Bonjour Marie-Agnes, Janice et Jean-Claude! Hello again from Scotland!
Please let me begin today, Marie-Agnes et Jean-Claude, by recalling that joyful, sunny day in late summer when Margaret and I met you for the first time, at Biarritz on the Atlantic coast. From the deserted street on a quiet Sunday morning, you appeared as if by magic at the doorway of Hotel Marbella; and what an unforgettable day we spent together! Although it feels like only yesterday, weeks have now passed – and last Saturday we re-set our clocks and watches to ‘winter’ time.
Janice, Jean-Claude, Marie-Agnes, it’s now a little over a year since we exchanged messages on the distinguished writer and broadcaster, Sir Ludovic Kennedy, who had just died – and who brings us to our tale! (Sir Ludovic died on 18th October, 2009, aged 89. He’d been married for 56 years to the ballerina Moira Shearer, star of the film ‘The Red Shoes,’ who predeceased him.)
“I can’t think of anyone in the media more universally admired,” I remember writing. He was a charismatic and most attractive figure, as one might say in French, ‘un monsieur fort sympathique.’ Throughout his life, he campaigned against injustice in criminal cases. We quoted a sentence or two, I think, from the introductory pages to Ludovic Kennedy’s book, Thirty-six Murders and Two Immoral Earnings (a fascinating book, giving an account of Kennedy’s lifework in exposing injustices).
“The starting-point of my life-long obsession with miscarriages of criminal justice may be said to have been the library of my grandfather’s house in Belgrave Crescent, Edinburgh .. ” (Grandfather was an eminent lawyer.) “Between the ages of about 11 to 15, I used to spend a part of my Christmas holidays at Belgrave Crescent .. ”
Sir Ludovic then described how his favourite meal of the day had been the generous afternoon tea, served in the library at a quarter to five. With the new electric lamps lit, the heavy curtains drawn against the drizzle and gloom outdoors, Helen, the maid, would enter in turn with two enormous trays, laden with toast, scones, oatcakes, shortbread, gingerbread; and silver pots of both Indian and China tea!
After the meal, young Ludovic would mount the step-ladder to the library’s topmost shelves, where were housed the handsome red volumes of Notable British Trials. Perched on its top step, he would sit entranced for hours, reading of Madeleine Smith and Pierre L’Angelier, Dr Crippen or Oscar Slater ..
It was now the early 1930′s, and e v e r y o n e had heard of Oscar Slater, for during the preceding 20 years, scarcely a day had passed without some mention of his name in the newspapers. Slater had finally been released from prison in 1927, after serving more than 18 years for the brutal murder in Glasgow of a lady of 82, a crime of which he was entirely innocent.
Waiting to meet him at the gates of Peterhead Prison was his friend, Rabbi Phillips (Slater was from a Jewish family, born in Germany in 1872). The Rabbi took Slater to his home in Glasgow, and showed him such kindness that he burst into tears. “Even the sight of a tablecloth on the table was wonderful to a man who’d suffered so much,” wrote Jack House (1906-1991) in Square Mile of Murder (W & R Chambers, 1961; etc) – one of the best accounts of the Slater case that I’ve come across. Please try to see it. Prison conditions were extremely harsh in the 1920′s; discipline was strict and enforced, ultimately, by flogging with the birch rod.
Chers Amis, I’m sure you’ll understand that I can tell here only briefly, the story of a case about which so much has been written over the past 100 years. The whole Slater affair began in the winter of 1908, when, just four days before Christmas, a wealthy old Glasgow lady was found horribly beaten in her flat at 15 Queen’s Terrace (part of West Princes Street, close to St George’s Cross).
It was said that Miss Marion Gilchrist – 82 years of age, and in rapidly failing health – had inherited from her father a fortune of between 40 and 80 thousand pounds (in today’s terms, a sum of between four and eight m i l l i o n pounds) – and that she had changed her will just a short time previously, in order to disinherit members of her own family with whom she was not on good terms.
