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In this thrilling true-crime procedural, the creator of Sherlock Holmes uses his unparalleled detective skills to exonerate a German Jew wrongly convicted of murder.
One of USA Today’s “Five new books you won’t want to miss!”
“Gripping . . . The book works on two levels, much like a good Holmes case.”—Time
For all the scores of biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in the world, there is no recent book that tells this remarkable story—in which Conan Doyle becomes a real-life detective on an actual murder case. In Conan Doyle for the Defense, Margalit Fox takes us step by step inside Conan Doyle’s investigative process and illuminates a murder mystery that is also a morality play for our time—a story of ethnic, religious, and anti-immigrant bias.
In 1908, a wealthy woman was brutally murdered in her Glasgow home. The police found a convenient suspect in Oscar Slater—an immigrant Jewish cardsharp—who, despite his obvious innocence, was tried, convicted, and consigned to life at hard labor in a brutal Scottish prison. Conan Doyle, already world famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was outraged by this injustice and became obsessed with the case. Using the methods of his most famous character, he scoured trial transcripts, newspaper accounts, and eyewitness statements, meticulously noting myriad holes, inconsistencies, and outright fabrications by police and prosecutors. Finally, in 1927, his work won Slater’s freedom.
Margalit Fox, a celebrated longtime writer for The New York Times, has “a nose for interesting facts, the ability to construct a taut narrative arc, and a Dickens-level gift for concisely conveying personality” (Kathryn Schulz, New York). In Conan Doyle for the Defense, she immerses readers in the science of Edwardian crime detection and illuminates a watershed moment in the history of forensics, when reflexive prejudice began to be replaced by reason and the scientific method. Praise for Conan Doyle for the Defense
“Splendid . . . The ingredients are too good to pass up: a famous detective novelist actually playing detective, a man serving time for a murder he did not commit, and a criminal justice system slowly, and reluctantly, reckoning with the advent of forensic science.”—Sarah Weinman, The New Republic
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Conan Doyle for the Defense
A Footfall on the Stair
In Glasgow at the turn of the twentieth century, there lived an old lady whom few people liked. Her name was Marion Gilchrist, and on December 21, 1908, which was to be the last day of her life, Miss Gilchrist—an upright, formidable, churchgoing woman of robust health and impeccable breeding—was a few weeks shy of her eighty-third birthday.
The city in which she lived was a vast, forbidding place of cobblestones, soot, and damp. Industrialization had urbanized Glasgow, as it had much of the Western world. Cities, their skies black with coal, gorged themselves on the surrounding countryside; suburbs sprang up to which solid middle-class men could return after a day at the office; and men and women from the country, less well-heeled than these new suburbanites, thronged the cities in search of work. In 1900, Glasgow’s population of more than three-quarters of a million made it, after London, the second-largest city in Britain.
By the late nineteenth century, as British cities teemed with new inhabitants, crime rates rose and more established residents came to be afflicted with a new, urban, and distinctly modern anxiety. For the middle and upper classes, it centered acutely on the protection of property, coalescing in particular around city dwellers who were not members of the bourgeoisie. These included the working class, the poor, new immigrants, and Jews, all of whom were viewed increasingly as agents of social contagion—a threat in urgent need of containment.
Newspapers and magazines of the period couched this anxiety in language that turned heavily on metaphors of invasion. In the spring of 1909, after Slater was convicted of Miss Gilchrist’s murder, many publications decried his arrival on British soil in just such terms, one likening him to a vampire, a time-honored pejorative applied to Jews.
“Now an alien breed has come in,” the Bailie, a respected Glasgow magazine, said that year. “Great Britain . . . opens her arms to the foreign scum . . . mole-ish blackguards are on the prowl in the community.” The Edinburgh Evening News wrote that Slater’s trial “has cast a lurid light on the dark places of our great cities, in which such wretches ply their calling. It shows a brood of alien vampires, lost to conscience, crawling in black depths and the basement of civilised society.”
