Bonjour! Hello again from Scotland, Janice, Marie-Agnès and Jean-Claude!
Margaret and I would like to begin this first ‘Letter’ of 2011 by sending you all our very best wishes for the New Year. Janice, we send particular greetings and our kindest thoughts to your dear Papa, Jean-Paul, who’s been quite unwell recently.
It’s pleasing to hear, Janice, that our Oscar Slater post has attracted some interest, and to read the Comments left by Shannon and Colin. I had the idea of sitting down quietly for an hour or two and adding my own thoughts on the matter!
I first heard the name of Oscar Slater long ago, from a neighbour, a Mr Thompson, with whom my father would often chat when he saw him tending the blooms in his lovely rose garden. As a retired pawnbroker, Mr Thompson had ‘seen life’ and had a marvellous fund of stories. But the one I remember was more personal – when a young man, Thompson had been a Special Constable with the Glasgow police (an unpaid volunteer, employed occasionally alongside an experienced officer).
Fascinated by the workings of the law, and the whole question of crime and punishment, he’d taken instruction at one time in the grim business of conducting executions. And so he was able to boast that, had the sentence of death imposed on Oscar Slater been carried out, he would have been called upon to serve as hangman’s assistant! A boy does not easily forget such a story.
No doubt our neighbour took the view that Slater was a ‘notorious rascal,’ lucky to have escaped the rope; most people probably did, at that time. That his sentence of hanging was commuted to one of life imprisonment, would be held to be in recognition of the jury’s narrow decision to convict (by nine to six).
Only in recent years has it become clear that King Edward VII granted a Royal Pardon to Oscar Slater, for all knowledge of this was denied to the public. And what an odd Pardon it was! Far from setting Slater free, it spared him execution on the express condition that he should spend the rest of his life in prison. The King died soon afterwards, and did not see the terms of his Pardon broken when Slater was eventually released in 1927.
As a law officer of long experience, Alexander Ure (who led the prosecution) could not fail to have been impressed over the years by the awesome power of a Scottish criminal jury. In the absence of any direction by the judge to find the accused not guilty (and the lack, in 1909, of a Court of Appeal) the jury’s power to decide his fate was well-nigh absolute. Individual jurors were free to show sympathy towards the accused – or prejudice against him – even at the risk of appearing to ignore compelling evidence. Each judged the accused entirely as he saw fit; that was his privilege, and it remains so today.
Marie-Agnès, Janice, Jean-Claude, I may have implied – wrongly – that the English criminal jury must be unanimous. While unanimity is still the ideal ‘south of the border,’ this rule has now been relaxed, so that after a period of consideration the judge will accept a majority decision of 10-2. (In Scottish terms, this would translate to roughly 12-3; a rather more certain verdict than our possible 8-7! However, in the event that a jury could not agree, a retrial would become necessary.)
The Scottish justice system relied, too, in 1909 on the good faith of the prosecuting authorities; it was a system open to abuse, and Alexander Ure exploited this weakness. In order to protect his friends, Ure wickedly placed on trial a man whom he knew to be innocent; then used his considerable powers of oratory to persuade nine of the 15 jurors to convict him!
And what of Lord Guthrie? Is it not inconceivable that a judge in the highest criminal court in the land could allow himself to be corrupted and to pervert the course of justice? What are we to make of his prejudicial remarks to the jury, and his apparent willingness to accept the weak identification evidence of Mary Barrowman (the errand girl who claimed to have seen Slater in the street) and of Nellie Lambie, the maid? I doubt that either of these young women gave the impression of being a credible witness; both had been coached and rehearsed by the police in what they would say in court. (And, years later, both were to retract their testimony.)
I’d guess that Oscar Slater had a streak of obstinacy in his makeup; that he was the sort of man who liked to make his own decisions, a difficult man to advise. (He fell out badly with Conan Doyle, as we shall see!) It was essential for the success of Ure’s plan that, having insisted on standing trial, Slater should then be convicted, but not necessarily hanged. And so, within a few days, we find Lord Guthrie campaigning to have commuted the death-sentence that the law had required him to impose on Oscar Slater! Is not the truth stranger than any fiction?
