In the spirit of Halloween, I thought it would be fun to do a few blogs this month that highlight some of the weird, dark, and spooky stories of Edinburgh’s past. Edinburgh’s history is full of accounts of unsavory characters and macabre tales, each with the ability to intrigue and fascinate even the most dubious among us. It’s going to be a lot of fun to research and write about them for you.
To kick things off, I would like to introduce you to a man who inspired author Robert Louis Stevenson to write him famed 1886 novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” That man was William Brodie. Or, as he is better known, Deacon Brodie.
Deacon Brodie lived in the city of Edinburgh during the 18th century. Like his father, he was a skilled cabinet maker and locksmith. Fellow citizens highly regarded Mr. Brodie as an honorable, moral, and upstanding gentleman of society. Brodie served as a member of the Town Council and was deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights & Masons. People trusted him. Particularly, those of Edinburgh’s wealthy set who frequently employed him to make and repair the locks for their homes and businesses. By all accounts, it seems that Deacon Brodie was one terrific guy.
Or…then again, maybe not so much. Because in the body of that well-respected man beat a rather nefarious heart.
Deacon Brodie was a thief. And a big one. It is said that his thieving career began in 1768 when he copied the keys to a bank door and then returned later, hauling off with £800. That must have given him quite a rush because, for the next twenty years or so, he used his advantage as a locksmith to copy keys to the homes and businesses where he worked. He disguised himself and then returned in the dark to burgle them.
Brodie’s naughty habits went far beyond just thieving. He spent many-a-night in houses of ill repute, pubs, and gambling dens. He had two mistresses, produced several illegitimate children, and found himself with a significant gambling problem. Despite inheriting a large sum after his father’s death, Deacon Brodie seems to have been in an addictive cycle – steal, spend, gamble, and then steal some more. It makes me wonder if he ever regretted his choices or wished he could stop.
Perhaps Brodie’s greatest regret came in 1786 when he teamed up with John Brown (a known thief), George Smith (a locksmith and grocer), and Andrew Ainslie (a shoemaker). All four men operated together as a gang of burglars. Their spree continued until one fateful night when the gang attempted to perform an armed raid on His Majesty’s Excise Office in Chessel’s Court in the Canongate. There are a couple of different versions about how it all went down that night, but the bottom line is that the heist was unsuccessful, and John Brown tattled. Enticed by a reward for information in solving the crime, Brown ratted out both Smith and Ainslie as the culprits, and both were arrested. Some friend! Brown did not name Brodie and Brodie was able to escape to the Netherlands.
Deacon Brodie’s past eventually caught up to him, and in 1788 he was arrested and returned to Edinburgh to stand trial. The jury found him guilty, and his execution was set for October 1, 1788, at the Tolbooth. As the story goes, a massive crowd of some 40,000 people turned out to see Brodie hanged. And ironically, not just on any gibbet, but on one that he had designed himself!
Mr. Brodie, audacious as ever, bribed the hangman into agreeing to help him survive his execution. One account claims that he wore a steel collar and that he was fitted with a tube-like contraption that would prevent him from fatality. It didn’t work, and the thief was pronounced dead.
Whew, what a story. The real-life Jekyll & Hyde. I love tales like this. I hope you enjoyed it too.
I look forward to our next story and hope to see you again soon!