Mary Emsley and Marion Gilchrist

Mary Emsley and Marion Gilchrist/Grid AdS

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After I finished reading Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, I picked up Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary. It is a Holmes & Watson story but told by Carr and he did it very well. All the familiar characters are in there and the story is worth a read. It set off my Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reading spree.

Two Book Reviews

This post is about two female victims, two wrongfully accused and sentenced male suspects, two books written by two very different authors, and two very unsatisfying case endings. And in both, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was involved. To what degree you must discover for yourself.


The two elderly women lived alone. Both thought they were secure inside their homes, both alert to their vulnerability, and cautious when receiving visitors. Both were rich but did not lead extravagant lifestyles. Both had valuables inside their homes and both had a mixed family.

Both women were killed by blunt force trauma to the head. Both were found under suspicious circumstances. In both cases, an immediate heir could not be named. Both women were childless. Emsley left no will, Gilchrist’s was missing.

In both cases, the arrested suspect went through a scandalous trial with incompetent defense attorneys. In both cases someone else was protected.

In both cases, there were no signs of a break-in, no forced entry, no witnesses to the deed itself, and clearly visible valuables inside the women’s homes were left untouched.

In both cases, the murder weapons were not matched properly to the skull wounds and objects that could have been used as a murder weapon, were overlooked.

Mary Emsley

Mary Emsley

Mary Emsley (1790-Aug 1860)

The case of Mary Emsley is discussed in the book The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay. His vivid descriptions bring the Victorian time period to life. Through his words we see and smell the working class, the struggles of the people depending on the irregular work on the docks, and the slow development inside of London pushing it into the nineteenth century. These many, detailed descriptions show you the development of London transportation, the changing of professions, and need for better sanitary options.

As rich as these details make the story they also slow down the pace considerably and frankly, can make the book hard to read. There is no timeline of events, there are no visual breaks in the text, no use of subparagraphs, and worst of all, no family tree. The latter really matters as there are several women named Mary in this story.

There are some mistakes in the book. On the book cover it says that Emsley was found dead on Thursday August 17, 1860 but inside the book we find the day to be Friday August 17, 1860. The lumber room and top room are used interchangeably but as we have no floor map of the house, I am not sure they are the same. On page 302 is a reference to footnote #7 in chapter 7 but it doesn’t exist. The last footnote in that chapter is #5. Last, McKay gives us at the end his own thoughts. He discusses what he thinks happened to Emsley and it is a very compelling read. However, it is circumstantial. He also stops his analyses of one possibility to abruptly explore another.

I will not discuss his thoughts about Emsley’s true killer here as that would spoil the book. I think he is right in part but only if we assume two men at Emsley’s home that night with a third man involved.

The first man, the killer, wanted to discuss something. Emsley, known as a tough landlady, didn’t give in. He struck her with something he possibly had with him and leaves. Then that killer went to the only man he could trust for help. That second man asked a third man to go back to the house. If we assume this order, McKay’s theory can work and in fact, is plausible. But ask yourself, would you go to a crime scene if requested?

Mary Emsley was last seen alive on August 13, 1860 around 7pm. Two neighbors saw her sitting at her bedroom window. As her remains were found days later, the exact date/time of death was never firmly established. The evidence seems to point to Monday evening after 7pm as she wasn’t seen alive by anyone anymore.

Accused and sentenced in her murder was James Mullins. A man in his mid-50s, he had served in the Irish Constabulary (police force) before he was demoted. After that, he held various jobs. He was bitter, resentful, and eager to prove himself worthy. Despite that Emsley was struck violently no blood at all was found on Mullins or his clothes.

The second person tied to Emsley’s murder was Walter Thomas Emm, who worked for Emsley as a debt collector. Mullins tried to frame Emm but it is done in such a clumsily way that you almost cannot believe it especially not if you remember that Mullins was a cop at one time.

