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Deacon's Double Life

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader.

Deacon William Brodie has been largely forgotten, but he was as notorious in his day as the stock swindler Bernie Madoff is today. He was also the inspiration for one of English literature’s most infamous villains. See if you can guess which one it is.


William Brodie was born in 1741 to one of the most prominent carpenters and cabinet makers in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Francis Brodie, was a leader, or “deacon,” of a guild of skilled tradesmen, a position that also gave him a seat on the city council. Francis’s standing in the community brought him access to the highest social circles, and examples of his handiwork could be found in many of the finest homes in the city. (Image credit: John Kay/CC)

When young William was old enough, he began to learn his father’s trade. Like his father, he rose in his profession until he, too, was a deacon of his guild and a member of the city council. His status, profession, and family connections should have been enough to ensure a comfortable life for the rest of his days… except for the fact that there was one way that he didn’t take after his father: William was, at heart, a scoundrel.


During the day, Brodie was to all appearances a morally upright citizen and a pillar of the community. But at night he prowled the worst neighborhoods of Edinburgh feeding a compulsive appetite for vice. He frequented a seedy tavern in a back alley called Fleshmarket Close, where he consorted with criminals and gambled at dice and on cockfights. He wasn’t very good with dice, even when he played with his own crooked pair. He wasn’t good at picking winning roosters, either, and lost huge sums of money at both.

Brodie had two mistresses that historians know of, and fathered five children by them. To his credit, he supported both his families (neither of which knew about the other), but the expense of maintaining their households plus his own, when added to his substantial gambling losses, was more than he could afford.


At some point in the 1760s, Brodie began stealing from the customers of his cabinetry business to support his lifestyle. His modus operandi was simple: in those days it was common practice in private homes, businesses, and even government offices to leave the key to the front door hanging on a nail next to the door. When Brodie was building cabinets in someone’s home, he’d quietly case the premises while pretending to go about his work. Then, when no one was looking, he’d take the key from its nail and quickly press it into a wad of putty that he kept in a small metal case in his pocket. He’d return the key to its hook and later use the impression to make a duplicate key. Weeks or months afterward, when enough time had passed for him to avoid suspicion, he’d return with the duplicate and burglarize the home. (Image credit: Kim Traynor)


Brodie pulled off one such break-in after another for nearly 20 years. Twice he robbed homes that he believed would be empty but, in fact, were not. One belonged to a friend, who recognized Brodie even though he was wearing a mask. Perhaps because in those days burglary was punishable by death, the friend never turned him in. The second case involved an old woman who was sick in bed at a time when she should have been at church. On that occasion Brodie was, ironically, saved by his good name, as William Roughead related in his 1906 book Trial of Deacon Brodie:

[The old lady] was alone in the house— her servant having gone to church— when she was startled by the apparition of a man, with a crepe [mask] over his face, in the room where she was sitting. The stranger quietly lifted the keys which were lying on the table beside her, opened her bureau, from which he took out a large sum of money, and then, having locked it and replaced the keys upon the table, retired with a respectful bow. The old lady meanwhile, had looked on in speechless amazement, but no sooner was she left alone than she exclaimed, “Surely that was Deacon Brodie!” Although the Deacon was recognized, no action was taken.… The old lady preferred to doubt the evidence of her senses— a striking proof of the advantages conferred by a respectable reputation.


A few cases of (un)mistaken identity aside, Deacon Brodie had a pretty good thing going. He might have kept it going even longer than he did, were it not for one thing: he wanted to pull even bigger jobs, and for that he needed help. Since he was already a fixture at some of the seediest establishments in Edinburgh, he had no trouble finding three accomplices: George Smith, a crooked traveling salesman with experience as a locksmith; Andrew Ainslie, a compulsive gambler; and John Brown, a convicted swindler on the run from the law. (Image credit: John Kay/CC)

The gang pulled its first job in October 1786, when it broke into a goldsmith’s shop and made off with the gold. Burglaries of hardware stores, tobacconists, jewelry shops, grocers, silk merchants, and other businesses soon followed. At each location the gang stole money and any goods they could lay their hands on that were valuable and easy to fence. Tea was a rare, pricey commodity in those days, and in one burglary of a grocer they made off with more than 350 pounds of the stuff. When they broke into the library at the University of Edinburgh in October 1787, they took the school’s ceremonial silver mace.


