£30,000 secures Conan Doyle letters

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GLASGOW City Council has bought a rich trove of papers revealing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s long campaign to free Oscar Slater, the man convicted in one of Scotland’s most notorious murder cases.

It includes the letter by Slater, who stood trial in Edinburgh in 1909 for the murder of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy spinster, which was famously smuggled out of Peterhead Prison hidden in a fellow inmate’s dentures.

Glasgow made the successful bid of 30,000 in a contentious auction of the Sherlock Holmes author’s papers this week, buying the documents for their reserve price.

They were bought because they complement the records already held at the Mitchell Library of the Glasgow police inquiries into the Slater case.

Conan Doyle’s 16-year-campaign to free Slater began in 1912, in a case that a century later remains a famous miscarriage of Scottish justice. It led to the creation of the Scottish Court of Appeal in 1926.

Early doubts about Slater’s conviction saw the death sentence commuted to hard labour, but even after his release in 1927, after 18 years in prison, Conan Doyle backed further appeals which ended in a pardon and compensation.

A German Jewish gambler with a poor command of English and convictions for pimping, Slater was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence, though he returned from New York to face trial. The Jewish community rallied to his cause.

He was wrongly accused of fleeing the country after the murder, and equally falsely of pawning a brooch alleged to be the dead woman’s but which he had sold two weeks before she died. The trial was dominated by assaults on his character.

"Sir Conan Doyle, you breaker of my shackles, you lover of truth for justice sake, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the goodness you have shown towards me," Slater wrote in one of 14 letters by him in the sale. Another was the letter to his fellow prisoner, William Gordon, which Gordon smuggled out in his dentures.

"Gordan [sic], my boy, I wish you in every way the best of luck. Please do what you can for me. Give to the English public your opinion regarding me. Please don’t forget to write or see Conan D."

Conan Doyle’s own letters record his own efforts to overturn what he regarded as the scandalous conviction based on faked evidence against an innocent man.

"I was up against a ring of political lawyers who could not give away the police without also giving away themselves," he wrote.

Councillor John Lynch, the convener of Glasgow City Council’s cultural and leisure services department, said: "The Oscar Slater letters will provide a valuable addition to the rich and unique archives held at the Mitchell Library."

Meanwhile, it emerged yesterday that the British Library had stepped in to save Conan Doyle’s unpublished and unseen first novel.

The work is thought to be The Narrative of John Smith. The first copy was long said to have gone missing in the mail, but it appears a rough draft survived.

"It was the prime item of the entire sale, and I was terrified it was going out of the country," said Owen Dudley Edwards, an Edinburgh University scholar and Conan Doyle biographer.

"It has never seen the light of day and it will be of incalculable value to students of Conan Doyle’s writing. He said it had a lot to do with politics."

Conan Doyle, who was born in Edinburgh and trained as a medical student in the city, would write of the work: "My shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again - in print."

Mr Edwards had campaigned to stop the Christie’s auction on the grounds that it would break up for ever a unique and mostly unpublished collection of materials.

He had also questioned the way the Conan Doyle papers were divided between his heirs.