The year 1908 was drawing to a close when the Glasgow police force was called upon to solve a case of murder which has frequently been described as without parallel in criminal history. The victim was Miss Marion Gilchrist, an elderly woman of considerable means, who lived at 15 Queen’s Terrace, West Princes Street, Glasgow.
On the evening of 21st December, 1908, Miss Gilchrist sent her servant Helen Lambie out for an evening paper. When the girl returned about ten minutes later she was accompanied by Mr. Adams, a neighbour. She opened the door with her key, but the moment she entered the flat a man emerged from the bedroom, passed behind her, and rushed downstairs.
Now very much alarmed, Helen Lambie first went into the kitchen, then the bedroom and finally the dining room. On the floor of the dining room, lying in a pool of blood, was Miss Gilchrist. She had been brutally battered about the head and was dead. Rushing from the flat screaming, Lambie was again joined by Mr. Adams and both ran downstairs into the street. But the street was deserted. Adams then went for his own doctor, whose name was also Adams, who examined the body. From his examination, Dr. Adams was of the opinion that Miss Gilchrist had died from blows from a broken chair leg. He then telephoned for the police and, after carefully examining the flat and closely questioning Helen Lambie, the police assembled some facts.
The murderer had lit the gas in the bedroom and had left behind his box of matches. A wooden box in which Miss Gilchrist kept her private papers had been forced open and the contents scattered on the floor. But although several valuable pieces of jewellery lay on a dressing table, only one article, a diamond crescent brooch, was missing, and, although jewellery to the value of £3,000 lay in other rooms, not one piece had been stolen.
Both Helen Lambie and Adams described the man they had seen rushing from the house as aged between twenty-five and thirty, five feet eight or nine inches tall, slim, dark-haired, clean-shaven, and wearing a light grey overcoat and a cloth cap. There was another witness, however, a fourteen-year-old message girl named Barrowman. She was passing the house on the night of the murder when a man rushed into the street and almost knocked her down. But Barrowman’s description of the man differed in several respects from that given by Lambie and Adams.
Four days after the murder, information reached the police that a German Jew, known as Oscar, had been trying to sell a pawn ticket for a diamond crescent brooch.
He was Oscar Joseph Leschziner, a native of Germany, who had arrived in Glasgow about a month before the murder. He was accompanied by Andrée Antoine, a Frenchwoman, and they occupied a flat at St. George’s Road under the name of Anderson. Another of Leschziner’s aliases was Slater and it was as Oscar Slater that he was known in Glasgow.
Slater claimed to be a dentist and also styled himself as a dealer in precious stones. But, in fact, Slater was a gambler who lived by his wits and who spent most of his time in billiards rooms and various clubs in India Street. He was then thirty-nine years of age, five feet, eight inches in height, broadly built, deep-chested, and had a short black moustache.
The police were not slow to act on the information they received, but they discovered that Slater and his female companion had already left for Liverpool. Next day, 26th December, the couple sailed on board the Lusitania for New York.
Meanwhile, the police had discovered that the ‘clue’ brooch had been in continuous pawn since 18th November, five days before the murder. It had three rows of diamonds, whereas the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist had only one row. Yet, in spite of this obvious discrepancy, a reward of £200 was offered and a warrant was granted for Slater’s arrest. This information was immediately cabled to the police in New York and at the same time an application was made for Slater’s extradition.
When news of Slater’s arrest reached Glasgow, Detective Inspector Pyper, accompanied by the witnesses Lambie, Adams, and Barrowman, left for New York. On their arrival, the New York police held an identification parade, but before the parade took place Lambie and Barrowman were permitted to see Slater, a gross irregularity for which Detective Inspector Pyper must be held responsible.
It was not surprising that both women, having had a preview of the prisoner, identified him as the man seen running from the house on the night of the murder. Adams, on the other hand, was not so sure and would go no further than to say that Slater resembled the man and although Slater was strongly advised to resist extradition, he refused and insisted on returning to Glasgow to stand trial.
