Tuesday, 13 October 2015

1908: THE MURDER OF MARION GILCHRIST



Marion Gilchrist


The date was the 21st of December 1908, Marion Gilchrist was a wealthy 81 year old woman living alone in a flat at 15 Queens Terrance, West Princes Street, in Glasgow’s West End. In the flat directly below that of Miss Gilchrist lived a family by the name of Adams, on the evening of the 21st they heard a thud from emanating from the flat above followed by the sound of three distinct knocks. Miss Gilchrist was reportedly terrified at the thought of being burgled and had established a system whereby if she ever needed help from the Adams she would knock down to them.  The Adams understandably assumed this to be the signal and decided to check on Miss Gilchrist, they found the close door open, when it was usually closed, but continued up to Marion Gilchrist’s second floor flat and rang the bell. There was no reply and no sound from inside the flat although Mr Adams could see by looking through one of the class panels on the door that the gas lamp in the hall was lit. He rang the bell once more. At this point Adam reports that he heard a sound he took to be that of someone cutting sticks, assuming this to be Miss Gilchrist’s servant, Nellie Lambie, he returned to his own home. He reporting his impressions to his sister, who was certain that something was definitely wrong in the upstairs apartment,  and demanded that Adams return once more and have another look. Dutifully Adams returned to the Gilchrist flat and rang the doorbell once more, the cutting sound has stopped and all was silence until Adams heard the sound of footsteps advancing up the close stairs behind him, on turning round he discovered these to be those of Miss Gilchrist’s servant Nellie who he has supposed to be cutting wood inside.

West Princes Street today, formerly Queens Terrace


After explaining his concerns to the servant, Nellie answered that the chopping sound was most likely only the pulley in the kitchen which needed greased. She unlocked the door and both she and Adams entered the lobby which was dimly lit by a gas lamp. As Nellie approached the kitchen to check on the pulley a man suddenly appeared out of the bedroom doorway and approached Adams as if he was about to speak to him before walking past him instead and out of the flat door and disappearing down the stairs. Adams reported that the man wore a light overcoat and appeared to be a gentleman, Nellie appeared unmoved by this sudden apparition so Adams assumed that she must know this strange man. Once it was discovered that there was no problem with the pulley the pair began searching the apartment for Miss Gilchrist. On entering the dining room Nellie screamed, Miss Gilchrist was lying in front of the fireplace with a rug thrown over her head, the rug was saturated with blood. Adams immediately decided to pursue the strange man who had so calmly fled the scene, running out onto West Princes Street toward St George’s Road but there was no sign of the mysterious gentleman.

Marion Gilchrist's home as it looks today
Adams returned to Miss Gilchrist’s flat where Nellie had summoned a policeman, on viewing the body of Marion Gilchrist once more they discovered that she had been savagely beaten about the head with a bloodstained chair that lay by her side but appeared to still be breathing. Adams ran across the street to fetch a doctor, but Marion Gilchrist was pronounced dead on his return. Detectives arrived on the scene and conducted a search of the house. In the spare bedroom they found a gas lamp lit which Nellie swore had not been lit when she left the house just before 7 o clock. She had gone to collect a copy of the Evening Times for her mistress and has been out of the house for only 10 minutes. On the table below the gas lamp was one spent match and a box of Runaway matches, which Nellie claims she had never seen before. Also on this table was a wooden casket, a gold watch and chain, and a tray of jewellery. The casket had been smashed open and papers strew all over the floor. Nellie was asked if anything was missing and replied that a diamond crescent brooch was gone. A note was put out to all pawn shops to watch out for the brooch and a description of the strange man was circulated, he was described as ‘a man between 25 and 30 years of age, 5 8’ to 5 9’ in height with a slim build, dark hair, clean shaven, wearing a light grey overcoat and a dark cloth cap.’


The murder of Marion Gilchrist shook Glasgow. That a respectable 81 year old woman should be murdered in her West End flat in the ten minutes her maid left to collect a newspaper seemed unbelievable and a media frenzy ensued with increasing criticism of the actions of the police and a mounting pressure on the to solve the case quickly. With few leads and no sighting of the mystery assailant the police were begging to lose hope when a 14yr old girl named Mary Barrowman came forward to say she had been walking West Princes Street at about 10 past 7 on the night Miss Gilhrist has been murdered and had seen a man rush from Gilchrist’s close and dash along the street bumping in to Mary in the process. Mary was able to give a much fuller description of the man than either Nellie or Adams had provided. Her description differed so much from Adams’ description that the police decided that there must be two men involved in the crime.

Mary Barton’s description of this ‘second man’ was at follows: he was 28 – 30 years old, tall and thin, clean shaven with a nose turned slightly to one side wearing a fawn coloured overcoat, dark trousers and a tweed cloth cap. Soon after this description was published in the press the police were approached by a bicycle dealer named Allan McLean. McLean told the police that he was a member of a gambling club called The Sloper Club on India Street, and that a fellow member, a German Jew named Oscar Slater had been trying to sell a pawn ticket for a diamond crescent brooch matching the description of the one stolen from Marion Gilchrist’s apartment.

Oscar Slater right

On arriving at the address of Oscar Slater at 69 St Georges Rd they found that Slater had left, along with his mistress, that very day for Liverpool and then caught a ship, the Lusitania, bound for New York under the false names of Mr and Mrs Otto Sando. Suspicious of this the sudden departure, police traced Slater’s pawn ticket for the diamond brooch only to find that it was not in the least like the one stolen from Marion Gilchrist’s home and that it had been pawned on the 18th of November, more than a month before the murder. However, the police were still convinced that Slater had committed the crime and made plans to have Slater arrested when he arrived in New York. The Lusitania docked in New York on January the 2nd 1909 and Oscar Slater was arrested by New York police and placed in a cell in Tombs prison. Slater’s picture was published in the Glasgow papers, and suddenly a host of witnesses emerged claiming to have seen such a man in the vicinity of Marion Gilchrist’s house on the night of the murder, perhaps hoping to claim the £200 reward that had recently been offered for information in the case. The matter of the wrong brooch appeared to have been entirely forgotten.

