Calling Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Jewish Gambler

By Robin Jacobson. 

Fans of British mysteries, especially of the Sherlock Holmes variety, will relish Conan Doyle for the Defense by Margalit Fox. This is a true story about Arthur Conan Doyle (the author of the Sherlock Holmes tales) and his successful pursuit of justice for a Jewish man wrongly convicted of murder in early 20th Century Scotland. Come to find out, Conan Doyle (he used a double surname) not only wrote mysteries, but actually solved real ones using the techniques of his famous detective. Fox, a longtime New York Times writer of obituaries, masterfully deploys her skill for characterizing bygone individuals and cultural milieus in this real-life whodunit.

A Dastardly Murder in Glasgow

On December 21, 1908, Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly woman, was brutally bludgeoned to death in her elegant Glasgow apartment by an unknown intruder. Her maid testified that the only item missing was a crescent-shaped diamond brooch. Police were quick to suspect a new and undesirable resident of Glasgow – Oscar Slater, a German Jewish immigrant reputed to be a gambler and living with a French prostitute. Much to his misfortune, Slater had recently pawned a diamond brooch.

Although the police soon learned that Slater’s brooch was not the stolen one, they continued to build a case against him. As Fox tells it, Slater was a convenient solution to a high profile case at a time when anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic sentiment was rife. Respected Scottish publications warned of “foreign scum” and “alien vampires.” Police and prosecutors so wanted Slater to be judged guilty that they manipulated witnesses, suppressed exculpatory evidence, and suborned perjury. The trial judge compounded the travesty by instructing the jury that a man of Slater’s background was not entitled to the usual presumption of innocence.

Predictably, in May 1909 Slater was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Reacting to public unease over the verdict, King Edward commuted Slater’s sentence to life at hard labor. In 1925, after years of suffering in a grim prison ominously described as “Scotland’s gulag,” Slater sent a secret plea for help to Conan Doyle. Slater cleverly arranged to smuggle out of prison a tiny folded note hidden beneath the dentures of a fellow prisoner about to be paroled.

Author-Detective Conan Doyle

A respected physician, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) achieved renown for his Sherlock Holmes stories. One of Conan Doyle’s medical school professors, Dr. Joseph Bell, was the inspiration for the character of Sherlock. Bell, a diagnostician of astounding ability, was a keen observer of minute details and a disciplined practitioner of logical reasoning. As Sherlock Holmes’s fame spread, Conan Doyle was inundated with requests for help in solving actual mysteries, some of which he accepted, winning acclaim as a champion of lost causes.

Conan Doyle had long been sympathetic to Slater, calling his conviction a “supreme example of official incompetence and obstinacy.” In 1912, he published a book demolishing the prosecution’s case, based on a thorough, Sherlock Holmes-like analysis of the trial transcript and witness interviews. Although this effort on Slater’s behalf had borne no fruit, when Slater’s prison friend delivered his secret message, Conan Doyle agreed to take up the cause again.

Conan Doyle reentered the fray with The Truth About Oscar Slater, an exposé by journalist William Park that Conan Doyle edited, published, and introduced. Conan Doyle made sure that powerful British officials and influential journalists received copies. It helped Conan Doyle’s lobbying effort that many guilty of framing Slater were now dead. At long last, after nearly two decades, the British government, embarrassed, released Slater from prison in November 1927.