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Double Life of William Brodie

Greatly respected in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, William Brodie hobnobbed with society and other uppercrust folks of the city. Known as Deacon Brodie, wherever there was a prestigious event, he was inevitably there, holding court. He was also on the City Council, a carpenter and a locksmith. For all these things he was admired, respected, and yes, even sought after to attend events. To have him at your event was to mark it a success. No one knew he was living a double life.

Brodie, who was born September 28, 1741, was the son of a well-respected cabinetmaker and City Council member. He followed his father’s lead and learned the carpenter’s trade and worked in the family business. He did little to deserve the honor, but upon his father’s death he inherited not only the business, but also the position on the City Council. No one could have appeared to be more admired and respectable than Brodie. He was quite popular at gatherings because of his ability to charm everyone; nobody disliked Deacon Brodie. He met and mingled with the famous as well, meeting among others, the poet Robert Burns and painter Sir Henry Raeburn.

Edinburgh, Scotland street courtesy of Pixabay

Rash of Home Robberies

During this time, Edinburgh was hit by a rash of home robberies. Well-to-do citizens would find that their jewels, cash and other things of value became missing during the night or when they were away from home. There was no evidence of a break-in, but the things just disappeared. At first, not much was made of this phenomenon, but as time went on, there were more and more homes burgled and people began to speak of it openly among themselves, wondering what was going on and how they could catch the thief. After one such robbery, a man named Brown approached the authorities and asked for leniency in return for turning in the men who robbed the well-to-do citizens. This was granted and he turned in two local men; Smith and Ainslie. When the duo were arrested, as usual they wanted to make their sentences as light as possible, so they turned in the mastermind of the house thefts; none other than the outgoing, gregarious, well-respected Deacon Brodie.

Fleeing the Law

As a locksmith, Brodie made wax casts of the keys to the homes of his victims, and thereafter made keys from those casts. He had keys to every well-to-do home in Edinburgh, and had his co-conspirators rob every one of them. Although his riches were greater than any of his “friends,” no one even suspected him.

He fled to London, then on to the Netherlands, intending to use it as a base for passage to the United States. He didn’t quite move fast enough, the authorities arrested him in Amsterdam and shipped him back to Edinburgh. Ainslie turned State’s Evidence against Brodie and Smith at their trial on August 27, 1788. With his testimony, along with the tools of the trade, copied keys and guns found at Brodie’s home and incriminating letters he had written while on the run, he and Smith were found guilty.

They were hanged at the Old Tolbooth in the High Street on October 1, 1788, attended by a crowd estimated at 40,000.

Rumors abounded that Brodie wore a steel collar and silver tube to prevent his death. It was said that he had bribed the hangman to ignore the accouterments and have his body removed quickly so that he could survive. But then, if indeed there was such a plan, it failed and Brodie was buried in an unmarked grave at the Buccleuch  Church in Chapel Street, which is now covered by a parking lot. But still the story went around that he was seen in Paris, shortly after the hanging.

Because you’re on this site, Mystery in the History, you just know there’s always a twist provided to end the story, and here it is. Author Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, inspired by the double life of Deacon William Brodie’s story. Stevenson, Burns, and Raeburn are now featured in The Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland. If you don’t know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, here’s a collection of them for your reading pleasure, both on Kindle and in paperback.


The Complete Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Nineteen Other Tales (Modern Library Classics)