Miss Gilchrist lived simply but comfortably, with only her maid, Helen (Nellie) Lambie for company. She kept a large collection of diamond jewellery in the flat, and had become extremely anxious about her personal security. About seven o’clock one Monday evening, just after Nellie had gone out to buy a newspaper, Miss Gilchrist was attacked and beaten to death in her dining-room by an intruder. The murder weapon was a heavy mahogany chair; possibly also a metal auger which the killer had brought into the first-floor flat.
As far as the police were concerned, suspicion fell immediately upon Oscar Slater, a ‘foreign-looking’ man of 36, who had just made plans to sail to the USA; this was portrayed at Slater’s trial as a ‘flight from justice’. (Slater was arrested as the ‘Lusitania’ approached New York harbour, and naively insisted on returning to Scotland to clear his name. If only he could have foreseen the future!)
It’s thought that Slater had already come to the attention of the Glasgow police before the murder, although he’d been in the city for little more than seven weeks. He’d tried to earn a living in New York and in London; here he’d met his female companion, a young French woman by the name of Andree Junio Antoine. Slater and Miss Antoine rented an upstairs flat at 69 St George’s Road, part of a handsome red sandstone property known as ‘Charing Cross Mansions’ – located just 400 yards from the scene of the murder. While Oscar Slater spent his days in gambling clubs, and occasionally dealing in jewellery, Miss Antoine received gentlemen visitors to the flat under the name of ‘Madame Junio.’ Slater himself used several aliases; the plate on the door read: ‘A. Anderson, Dentist’.
By any standard, Slater’s trial at the High Court in Edinburgh was a travesty of justice. The evidence produced against him was very weak, much of it depending upon identification. The Lord Advocate, Alexander Ure, who – unusually – led the prosecution personally, lost no opportunity to blacken the character and reputation of Slater. Even the judge, Lord Guthrie, suggested to the jury that ‘a man of
t h a t type’ – meaning Slater – had no right to rely upon the usual presumption of innocence.
Slater did not speak during his trial; it was thought that his heavy German accent might prejudice the jury against him. After four days of ‘evidence,’ Slater was found guilty as charged, the jury voting by nine to six in favour of convicting him. [Marie-Agnes, Jean-Claude, Janice, you may find it surprising that there is no need for a jury to be unanimous in a Scottish criminal trial (as would be the case in England). A simple majority - even a majority of one - is sufficient to convict the accused.]
To say that Slater was shocked by the verdict would be an understatement. Now his voice was heard: “My Lord, may I say one word? Will you allow me to speak? .. .. I know nothing about the affair. You are convicting an innocent man. .. .. I came over from America .. .. to Scotland, to get a fair judgment. I know nothing about the affair, absolutely nothing. I never heard the name. .. .. I know nothing about it . .. .. I can say no more.” Lord Guthrie made no observation on this statement. He put on the ‘black cap’ and sentenced Oscar Slater to be hanged on Thursday, 27th May. (Executions usually took place within the old Duke Street Prison in Glasgow. The tall perimeter wall of this old jail still stands in High Street, just south of Cathedral Square.) Death by hanging was the mandatory punishment for murder.
Such was the public outcry that Slater’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. (Actually, a Royal Pardon had been granted by King Edward, but this fact was kept secret for many years.) Now began Slater’s long incarceration in Peterhead Prison, and the long agitation to have him set free.
Officialdom held tenaciously to the original jury’s verdict, narrow as the majority had been. Even at his appeal in 1928 (before the new Court of Criminal Appeal, and by which time he was at last at liberty) Slater’s conviction was n o t quashed; rather, it was ‘set aside’ because the judge was held to have misdirected the jury. To put it more simply, it was conceded that Oscar Slater had not received a fair trial.
Slater had accepted an offer of six thousand pounds (about 300 thousand pounds, today) by way of compensation for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Thinking to make a fresh start, he moved to a new bungalow in the Clyde-coast town of Ayr (which since at least 1910 had had a small Hebrew Congregation).