The prosecution blunders itself through the murder trial with issues ranging from items not fitting the suspects (literally the wrong boot size), not asking themselves how Emsley’s remains came to block the door behind which she was found (how did the killer do that and exit through that same door), and why Emsley was found that way. Was she struck, the killer then runs out the room, pulls it close behind him, and then she falls against it, slipping down the door, and dies in this position? Why that was not considered an option is not clear. We know nothing about the door, if it had traces of blood on it, etc.

Neighbor Caroline Barnes saw someone move in Emsley’s top room near the right hand window that was slightly open. If that was Emsley, her time of death is wrong. If it wasn’t Emsley, it could have been the killer. But bear with me, as this statement was then used to assume that the killer stayed overnight at the crime scene. Yes, that’s right.

The assumption was that the killer stayed with her all night till the next morning instead of using the dark of night to escape. I am not sure why this thought came up. It isn’t logical at all. However, it could make sense if you reread the part where I discuss the three men option. Remember “A study in pink” where Holmes wonders who can move through a crowd unnoticed.

In three hours, the jury determines that James Mullins is guilty. The judge isn’t entirely convinced as he remarks that “if you can even now make it manifest that you are innocent of the charge I do not doubt that every attention will be paid to any cogent proof laid before those with whom it rests to carry out the finding of the law.” The motive for the Emsley murder remains a mystery.

It seems as if Mullins never believed that he would be convicted but he was hung on November 19, 1860 leaving behind a few last words of innocence. Strangely, he never tried to explain the murder, never discussed the circumstances, all making people believe that he was protecting someone else. Mullins even stated he believed that Emm did not kill Emsley either.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his take on the case in 1901. The Debatable case of Mrs. Emsley was published by Strand Magazine in May 1901.  He presents a legal solution that could have saved Mullins but he does not solve the Emsley murder.

McKay’s book has notes and an index but as stated before, the story would have benefitted from a floor pan, a timeline of events, visual breaks in the text or subparagraphs, and a family tree as too many women are named Mary.

Marion Gilchrist

Marion Gilchrist

Marion Gilchrist (January 18, 1826-Dec 21, 1908)

The case of Marion Gilchrist is discussed in the book Conan Doyle for the defense by Margalit Fox. Her book has a four-prong approach. It tells the story of wrongfully convicted Oscar Slater, it tells the life story of Oscar Slater including his time as a prisoner and his relationship with his family, it explains the analytical skills of Conan Doyle, and it discusses why Glasgow Police continued to pursue Slater even when they found out within one week of the murder that he was not their man. Not all four prongs will be discussed at length here.

Marion Gilchrist was murdered on December 21, 1908 inside her own house just like Emsley. She was 82 years old, never been married, and inherited a fortune from her father. There was little contact with her siblings and/or their children.

On November 20, 1908, Gilchrist changed her last will and testament. The previous one split up all her assets (such as silver, paintings, jewelry, real estate, etc.) among her nieces and nephews possibly leaving out her siblings. The new will left her estate to Maggie and Marion Galbraith Ferguson. Maggie Galbraith Ferguson was Gilchrist’s former maid. They had a very warm relationship. After Maggie became a mother, she named her child after her former employer. I am also not sure why Maggie left that job.

Gilchrist’s new maid was Helen “Nellie” Lambie. Lambie’s previous employer Agnes Guthrie described her as a very good domestic worker but “of rather low mentality, very cunning, and not at all trustworthy.” Why she was offered the job isn’t clear to me.

One floor below Gilchrist lived the Adams family. They had a deal: if Gilchrist needed help she would knock three times on the floor. On December 21, 1908, they heard her knock. Some of the Adams family members had noticed a respectable looking “watcher” in their street. They testified to that in court.

That evening, Arthur Montague Adams and sisters Rowena and Laura, hear a loud thud followed by three sharp knocks. Adams rushes upstairs. Just at that time, Adams sees Lambie coming back from apparently running errands. He had assumed that she was inside with Gilchrist.