What could have induced Chief Constable Stevenson of the Glasgow police (apparently in deference to Alexander Ure) to put his professionalism and integrity aside, and conduct such a limited investigation into the Gilchrist murder? No fingerprint evidence was gathered, although the techniques were well established in 1908. The murder scene received only a cursory examination. As far as the more junior ranks of the police were concerned, the word came down from on high, in just a few days: “Look no further, we have our man.”
The vicious treatment of Detective-Lieutenant John Thomson Trench tends to confirm that all was not well at the top of the Glasgow force. For what was, in reality, a technical offence committed for the highest of motives, Trench had to be severely punished as an example to others who might be tempted to speak out, so was sacked with loss of his superannuation. But his credibility had also to be destroyed, for Trench knew more of the truth about the murder than any other Glasgow policeman; hence the trumped-up charge of dishonesty.
Now Trench’s name is remembered with honour and respect. “There is a John Thomson Trench Prize in Civics at Glasgow University, and the hero of the Oscar Slater case will be remembered as long as Glasgow and its University last,” wrote Jack House in his ‘Square Mile of Murder’.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Chers Amis, let’s keep in mind this clever phrase of the English novelist L P Hartley as we try to reconstruct the prejudices and social attitudes of the Glasgow (and Scotland) of 1908. In essence, these were late Victorian times, for the true historical watershed was the Great War of 1914 – 1918. And Oscar Slater was condemned by massive prejudice as much as by any objective evidence.
What a colourful pair Slater and Miss Antoine must have seemed, when they arrived in the grey streets of Glasgow that winter; he with his dark and ‘foreign’ looks and his heavy German accent, she with her French manners and elegant dress and perhaps slightly bohemian air!
Their flat stood on the edge of Garnethill, Glasgow’s own ‘Montmartre’. With the comings and goings at Miss Antoine’s door, inquisitive neighbours soon concluded that she was entertaining her gentlemen visitors to more than lessons in conversational French! Of course, they disapproved. But they probably kept their real scorn for Slater; he had no ‘proper’ job, but lived ‘on his wits’ and by gambling. And wasn’t he Jewish? I don’t doubt that there was conscious antisemitism in the Glasgow of 1908, as well as much that was unthinking.
There was a strand of authoritarianism, too, especially amongst the ‘respectable’ classes. This went hand-in-hand with some tendency to be unduly deferential to those of a higher social class; a deference that did not survive undiminished by the First World War. (Grotesque scenes of young upper-class officers ordering their men at gunpoint ‘over the top’ to almost certain death, saw to that.) The Great War changed so much.
“Had two more jurymen been able to withstand the eloquence of the Lord Advocate (Alexander Ure, the prosecutor) Slater would have been set free,” wrote William Roughead. I’m convinced that the Edinburgh jury’s deference to Ure, so clearly a ‘gentleman’, sealed the fate of Oscar Slater.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned for Slater’s release as a matter of justice, without any particular respect for the man himself; he may have first begun to dislike Slater on learning that he had allegedly left Germany to avoid military service. Slater often chose to reject his advice. Conan Doyle’s last letter was particularly angry: “You are the most stupid as well as the most ungrateful man I have ever met!”
But Slater was well-liked in Ayr, to where he moved after his release. Some of the older people still have memories of him – it seems that he did not come directly to the bungalow in St Phillan’s Avenue, the house where he died in 1948.
We have a friend in the town with a personal memory – though faint – of Oscar Slater. As a wee boy of five, out walking with his father, they met the famous man. “Do you remember that gentleman with the bowler hat?” asked his father later. “When you’re grown up, you’ll be able to say that you shook the hand of Mr Oscar Slater!”
A bientôt, Jean-Claude, Marie-Agnès et Janice!
PS: Read more -> Monstrous conspiracy that condemned the innocent Oscar Slater – 1909