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    Oscar Slater is Set Free ..

    Oscar Slater & The Mystery Solved Thomas Toughill

    Bonjour Janice, Marie-Agnès et Jean-Claude –  Hello again from Scotland! 🙂 I think you once told me, Janice, that our posts on Oscar Slater were among the most-read here at Scotiana – some people, I’m sure, may find it almost impossible to believe that such a shocking story could be true! Quite understandable though, for the truth of the affair was denied and suppressed for 80 years. My recent interest in Slater was aroused, as you know, by reading the two hugely important books produced by Thomas Toughill. In order to explore further some aspects of Slater’s trial – in particular, the long closing speech by Alexander Ure (Lord Advocate, prosecuting) and the ‘charge’ (guidance) to the jury, equally long, by the judge, Lord Guthrie – Margaret and I decided to invest in a copy of William Roughead’s authoritative account, compiled from the notes of shorthand writers.
    Trial of Oscar Slater William Roughead Wm Hodge Edinburgh 1950

    Trial of Oscar Slater William Roughead Wm Hodge Edinburgh 1950

    The Trial of Oscar Slater first appeared in 1910 and ran to four editions, the last in 1950. Which one should we order? This is still quite an expensive book on the secondhand market, and we were intrigued to find that some copies offered included interesting enclosures – newscuttings, handwritten notes, etc.  >From Holybourne Rare Books (Alton, Hampshire, who listed several) we ordered a modestly-priced copy in VG condition and were delighted to find that our book also contained an enclosure – the complete front page of the (Glasgow) Daily Record for Tuesday 15 November, 1927 – the day after Slater’s dramatic release!  More than a half of the Record’s front page – and most of page two – was given over to the paper’s reporting of Oscar Slater’s first hours of freedom. Let’s read what they said :

    Daily Record logo 1927





    Peterhead prison in Aberdeenshire Source Wikimedia

    Peterhead prison in Aberdeenshire – Source: Wikimedia

    Oscar Slater was released from Peterhead Prison yesterday, after serving eighteen and a half years of his life sentence on conviction for the murder of Miss Gilchrist in Glasgow in 1908, and, in company with Rev. E P Phillips, reached Glasgow about 9.30 last night. (Rev. Phillips was Rabbi at Garnethill Synagogue.)
    An army of Press representatives and photographers awaited his appearance outside the prison gates and travelled South on the same train, but only the Daily Record reporter was allowed a private interview with Slater in his reserved compartment.
    “Slater struck one as looking remarkably fresh, and he appeared to be in the best of health.
    His face was wreathed in smiles as he accepted congratulations on his freedom.
    “He laughed heartily as I shook him by the hand – he gave a most hearty grip – and at the same time expressed his great joy at once more being free.
    “His face is bronzed, albeit a little wrinkled, especially under the eyes. His head is sparse of hair, being bald on top. The hair is iron grey, as is his moustache.
    “He is very unlike the Slater whom one associates with the photographs published at the time of the murder. The nose, I noticed, is not twisted. On the bridge is a pear-shaped mark which suggests, however, that at some time or other the organ had met with an injury.
    “His English, even now, is none too good, and at times I had not a little difficulty in following what he said.  But all the time he was smiling, and his eyes expressed the pleasure of his soul in what he was pleased to describe as ‘my wonderful liberty’.
    “He was clad in a rough, dark tweed suit and soft felt hat, which were supplied to him by the authorities just three hours prior to his release.
    “I am so happy,” he said, when I got him to tell me his story.  “Even yet, I can hardly realise that I am a free man. Just think of it – over eighteen years have I been confined in Peterhead!”
    And as Slater spoke these words, his face for a moment saddened, as though there were rushing through his mind the tragic memories of the days which have elapsed since he was convicted in Edinburgh High Court. “But now I am happy,” he continued, “and I look to the future with the thought that I will enjoy the remainder of my days.
    “No doubt, people will be wondering if I am to be allowed to stay in this country. Certainly I am (wondering) – and in the near future I will see if there is no way of establishing my innocence for a crime about which I know nothing. But of that I do not wish to speak just now. I am so full of the joy of being free.
    “You wonder why I am in such good health today. Perhaps you marvel that my mind is still clear? Maybe it is the knowledge that I was wrongly convicted. But perhaps there is a greater reason. That was the memory of my poor old mother and father, and of my dear sister.”
    Oscar Slater's parents Paula and Adolf