Even by the standards of a frightened age, Marion Gilchrist was a remarkably frightened woman. She was born in Glasgow on January 18, 1826, the daughter of James Gilchrist, a prosperous engineer. In later years, after her mother’s death, Miss Gilchrist, who never married, remained at home to care for her father. Before he died, she appears to have persuaded him to leave the bulk of his estate to her; as a result, she wound up far wealthier than any of her siblings.
Miss Gilchrist had a bevy of nieces and nephews, though she seemed not to care much for them, nor they for her. “Miss Gilchrist was not on good terms with her relations,” her niece Margaret Birrell, who lived nearby, told the police after the murder. “Few if any visited her.”
Among the rare people with whom Miss Gilchrist enjoyed a warm relationship was a former maid, Maggie Galbraith Ferguson, and her daughter, Marion Gilchrist Ferguson, named for her mother’s old employer. On November 20, 1908, a month before she died, Miss Gilchrist altered her will. The previous version, which had been drawn up just six months earlier, had divided her estate—valued at more than £15,000 and including jewelry, paintings, furniture, silver, and considerable cash reserves—among various nieces and nephews. The new will left the balance of the estate to Maggie and Marion Ferguson.
For thirty years before her death, Miss Gilchrist had lived in tasteful near-solitude in a large flat at 49 West Princes Street, a wide avenue that dips through north-central Glasgow from northwest to southeast. Lined with Victorian row houses and long home to middle- and upper-middle-class professionals, her neighborhood was at the turn of the twentieth century a quiet, elegant oasis. After her murder, as if to emphasize the exquisite inappropriateness of Miss Gilchrist as a victim, newspaper accounts took pains to describe the gentility of her part of town.
Miss Gilchrist lived alone except for her maid, a twenty-one-year-old Scotswoman named Helen Lambie. “A likeable, high-spirited, superficial and unreflective girl,” as she has been called, Lambie, known as Nellie, had worked for Miss Gilchrist for three years. By all accounts the two women got on well, but it is striking that a previous employer, Agnes Guthrie, described her as “a very good domestic worker, but most illiterate, of rather a low mentality, very cunning and not at all trustworthy in her standards.” Over the two decades that followed Miss Gilchrist’s murder, Lambie’s behavior suggested that she knew more about the crime than she would ever disclose—including, quite probably, the real killer’s identity.
The southeast segment of West Princes Street, where Miss Gilchrist’s home stood, was also called Queen’s Terrace, and her address was sometimes rendered as 15 Queen’s Terrace. Her building was a handsome three-story structure erected in about 1850; her flat took up the entire second story. The ground-floor flat (the “maindoor house,” in the Scottish parlance of the day) was occupied by a family of musicians named Adams: a mother; her grown son, Arthur; and a flock of grown daughters. Their flat had its own door onto the street, 14 Queen’s Terrace, which stood alongside Miss Gilchrist’s. The third-floor flat, directly above Miss Gilchrist’s, was, in the winter of 1908, vacant.
To reach Miss Gilchrist’s flat, a visitor mounted a few steps from the pavement, passed through the street door of No. 15, and entered the vestibule-cum-stairwell known in Scotland as a “close.” Inside the close, he ascended the staircase that led to the upper floors, climbing a single flight to the first landing, where Miss Gilchrist’s front door stood. The door opened into a large entrance hall. To the left of the hall, its windows overlooking West Princes Street, lay the dining room, appointed, like the rest of the flat, with heavy Victorian furniture and paintings in lavish frames. To the right was the drawing room; at the rear were the kitchen, parlor, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. Miss Gilchrist slept in the smaller of the two bedrooms, using the larger one as a combination spare room and dressing room. It was in this spare room that the drama of the Slater case first played out, for it was there that Miss Gilchrist stored most of her jewels.
For a woman of her time and class, Miss Gilchrist lived fairly unostentatiously except for one great indulgence: jewelry. Over the years she amassed an extensive collection, which included rings set with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies; bracelets of gold, silver, pearl, and turquoise; pearl and diamond necklaces; diamond earrings; and a great deal else. She seemed to have a particular fondness for brooches, and her collection contained a spate of them: brooches set with pearls, onyx, garnets, rubies, and topaz; a trio of star-shaped diamond brooches; and, fatefully for Slater, a crescent-shaped brooch set with diamonds. At her death, the collection, comprising nearly a hundred items, was valued at some £3,000.
