Edinburgh is a city which lends itself to notorious characters both real and fictional. From the body snatchers Burke and Hare to Inspector Rebus, all have trod on the cobbled streets of the Old Town, but one criminal from the 18th Century has been remembered with a pub, a play, a close (alley), a song and a film all named after him. His name? William Brodie.
Born the son of a well respected and much admired cabinet-maker young William followed in his father's footsteps and became a skilled cabinet-maker in his own right. With the death of his father William inherited not only the business but also a huge sum of money.
This sudden wealth allowed William to experience all those finer things in life which had previously eluded him and he quickly became firmly hooked on gambling, boozing and whoring his way through the best brothels, gambling clubs and pubs on the dark and dangerous streets of Edinburgh. All of this was unknown to those who continued to seek his services as both cabinet-maker and locksmith, and through the good name of his father he was eventually invited to become a member of Edinburgh Town Council which earned him the title of Deacon Brodie: the title by which he is best known today.
Unfortunately for the now Deacon Brodie, the inherited wealth was rapidly running out and with a string of mistresses and several illegitimate children to care for he was placed in a quandary of his own making. He could forego the High Life, knuckle down and make the best of a bad situation through hard work and frugality with the little money he had left, or he could seek an alternative means to maintain his wild lifestyle.
|Cabinet made by Deacon Brodie on display in |
The Writers Museum in Edinburgh
His skill at cabinet-making meant he was never short of work and added to his skill was his position and title which meant that the Great and Good of the town were only too happy to employ him in their own homes. Unknowingly they were inviting the devil in with their smiles and kind words. Brodie took full advantage of their trust to make copies of their house keys and spy out what was valuable and where it was to be found at a later date.
Armed with these keys he could return at his leisure in the dead of night, let himself in and remove what he pleased. By day he was Deacon Brodie, pillar of the community, respected by all but by night he was a thieving rogue hiding behind a mask! He was so successful at this double life that for a while he was able to maintain his taste for the seamier side of life but greed for more eventually persuaded him that he needed additional help. An English locksmith named George Smith was recruited along with two locals known as John Brown and Andrew Ainslie.
Brodie seemingly had it made! While the sun was in the sky he mixed with the best of society and knew men such as Robert Burns, the famous poet, and Henry Raeburn, Scotland's finest painter, but once the sun had set William Brodie thrilled at his own criminal escapades which baffled the Town Guard and left High Society demanding arrests. Brodie himself was probably vocal in calling for action to be taken while every week another house would be raided and more loot stolen!
Had he stuck to robbing private homes it is likely that Brodie could have enjoyed a long and successful criminal career but greed once again got the better of him. He had been hired to do some work in Edinburgh's Excise House (the Tax office) and he could not resist taking copies of the keys. This would be his finest hour! The Excise House contained several fortunes in paper and coin and it would all be there for the taking!
On March 5th 1788 Brodie and his gang struck the Excise House but things did not go according to plan. One rumour has it that Brodie, being drunk, actually fell asleep at one point during the robbery but whatever the truth the gang were discovered and only just managed to escape with only a fraction of the huge wealth they had come for.
Finally Edinburgh had had enough of this crime wave! Rewards were issued for information and one of Brodie's associates, John Brown, turned himself in and gave King's Evidence to save his own neck from the noose. He wasted no time in naming all involved and very firmly pointed the finger of blame at Deacon William Brodie!
Brodie hearing of the arrest of his accomplices took flight and ended up in Amsterdam where he intended taking ship for the Unites States of America where he would be safe from British justice in the newly Independent nation. Unfortunately he was captured as he boarded the ship and speedily extradited back to Scotland to stand trial.
In Edinburgh, Brodie's capture and trial captivated the capitol city as perhaps no other had before or since. But soon after, the man who led the most secret of lives, was found guilty. The sentence - death by hanging. On October 1st, 1788, Deacon William Brodie and George Smith were put to death before a crowd estimated at over forty thousand. Legend has it that the gallows were of a new design from William himself, possibly even made by his own hands! Whether that is true or not is debatable and more likely to be fiction than fact.
|Execution of William Brodie at Edinburgh Tolbooth|
October 1st 1788
However the story does not end with his death on the gallows. It is claimed he bribed the hangman to ignore an iron collar worn round his neck to save him from death! And it is here that the story firmly wanders into the realms of the fanciful I feel. His body was cut down shortly after sentence had been carried out and was spirited away by friends who revived him with stiff drinks. He was later said to have been seen walking the streets of Paris. It is also claimed his grave, unmarked in the churchyard of the Parish Church in Buccleuch, was dug up in response to these claims and was found to be empty! Or so it is said!
Deacon Brodie continues to live on in popular memory due to another of Edinburgh's sons: Robert Louis Stevenson who took the story of William Brodie and used it to create his famous short story The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde about a respected man who leads a vile double life. If you are in Edinburgh be sure to visit the pub on the Royal Mile which bears Brodie's name and remember that crime, while it may be fun in the short term, does not pay!
Just a short stroll from the pub you will find The Writer's Museum which amongst its exhibits includes a cabinet made by Deacon Brodie himself!
Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries, the #1 bestselling series in the Kindle Edinburgh Historical Fiction chart
His blog can be followed at stuartslaing.wordpress.com