitrarily.

Public champion

“While Conan Doyle remains venerated today as a detective writer, he is less well remembered as a crusader – an impassioned public champion on behalf of a range of social issues that outraged his deep sense of justice and fair play,” says Fox.

“Throughout his life as one of the most prominent public men in the world (a period that ran from the late 1800s to his death in 1930), he was an ardent advocate for a string of causes, including liberalizing British divorce laws to make it easier for women to extricate themselves from abusive marriages; the exposure of Belgian atrocities in the Congo; an attempt to overturn the sentence of George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian lawyer falsely imprisoned for maiming livestock; and much else,” she explains.

The book cover of "Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer."Credit: Random House

In 1912, Slater’s lawyer turned to Conan Doyle and asked for his help. “Conan Doyle spent much time and energy re-investigating and writing about the case. His efforts resulted in Slater’s release from prison in 1928 and the quashing of his conviction the next year,” notes Fox.

Conan Doyle, who was a doctor, created the character of Sherlock Holmes as a “scientific detective,” as he put it, someone who finds the solution to mysteries by using his sharp logic and discerning eye – without prejudice and stereotyping.

“Holmes very much used the kinds of rationalist, impeccably logical methods that Conan Doyle had been taught in medical school. He made certain to let only the empirical facts of the case – the clues – dictate the solution, an approach that amply showed Slater could not have committed the crime,” she says.

This was in contrast to the prevailing police methods of the period, which involved fingering someone merely for being different and then making the evidence fit the case.

Nowadays, we occasionally hear about criminals who were acquitted thanks to DNA tests, after being erroneously convicted. This advanced technology was not available to Conan Doyle, who used his sharp intelligence and powers of observation. He studied police reports, perused the testimony of eyewitnesses and read the transcripts of the court proceedings thoroughly.

He looked for the small details, whose importance the investigators had “missed.” Slowly but surely, he succeeded in unraveling the chain of fictitious testimony that had tightened the noose around Slater’s neck.

The hammer with which Oscar Slater was alleged to have murdered Marion Gilchrist. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proved that the weapon didn't tally with the victim's injuries.Credit: William Roughead / "Trial of Oscar Slater"

For example, he realized that the jewelry in Slater’s possession bore no resemblance to that stolen from the home of the victim. He also discovered that Slater hadn’t fled to America, but that his travels had been planned in advance.

He also found that Slater’s small hammer, which had served as “proof” that he was the murderer, didn’t match the injuries on Gilchrist's body. He exposed bribed witnesses, corrupt policemen, a biased police line-up, lies and concealed information.

“Under pressure to close the case – and happy to rid Glasgow of an immigrant Jew of dubious livelihood – they pursued him nearly into the grave,” writes Fox in her book, referring to Glasgow police detectives.

Conan Doyle worked tirelessly. He published articles in the newspapers, tried to convince influential people, and devoted many years to the story.

“In the face of naked corruption on the part of police and prosecutors, Conan Doyle, working largely on his own and remaining involved with the case at intervals for more than 15 years, ultimately prevailed. Without his work, Oscar Slater would almost certainly have died in prison, as the British authorities fully intended him to do.”

But the story’s happy end was clouded by a quarrel about money. Conan Doyle was furious when he discovered that Slater had kept the compensation money he received from the government for himself, unwilling to share it with those who had helped secure his freedom.

“So this triumphant story ends on a bittersweet note, but given the differences in the ways that Conan Doyle and Slater had come up in the world, it could scarcely have ended differently,” she says.

For Fox this isn’t just a matter of history, but a story that is also relevant to today’s world, given the hasty judgment and a miscarriage of justice based on class and race differences.

“As I wrote in the introduction to ‘Conan Doyle for the Defense,’ I little suspected when I began work on the book in 2013 how painfully relevant the Slater story would be to America – and much of the rest of the world – in 2018, when the book appeared,” says Fox.

“The Slater narrative, in which a Jewish immigrant was apprehended, tried, convicted and very nearly hanged for a crime that police and prosecutors knew full well he hadn’t committed, is every inch about scapegoating: specifically racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and an ugly social process that one scholar has called ‘the racialization of crime.’ Anyone who thinks that those things aren’t relevant to our own time had better take a good look around.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: