William Brodie

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.

"Now for one of the Deacon's headaches! Rogues all, rogues all! (GOES TO CLOTHES-PRESS, AND PROCEEDS TO CHANGE HIS COAT.) On with the new coat and into the new life! Down with the Deacon and up with the robber! (CHANGING NECK-BAND AND RUFFLES.) Eh God! how still the house is! There's something in hypocrisy after all. If we were as good as we seem, what would the world be? [The city has its vizard on, and we - at night we are our naked selves. Trysts are keeping, bottles cracking, knives are stripping; and here is Deacon Brodie flaming forth the man of men he is!] - How still it is! . . . My father and Mary - Well! the day for them, the night for me; the grimy cynical night that makes all cats grey, and all honesties of one complexion. Shall a man not have HALF a life of his own? - not eight hours out of twenty-four?"

Lines given to Deacon Brodie by Robert Louis Stevenson in his play of that name[1]

William Brodie (28th September 1741 - 1st October 1788) was the son of Francis Brodie, a successful cabinetmaker, and Cecil Grant[2]. He was a respected citizen of Edinburgh, a skilled tradesman, a member of the Town Council, and deacon (head) of the 'Incorporation of Wrights and Masons'. He mixed with the gentry of Edinburgh, was a member of the Cape Club, and is known to have met Robert Burns and the painter Sir Henry Raeburn. However, Brodie also led a gang of burglars.[3]

Deacon Brodie had inherited more than £10,000 on his father's death; but he also acquired two mistresses (Anne Grant and Jean Watt, neither of whom knew of the other's existence); five illegitimate children by them; a gambling habit (with the alleged use of loaded dice); and a love of cock-fighting.

He seems to have first turned to crime in 1768, when it is believed that he took advantage of his employment as a locksmith to take wax impressions of the keys to the counting house of Johnstone & Smith, bankers in the city. The robbery netted him more than £800. Emboldened, he recruited an English locksmith, George Smith (the demon grocer), and between them set about plundering the city, even stealing Edinburgh University's silver mace. By 1786 Brodie had recruited two more members to his gang, Andrew Ainslie and John Brown (alias Humphry Moore).


Brodie met his downfall after a raid on His Majesty's Excise Office in Chessel's Court, on the Canongate, on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. The gang were disturbed, and only just escaped, in panic and confusion and with much subsequent recrimination. One of the gang, Brown, decided to accept the large reward offered by the town council and he turned King's Evidence on the rest of the gang. When Ainslie and Smith were arrested, Brodie escaped to the Netherlands, but he was arrested in Amsterdam and returned to Edinburgh for trial. The jury found him and Smith guilty, mainly on the evidence of Brown and Ainslie, and they were hanged at the Tolbooth on 1st October 1788. Brodie died on a gibbet that 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. His execution was witnessed by a crowd of more than 40,000, and he met his end with dignity and composure, chatting lightly with friends while the rope was adjusted.

Let us take the Road.
Hark! I hear the Sound of Coaches!
The Hour of Attack approaches,
To your Arms, brave Boys, and load.

See the Ball I hold!
Let the Chymists toil like Asses,
Our Fire their Fire surpasses,
And turns all our Lead to Gold.

verses from "The Beggar's Opera", [4] a favourite of Brodie's, that he had been singing on the night of the ill-fated Excise House raid.

In his prison cell, awaiting execution, Brodie had made a full confession, and wrote letters with wit and kindness. He seems to have accepted his fate with the charm that had endeared him to so many; he referred to his impending end as "a leap in the dark". Because his possessions had been confiscated, he had "nothing else to dispose of but my good and bad qualification"; so to one friend he left "all my political knowledge in securing magistrates and packing corporations"; to his landlord he left his "whole stock of economy, pride, and self-conceit." His betrayer earned "my dexterity in cards and dice", and to "my good friends and old companions, Brown and Ainslie, I freely give and bequeath all my bad qualities, not doubting, however, but their own will secure them a rope at last." [5]

Brodie may have hoped not to die; various stories circulated about his possible attempts to cheat the noose. He may have bribed the hangman to ensure a short "drop", and one report is that he had a silver tube made to insert in his throat, and his friends appear to have been ready to attempt a resuscitation. But although he had arranged to have his body quickly removed following the hanging, it seems that he could not be revived. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the Parish Church in Buccleuch.

Brodie's story is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson (whose father owned a cabinet made by Brodie's father) to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. [6]

"It was on the moral

side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was

radically both;" (From the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)[7]

Deacon Brodie is commemorated by a pub of that name on Edinburgh's Royal Mile[8]; Brodie's close off the Royal Mile is named not after William, but after his father, Francis.


  1. Deacon Brodie a play by Robert Louis Sstevenson
  2. Cecil was evidently a girl's name at the time - it is also the name Brodie gave to his eldest daughter.
  3. The Trial of Deacon Brodie
  4. The Beggar's Opera
  5. Published accounts of Brodie are full of discrepancies and misinformation. This account is consistent with the "Trial of Deacon Brodie" edited by William Roughead, (1870-1952) published in Glasgow by W. Hodge in 1906. That account may itself contain errors, but it seems to be carefully reported. The statements about the will are indirectly cited in various web sources, but without knowing the original source must be considered unverified. The "leap in the dark" statement is in the Trial, as is the reference to those particular verses from the Beggars Opera.
  6. Deacon William Brodie - Dr Jeckyll or Mr Hyde? History UK - the History of Scotland
  7. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (London: Longmans, Green, 1886; New York: Scribners, 1886). Online at bibliomania. Penguin Classics; Rev Ed edition (27 Feb 2003) ISBN 0141439734
  8. Deacon Brodie's Tavern Undiscovered Scotland