“She seldom wore her jewelry save in single pieces,” Conan Doyle wrote in 1912. “It was a fearful joy which she snatched from its possession, for she more than once expressed apprehension that she might be attacked and robbed.” To thwart robbery, Miss Gilchrist hid her jewels in curious places, forgoing the safe in her parlor for the wardrobe in the spare bedroom, where she secreted them between layers of clothing or in “a detachable pocket with a string on it,” as the British journalist Peter Hunt wrote in his 1951 book on the case. She pinned other pieces behind the drapes and slipped still others into pockets of dresses.
She also turned her flat into a fortress. “Against . . . unwelcome intrusion, Miss Gilchrist had devised several formidable precautions,” Hunt wrote:
The back windows were kept locked. There were no less than three locks on the house-door; a common lock, patent lock and a Chubb. There were, in addition, a bolt and chain. When fully primed the door was virtually burglar-proof.
Anyone visiting No. 15 would have to pull a bell, downstairs, outside the close door. There was a lever, inside the hall of Miss Gilchrist’s flat which operated the fastenings of the downstairs door. In this way Miss Gilchrist, on hearing the bell, could release the downstairs door from inside her own flat, open her flat door and see who was coming up the stairs. If the visitor looked sinister she had plenty of time, if she wished, to get back inside her flat and close the door on him. There is evidence to show that, when alone, she would admit no one except by pre-arranged signal.
Miss Gilchrist arranged another signal with her downstairs neighbors, the Adamses. If she were ever in distress and needed help, she told them, she would knock three times on the floor. On the evening of December 21, 1908, the Adamses would hear those knocks for the first and only time.
In the autumn of 1908, Oscar Slater—gambler, Beau Brummell, and happy-go-lucky world traveler—came to Glasgow. He had lived there at least twice before, in the very early years of the twentieth century; since leaving Germany as a youth, he had also lived in New York, London, Paris, and Brussels. In 1901, during his first documented Glasgow stay, he married a local woman, Mary Curtis Pryor, an alcoholic who was constantly after him for money. Separated from her soon afterward, Slater resumed his travels, living under a series of aliases partly to confound her efforts to trace him. He was known to have lived briefly again in Glasgow in 1905 before pulling up stakes once more.
Slater arrived in Glasgow for what appeared to be the third time on October 29, 1908. A few days later he was joined by his mistress, Andrée Junio Antoine (known professionally as Madame Junio and familiarly as Antoine), and their maid, Catherine Schmalz. He spent the next few weeks settling in and, unwittingly, forging the first links in the chain of circumstantial evidence that would soon be drawn around him. Under the pseudonym Anderson, he rented a flat at 69 St. George’s Road, a north-south thoroughfare in central Glasgow that crosses West Princes Street; the building was little more than five minutes’ walk from Miss Gilchrist’s home. That turned out to be the first link in the chain.
On November 10, Slater went to a hardware store and bought a set of inexpensive tools with which to fix up his new flat. Those tools—in particular the small hammer that came with the set—became the chain’s second link. In early December, needing to have his watch repaired, he mailed it to Dent’s, a London watchmaker. That would provide the third link.
By then, Slater had already visited a Glasgow pawnbroker, where, in exchange for an initial loan of £20, he left a crescent-shaped brooch set with diamonds. That was the fourth, and most damning, link of all.
That autumn, strange things had begun happening in and around Miss Gilchrist’s house. In September 1908, her Irish terrier fell ill and died: Helen Lambie thought it had accidentally eaten something poisonous; the old woman believed that something far more deliberate was at work. Then, during the first three weeks of December, as more than a dozen local residents would later say, a man was seen loitering in West Princes Street. He seemed to be watching Miss Gilchrist’s house.
