David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle vs. Jewish law

Witness testimony led to a guilty verdict for a Jew in Scotland. Sherlock Holmes-type sleuthing found him innocent. Is the Torah wrong to require witnesses? (Masai)
Marion Gilchrist's dining room and the site of the murder in Glasgow, in 1908. (Public Domain, National Archives of Scotland/ Wikimedia Commons)
Marion Gilchrist's dining room and the site of the murder in Glasgow, in 1908. (Public Domain, National Archives of Scotland/ Wikimedia Commons)

To the Glasgow police, there was no question that Oscar Slater was guilty. True, the only piece of evidence they had against him was proven incorrect within a few days. And he had an alibi for the night of the murder. He had no motive and had made no attempts to hide after 82-year-old Marion Gilchrist had been brutally killed in her home on December 21, 1908.

But the Glasgow constabulary was certain he was guilty because they knew Slater was a gambler, an associate of prostitutes, thieves and burglars. He had a history of violence and disorderly conduct. He was a foreigner, originally from Upper Silesia in Germany. But most importantly, he was a Jew.

At first glance, it seemed that the police had a strong case.

Gilchrist was a wealthy spinster, with a large collection of valuable jewelry. She had one servant, 21-year-old Helen Lambie who would go out to do the shopping around 7pm each evening. Gilchrist lived in an upstairs apartment at 15 Queen’s Terrace. The Adams family lived downstairs, and they had an arrangement that if the old woman was ever in trouble, she would knock loudly on the floor to summon help. The apartment was securely locked at all times.

Woodlands. 49 West Princes Street. Marion Gilchrist’s house. 2020. (CC BY-SA, Daniel Naczk/ Wikimedia Commons)

On the night of the murder, Lambie went out to do her errands. A few minutes later, the Adams family heard (according to court testimony), “A noise from above, then a very heavy fall, and then three sharp knocks.” Arthur Adams ran upstairs, rang the doorbell three times, but then convinced himself he heard normal sounds from inside and returned home. But his sisters convinced him to go back upstairs and check again. As he reached the door, Lambie returned with the groceries. She unlocked the door. As the two of them stood in the entranceway, a well-dressed man came from one of the bedrooms and walked past them as if nothing was amiss. Only when he reached the stairs did he begin to run.

Lambie went to the dining room where she found Gilchrist dead on the floor. She had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument.

After the police had investigated the scene, it transpired that the only thing that had been taken from the home was a diamond crescent brooch. There was no sign of forced entry, so it seemed likely that Gilchrist had known her assailant and opened the door to him.

Oscar Slater 1908. (Public Domain, 2nd ed. of “The Trial of Oscar Slater” by William Roughead/ Wikimedia Commons)

Slater lived at 69, St. George’s Road, which is a four-minute walk from Queen’s Terrace. A few days after the murder, Slater and his mistress took the train to Liverpool, where they boarded the HMS Lusitania and travelled to New York. And most incriminating of all, Slater had a pawn ticket for a crescent-shaped brooch which he tried to sell immediately before leaving Glasgow.

But within days, the police discovered that Slater had pawned his crescent brooch weeks before the murder, and that it looked nothing like the one stolen from Gilchrist’s home. This was the era before forensic detective work. In 1887, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, had been published, but the detective’s deductive reasoning based on clues had not yet been adopted by most police departments. So, the case rested entirely upon witness testimony.

In addition to Lambie and Adams, a 15-year-old girl named Mary Barrowman had been passing by as a man came running out of Gilchrist’s apartment and she had a good look at him as he passed under a streetlight. The entire case would rest primarily upon the evidence of these three.

The Glasgow police had Slater arrested upon his arrival in the United States. Several constables, along with three eyewitnesses, took the next boat to New York, where they positively identified Slater as the man who was leaving Gilchrist’s apartment. After a short trial, Slater agreed to voluntarily return to Scotland, partly because he did not have the funds for legal fees, but also because he was certain the Scottish legal system would find him innocent, since he knew he had nothing to do with the murder.

Instead, on May 6, 1909, Slater was found guilty in the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. Nine of the 15 jurors decided he was guilty, one voted not guilty, and five ruled the case was “not proven” (a Scottish legal term which says the prosecution has not made a strong enough case and is effectively the same as acquittal in other legal systems). Under and English system, a nine-six split jury would be enough for a retrial, but in Edwardian Scotland that was sufficient to sentence Slater to death. There was no court of appeal.

Slater’s defense lawyer said afterwards that, “he had to fight a most unfair fight against public prejudice, roused with a fury I do not remember to have seen in any other case.”

