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The Oscar Slater scandal exposed

Slater case author Thomas Toughill has been studying newly-released files which further prove the accused's innocence, point clearly to the guilty parties, and nail down the establishment figures whose corruption and wickedness lent authority to a miscarriage of justice

THE Oscar Slater case is probably the most disgraceful miscarriage of justice in recent British history. It is certainly the very stuff of high drama.

Marion Gilchrist, an 82-year-old Glasgow spinster with a mysterious past, is battered to death in her flat in December, 1908. The following May, Oscar Slater, a shady German Jew, is convicted of her murder and sentenced to death, although he obviously had nothing to do with the crime. Slater is reprieved at the last moment and sent to Peterhead Prison for the rest of his life.

John Thomson Trench, a Glasgow police officer, comes forward claiming that Miss Gilchrist was murdered by a relative and that Slater was framed. A farcical secret inquiry rejects these allegations and Trench is dismissed from the force and then arrested on a trumped up charge.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, takes up the fallen sword and campaigns vigorously for Slater's release. In the summer of 1927 William Park, a Glasgow journalist, publishes a book which tears the official case against Slater to ribbons.

A public campaign is whipped up by the press which culminates in admissions by the two most important witnesses at Slater's trial, Helen Lambie and Mary Barrowman, that the police forced them to identify Slater as the man they saw leaving the scene of the crime. Slater is finally released from prison on 14th November 1927.

In my recent book, Oscar Slater, The Mystery Solved, I was able to make use of official documents in the Scottish Record Office to show that Trench was essentially right. These documents, most notably an anonymous letter to the Scottish Secretary and the full text of the secret inquiry, coupled with the rest of my research, show beyond reasonable doubt that Miss Gilchrist was murdered by her nephew and that her establishment family used its influence to protect the guilty parties, even to the extent of having an innocent man framed.

Strong as this evidence is, the full story could not be told because three of the files on the Slater case were then closed to the public. That handicap has now been removed with the early release of these files under the government's more open policy.

The most important of these files, HH 16/111, contains material which can only be described as dynamite. The body of the file contains many interesting points. For example, the government tried unsuccessfully to ''get rid'' (sic) of Slater by deporting him to Germany and an English lawyer sought in vain to show the government evidence that Miss Gilchrist was murdered by a relative.

However, the truly important material is to be found in an envelope in the pouch on the rear cover of sub-file 20577/108.

This envelope, which is marked ''Confidential, Correspondence with Ramsay MacDonald'', contains private letters which were exchanged between Sir John Gilmour, the then Scottish Secretary and Ramsay MacDonald, the Leader of the Opposition (and former Labour Prime Minister) on the subject of Slater's release.

As will be shown below, these letters, which are all marked private and were clearly never meant to see the light of day, prove that Ramsay MacDonald, who succeeded to the premiership less than two years later, knew the truth about the Slater case and that he imparted this knowledge to the government via a document which had been passed to him by Conan Doyle.

The file shows that Conan Doyle alluded to a ''police document of a secret nature'' in his own correspondence with the Scottish Secretary who asked for sight of it. Conan Doyle declined to send this document to the Scottish Office for fear that it would be returned to the Glasgow police.

However Conan Doyle agreed to forward it unofficially via a ''gentleman'', whom he did not name, but whom the confidential envelope reveals to be Ramsay MacDonald.

This envelope shows that MacDonald first wrote to Gilmour about Slater's release on 15th September 1927, by which time the press campaign to free Slater was gathering pace. Describing himself as ''very much disturbed'' by what he had learned about the case, MacDonald urged Gilmour to act quickly. On 24th October, he wrote again, this time at greater length (all italic emphasis is by the present author):

''Since I have taken up (the Slater case) I have had placed in my possession some most unpleasant evidence which involves the police and the man who apparently committed the crime...

The Scottish legal authorities strove for (Slater's) conviction by influencing witnesses and with-holding evidence, and that is the point which you will now have to meet and which, I venture with respect to submit to you, must influence your decision as to how you are to wind up the matter.''

Two days later, Gilmour asked MacDonald for any new evidence he may have and referred to a document which was in the possession of a ''correspondent'', who is identified by another enclosure as Conan Doyle. In his reply on 27th October, MacDonald wrote:

''I think I understand what the document is to which you refer. A copy of it has been communicated to me under seal of confidence... My own view is that you certainly ought to have it... and, as the document in question involves other parties it would be very advisable, I think, to keep it out of your dossier. Certainly, so far as I am concerned, I do not wish to widen your trouble and would therefore be glad if you could act without it.''

MacDonald appears to have consulted Conan Doyle, for on 31st October he wrote:

''With further reference to my last letter, I am empowered to show you a copy of the page which was torn from the Police Archives by Trench when he was smarting under the injustice of his treatment and when, faced by what he considered to be a lying conspiracy against him, he felt justified in possessing himself of material which would protect his own honour.''