    Oscar Slater’s parents Paula and Adolf

    At this point, Slater drew from his pocket a painted (tinted) photograph of his parents, on the bottom of which was pasted a miniature likeness of his sister. Again the joyful expression of the man’s face gave way to one of wistful sadness; again he was tortured by memory with its incidental grief.
    “My poor mother and father,” he said, “they are dead; and who will convince me that they did not die of a broken heart, that they were not driven to an early grave by the sorrow of the knowledge that their son was tried and convicted for the terrible crime of murder?”Here I offered Slater a cigarette which he smilingly refused.
    “No thanks,” he remarked, waving my case away with his hands;  “already Mr Phillips has given me three.
    I am unused to smoking, and the cigarette which I have already had made me sick.  Indeed, I had to have a glass of spirits to make me well again.”Mr Phillips broke in to explain that Slater was not really as well as he looked.
    “Certainly, his health is in splendid condition,”  remarked Mr. Phillips, “but his nerves just now are a little on edge. He is so terribly excited.  And I am sure you can appreciate that.”
    “Yes,” resumed Slater “I feel awfully excited.  As you can guess, everything is new to me or at least strange.  For over eighteen years I have seen little or nothing of people dressed other than in convict clothes or the uniform of a warden.  In fact these clothes I wear seem strange and unbecoming, so used have I become to the convict dress.
    “My first meal outside prison was just a few minutes ago and included in that menu was fish.  I remarked to the waiter I have not seen or tasted fish nor smelt the cooking of it for over fifteen years. When I was first incarcerated I was given fish at the time of certain Jewish festivals, but gradually it disappeared from my food.  How delicious it tasted!”Often during the long years I have dreamed of my day of release;  and at the vision of it, a vision rising in front of me in the quiet of my cell, I pictured myself overcome with excitement. And yet, when the day came that I heard I was to be set free, I think  I showed –  outwardly at least – no signs of the happiness that overwhelmed me. [Slater appears to have been told of his impending release – with no details at all – on Thursday 10 November. The Scottish Secretary, under immense pressure, had made a public statement on 7 November, to the effect that Oscar Slater would be freed as soon as arrangements could be made.] But inwardly I was trembling and that night in my cell in the quiet and darkness my nerves gave way and I tossed on my bed through the long night hours. And so it was on each succeeding night.  Sleep would not come to me;  the sweat broke out on my brow and my whole body trembled. God, but how happy I was!”I was not told when I would be set free. I knew it must be soon. But how soon? That was the question that hammered through my brain.  Every minute seemed an hour, every hour a day.  And the warders kept me at my work.  I was still, to them, Oscar Slater, the ‘lifer’.  There was a routine for me to follow. I must follow it. At the time, I thought it was cruel.  But now I think if such were possible, the duties assigned to me made the time of waiting pass on wings less leaden.”Even up to eleven o’clock today I was working in the quarries and I was breaking stones.”Slater, as he spoke those words, worked his hands over his shoulder in illustration and he pursed his lips as if to say:  “Was it not cruel that they kept me a convict to the very last moment?”  But then he shrugged his shoulders, adding:  “But now it is all over, all over.”Slater’s plans for the future are at present indefinite.  In truth he does not know what he is going to do.
    “For the next few days,” he said  “I will endeavour to hide myself and sleep. I feel very much that I need a rest. And I am sure you newspaper men do, too.”
    “From the hill in the quarries I could see into the road and I espied you, day after day, hanging about the prison gates. I knew who you all were.  Word spreads quick among the prisoners. Naturally I cannot go in detail at present into the harrowing experiences of my life in prison. That would take too long.  I can only say this, from some experience – God help the man who ever finds himself in such a predicament as I was.”  And once again the happy expression gave way to one of profound misery.


    Peterhead prison in Aberdeenshire Wikipedia

    Peterhead prison in Aberdeenshire – Source: Wikipedia


    Extraordinary scenes followed the release of Oscar Slater from Peterhead Prison yesterday.  His departure from Peterhead Station was unobtrusive enough but the news of his release spread like wildfire throughout the country, and during the journey down, and on his arrival in Glasgow. the released man was subjected to inquisitive attention that almost amounted to persecution.