Glasgow police decided to send their three witnesses, Mr Adams, Nellie Lambie, and Mary Barton to New York to identify the suspect, despite the fact that Mr Adams claimed he had not been wearing his spectacles when he saw the man in the lobby, Nellie telling two detectives that she would not be able to identify the man she saw in the lobby, and the man Mary Barton claimed to have seen in West Princes Street obviously not being Oscar Slater. However by the time the group set sail for New York, after being examined by police for a fortnight, the two girls’ descriptions mysteriously tallied. At trial Nellie and Mary both claimed to have shouted ‘That’s the man!’ on seeing Slater but a New York detective who was also present claimed that had asked him ‘is that the man?’ while pointing at Slater appeared to have never seen him before.

Nevertheless, the police, the public, and the press were convinced that Slater was the murderer. When it was found out that Slater would be arriving on aboard the Columbia coming up the river Clyde, immense crowds flocked to the riverside. The detectives were so concerned that Slater would be lynched on his return that they had him removed from the ship at Renfrew and then driven into Glasgow by car, as he was being lead from the ship one crew member rushed forward and kicked Slater.

The trial of Oscar Slater was fixed to start on Monday May 3rd in Edinburgh. In the witness box Nellie Lambie and Mary Barton were once again positive that Slater was the man that they had seen on the night of the murder. Adams was still doubtful and a dozen more people testified to having seen Slater that night but who only came forward after they had seen Slater’s photograph in the paper. No mention was made of how Slater would have known Miss Gilchrist or how he would have gained entry to the apartment when Marion was so scared on burglars. The Lord advocate described slater as ‘gasping for money’ but on the very day of the murder Slater had raised £30 on the pawned brooch and had money in his accounts. For the defence, lawyer Mr McClure quoted the case of Adolf Beck. Ten women in London swore that Beck was the man who had stolen jewellery from them on various occasions. Two policemen also identified him. Beck was sent to prison for seven years. In actual fact the criminal was a man named Smith who did not look at all like Beck. Mr McClure asked the jury to be very careful in accepting the identification evidence in the Slater case.
At 4.55pm the jury retired to consider their verdict and returned one hour ten minutes later. They found Oscar Slater guilty of the murder. Slater protested: ‘You are convicting an innocent man!’ Oscar Slater was sentenced to be hanged on Thursday May 27th and a shaken Slater was led out of the court room.

Two days before the date of the hanging Slater’s sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. The bewildered Slater then set about trying to solve a murder he didn’t commit from his cell. He seized upon the idea that a sweetheart of Nellie Lambie called Nugent was the murderer, although Nugent had been completely cleared by the police. He wrote rambling letters to his lawyer suggesting that a private detective be engaged to look into the case on his behalf and even asked that posters be published in various towns asking for any information that may help catch the real murderer.

Meanwhile many pundits including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle criticised the guilty verdict and the weak evidence against Slater. In August 1912 the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes published a booklet entitled The Case of Oscar Slater, where he suggested that some document, such as a will, and not the jewels, was the real object of the murderer’s quest and that the brooch, if in fact it had been stolen, was only a red herring. Conan Doyle was not the only person taking an active interest in the case, a Glasgow policeman named John Thomson Trench was also re-examining the evidence. Trench had been involved in the case from the very beginning and claimed that on the very night of the murder Nellie Lambie had named the man she saw in the landing and that it was not Oscar Slater, but after the clue of the pawned brooch this identification was dropped in favour of pursuing Slater as the murderer. Trench was firmly convinced that Slater had been wrongly accused.

In the winter of 1912 Trench was brought in on a murder in Broughty-Ferry which bore strikingly similarities to the murder of Marion Gilchrist (this murder is covered more fully in a previous entry). Miss Jean Milne, an elderly, wealthy woman living alone much like Marion Gilchrist was brutally murdered in her home with a poker. Although there was a great deal of money and jewellery in the house nothing appeared to have been stolen and there were no signs of forced entry. Eventually a Canadian man named Charles Warner was arrested for the crime but he had an alibi for the night of the murder and was released, the murder remains unsolved to this day. Could the perpetrator of this crime also be responsible for the murder of Marion Gilchrist?
Due to the persistence of Trench an enquiry was opening concerning Oscar Slater’s verdict. In this enquiry Trench stated that Nellie Lambie had, immediately following the murder, repeatedly referred to a Mr ‘A.B’ as being the man she saw in the lobby, and argued that Mary Barrowman’s sighting of Slater near the flat was false as she was not near Marion Gilchrist’s home at the time, dismissing it as ‘a cock-and-bull story of a young girl who was somewhat late in getting home and who wished to take the edge off by a little sensationalism.’ He also argued that the box of Runaway brand matches that were found in the flat were not available by the box but only by bulk, and none were found in Slater’s house.


For his efforts in clearing Slater Trench was dismissed from the Glasgow police and died only a few years later. The outbreak of war in 1914 seemed to end any hope for Oscar Slater, as one of his friends noted ‘who was going to bother about a German Jew in 1914.’ Oscar Slater was finally released from Peterhead in 1927 after serving 19 years for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. He later married, settled in Ayr and died in 1948.

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