Here, in St Phillan’s Avenue, he lived quietly, marrying again in 1936, and by all accounts was popular in the town. He and his wife were briefly interned at the start of the Second World War, as they still held German citizenship. Oscar Slater died in 1948, but this brought no end to an affair that had excited controversy for 40 years.
William Roughead (1870-1952) the Scottish solicitor and criminologist, produced the first book on the Slater case in 1910 (The Trial of Oscar Slater.) With his vivid, lively style of writing, Roughead has been considered one of the founders of the modern ‘true crime’ genre. ( Young Ludovic Kennedy probably read the 1925, revised, edition of Roughead’s book in the ‘Notable British Trials’ series.) But, even in 1910, reviews of Roughead’s account of the trial – especially those in the English press – betrayed much feeling that an injustice had been done. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, never an admirer of Slater, leapt to his defence in the Letters pages of The Times.
Conan Doyle, in turn, produced a short book of his own, based on Roughead’s work, intended to have a mass sale and to arouse public opinion in aid of Slater (The Case of Oscar Slater, 1912, Hodder & Stoughton.) For the first time, prominence was given to the idea that the purpose of the attack upon Miss Gilchrist was not the stealing of jewellery, but rather of some important document, such as her will.
In any account of the Slater case, long or short, tribute must be paid to the memory of Detective Lieutenant John Thomson Trench, the heroic and upright Glasgow police officer who, at tremendous cost to himself, did all in his power to help the unjustly condemned German. One of the country’s most brilliant detectives, Trench sought the protection of the Scottish Secretary of the day before sharing information on the case with William Park, a writer and journalist with the Evening Times in Glasgow. But the politician betrayed him ; Trench was sacked in disgrace from the police, with loss of his superannuation – then prosecuted on a trumped-up charge. John Thomson Trench went on to serve with distinction in the First World War, dying in 1919 at the age of 50.
William Park’s book The Truth about Oscar Slater came out in 1927, by which time the pressure to release Slater was becoming irresistible ; he had already served considerably more than the 15 years usually demanded of those sentenced to life imprisonment. About this time, Slater had the idea of appealing directly to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Employed in the prison’s bookbinding workshop, he wrote a message on a scrap of glossy paper, which was then rolled into a tiny ball and hidden under the tongue of a fellow prisoner about to be discharged. This man took the message to Conan Doyle in London . “Please try again. Oscar Slater,” it said simply.
Jean-Claude, Janice, Marie-Agnes, the newest book (that I know) on the Slater case is also the most revealing – please try to see it, especially for the sake of the excellent photographs. (The original hardbound edition has 24 pages of pictures, many from the Scottish Record Office.)
Oscar Slater - The Mystery Solved by Thomas Toughill (Canongate, 1993. ISBN 0862414512)
The following interview, given by Thomas Toughill to Bruce McKain, legal correspondent of The Herald newspaper (Glasgow) on 7th October 1992, gives an overview of the thesis advanced in his book.
Toughill’s conclusions are devastating. If he is correct, the Slater case was no mere miscarriage of justice, but a m o n s t r o u s c o n s p i r a c y, breathtaking in its audacity, that extended to the highest levels of the Scottish legal establishment.
“(Alexander Ure) .. was involved in the investigation into Miss Gilchrist from the very outset .. .. he was involved in the protection of his Charteris friends (the nephews whom Miss Gilchrist wished to disinherit) from the very beginning .. .. it was Ure’s influence .. .. which accounts for the actions of the Procurator Fiscal and the Glasgow police .. .. before and after Slater’s return from America. .. .. It would have been unthinkable to the conspirators that the sons of a professor (and .. nephews of a scion of the Church of Scotland) (that is, the Charteris brothers) would have been publicly involved in a murder case .. .. “
To my mind, had this book appeared 80 years ago, it would, without doubt, have brought down the government of the day – as, I think, the Dreyfus case did in France – and shaken Scottish society to its foundations. Each generation, it seems to me, must learn afresh the lessons of this appalling story.
A Bientot, Marie-Agnes, Jean-Claude et Janice!
FURTHER READING > Reflections on the Oscar Slater Affair