William Brodie was born in September of 1741 into a wealthy and respectable family of Edinburgh’s merchant class. His father was a craftsman who had built a successful business from cabinet making and was also the Deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons.
By the time he was 25, Brodie had established a reputation for himself as a skilled craftsman and locksmith at least equal to that of his father’s. Most of the town knew him as genial young man and a respectable businessman, and he was frequently invited to events thrown by the city’s upper class citizens. Such was his popularity, he was even made a member of the Cape Club, a highly exclusive association that allowed him to mingle with local luminaries such as Sir Henry Raeburn and Robert Burns.
However, the rest of the town knew a somewhat different man. Their William Brodie was an inveterate womaniser, a compulsive gambler and a perpetual drunkard. His exploits in the taverns, brothels and gambling dens were well known in his frequent haunts on and around the slums of the Cowgate. As well as his family back in the Old Town, he also maintained relationships with two mistresses and five illegitimate children.
It’s a common occurrence for affluent and impoverished areas of a city to exist in close proximity to one another and 18th century Edinburgh was no different. Despite this, Brodie somehow managed to prevent his wife from discovering the existence of his mistresses, or his mistresses from discovering the existence of each other.
With a lifestyle of such consistent excess, you have to wonder how he found the time for any actual carpentry.
Maintaining any double life is will not just exhaust your time and body but also your finances, and Brodie was certainly no exception. Despite inheriting a not inconsiderable fortune upon his father’s death – not to mention the title of Deacon that most used to address him – it had swiftly been depleted by his drinking and gambling debts.
While business in his legitimate life was a success, it didn’t provide the level of financing required to subsidise the extreme nature of his habits. However, it did indirectly provide him with the means to acquire it.
Part of Brodie’s career as a locksmith involved designing, constructing and maintaining the locks to estate buildings, offices, bank vaults, and many other high-security buildings, not to mention the safes and cabinets secured within them. His work granted him unparalleled access to the enterprises that commissioned his expertise, and allowed him to learn their level of security and its routines.
In addition, he methodically made a personal copy of every key he crafted. He first put his acquired knowledge to use in 1786 in the robbery of a bank, where £800 seemingly sublimated from behind the securely locked doors that showed no evidence of having been tampered with.
Brodie relished in the notoriety the theft secretly granted him and began targeting as many establishments as he could, taking more delight in pulling off the burglaries than his actual proceeds from them. Soon more and more homes and businesses found themselves victims of the spectral thief, seemingly with nothing that could be done to stop him.
Although in the clarity of hindsight it may have been obvious that Brodie was the culprit, though as an upstanding citizen of Georgian society, he was above reproach, even attending a city council meeting organised to discuss ways to tackle the crime wave.
By the end of the year, Brodie’s exploits had escalated to a point where he needed to recruit some help. He enlisted the aid of three established thieves: John Brown, Andrew Ainslie and George Smith. The latter of the trio was also a locksmith, though not as high-born as Brodie, and had built a career in thievery utilising similar techniques, even managing to steal the ceremonial silver mace from Edinburgh University. The quartet had a moderate degree of success as a team, but Brodie’s increasing recklessness proved to be their downfall.
In the dead of night on the 5th of March 1788, the gang were in the process of robbing the Excise House in Chessel’s Court, when their movements were seen by a nightwatchman. Brodie’s overconfidence in his untouchability had now become so inflated that he was robbing houses while drunk. On this evening, Brodie was acting as the lookout and upon seeing the approaching patrolman, instead of warning his comrades in crime his drunken reasoning told him to run away. The rest were soon discovered, and though the others escaped, Brown was taken into custody.
Brown became an informer in return for a pardon, and Ainslie and Smith were arrested not long after. Brodie remained at large, but realised it was only a matter of time before the city guard would be coming for him too. He ran abroad to the Netherlands in the hope of buying passage to the Americas and evading justice. However, he did not move swiftly enough and in less than a fortnight the authorities had gathered enough evidence to issue an arrest warrant for him, as well as a reward of £200 for his capture. He was soon discovered and brought back to Edinburgh to be put on trial.
Brown and Ainslie were both eventually pardoned on account of the evidence they gave, and in August Brodie and Smith stood trial for multiple accounts of grand larceny. As well as the testimonies of his former accomplices, Brodie’s defence was further hampered by the numerous duplicate keys discovered in his flat, as well as disguises, a pair of pistols, and a lamp shaded as so to shield its light from casual observers, used to search the burglarised premises.
Even without the physical evidence, the revelations that came out regarding Brodie’s double life were enough to scandalise those in civilised society, unable as they were to comprehend how someone seen as one of their own could possibly have been so deceitful. When all the evidence had been presented, Brodie and Smith were unanimously found guilty on all counts and sentenced to hang.
The executions were carried out in the 1st of October on a trapdoor scaffold that Brodie, in his position as a tradesman Deacon and city councilman, had helped to design and fund. Although it’s recorded elsewhere that the irony was further extended by Brodie being the first to experience the efficiency of his own design, he had in fact already fled abroad the first time the trapdoor was put to use.
Other elaborate retellings of the story describe Brodie managing to evade his fate by concealing a metal tube inside his neck to prevent his windpipe from being crushed and bribing the hangman to spirit him away afterwards. An even more fanciful version tells of his wearing an iron collar covered in hooks to catch the noose in, combined with a collection of small chains to support his weight. It’s unlikely that either tale holds much truth, but rumours of Brodie being spotted as far abroad as New York perpetuated the notion he may still have been alive.
Today, Deacon Brodie is commemorated by a pub named after him on the Lawnmarket almost directly opposite the close that bears his family’s name, outside of which a colourful statue of him resides to advertise the café within. On a more notorious note there is Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale of duality, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which was inspired by the dichotomy that Brodie’s life personified.