The trial of Oscar Slater began before Lord Guthrie in the high court in Edinburgh on 3rd May, 1909. Mr Alexander Ure, Lord Advocate, led for the crown while Mr. McClure, K.G., conducted the case for the defence. Mr. Ure pressed home the case for the crown with the utmost vigour. Both Lambie and Barrowman positively identified Slater as the man seen running from the house on the night of the crime. They also identified a waterproof coat, found in Slater’s trunk, as the one he had been wearing that night. The witness Adams, who claimed that he was short-sighted, stuck to what he had said in New York—that he could not positively identify the accused.
The crown did not call Dr. Adams as a witness. Nor did the crown call a man who had said he had seen Slater standing at his own door an hour after the crime was alleged to have been committed.
Public interest in the trial was intense. There was little public sympathy for the accused, and still less following the prosecution’s serious attack on his moral character. Slater was ably defended but was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Two days before he was due to be hanged, however, he was reprieved and sent to penal servitude for life.
There was no court of criminal appeal at that time, and with Slater safely behind bars the case appeared to be closed. But it was not. Shortly after Slater had gone to prison, serious doubt as to his guilt began. Questions were asked in Parliament by Sir Edward Marshall Hall, K.C. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a booklet entitled The Case of Oscar Slater, was the next to question the verdict, but the man who was most convinced that there had been a serious miscarriage of justice was a Glasgow police officer, Detective Lieutenant John Thomson Trench.
A brilliant detective, Lieutenant Trench had been in the force for twenty-one years and was the holder of the King’s Police Medal for meritorious service. He had not been a member of the police team which had investigated the murder, yet he firmly believed that Miss Gilchrist had been murdered by a person who was known to her——and to Helen Lambie. Trench had been informed that on the night of the murder Lambie had gone to the house of Miss Birrell, a niece of Miss Gilchrist, and had said: ‘Oh! Miss Birrell, I saw the man who did it. I think it was A.B. I’m sure it was A.B.’
As a police officer it was Lieutenant Trench’s duty to leave well alone. But he felt ill-at-ease. Nor did the passage of time alter his belief in Slater’s innocence. Almost five years after Slater had gone to prison, Trench communicated what he believed to be the truth to Mr. David Cook, a solicitor in the city.
In March, 1914, Mr. Cook forwarded statements to the Secretary of State for Scotland, who ordered the Sheriff of Lanarkshire to hold an enquiry. In due course, the sheriff communicated his findings to Parliament.
For a police officer to disclose information acquired during the course of his duties to any person outside the police service is a serious breach of the police regulations. Lieutenant Trench must have known the risk he ran in doing what he did, but it is doubtful if he fully appreciated what the consequences might be. On 14th September, I914, he was dismissed from the force with ignominy.
Slater had already served fifteen years of his sentence when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle applied to the Secretary of State for his release. His request was refused. The press then took the matter up. From time to time articles appeared giving more and more information about the case until, on 14th November, 1927, Slater was released on licence.
What followed made legal history. An appeal on behalf of Slater was heard in the high court in Edinburgh on 8th June, 1928, by five judges. The appeal was allowed on the grounds of misdirection by the presiding judge and Slater was granted an ex-gratia payment of £6,000 in consequence of wrongful conviction and imprisonment.
Slater had spent nineteen years in prison. In the eyes of the law he ought never to have been convicted. Following his release he went to live in Ayrshire and it was there that he died, aged seventy-nine, on 31st January, 1948.
The Slater case did nothing to enhance the reputation of the Glasgow police force. It was alleged that those responsible for the investigation had withheld vital evidence in relation to the question: ‘Did any witness name a person other than Oscar Slater?’ But all the principal actors in the case are now dead. The mystery of who killed Marion Gilchrist remains unanswered.
However, to return to the officer who sacrificed his career because of his belief in a man’s innocence. Ex-Detective Lieutenant Trench died on 13th May, 1919, and following Slater’s successful appeal it was assumed that Trench would automatically be rehabilitated. But nothing of that nature occurred.
Copyright GPHS 2020 ; Source: The Thin Blue Line by Douglas Grant (1973)