When Conan Doyle Played Sherlock Holmes

Even fans of Sherlock Holmes may not be aware that its author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had actually played detective in real life.

In Glasgow on the 21st December 1908, 82-year-old Marion Gilchrist was found brutally murdered in her apartment. A diamond brooch was missing and police came to the conclusion that the motive was robbery even though the victim was a wealthy woman with a lot more jewellery in the apartment. There were two witnesses at the crime scene. One was Helen Lambie, the old lady’s maid and the other was her neighbour Arthur Adams who lived one floor down. The maid Lambie was the first to discover her employer’s body after she returned with the evening papers. The pair said that they had returned to the building that evening at about the same time.

Lambie said that she saw a stranger walk past her on the common corridor when she was about to enter the apartment. Adams was walking to his apartment downstairs. When Lambie discovered the body, she screamed and called out to Adams to stop the stranger who had just left the building. As the streets were not well-lit, the stranger managed to give Adams the slip. However, a resident nearby, a teenager by the name of Mary Barrowman claimed that she saw a strange man run past her.


5 days days later, a pawnbroker reported to the police when someone was trying to pawn a diamond brooch at his shop. Police located the residence of the customer but found the house empty. His identity was easily established. He turned out to be a German by the name of Oscar Leschnizer. He had left Germany to escape conscription and changed his name to Oscar Slater when he arrived in Scotland. When police discovered that he was a pimp as well as a dealer of stolen goods and he was not home because he had travelled to the US using a false name, they were convinced that they had their man – just like the bungling folks at Scotland Yard depicted in Sherlock Holmes stories!

Slater was arrested when his ship docked in New York. Interestingly, the two women identified him as the man they saw running away from the flat that night while Adams could not be sure. Slater was extradited back to Scotland where he faced a murder trial. About 5 months later, Slater was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Almost immediately, 20,000 signatures accompanied a petition for clemency reached the court. At the last possible moment, Slater was spared. His friends approached the recently knighted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to see if he could help. After reading the case notes and the court proceedings, Doyle was appalled by the conviction based on flimsy circumstantial evidence. Doyle discovered that:

1. The diamond brooch that Slater tried to pawn was not the same as the one missing from Marion Gilchrist’s apartment.
2. There were no signs of forced entry in the apartment. Marion Gilchrist must have opened the door for someone she knew and Slater was a total stranger!
3. A witness, Duncan McBrain could testify that hr saw Slater outside his own flat at the time of the murder. He was never summoned to give evidence.
4. Another witness, Agnes Brown also saw a stranger leaving the building. She saw his face and could testify that it was not Slater, but she was also never summoned to give evidence.
5. The police concluded that the murder weapon was a jeweller’s hammer in Slater’s possession. Doyle was unconvinced. When he interview the doctor who first arrived on the scene, he was told that the victim suffered severe head injuries with blood and brain tissue on the legs of one of the dining room chairs. Strangely, the doctor was not asked to give evidence. The blood on the chair was also mysteriously cleaned off.
6. The maid, Helen Lambie could not explain why she didn’t raise any alarm when she found a stranger on the common corridor and only called out when she discovered the body.

Unable to investigate, Doyle eventually published a book on the case. Readers were convinced that Slater was innocent and demanded for a retrial or pardon. The authorities however, stood firm for 18 years. All the while, Doyle had suspected that Helen Lambie must have something to do with the murder. It was discovered much later that Marion Gilchrist wasn’t the person that many knew her. Her wealth was acquired through dubious means and she often met with equally dubious characters (familiar to Lambie) to discuss “business”. In July 1928, the Scottish Court of Criminal Appeal acquitted Slater and set him free with a £6,000 compensation (equivalent to £330,000 in 2015). Oscar Slater died in 1948.

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