Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a British writer best known for his iconic Sherlock Holmes detective stories, but he was also a physician (Holmes was modeled after his former university teacher, Joseph Bell) and a prolific writer in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, humor, romance, poetry, theater, history, historical fiction, medicine, politics, architecture, and the paranormal.
In many ways he was a man of science and logic, but he also maintained a great interest in mysticism and the paranormal and conducted investigations into psychic phenomena. He participated in séances, experiments in telepathy, and sessions with mediums. He also came to believe in fairies and spirits and that mental illnesses were due to demonic possession.
Doyle became friends with famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, whom he believed possessed true supernatural powers. Houdini – who dedicated much of his life to demonstrating that mediums, seers, and the like are scam artists – was unable to convince Doyle that he was only an illusionist and not a purveyor of the paranormal.
In one highly amusing tale, Houdini agreed around Christmastime to attend a séance conducted by Doyle’s wife, a self-proclaimed medium, after which she reported that she had successfully contacted Houdini’s departed mother. Doyle’s wife said that Houdini’s mother had conveyed Christmas greetings to her son. Not only, though, was Houdini (born Eric Weiss) Jewish; his mother was an Orthodox rebbetzin, making it highly unlikely that her first greeting to her son from the Land of the Dead would be “Merry Christmas.” Moreover, Cecilia Weiss spoke only Yiddish, making a conversation with Mrs. Doyle highly unlikely.
Doyle supported The British Brothers League, a populist anti-Semitic group in East London, and some of his writing reflects anti-Semitism or, at the very least, anti-Semitic tendencies consistent with his milieu. For example, in The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896), Doyle’s protagonist declares that another character is “the first good Jew since the days of Joshua.” In The Stockbroker’s Clerk, a character says, “In he walked, a middle-sized, dark-haired, dark-eyed, black bearded man with a touch of the sheeny about his nose.”
In A Study in Scarlet, Doyle describes a “grey-headed, seedy visitor” as “looking like a Jew pedlar [sic]” and, in The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, he perpetuates the idea of Jews as money-grubbing moneylenders: “He is in the hands of the Jews [i.e., in debt]… He’s holding off the Jews [i.e., moneylenders] till then.”
In Sir Nigel (1906), one of Doyle’s characters announces that he’d rather bargain with “a synagogue full of Jews” than a sharp man from the north of England, and, in The Cardboard Box, Sherlock Holmes takes particular delight in tricking a “Jew broker” in a deal involving the purchase of a Stradivarius violin.
Moreover, there is considerable evidence that Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, was inspired by Adam Werth, a Jew who, like Moriarty, developed his skills as a thief on the streets of New York before crossing the Atlantic and practicing his considerable criminal skills in England.
On the other hand, Holmes’ critical and methodological skills have been aptly characterized as “Talmudic” and the presentation of his analysis as “pilpul.” In The Jew’s Breastplate, Doyle characterizes anti-Semitism as a form of madness.
Doyle maintained a close relationship with novelist Israel Zangwill, the “Charles Dickens of the Jews” and a prominent Zionist leader, who convinced him of the importance of a Jewish homeland to Jews. Although Doyle had difficulty imagining Jews as farmers, he graciously accepted Zangwill’s invitation to serve on the London Committee of the General Jewish Colonizing Organization and, in a November 5, 1905 letter to Zangwill, Doyle, referring to the Russian pogroms, wrote:
I have thought much of your scheme for the resettlement of the refugee Jews – of course I entirely sympathize with it. It seems monstrous and inhuman that on all the face of God’s earth there should be no resting place for these unhappy people, who driven out of one land are refused admission to all others … I would do anything I could to help them to a permanent home.
Doyle’s seemingly contradictory views on Zionism and anti-Semitism may be reconciled by understanding that his “Zionism” was merely a reaction to the massive immigration of “poor, unskilled, and medieval Jews” flooding in from Eastern Europe, and that if a territorial solution in Eretz Yisrael would get them out of England, he was all for it.
Doyle not only wrote Holmes mysteries; he used his famed protagonist’s skills in real life to solve them. He was frequently asked to solve real-life mysteries , and he attained much fame for his involvement in the Slater Affair, which he could very well have written as a Sherlock Holmes detective mystery. The homicide case involved a heinous murder, a wealthy victim, an aristocratic mansion, stolen diamonds, a transatlantic manhunt, shady characters, a cunning maidservant, and the prosecution and persecution of an innocent man.
Born Oscar Leschziner in Germany to a Jewish family, Oscar Joseph Slater (1872-1948), an underworld figure, gangster, bookmaker, and gambler who operated under various aliases, came to epitomize the miscarriage of justice when he was wrongly convicted of murder by a Scottish jury and sentenced to death. In The Case of Oscar Slater (1912), Doyle reviewed the entire trial transcript, police reports, and witness interviews and, employing classic Holmesian analysis marked by painstaking observation and meticulous logic, destroyed the prosecution’s case and issued a public plea for Slater’s full pardon.
He finally succeeded, but only after Slater had spent 18 years incarcerated in the notorious Peterhead Prison, also known as “Scotland’s Gulag.”