    The day and hour of his release were kept a secret almost to the last. Yesterday afternoon about 2.30 a motor car drove up to the prison gates and the Rev. E P Phillips, the Rabbi who has taken such a keen interest in Slater, and a Prison Commissioner, got out of the car and went into the prison.  A few minutes later Mr. Phillips re-appeared, accompanied by Slater, and, quickly entering the car, they were driven off at a rapid pace, past a string of Pressmen’s taxi-cabs, towards the railway station at Peterhead.  The taxi-cabs immediately started in pursuit and on arrival at the station Slater was quickly hurried into a reserved compartment.

    In response to the congratulations of a Pressman who endeavoured to engage him in conversation, he expressed his thanks and said:  “I am sorry, I have nothing to say.”
    No-one was allowed to approach him in the train at that stage and to a request for an interview he replied:  “I am tired.  I need rest.  I have not slept for four nights.”

    There was an interesting incident before the train left Peterhead. To a guard by whom he had sent a telegram, Slater handed a threepenny piece, telling him to take it home to his children.

    Slater’s long years of imprisonment have sat lightly on him and he looked much younger than his age.  His face was tanned and healthy-looking and his bearing upright and alert.  Although prisoners are now allowed to wear their hair long, Slater’s grey hair was close-cropped. He wore a grey tweed suit and blue overcoat.

    At each station reached it was evident that the news of his release had preceded Slater for there were numbers of people on the platform at each stopping-place and inquisitive sightseers went from end to end of the train looking into the compartments.  When they discovered that he was located in a compartment with drawn screens they peered in at the sides with embarrassing persistence.  Even from occupants of the train he was subjected to this persecution.  He was continually repelling the attentions of passengers who sought to make their way into his compartment.

    On arrival at Aberdeen, the station was crowded and here Slater had to change to another train to Glasgow.  He was met by the stationmaster who conducted him and Mr. Phillips to their compartment so quickly that the crowd, who were being kept back by railway policemen and officials, had little opportunity to get near him.  Slater, who was much pleased by this, thanked the stationmaster for his excellent arrangements.

    Tea was served to Slater and Mr. Phillips in their compartment. The train was crowded with Pressmen from all parts of the country and efforts were continually being made to secure Slater’s story.  But only to the Daily Record representative was an individual and prolonged interview  – which is recorded on page one – given.



    Buchanan Street Station Glasgow 1951 Wikipedia

    Buchanan Street Station Glasgow 1951 – Source: Wikipedia

    At Buchanan Street Station, a simple subterfuge was adopted to save Slater the embarrassing attentions of a crowd of photographers, Pressmen and others who, as the train steamed slowly  into the station, crowded to the compartment with the drawn blinds at the back of the train or gathered near a motor car that waited with engine running some distance off on the station carriage-way.  About a couple of hundred of the general public were kept back from the train at the entrance to number 5 platform by a force of railway police. One person stood apart from all the rest, a lady in deep black, who, when the train stopped, was admitted to Slater’s compartment. She was Miss Phillips, daughter of the Rev. E P Phillips, and she alone was waiting to offer the returned convict a personal welcome to the city from which he went nearly nineteen years ago to Peterhead.

    The bay into which the train drew has a platform on either side, and when Miss Phillips said she had a car waiting some way down the platform the Daily Record representative suggested they could go quietly along Platform 4 which was empty so that Slater need not be distressed by having to run the gauntlet of curious onlookers for 50  yards on the other platform.  Consequently Slater and his friends were ushered along the adjacent dining car and out on to the vacant platform along which they hurried for several yards before again entering the train.  By way of an empty compartment, still accompanied by the Daily Record representative, they reached the platform at which the car was standing 10 or 12 yards away.  Miss Phillips stepped out of the compartment first and at once raised an umbrella with which she screened Slater as much as possible from view during the short, hurried passage to the car.

    So well did she screen him that on two occasions he almost walked right into the pillars supporting the station roof and was only saved from nasty knocks by the guiding hands of Miss Phillips and the Record man.  The lady got quickly into the car and as Slater followed a photograph flash was let off. Mr Phillips was about to enter the car when the chauffeur, obviously owing to his excitement, started to drive away, and had to be called upon to wait until his third passenger got in.  Quickly the car moved off down the carriageway, and as it approached the exit the crowd which had gathered there raised a hearty cheer for Slater, who could be seen sitting on one of the occasional seats talking animatedly to Miss Phillips who sat opposite him.

