Deacon by day, burglar by night

William Brodie (1741 – 1788), more commonly known by his prestigious title of Deacon Brodie, was a Scottish cabinet-maker who maintained a secret life as a burglar, partly for the thrill, and partly to fund his gambling.

Billy Connolly as Deacon Brodie found here

By day, Brodie was a respectable businessman, member of the burgh council and deacon (or president) of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons. Part of his job in building cabinets was to install and repair their locks and other security mechanisms.

Victorian lock found here

At night, however, Brodie became a burglar and thief. He used his daytime job as a way to gain knowledge about the security of his clients and to copy their keys using wax impressions. He used the illicit money to maintain his second life, including five children, two mistresses who did not know of each other, and a gambling habit, reputedly with a loaded dice.

Get your loaded dice napkins here

In 1786 he recruited a gang of three thieves, Brown, Smith, and Ainslie, and then organised an armed raid on an Excise office in Chessel’s Court on the Canongate. One story has it that Brodie, probably being very intoxicated, actually fell asleep during the midnight break-in. Ainslie was captured and agreed to turn King’s evidence, informing on the rest of the gang. Brodie escaped to the Netherlands but was arrested in Amsterdam and shipped back to Edinburgh for trial.

image found here

The jury found Brodie, and his henchman George Smith, guilty. Smith was an English locksmith responsible for a number of thefts, even stealing the silver mace from the University of Edinburgh. Before a crowd estimated at over 40,000 Brodie and Smith were hanged at the Tolbooth on 1 October 1788, using a gallows Brodie had designed and funded the year before. According to one tale, Brodie wore a steel collar and had a silver tube inserted in his throat by a surgeon to prevent the hanging from being fatal. It was said that he had bribed the hangman to ignore it and arranged for his body to be removed quickly in the hope that he could later be revived. If so, the plan failed though rumours circulated later that he had been seen in Paris.

collar found here

The dichotomy between Brodie’s respectable façade, and his real nature inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson’s father had furniture made by Brodie.

image found here

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59 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hm, too bad that didn’t allow him to live. It would have made an interesting story even better.

    • They dished out harsh punishments in those days

  2. I wonder if this is where the expression “hoist by your own petard” comes from?

    And I never knew the story on which Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hide was based – thanks!

    • I didn’t know it either until I read about Deacon

  3. Too harsh a punishment for his crimes.

    I knew a man here who was a Michael Jackson impersonator by night and a temple priest by day.

    • Seriously? I didn’t know that!

      • yeah. it was a about 6 or 7 years ago when we found this dude.

  4. Love that “loaded” dice!

    And @ Looby…that expression is an old military term, a petard being an explosive device(one of those cartoon-type bombs like balls with a fuse) that tended to be a bit erratic.

    • Thank you Dinah!

      • Dinah knows everything!

  5. I imagine the pressure of the noose would have turned the collar and tube into deadly, throat crushing weapons … still, he gets points for trying. =)

    • A very strange idea…..

  6. Like Melbo I was contemplating the wisdom of the collar… surely he still would have broken his neck?
    I think I remember seeing Billy Connolly in this on the telly.

    • I don’t think it’s been shown here. Or maybe I just missed it

  7. Bribing the hangman is pretty much the last throw of the dice. Not loaded in his favour this time though it seems.

    • He was a desperate man

  8. I love the story of Deacon Brodie. He had another literary descendant in the shape of Miss Jean Brodie. She was proud to have the Deacon as an ancestor

    • Really? That’s fascinating, thanks Jams

  9. To think I got thrown out of his pub in the Royal Mile for swearing.
    The self righteous bastard. It just shows you. It’s one rule for so called respectable business men and another for pissed up bald blokes.

    PS. Stevenson also based his story on his wife’s schizophrenia.
    In between inventing steam engines obviously

    • Swearing? You? no way!

  10. That’s a great blog post to explain where “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” idea came from. Maybe the first “multiple personality” story.

    • Maybe. there don’t seem to be many earlier references. unless you’re a believer in the bible.

  11. People get their inspiration for stories from the most interesting places sometimes

  12. things are rarely what they seem. and i need some of those dice napkins!

    • they are so you daisyfae 😉

  13. Well, that’s Edinburgh for you.

    • I’ve never been. Must go one day, I could listen to the accent all day long!

  14. If the bribed hangman hangs him very short (= no fall), he has a chance, that the neck is not broken. Is it known what happened with his cadaver? Maybe the body snatchers got him alive …

  15. You gotta give the guy props for thinking of the steel collar/tube idea.

    Um, why do I want that leather collar so bad? It’s not like I would ever wear it…

    • Oh I don’t know. It would smarten up a dull ensemble

  16. A sentence of hanging for a few thefts is a bit over the top. I guess they were tougher in those days. No namby-pamby jailings or community service. Give them the noose and no nonsense.

    And another thing: 40,000 spectators? They missed a trick there. They could have charged them 100 groats a head and cleaned up.

    • Hanging was more popular than sport back then

  17. Imagine that…a mason that actually did something with his hands.

    • apart from the secret handshake?

  18. This post brings back memories, NM – many a wee dram I’ve had in Deacon Brodie’s pub (may even have been in there when ‘the satire’ was thrown out) 😆

    • More than possible.
      I will have my revenge. One day in the future someone will open a pub on the mile and call it “Pissed up Sweary Bald bloke’s”.

  19. Chock full of cool stuff. I didn’t know about the Jekyll connection. That is one of my favorite stories.

    Love the Victorian lock and the lit up Amsterdam picture is lovely!!

    • I like those images too but my favourite is the ghost one

  20. Brodie being hanged on his own gallows reminds me of the Colorado ex-sheriff who was jailed last week in a jail named after him.

  21. How I love Billy Connolly. One of the few comedians who actually make me laugh.

    • Dylan Moran doesn’t do it for you?

  22. What an absolutely karmic profession (or professions). The cabinet-maker giveth, and the cabinet-maker taketh away! 😀

  23. Proof of my long-held distrust of Brodies!

  24. Yes, May I please have the contact information for that Law Firm?
    Brown, Smith, and Ainslie, Was it?
    Bless You

  25. I kind of feel an affinity with this Brodie bloke.

    I’m a perfectly respectable unemployed layabout by day but a debauched lecherous gadfly by night.

  26. I am running out of ways to say awesome when it comes to facts. My friends chide me at work for being the master of useless information. My response is that there is no such thing as useless information, there is only information. For us who write, it is true times a thousand.

    Anyway, great story of the Jekyll and Hyde creation.

    Even greater is the story of the man who died by his own creation. It is a recurrent and powerful theme in our society. Ironic and deadly.

    I love your post. Please keep it up!!!

  27. there once was a line of kitchen dinettes….BRODY.

  28. Once again my lady wow. I must be away. Christmas is at hand

  29. Old-fashioned, Scottish version of ‘Breaking Bad’ waiting to happen.

  30. He sounds very contemporary. I guess he was a criminal before his time.

  31. So he was arrested after playing the part of the Primed Bill Bodie.

  32. That collar is really weird. Is it a corset for a double-chin?

    Interesting to read that he was the inspiration for J & H

  33. I would have used copper for the tube instead of silver and save money.Silver’s at $42 an ounce now !

  34. I love that old albumen print…
    (looks like a fascinating link, too, N.M!)

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