“The ‘watcher’ was seen at irregular times and in varying types of clothing,” Peter Hunt wrote. (As described by some witnesses, his attire included checked trousers, fawn spats, and brown boots.) “There was subsequently some confusion as to his appearance. One says he had a moustache; another says he did not; one says he did not speak like a foreigner; others say he looked like a foreigner.”
In mid-December, about a week before Miss Gilchrist’s murder, an agitated Helen Lambie paid a surprise visit to her ex-employer, Agnes Guthrie. As Guthrie later recalled, Lambie had much to say about recent goings-on in the Gilchrist home. “I was informed by her that she had some remarkable experiences at the house of Miss Gilchrist,” Guthrie said. “She gave me a very long story about her peculiarities. Miss Gilchrist had a lot of jewellery and had taken unusual ways to secrete it in the house, under carpets, etc., and had told her that she felt sure there was a man coming to murder her, and that the dog had been poisoned.”
The truly surprising thing, which Lambie implied in a later conversation with Guthrie—and confirmed outright to Miss Gilchrist’s niece Margaret Birrell immediately after the murder—was this: It was no random stranger whom Miss Gilchrist feared but instead one or more people she knew very well.
On the afternoon of Monday, December 21, 1908, Miss Gilchrist left her flat to pay bills, returning at about four-thirty for tea. That night—a rainy evening—at five minutes to seven, one of the Adams sisters, Rowena Adams Liddell, was walking back to Queen’s Terrace with her mother. As they approached their front door, she saw the “watcher” gazing up at the building. As she later testified for the prosecution at Slater’s trial:
Before I reached the door of the house I saw a dark form leaning against the railing, just under my mother’s dining-room window. . . . I gave a good stare—almost a rude stare—and I took in the face entirely, except that I did not see his eyes. He had a long nose, with a most peculiar dip from here [pointing to the bridge of the nose]. You could not see that dip amongst thousands. He had a very clear complexion; not a sallow nor a white pallor, but something of an ivory colour. He was very dark, clean-shaven, and very broad in this part of the head [points to the cheekbone or temple]. He had a low-down collar. His cap was an ordinary cap, I think, of a brownish tweed. He was very respectable. . . . After I passed him I looked over my shoulder, and he glided from the railing and disappeared.
At a minute or two before seven, Helen Lambie left her mistress’s house to buy Miss Gilchrist’s evening paper. She planned, once she returned with it, to go out again to do the household shopping. From Miss Gilchrist, who sat by the dining room fire reading a magazine, Lambie obtained a penny for the newspaper and a half sovereign for the other purchases. Taking the penny but leaving the half sovereign on the dining room table, Lambie left the flat.
“Lambie took the keys with her, shut the flat door, closed the hall door downstairs, and was gone about ten minutes upon her errand,” Conan Doyle wrote. “It is the events of those ten minutes which form the tragedy and the mystery where were so soon to engage the attention of the public.”
Directly below Miss Gilchrist’s flat, Arthur Montague Adams, a forty-year-old flutist and musical instrument dealer, sat wrapping a Christmas present. At seven o’clock, Adams, his sister Rowena, and another sister, Laura, heard a loud thud from above. Three sharp knocks followed.
To reach Miss Gilchrist’s flat, Adams had to exit his own front door at 14 Queen’s Terrace and ring the bell of the close door at No. 15. Stepping outside, he was surprised to see the close door standing open. He climbed the stairs to Miss Gilchrist’s landing and pulled the bell rope at her front door. “I rang hard—rude rings,” Adams later testified. There was no answer. Listening for any sound from within, Adams heard something like splintering wood; he assumed, he said, that it was Lambie “breaking sticks in the kitchen” for kindling. Hearing nothing more, he returned to his flat and told his sisters that everything seemed to be all right.
A senior writer at The New York Times, Margalit Fox is considered one of the foremost explanatory writers and literary stylists in American journalism. As a member of the newspaper’s celebrated obituary news department, she has written front-page send-offs of some of the leading cultural figures of our age. (Conan Doyle for the Defense is in many ways a fond belated obituary for the long-overlooked Oscar Slater, an immigrant everyman treated inexcusably by history.) Fox’s previous book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, won the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, the writer and critic George Robinson.