By Brad Dison
William Brodie was born in 1741 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was from an elite family and was himself a prominent Scottish citizen in the late 1700s. He was a successful cabinetmaker and was the president, or deacon, of the trade guild called the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons. His position as deacon made him a member of Edinburgh’s city council. He was also a member of the Edinburgh Cape Club, a tavern-based social club. He socialized with other upper-class citizens including Robert Burns, regarded as national poet of Scotland, and Sir Henry Raeburn, who served as portrait painter to King George IV of Scotland.
Today, Deacon Brodie would be seen as a man of many talents. In his time, however, his job as cabinetmaker meant that he performed many tasks in his daily routine in addition to building cabinets. He was an undertaker. In those days, it required more skill to build a coffin than to prepare a body for burial. He installed and repaired locks and other security devices of the era. His standing in the community meant that he often served the most prestigious families in Edinburgh.
Deacon Brodie liked to gamble. He spent many evenings in taverns and pubs shooting dice or playing cards. Deacon Brodie engaged in many types of gambling and enjoyed the intoxicating excitement he felt upon winning but losing humiliated him. As most gamblers can attest, they usually lose more often than they win, which was the case with Deacon Brodie. When he lost at a game of cards or dice, he would bet more on the following game to make up for the loss. This turned into a vicious and expensive cycle. Before he realized it, Deacon Brodie was addicted to gambling and in debt.
Deacon Brodie’s perfectly respectable façade as a gentleman hid a darker side. He needed a way to afford his gambling addiction and to pay off his gambling debts. In about 1768, Deacon Brodie’s gambling was catching up with him. He set into motion a most daring plan. On jobs where he repaired his rich clients’ locks, he used wax or putty to make impressions of the keys. Back at his workshop, he created exact duplicates of the keys. Deacon Brodie’s situation allowed him to inspect which, if any, type of crude security system their houses had. Security systems included dogs and other animals which would make noise when startled, bells and chimes which rang if doors were opened, and many other homemade contraptions. Deacon Brodie’s position in society allowed him to learn the routines of his rich clients. Once the occupants of a targeted house were out, Brodie simply unlocked the door, took whatever valuables he could find and remove with ease, and locked the door behind him as he left. He sold the stolen goods for cash, and no one suspected him of any wrongdoing.
Investigators had little to go on. Unless there was an eyewitness to the crime, or unless a suspect was caught with the stolen goods, the crime usually remained unsolved. Investigators were unable to determine how the burglar entered the homes.
At first, Deacon Brodie worked alone, but in 1786, he was joined by three other thieves, a fugitive named John Brown, a fellow locksmith and grocer named George Smith, and a shoemaker named Andrew Ainslie.
Two years later, on March 5, 1788, the foursome planned to rob a tax collection office. The burglars knew the routines of the office workers and the night watchman. Just after 8:00 p.m., the burglars entered the office with a key Deacon Brodie had copied. Ainslie remained outside as a lookout. They expected to have plenty of time, about two hours, to carry out the burglary. As the thieves were searching for money to steal, Ainslie alerted them that someone was coming. An employee, James Bonar, returned to the office unexpectedly. The thieves fled with little to show for their efforts. Deacon Brodie realized he needed an alibi. He quickly went to the home of one of his many mistresses.
Deacon Brodie was counting on the silence of his partners. There is an old expression which says, “three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Within hours of the thwarted burglary, Brown confessed in exchange for a full pardon. He told investigators that Smith and Ainslie were the other thieves but did not mention Deacon Brodie. Brown also led investigators to the hidden stash of duplicate keys used in other burglaries.
Police arrested Smith and Ainslie and learned of Deacon Brodie’s involvement. The evidence was stacked against Deacon Brodie. He had no choice but to flee Scotland. Investigators pursued Deacon Brodie from Scotland to England, the Netherlands, and Amsterdam. While evading capture, he once returned to Edinburgh in disguise and under a false name. Deacon Brodie was finally caught in Amsterdam where he was making plans to sail to the United States.
In August of 1788, Deacon Brodie and Smith went on trial for multiple burglaries. Ainslie must have made a deal with prosecutors because he was not put on trial. Brodie and Smith were found guilty and sentenced to death. On October 1, 1788, Deacon Brodie and George Smith were hanged.
Deacon Brodie’s double life would most likely have faded away with time had it not been for a playwright who was fascinated by Brodie’s contrasting characters. Almost one hundred years after Brodie’s execution, he wrote a play about Brodie, but it was unsuccessful. Undeterred, he penned a novel based on Deacon Brodie which has become a classic and has been the basis of numerous Hollywood films. The name of the author was Robert Louis Stevenson. The title of his book is “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde”.
- The Ipswich Journal, July 12, 1788, p.2.
- Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1886.
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