The Murder of Marion Gilchrist: How racism nearly led the wrong man to the gallows

On the evening of 21 December 1908, the body of wealthy 83 year old spinster Marion Gilchrist was discovered bludgeoned to death in the dining room of her home at 15 Queens Terrace, West Princes Street in Glasgow. Thought to be a robbery gone wrong, only a diamond brooch was taken from the spinster’s expensive jewellery collection.

The finger of suspicion would soon turn to one Oscar Slater, a German émigré whose damaging reputation would see him serve over eighteen years for a murder he did not commit.

Born Oscar Leschziner and having fled to London to avoid German military service, Leschziner used a number of surnames before choosing Slater for official records. While in the capital, he would be prosecuted twice – for assault and malicious wounding – though he was acquitted on both counts. When he relocated to Glasgow, Slater became known to the police as a pimp, an operator of illegal gambling dens and, incriminatingly, a dealer in precious stones.

Marion's body was found in her dining room: her case became infamous in Glasgow, Scotland
Marion’s body was found in her dining room: her case became infamous in Glasgow, Scotland

Discovering that Slater had left for New York shortly after the murder, the police had him arrested as he debarked the Lusitania in The Big Apple. He was found to be carrying a pawn ticket for a brooch and had travelled under assumed names with a female companion, so Slater fitted the police’s bill. The shocked suspect protested his innocence and voluntarily returned to Scotland to clear his name, but was charged, tried and controversially found guilty by a nine to six majority of killing Marion Gilchrist.

The verdict, however, caused immediate consternation, as several inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case pointed to Slater’s innocence. The pawn ticket was proved to be from a transaction carried out before the robbery/murder, the New York trip had been booked weeks in advance and a number of the prosecution’s witness testimonies were shown to be unreliable at best, downright malicious at worst.

With Slater’s original death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, many notable figures, including Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, would fight a lengthy battle for Slater’s conviction to be overturned.

brooch
The incriminating gold brooch

 

A shady past, an institutional distrust of foreigners and a mishandled case had conspired against Slater. With the damning revelation that the police had solid grounds to suspect a relative of Gilchrist’s murder but had sat on the information, this murky miscarriage of justice was put to rights in July 1928 with Slater’s release.

The identity of Marion Gilchrist’s actual killer, however, has never been established.

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