As Lambie unlocks the door, she tries to explain the loud thud the Adams family heard by pointing to pulleys. The clothes’ lines must have fallen. Not only would clothes not cause a loud thud, their falling would not be a reason to use the emergency signal.

While Adams and Lambie are in the entrance hall, a well-dressed man exits Gilchrist’s spare bedroom. He walked right passed Lambie and Adams. They would both later testify in court that they saw no blood on him. Adams wasn’t wearing his glasses so he could only give a general description of the man.

Lambie went into the kitchen to check the clothes lines, told Adams they were fine, and only then went into the spare bedroom. Until now, she had not called out to her employer that she was back from running errands or ask if she was ok despite the man exiting. Only after Lambie exits the spare bedroom does she ask Adams for help. Only then does she seem upset.

Gilchrist was on the floor. The chair that she had sat on before Lambie left was close to her body. Her face and skull were smashed in. She remained alive without regaining consciousness but only for a few minutes. Adams ran outside to get the police and a doctor and Lambie rushed over to Gilchrist’s niece Margaret Birrell. She implied to Birrell to know who was responsible.

The doctor who examined Gilchrist and who took in the crime scene was also called Adams but not related. Dr. John Adams saw that the dining room was filled with blood. Scanning the room for possible weapons he zoomed in on a heavy dining room chair. The back legs were dripping in blood. He thought that the chair’s spindle-shaped legs resembled the trauma on Gilchrist’s body. He thought that the murderer was standing over the victim smashing the heavy chair down aided by gravity and rage. He also thought that the chair’s seat may have shielded the killer from getting bloody.

Gilchrist’s reading glasses and magazine were still on the dining room table. Nothing seemed stolen, no blood outside the dining room, no signs of a struggle, jewelry in plain sight was still there but one diamond brooch was missing. In the spare bedroom a sewing box was forced open and on the floor. The content, papers, were also on the floor.

While all this was happening, Oscar Slater, not aware of the crime or the brooch or anything else, is packing. He was going to leave town. He was going to America to find work there. He had a friend in San Francisco and had corresponded with him about the move overseas. He was wrapping up his local affairs, found another tenant for his flat, collected items left around town, and even told his barber about his big trip. He mailed money back home to his parents in Germany, sold as much of his belonging as he could, and to fund the trip he pawned a diamond brooch he owned. And that’s were his trouble started.

On December 25, 1908, Glasgow bike dealer Allan McLean told police that a man had tried to sell him a pawn ticket for a diamond brooch. He was dark, foreign, and a Jew. Bingo.

The bingo of course refers to drawing conclusions based on elements that cannot be connected no matter how much you stretch the dots.

Police had a man who pawned a brooch. There was no conclusive evidence that we are talking about the same brooch yet the authorities contemplated action while they had in fact nothing to tie Slater to Gilchrist, her house or, if they were even sure that he fitted one of the descriptions that Lambie and eyewitness Mary Barrowman gave. Barrowman claimed to have seen the man who exited the building where Gilchrist lived.

On December 26, 1908, Lambie was taken by police to the pawn shop to see if the brooch that was there was indeed Gilchrist’s. She didn’t even hesitate: no. The owner of the pawn shop testified that Slater left the brooch there on November 18 more than four weeks before the Gilchrist murder and it had not left the shop ever since. So how is Slater tied to Gilchrist if even Lambie said it wasn’t her employer’s brooch? Five days into the murder investigation and they knew Slater wasn’t their man. Yet they pursued him until they almost killed him.

Slater went to trial in Edinburgh on May 3, 1909. The case against him was entirely circumstantial. There was some eyewitness testimony from Mary Barrowman but hers didn’t match Lambie’s description of the man who left the Gilchrist’s apartment. Because of this, police thought for a while that they were looking for two men.