The lawyer had made the decision not to put his client on the witness stand, mainly because of his strong German accent, which would highlight his otherness even more starkly. Nevertheless, after the sentence was passed, Slater was given a chance to speak. He told the court and the gathered crowd:

I know nothing about the affair, absolutely nothing. I never heard the name. I know nothing about the affair. I do not know how I could be connected with the affair. I know nothing about it. I came from America on my own account. I can say no more.

The German-Jewish immigrant was scheduled to be hanged three weeks later, on May 27, but due to public outcry and a petition signed by 20,000 people, at the last minute, his sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life.

Peterhead Prison, photographed in August 2013. (CC BY-SA, Sagaciousphil/ Wikimedia Commons)

Slater was taken to Peterhead prison, in Aberdeenshire, in the north-eastern corner of Scotland, on the freezing shoreline of the North Sea. Once there, he was forced to spend his days hewing stone in the Stirlinghill Quarry.

While in prison, Slater wrote regularly to his family back in Germany. His letters are filled with his suffering in his new life of hard labor. In them, we hear the voice of an immigrant writing in English – we can almost hear his accent which set him apart from the regular Scots. In October 1912, he wrote:

Unfortunately, I have to confess that in my case, it doesn’t look very promising with hope. The police is my chief enemy, it is the police who has fabricated the whole affair. They have… done everything possible to see me hanged… My only hope which I still have is, that the murderer, before closing his eyes for ever and forced by remorses, will make a confession before witnesses.

In that same year, unbeknownst to Slater, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes and himself an amateur sleuth, wrote a short book entitled, The Case of Oscar Slater. In his 1967 biography of Conan Doyle, Pierre Nordon wrote that “the Slater affair was to give Conan Doyle the chance to play a similar part in England to Zola’s intervention in the Dreyfus Affair in France.”

The main focus of the book is the unreliability of the witness testimony that sentenced Slater to life imprisonment. Conan Doyle wrote:

We come now to the all-important question of the description of the man seen at such close quarters by Adams and Lambie. Adams was short-sighted and had not his spectacles with him. His evidence at the trial ran thus: ‘He was a man a little taller and a little broader than I am, not a well-built man but well featured and clean-shaven, and I cannot exactly swear to his moustache, but if he had any it was very little. He was rather a commercial traveller type, or perhaps a clerk, and I did not know but what he might be one of her friends. He had on dark trousers and a light overcoat. I could not say if it were fawn or grey. I do not recollect what sort of hat he had. He seemed gentlemanly and well-dressed. He had nothing in his hand so far as I could tell. I did not notice anything about his way of walking.’
Helen Lambie, the other spectator, could give no information about the face… and could only say that he wore a round cloth hat, a three-quarter length overcoat of a grey colour, and that he had some peculiarity in his walk.

The creator of the world’s best-known detective noted how much the police description of the culprit changed within a few days.

On December 22nd, the day after the murder, Glasgow police put out the following description of the suspect:

A man between 25 and 30 years of age, five foot eight or nine inches in height, slim build, dark hair, clean-shaven, dressed in light grey overcoat and dark cloth cap.

Yet just four days later, the police description was quite different:

The man wanted is about 28 or 30 years of age, tall and thin, with his face shaved clear of all hair, while a distinctive feature is that his nose is slightly turned to one side. The witness thinks the twist is to the right side. He wore one of the popular tweed hats known as Donegal hats, and a fawn coloured overcoat which might have been a waterproof, also dark trousers and brown boots.

The two descriptions give different heights, a different color for the coat, and a different type of hat. The only similarities between the two descriptions were that the suspect was under 30, and clean shaven.

Slater, in contrast, was 37 years old at the time. And he had a short, clearly noticeable, moustache.

Arthur Conan Doyle in June 1914. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

If so, how could the witnesses identify him so certainly both in New York and in Edinburgh? The fact that the police had shown them pictures of Slater before the identity parade may have helped, along with the fact that in New York, they saw Slater being led in prison clothing to the line-up.

Furthermore, in Scotland, 12 people who had seen a dark individual loitering outside Gilchrist’s home in the weeks before the murder correctly identified Slater – perhaps because Slater was “swarthy” (to use Conan Doyle’s word), and the other members of the line-up were nine pale Glasgow policemen and two railway officials.

Conan Doyle points out how Lambie’s evidence became more certain with each trial.

This is what the servant told the court in New York, on January 26, 1909,

Q. “Do you see the man here you saw there?”
A. ‘One is very suspicious, if anything.’
Q. ‘Describe him.’
A. ‘The clothes he had on that night he hasn’t got on to-day—but his face I could not tell. I never saw his face.’