    Even then Slater could not escape the attentions of Pressmen.  Several cars followed his and during a momentary hold-up at the ‘bus stance in Renfrew Street, a taxi drew alongside and someone attempted to step from it into the other (Slater’s car).  A points policeman, however, promptly nipped in the bud the ingenious attempt to accost Slater. In order to elude the other vehicles the driver of the Slater car doubled back and by taking a tortuous route through several streets and lanes managed to shake off most of the following cars by the time Kelvingrove Street was reached.

    Kelvingrove Street N° 40  and Sauchiehall Street map © Google

    Kelvingrove Street N° 40 and Sauchiehall Street map © Google

    Twenty minutes before Slater arrived at the home of the Rev. Phillips at Kelvingrove Street, the only persons in the vicinity were a casual passer-by or so, and two constables who kept vigil at the corner of Sauchiehall Street and Kelvingrove Street.  The gathering of a small knot of Pressmen and photographers on the  pavement before the house attracted some attention, however, and some of the passers-by loitered to find out “what the excitement was about” as one of them put it.

    Oscar Slater with his friend, Rabbi Phillips around 1927The Herald and Evening Times

    Oscar Slater with his friend, Rabbi Phillips around 1927 – The Herald and Evening Times

    When Slater drove up in a private car accompanied by Mr. Phillips and the lady there must have been about twenty and thirty persons before the house including two gentlemen who said they had been personal friends of Slater before the famous case.  When Slater stepped out of the car carrying two parcels, the crowd closed round him while he shook hands with his two friends, one of whom handed him a bunch of chrysanthemums.  Two people gave him a hearty thump on the shoulder and a “Good Luck” while from a woman at the back of the crowd came an isolated “Boo.”  Slater and his friends hurried into the house and some minutes later gave a “sitting” to three photographers and had a short chat with a Daily Record representative.

    Slater, who seemed rather tired but perfectly self-possessed, said that it was impossible for anyone else to appreciate what the events of that day had meant to him. That morning he had awakened with the knowledge that although freedom was ahead of him, it was an indefinite period away.  He was dazed when told at eleven o’clock that he was to be released in three and a half hours.

    “It was terrific – terrific,” he repeated.  ” I know I am free, of course, but I am going into the country for the next few days so I can appreciate the fact properly.”  He would not say where his holiday was to be spent, but said it would probably be in Scotland.  His future plans were also left vague.  He had no objection to continuing to reside in Scotland, but would not commit himself when asked if he would prefer to live in Scotland or Germany, his native land.  Gratitude was expressed to various persons and agencies who have been working for his release, and Slater said he was going to look into this latter closely, indicating that he contemplated expressing his thanks in a formal manner.

    The interview was cut short when Slater excused himself on the grounds that he felt tired and rather unwell, which statement coincided with one from a member of the household that supper was getting cold.

    About fifty people kept vigil outside the house for some time, gazing stolidly at the lighted windows, apparently in the hope that Slater might show himself or leave the house.

    And so ends the Daily Record’s comprehensive report.

    Readers should be sure to see at Scotiana Monstrous Conspiracy that Condemned the innocent Oscar Slater (1909) – our first post on Slater, that has now attracted almost 20 Comments – and Reflections on the Oscar Slater Affair.

    A bientôt, Chers Amis!

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    5 comments to Oscar Slater is Set Free ..

    • Thomas Toughill

      I am Thomas Toughill, the author of the Oscar Slater books.

      I am willing to discuss this case here.

      • Iain McEwan

        Thank you for writing to us, Mr Toughill.

        It’s a splendid compliment to all of us at Scotiana – now five years old – that you should offer to share with our readers your unrivalled knowledge of the whole Slater affair.

        Very many people, I know, recognise the great moral courage, the patient and dogged determination and years of hard work that alone allowed you to complete the two books on Oscar Slater, a subject which even today remains controversial.

        Thank you again for your generous offer.

        With kind regards, Iain.