Fox describes the Victorian age as the start of modern science: advances in exact sciences, increasing understanding of the human body, the start of modern medicine, it would not be long before it spread over into crime solving.

Where police would form a theory and try to place their facts in line with that theory, Conan Doyle leaned on deductive abduction or retroduction. You are presented with effects such as tracks, symptoms, clues, etc. so your next step is to use abduction to prove their most logical probable cause for being.

Simply put, you start your investigation exploring fact after fact without a theory that forces those facts together or in a particular order. Once you can explain the presence of tracks, objects, etc. an order may become clear. Once that order is determined to be logical you can reason backwards to see if it proves the result which in our case is a murder. It has to be a backwards chain that cannot be broken by another fact. If it can be broken by another fact, you start from scratch and do not adjust the theory just to include the new fact.

Pursuing Slater made sense if you factor in prejudice towards those who look different or have a different faith, etc. Immigrants became a group first turned to if authorities were investigating a crime regardless of what the crime scene told them. This is what we now call profiling.

Slater’s defense was ineffective in many ways. They didn’t address the profiling, the lack of direct evidence, the absence of any link between Slater and Gilchrist, the almost incompatible eyewitness testimony from Lambie and Barrowman, the fact that the brooch was Slater’s, that no physical evidence from Slater was found in Gilchrist’s home, and of course Lambie’s behaviour at the night of the crime.

The defense didn’t call Dr. Adams who was the first on the scene and had spotted the bloody chair legs. Nor did they call witnesses who could give Slater an alibi for the night of the murder and worst, no questioning of Margaret Birrell, the niece Lambie ran to and in whom she confided that she knew the killer’s identity.

So why didn’t Lambie cry out or say something that night? Was she in on it? Was she threatened to remain silent?

Remember that no jewelry was stolen except for one brooch. But what about the box? What was in that box? Why was that box the only thing disturbed inside the Gilchrist house? Simple: the man who was there knew what he came for and where it was. He had no need to steal jewelry or money. He didn’t need those valuables or maybe he thought it would be his one day any way.

Various members of the Gilchrist family started accusing each other of the murder so it leads to the assumption that the documents inside the box might also have contained that new last will and testament.

In 1914, police found out that Lambie told Birrell by name who the man was she saw exiting Gilchrist’s spare bedroom: a Gilchrist family member only referred to as A.B. I will leave this part undiscussed.

Lambie kept a low profile and was even presumed dead until she surfaced in the USA. She switched her storylines a few times. Each time, she lost more credibility. Barrowman later recanted her testimony.

During the years of forced labor, Slater’s parents died and several other beloved relatives passed away too. His sisters kept writing to him and even their children picked up pen and paper to keep Uncle Oscar’s spirits up. He was finally released on November 14, 1927. He died January 31, 1948, from a pulmonary embolism. He was 76 years old.

The book explains what was done to exonerate Slater and to clear his name. It gives you Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s take on the case, how he analyzed it, and his reflections on Slater and the trial.


Both books are highly recommended reading. They both contain so much more information about the cases than what I have discussed here. They are both worth your time.

To be clear, these books are not works of fiction but tell us the true crime stories of Mary Emsley and Marion Gilchrist. The verdict in the Emsley case is disputed and in the Gilchrist case, we have a wrongful conviction. I consider them both cold cases.

Personally, I think that Fox has a clearer writing style and a better build-up of the story she tells. Her book includes a family tree and floor map of the Gilchrist home, her epilogue describes what became of all the characters, and she added a list of all the characters. There is a glossary to compare law systems and legalese, lists with references, copious notes, and an index.

McKay’s work is less clear in wording and in structure. It lacks simple details to make it more reader-friendly. The author also seems to be unaware that mentioning various characters who all have the same name can be confusing.

It is fascinating to read both books back to back, to compare both victims and their families, the circumstances of their murders, and how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was involved.

Further reading:

Please do check in the back of both books for further reading suggestions and do not forget to explore the National Archives of Scotland.