When pressed to identify the suspect, she pointed to Slater, but stressed that she had never seen his face, but was able to identify him by his walk.

There was nothing peculiar about Slater’s walk, and Lambie had only seen him briefly being led down the corridor in prisoner’s garb.

However, a few month’s later, in Edinburgh, on May 9th, 1909, Lambie was much more certain of her identification:

Q. “How did you identify him in America?’
A. ‘By his walk and height, his dark hair and the side of his face.’
Q. ‘You were not quite sure of him at first in America?’
A. ‘Yes, I was quite sure.’
Q. ‘Why did you say you were only suspicions?’
A. ‘It was a mistake.’
Q. ‘What did you mean in America by saying that you never saw his face if, in point of fact, you did see it so as to help you to recognise it? What did you mean?’
A. ‘Nothing.’

Conan Doyle’s book made a very strong case for Slater’s innocence. Yet the Scottish legal system was unmoved. The German Jew remained in Peterhead.

And all the while, the real criminal was still at large.

In 1914, Detective Lieutenant John Thomson Trench, who had been involved in the original Gilchrist investigation, and had been investigating a similar murder case in Broughty Ferry, realized that witness testimony was not reliable.

According to the Glasgow Herald:

Trench recalled how a niece of Miss Gilchrist quoted Lambie thus, just after the murder: ‘Oh, Miss Birrell, I think it was AB. I know it was AB.’ and he mentioned a visit to Lambie when he ‘’touched on AB,’ asking if she really thought this was the man she saw. Her answer was: ‘It’s gey funny if it wasn’t him I saw.’

He told a prominent lawyer that evidence potentially implicating one of Gilchrist’s relatives had been hidden, in the police’s zeal to convict Slater. That lawyer, David Cook, passed the information on to the secretary for Scotland. As a result, Trench lost his job. Slater remained in jail.

It was not until 1927, after 28 years in prison, that Slater was finally freed, after Conan Doyle once again became involved in the case, and after Scotland’s legal system added an option to appeal in certain cases. In 1928, Slater’s conviction was quashed, and he was awarded £6,000 as compensation for wrongful imprisonment.

Today, with so many TV shows about forensic evidence, we are perhaps too likely to believe expert witnesses, fingerprint evidence or blood-splatter patterns, which are also sometimes misused or misunderstood. And we still rely heavily on witnesses, despite a large body of evidence showing how unreliable such evidence can be.

In halacha, the court relies solely on witness testimony.

In this week’s Torah reading, Masei, the verses describe the punishment for someone who unintentionally kills another person. He must flee to a city of refuge where a court decides whether the death was genuinely unintentional, in which case he had to remain in exile until the death of the High Priest, or whether he was negligent or malicious, and covered up a murder to look like an accident (Numbers 35:20-24):

If he pushed him out of hatred, or lay in wait to cast something upon him and he died; or if he hit him with his hand out of enmity and he died, the attacker shall be put to death, he is a murderer… But if suddenly, without enmity, he pushed him, or threw something upon him without lying in wait… and he was not his enemy and didn’t intend to harm him; the congregation shall judge between the killer and the blood avengers, based on these laws.

Tractates Makkot and Sanhedrin explain in detail the laws of eyewitness testimony. The judges must carefully examine cross-examine the witnesses to ensure that they are telling the truth and really saw what they claim to have seen. But once it has been decided that the witnesses told the truth, the court deliberates solely on the basis of that evidence. There is no forensic investigation and no detective work.

The task of the court is to consider the testimony in the light of halacha and establish whether the motive was malicious. And the court has only one punishment for someone found guilty of intentional murder – the death penalty. There is no room for uncertainty and no court of appeal.

This is not a blog about the wrongs or rights of the death penalty, or even about miscarriages of justice (of which there have been many). It is really about how we see the other, and how certain we can be of guilt, even if it requires us to contradict our earlier opinions.

The punishment of being exiled to a city of refuge was that the unintentional murderer left the comfort of his home, where he was known, and became one of the faceless strangers residing temporarily in a distant city.

In Slater’s case, like that of Dreyfus before him, the other became the guilty. In this week’s Torah portion, it is the killer who becomes the other.

To find out more about Slater and the author of Sherlock Holmes, I recommend Conan Doyle for the Defense by Margalit Fox.

My current series on WebYeshiva is entitled, “Rebuilding After Destruction Through Text” and is live every Tuesday. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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