In early 1788, Brodie planned his biggest burglary yet: robbing Scotland’s General Excise Office of its tax receipts. He’d done work there and was familiar with the layout. And like other visitors to the office, he’d noticed that even in a building supposedly as secure as this one, the key to the front door was still hung on a nail next to the door. Brodie had no trouble distracting the cashier at the front desk while George Smith took the key from its nail and made a quick impression in some putty he had in his pocket.

But the burglary didn’t go as well as the gang’s earlier heists had. All they managed to find was £16 worth of banknotes (around $1,600 today), missing the £600 (almost $60,000) hidden under the cashier’s desk. Then, when a tax official unexpectedly entered the building while they were burglarizing it, the thieves panicked and fled rather than pounce on any intruders as had been planned. (The official didn’t even realize there were burglars in the building; he only learned about the heist when someone told him about it later.)


(Image credit: Kim Traynor)

By now there was a £250 reward (nearly $25,000) for the identification and capture of the burglars, plus the promise of a king’s pardon for any of the criminals who informed against their accomplices. John Brown, already a wanted man, decided to take the deal. He figured (correctly) that the prosecutor would agree to pardon all of his crimes, even the ones he committed before joining up with Deacon Brodie, in exchange for his testimony.

As soon as Brown collected his £4 cut of the General Excise Office burglary, he marched straight to the sheriff’s office and ratted out Ainslie and Smith… but not Brodie, whom he hoped to blackmail. Brodie naturally assumed he had been implicated, and when Ainslie and Smith were arrested he fled to Holland, where he hoped to catch a boat to America. He never made it. After both Ainslie and Smith implicated him, he was tracked to Amsterdam, arrested, and hauled back to Scotland for trial.


The evidence against the gang was overwhelming. A search of Brodie’s home turned up more duplicate keys, a metal case filled with the putty they used to make impressions, plus several lock picks and other burglary tools. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ainslie joined Brown and turned King’s evidence against Brodie and Smith. Both men were found guilty and were sentenced to death by hanging. On October 1, 1788, in front of a crowd of some 40,000 people, the largest ever for a hanging in Edinburgh, Brodie and Smith were executed… or were they?

There was little doubt that Smith met his maker, but rumors abounded that Brodie had bribed the executioner for a “short drop,” or shortened length of rope, to prevent his neck from breaking when the trapdoor on the gallows was sprung. Different versions of the story had him wearing a metal band around his neck, a harness under his clothes, or a silver tube in his throat to prevent choking. A doctor had supposedly hidden nearby to revive him as soon as his family claimed the body. “If this succeeded,” William Roughead relates in Trial of Deacon Brodie, “the Deacon was to lie quiet in his coffin, exhibiting no signs of life, till such time as it could be safely removed to his own house…. Whether or not this remarkable program was ever carried out was never recorded.”


Regardless of whether Brodie survived, his legend certainly did, thanks in no small part to his day job as a cabinet maker. After his double life was exposed, the cabinets, chests and other furniture he’d made became instant conversation pieces. For years afterward, people in many of the finest homes in Edinburgh delighted in showing off Deacon Brodie’s handiwork as they told his story to friends.

One such man was a lighthouse engineer named Thomas Stevenson. He had one of Brodie’s cabinets in the nursery of his home, and his young son, Robert, never tired of the nanny telling the story of the man who was one person by day and another by night. Robert —whose full name was Robert Louis Stevenson— would grow up to become an excellent storyteller in his own right. He wrote his first play about Brodie in 1864 when he was only 14, and returned to the story repeatedly over the years. In 1882, when he was in his 30s, he and a friend brought a version titled Deacon Brodie, or the Double Life to the stage.

But Stevenson’s most famous story inspired by Deacon Brodie came about in 1885, when publisher Charles Longman asked him to write a ghost story for Christmas. Legend has it that much of the plot, about a doctor who invents a potion that turns him into a homicidal madman, came to Stevenson in a dream, that he wrote the story in only three days, and that when his wife didn’t like it, he threw it on the fire and rewrote the story in another three days. First published in January 1886, the novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been in print ever since.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader. The latest annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series features fascinating history, silly science, and obscure origins, plus fads, blunders, wordplay, quotes, and a few surprises

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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