Deacon Brodie: the real Jekyll and Hyde?

IT IS OFTEN noted that Edinburgh is a city of two faces. Divided between a ramshackle and ancient Old Town and a spacious and modern New Town, the very appearance of the city is one of duality.

It might be that this was one of the inspirations for the Edinburgh of author Robert Louis Stevenson when he penned one of literature’s best-known characters: that of refined man of science, Dr Jekyll, and his brutal alter ego, Mr Hyde. But one of Edinburgh’s most notorious criminals is a better source for Stevenson’s creation - that of Deacon William Brodie.

William Brodie was the son of a cabinet maker. He attained the position of Deacon of the Guild of Wrights that his father has also held, as well as achieving a seat on the Edinburgh local council. In a world where business success was often assured by membership in the higher echelons of local government and with organisations such as the masons, it would have seemed to any outside observer that Brodie was set for life.

For a man of Brodie’s personal tastes, however, such matters were secondary to his pursuit of pleasure. His great passion was for the seamier side of Edinburgh life. He enjoyed visiting the theatre and the city’s numerous howffs as a member of the pleasure-seeking Cape Club. He also had a great passion for gambling and kept two mistresses. All his leisure pursuits added up to one unavoidable fact: to continue them, he required money and a lot of it.

In his profession, Brodie was frequently in and around business premises and people’s houses installing furniture items including doors. As such, he gained access to keys from which he made copies. He also had a wide range of tools that could be used for picking locks. Soon the solution to his financial problems - and his need for a thrill - would be answered through theft.

Starting in 1786, Edinburgh was struck by a series of robberies. A banker was relieved of 800. A number of goldsmiths were targeted, while fine silks and tea were taken from merchants. Most distressing of all, particularly to the city officials, was the theft of the University of Edinburgh’s ancient silver mace. The city was in uproar, apparently no more so than Deacon Brodie, who found himself called in to repair the broken locks of the plundered premises. Soon, however, it was to become obvious that his involvement in all these matters was as much to do with breaking those locks as in repairing them.

Brodie’s downfall began with a bungled attempt to rob the General Excise Office near the Canongate. Missing a large supply of cash, he and his associates, Andrew Ainslie and John Brown, only managed to find a small amount of loose change. Things were to get much worse when Brown decided to turn himself in as pressure and rewards for information began to increase. Soon Brown, Ainslie and another associate, George Smith, were languishing in the Tollbooth jail and Brodie himself had fled to the Netherlands, although he was soon captured and sent to trial.

Brodie was appear before the stern Lord Braxfield, popularly known as “The Hanging Judge”. The case against Brodie appeared flimsy until items related to his crimes were discovered in his house – keys, masks and pistols. Found guilty along with Smith, Brodie was facing execution by hanging on 1 October 1788 on a gallows of his own design.

Brodie had no intention of dying on the scaffold. He used a steel collar to save his neck and arranged for his body to be retrieved and revived immediately after the event. Despite rumours to the contrary, it appears that the force of the fall had broken his neck. Brodie had failed to cheat death and was buried in an unmarked grave at the city’s now-disbanded Buccleuch Parish Church.