    • Thomas Toughill

      Mr McEwan,

      Many thanks for your comments.

      Best wishes,

      Tommy Toughill

    • Iain McEwan

      May I add a word or two on the final days of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s campaign to get Oscar Slater out of jail?

      Public attention turned again to the Slater case after the Great War, and throughout the 1920’s the strength of public opinion in Slater’s favour had been increasing. It was in 1927 that the campaign to free Slater received the final impetus that was to lead to success.

      William Park’s book “The Truth About Oscar Slater” appeared that year, exposing the many weaknesses in the prosecution case. (A Glasgow journalist, Park had reported on the affair from the start; his health was now, sadly, failing.) But the decisive event was the intervention of Ramsay MacDonald, a Scot and a former Prime Minister.

      (James Ramsay MacDonald, 1866-1937, was no Establishment figure, nevertheless he was a man of considerable influence. Born in poor circumstances at Lossiemouth, Moray, MacDonald hated injustice and was therefore a natural ally of Conan Doyle in his campaign.)

      It has been said that there is no greater pleasure than to do good by stealth – and then, perhaps, to be discovered! Ramsay MacDonald may have known the truth of this; in any event, he resolved to write privately to the Scottish Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, after seeing a copy of Park’s book, forwarded to him by Conan Doyle. MacDonald confessed to being shocked by the course that events had taken in the Slater case, and expressed regret that he had not shown an interest in the affair earlier.

      “By late October,” writes David Marquand,(in his long and scholarly biography ‘Ramsay MacDonald’ – Jonathan Cape, 1977, etc.) “it seemed clear that the Scottish Office were prepared to release Slater, while still resisting any suggestion that the case should be reopened. .. Meanwhile, another piece of evidence had come to light. Helen Lambie, one of the chief prosecution witnesses at Slater’s trial, told a reporter that she had been bullied by the police into giving false evidence.”

      Ramsay MacDonald and Sir John Gilmour exchanged a number of letters, but it was MacDonald’s firmly-written letter of 24 October that precipitated Slater’s release. The former prime minister reminded Sir John just how easily it could be demonstrated that – in MacDonald’s own words – “the Scottish legal authorities and the Police strove for Slater’s conviction by influencing witnesses and withholding evidence.” He then went on to threaten Gilmour that, if Slater was not immediately set free, he would name the truly guilty men in the House of Commons (where the laws of libel do not apply).

      “On 10 November, Gilmour announced .. that Slater was to be released,” continues David Marquand.

      ‘Oscar Slater has now completed eighteen and a half years of his life sentence, and I have felt justified in deciding to authorise his release on licence as soon as suitable arrangements can be made.’

      Surprisingly, perhaps, this announcement seems to have been made not in a formal Statement – which the case surely deserved – but in reply to a parliamentary question. The less said, the better?

      There was not even the hint of an acknowledgment that a grave miscarriage of justice had occurred. On the contrary, the authorities seemed anxious to maintain the illusion that Slater was guilty as charged; that, even as they set him free, they were merely showing ‘mercy’ to a wicked man who was lucky to have escaped being hanged! This attitude, I think, explains most simply why the authorities kept their wretched prisoner at work, breaking stones, almost until the last moment of his captivity.


    • Thomas Toughill

      I mention Ramsay MacDonald’s intervention on pages 189-192 of my revised book.
      The Ramsay MacDonald (RM) correspondence is in file HH 16/111 in the Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh. To be exact, the correspondence is kept in an envelope in a pouch on the rear cover of sub-file 20577/108.
      An important factor in RM’s decision to intervene was a document which John Trench took from the Glasgow Police files when he saw that he would be dismissed from the Force after the Secret Inquiry of 1914 declared against him. This document showed that he had been telling the truth, as he understood the truth.
      Trench did not get the chance to use this document. However, his widow sent the document to Conan Doyle who recognised its value and forwarded a copy of it to RM.
      RM was appalled by what Conan Doyle showed him and began his correspondence, ‘in a personal capacity’, with the Scottish Secretary. In a letter on 24th October 1927, RM stated, ‘The Scottish legal authorities and the police strove for Slater’s conviction by influencing witnesses and with-holding evidence.’
      Should anyone ever maintain that Slater was not framed, then just quote that sentence, written by a man who twice ran the British Empire!

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