Oscar Slater was imprisoned for the murder of an elderly woman in 1908. Arthur Conan Doyle turned detective to prove he didn’t do it A few days before Christmas 1908 an elderly woman whom no one liked was bludgeoned to death in her smart Glasgow flat. Within hours a man whom no one liked either was identified as her killer and, in due course, condemned to hang. The Oscar Slater case is often invoked as an example of how easy it was for the police to fit someone up in an age before DNA, when crime scene protocol mostly consisted of slapping handcuffs on the nearest wrong ’un. But its broader message is perhaps: if you want to stay alive, it helps if people like you. This was something that Slater, whose death sentence was changed to life imprisonment at the last moment, never completely understood. It was not, of course, his fault that, as a German Jew, he fell into two suspect categories. The German part was problematic at a time of increasingly noisy nationalism, but the Jewish part spoke to older, deeper fears about what happens when national identities shake loose. The Jews were wanderers who belonged everywhere and nowhere, and the fact that within five days of the murder Slater had vanished to New York made him seem particularly slippery. There were other things too about the 36-year-old that suggested text book degeneracy: he lived with a prostitute, made money by gambling and was known to visit pawn shops. Indeed, a silver brooch that he had recently pledged bore a resemblance to a piece of jewellery that had gone missing during the attack on Miss Gilchrist.
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