Deacon William Brodie: Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?
A greatly respected member of
Edinburgh's society, Brodie (1741-88) was a skilful cabinet-maker and a member of the Town Council as well as deacon (head) of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons. However, unknown to most gentlefolk, Brodie had a secret night-time occupation as the leader of a gang of burglars, this extra-curricula activity being necessary to support his extravagant lifestyle which included two mistresses, numerous children and gambling habit.
had the perfect day job to support his night-time activities, part of which
involved making and repairing security locks and mechanisms. The temptation
obviously proved too much for him when working on the locks of his customer's
houses, as he would copy their door-keys! This would allow him and his three
accomplices in crime, Brown Smith and Ainslie, to return at a later date to
steal from them at leisure
Brodie's last crime and ultimate downfall was an armed raid on His Majesty's Excise Office in Chessel's Court, on the Canongate. Although Brodie had planned the burglary himself, things went disastrously wrong. Ainslie was caught and immediately turned King's Evidence on the rest of the gang. Brodie escaped to the
Netherlands, but was arrested in
Amsterdam and returned to
Edinburgh for trial.
The trial started on
27th August 1788, however little hard evidence could be found to incriminate Brodie. That was, until a search of his house revealed the tools of his illicit trade. The jury found both Brodie and Smith guilty and their execution was set for
1st October 1788.
Brodie was hanged at the Tolbooth with his accomplice George Smith, the demon grocer. Brodie's story however does not quite end there. He had bribed the hangman to ignore a steel collar he was wearing, with the hope this would defeat the noose! But despite the arrangement he made to have his body quickly removed following the hanging, he could not be revived.
The final irony was that Brodie was hanged from a gibbet, which he himself had only recently redesigned. He proudly boasted to crowd that the gallows upon which he was about to die was the most efficient of its kind in existence. Brodie was buried in an unmarked grave at the
Church in Buccleuch.
It is said that Brodie's bizarre double-life inspired Robert Louis Stevenson, whose father had had furniture made by Brodie. Stevenson included aspects of Brodie's life and character in his story of a split personality, 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'.