Did you know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- the famed author of Sherlock Holmes -- was once tasked to solve a real life crime? The case involved a savage murder, stolen jewelry, an international manhunt, and a wily maidservant who went to her grave knowing far more about the killing than she had revealed...
But before we get into a real life Sherlock Holmes tale, let’s solve this week’s riddle:
I have three feet, but I can’t stand without leaning. I have no arms to hold me up.
What am I?
Answer: A yardstick!
Did you solve it? I know it was tough. If you didn’t, work on your skills! You’ll need them when you’re the detective in our interactive mystery series coming out this summer.
Now, let’s get our pipes and funny hats then solve this sucker…
At 82 years old, and living in one of the wealthy neighborhoods of Glasgow (West Princes Street), Marion Gilchrist had a quiet life. She lived alone, but for her hired help, a maid named Helen Lambie.
On December 21st, 1908, Lambie left Gilchrist alone “to fetch the evening newspaper.” Just after 7:00 pm someone came into Gilchrist’s house, attacked, and beat the elderly woman to death.
According to Lambie, she returned from her errand in time to hear a noise in the house then see a man rushing down the stairs. She then found her employer dead on the dining room floor. Papers in the house were “ransacked.” Money lying in plain sight was untouched, as was a substantial jewelry collection.
The only thing missing was a diamond brooch.
Lambie alerted the authorities. A doctor identified a chair leg as the murder weapon. There was no sign of forced entry.
Befuddled police just wanted a suspect
Given the lack of forced entry, police assumed Gilchrist had known the attacker. Within 5 days, the authorities arrested a suspect: Oscar Slater. Lambie even identified him as the man she’d seen running out of the house that night.
Slater, a 36-year-old Jewish man, was a bit of a traveler. He’d previously lived in New York, Paris, Brussels, and Glasgow. He and his wife had rented a flat near Gilchrist’s home.
Being short on money, Slater had apparently pawned a brooch of his own earlier that month.
The police found out about the pawned brooch when Slater tried to sell the slip for a ticket to America. They saw a suspect attempting to flee the country. However, Lambie was asked to identify the brooch in the pawnshop. She said it wasn’t the stolen item.
The police were undeterred. Despite not being one, they suspected Slater of being a pimp since the man’s wife had worked at a music hall and was thought to “entertain men at home in [her husband’s] absence.” Oh and according to reports, they had stated:
“All murders are committed by undesirables; Oscar Slater is an undesirable; therefore, Oscar Slater committed the Gilchrist murder.”
(Dynamite logic, of course!)
The game is afoot
Slater, too trusting the judicial system, waved extradition and came back to Glasgow to stand trial. Maybe he thought the evidence was lacking. Maybe he just thought innocence would win out. Either way, he was wrong.
The Scottish court convicted and sentenced Slater to death in 1909. The verdict generated quite the public outcry. Thus, though scheduled for execution, Slater's lawyer gathered signatures for a petition and successfully got his client's sentence commuted - he was now sentenced to life in prison.
The public outcry found its way to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ears. And his Holmes-inspiring mind did not like what it heard.
The science of deduction
So in 1909, the famed author began to re-examine the facts of the case, using some Sherlockian methods. And he noticed some glaring holes in the police’s case.
The broach Slater had pawned belonged to a friend, a woman who testified to the fact. And some rumors surfaced that a few witnesses in the police’s case had been coached. This included their star witness, Lambie.
This first examination spurred Doyle further. He interviewed new witnesses. He searched for additional evidence. (He even covered some of Slater’s legal fees). In 1912, Doyle published his findings in The Case of Oscar Slater. However, it wasn’t enough to garner a retrial. He lost hope and set it aside.
Seven years later, the widow of a Glasgow police officer blew the thing wide open when she reached out to Doyle. She revealed that her husband had kept documents revealing withheld evidence hidden from the public. These documents contained evidence of suspects within Gilchrist’s family - suspects who apparently had powerful friends.
Justice is served, far far too late
A journalist published a piece on the case, highlighting Doyle’s earlier work. At around this same time, Doyle also received a personal plea from Slater himself. The falsely accused man wanted Doyle to keep digging.
So he did.
Unfortunately, it took years before Slater was deemed innocent. He was not released from prison until 1927, nearly 20 years after the murder itself. His name was cleared.
The real killer “remains unknown.” (sure he does, sure.)
Get your magnifying glass and examine deeper
Wild, huh? Stinks that it took so long to prove Slater’s innocence, but at least it happened I guess. If you want to check out some longer reads on this one:
Margalit Fox wrote a book on the case and Doyle’s involvement
Here’s a piece from the New York Times on the story that also reviews Fox’s book from above
-Andy & Mark
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