Gilmour indicated that he wished sight of this evidence and also the opportunity to speak to MacDonald, who on 4th November, forwarded two documents to the Scottish Secretary:

'' 'A' (with the deletion at the head) is a copy of the page which Trench tore out of the police archives. Compare it with the evidence that the police were giving contrary to Trench at the time.

''B'' is a copy of a letter which Shaughnessy (author's note: Slater's law agents) wrote to Conan Doyle and which Doyle has sent to me.''

The second document, which deals with information about the case supplied to Slater's law agents by Trench as early as 1912, is certainly important. However it pales into insignificance compared to the first document which, as MacDonald pointed out, shows that the Glasgow police officers lied at the secret inquiry, which by extension means that they framed Slater in order to protect the real killer and his accomplices. The vital part of this document is reproduced below:

''There were three families of deceased all of which suspected each other of the murder, viz:

1. The Birrell Family of five members residing in Glasgow and Woolwich. One of the members of this family was of bad character and had not been heard of for some years. He was traced to Woolwich where he has since died.

2. The Lee Family of seven members residing in Glasgow, Ayr, Liverpool and Maidstone. One of this family had not been heard of by his relatives for 14 years, was traced to Sydney, where he has since died, viz on 26/3/09.

3. The Charteris Family, three members residing in Glasgow, Bournemouth and India.

All of these people had to be located and information obtained as to what they were doing at the time of the murder.

Amongst them were Doctors, Lawyers, Army officers, etc. Several of them against whom accusations were actually made were brought to the Police office and shewn to the Witnesses unknown to themselves. The greatest care had to be exercised to prevent them from knowing that they were suspected.

*NOTE. The clue when first received against Slater was not stronger* than against other suspects and at the time it was received more than half of the Officers of the Department were engaged at the case. Hence the number of officers.

*(It was typed ''very much less strong''; then was typed over and amended in pencil).''

The ''bad'' member of the Birrell family was Wingate Birrell, the victim's nephew. The government files show that, on the day before he granted Slater a reprieve, the Scottish Secretary received an anonymous letter accusing Birrell of murdering Miss Gilchrist and claiming that he had been let into the flat by the maid, Helen Lambie, to whom he was secretly engaged.

Other documents show that the police failed to investigate Birrell properly, even though he was a known criminal who almost certainly fled to London immediately after the murder.

The above document reveals that some members of Miss Gilchrist's family were actually brought to the police station to face accusations. Doctors, lawyers and army officers are specifically mentioned. There were three Charteris brothers. Francis Charteris was a doctor. His elder brother, Archibald, was a lawyer. The youngest, John, was an army officer. John must be excluded from suspicion as he was not in Glasgow on the night of the murder. This cannot be said of his two brothers.

Trench claimed that the man seen leaving the murder flat was Dr Francis Charteris. (According to the anonymous letter, Birrell escaped over the kitchen window). The people whom Trench cited as witnesses were, respectively, Birrell's sister and Helen Lambie, Birrell's lover.

In short, this was, as the above document states, a case of one branch of the victim's family accusing the other.

The solution to this predicament was to place the blame on Slater, a German Jew whose name had cropped up innocently in the investigation. Evidence of this framing can be seen in the document where attention is drawn to the fact that the original entry referring to Slater had been doctored.

Birrell murdered Miss Gilchrist, but Francis Charteris was in her flat at the time, rummaging through her private papers, and therefore had to be protected, as did Archibald, who was waiting in the street. To this end, the Charteris family used their influence.

A newspaper article shortly after the murder stated that two men in Glasgow should have been arrested, but the freedom to do so had been withdrawn from the police and rested ''solely with the Crown authorities''. Archibald Charteris was a member of the Faculty of Procurators and a friend of Alexander Ure, the Lord Advocate, whose disgraceful and illegal behaviour at Slater's trial so shocked observers. (Ure went on, as Baron Strathclyde, to become Scotland's senior judge).

On 7th November, Gilmour decided to release Slater. He also sought a meeting in the Commons with MacDonald which took place the following day. It is not known exactly what was discussed at this meeting, but in a letter to Gilmour the day after, MacDonald called for an inquiry which would embody ''the broad minded civic justice of the affair''.

Gilmour's response was to refer the Slater case to the newly established Court of Criminal Appeal, an astonishing act of deception. The Appeal Court found nothing in Slater's favour other than that the trial Judge had misdirected the jury by describing Slater as a scoundrel who did not deserve the presumption of innocence. Slater's conviction was duly quashed on a point of law.

The MacDonald letters have finally exposed the full extent of this scandal. Slater was not declared innocent and the guilty parties were not prosecuted, even though the highest officials in the land knew the truth. It is surely time to grant Slater a pardon and to reinstate Trench posthumously to the police force of the city he served so well.

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