In this incredible August 9 (no year given, but circa 1927) fully handwritten correspondence on his The Psychic Book Shop, Library & Museum letterhead, Doyle writes:
We are doing all we can in this most disgraceful case but it is hard work. I don’t see how we can get all these famous men to look into the case. But we will not let go and we will win the end. But Slater is done for. I fear he is nearly insane. Your generous offer would be spent in extra advertising of the book. Suppose you sent on your own a personal ad in the Morning Post like this: “The Scandal of the Century. Have you read ‘The Truth about Oscar Slater’? How long is it to go on?”
In December 1908, 83-year-old spinster Marion Gilchrist was brutally beaten to death during a robbery at her home in Glasgow after her maid, Nellie Lambie, went out to buy a newspaper. Although Gilchrist had jewelry worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars by today’s standards, the thief was interrupted by a neighbor and escaped with only a brooch. Slater became a prime suspect when it was discovered that he had attempted to sell a pawn ticket for a brooch; that he had rented an apartment only weeks earlier about 400 yards from the Gilchrist home; and that he had left for New York five days after the murder.
The police quickly determined that Slater’s brooch was not the one that had been stolen from Gilchrist, that Slater bore no resemblance to the man seen fleeing the Gilchrist home, and that several credible witnesses confirmed that Slater’s alleged “flight from justice” to New York had been planned long before the murder. Nonetheless, the police asked for his extradition. Slater was advised that the attempt to extradite him would fail but, anxious to demonstrate his innocence, he voluntarily returned to Scotland to face trial.
As both a Jew in an anti-Semitic society and a foreigner (particularly from Germany) in an anti-immigrant culture, Slater was an unsympathetic character and an expedient fall guy. Police and prosecutors did everything possible to assure his conviction, including engaging in witness tampering, suborning perjury, and suppressing exculpatory evidence.
In one instance, which would be comical but for the gravity of the matter, the police convened a lineup including the swarthy and dark-haired Slater and 11 pale-skinned men. The judge also played a key role in convicting a man everyone all knew to be innocent by instructing the jury to disregard the usual presumption of innocence as it was, he said, inapplicable to filth like Slater.
Under these circumstances, the verdict could hardly have been surprising: Notwithstanding the lack of evidence, the jury deliberated for less than an hour and convicted Slater – the man with the wicked private life, broken English, shifty eyes, and big Jewish nose – by a vote of nine to six, and he was sentenced to death by hanging. His attorneys assembled a massive petition, which was signed by 20,000 people, seeking clemency and, two days before the scheduled execution, King Edward VII commuted his sentence to life in prison at hard labor.
In a formal Private Inquiry into the case in 1914, Lieutenant John Thomson Trench, a prominent detective, demonstrated that the police had deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence, but the Inquiry nonetheless concluded that Slater’s conviction was proper. Trench was dismissed from the police force and prosecuted on bogus charges. (He was ultimately acquitted.)
Only a short time before her murder, Gilchrist had amended her will to disinherit certain cousins with whom she was quarreling, and many criminologists and analysts now believe that the true murderer was a member of her own family. A short time after the murder, Gilchrist’s maid advised the police that she had seen a prominent member of Glasgow society leaving the crime scene – evidence suppressed by the prosecution.
To add to the wretched fiasco, Alexander Ure, the Lord Advocate who had personally led the prosecution (which was very rare), was involved in protecting his privileged upper-class friends: the disinherited cousins. In The Case of Oscar Slater, Doyle became the first person to suggest that the purpose of the break-in might not have been to steal jewelry but, rather, to confiscate the revised will.
Slater’s correspondence during his imprisonment depicts a man on the verge of madness and suicide. In one fascinating letter to his sister written toward the end of his incarceration, he wrote:
I am feeling very depressed & low-spirited. During the eighteen years I have been in prison I have only had one Jewish service. Every convict prisoner in England enjoys a weekly service in his own particular religion. I am broken and have grown old and need very badly spiritual learning & guidance.
Relying heavily on Doyle’s book, the Solicitor General for Scotland determined that there was no proof of Slater’s guilt, noting particularly that the judge had not directed the jury about the irrelevance of Slater’s unsavory character. The conviction was overturned in July 1928, and Slater was awarded about $400,000 (by today’s standards) for his wrongful conviction; however, he never did receive an official pardon.
Slater’s friend, a certain Rabbi Phillips, greeted him as he left the prison, took him to his Glasgow home, and overwhelmed him with compassion. However, Slater seemed incapable of gratitude, even to Doyle, who had spent 18 years pursuing justice on his behalf. He refused to reimburse Doyle for any expenses incurred during the long fight for his freedom; Doyle wrote to him that “you are the most ungrateful as well as the most foolish person whom I have ever known.”
After most of his family, including two sisters, were murdered during the Holocaust, Slater died in obscurity in Scotland of natural causes.
There are many stark similarities between the prosecution of Slater, who came to be known as “the Scottish Dreyfus,” and that of Dreyfus himself. First, of course – and not at all coincidentally – both defendants were assimilated Jews. Second, both cases drew broad attention and international coverage for many years.
Third, as discussed above, both cases proceeded in a milieu of broad governmental and institutional anti-Semitism. Fourth, national outrage and international scrutiny put tremendous pressure on the authorities to get a conviction, no matter the facts. Fifth, each affair had its own singular hero, each of whom was one of the great literary masters of the day: Emile Zola for Dreyfus and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for Slater. Sixth, both defendants were ultimately exonerated, but only after long terms and oppressive and inhuman prison conditions.
The great difference, however, is that Dreyfus is still remembered, and Slater has become a virtual footnote in history.