Val H Edinburgh

William Brodie was born into a family of successful Edinburgh cabinet-makers in 1741. The close, where he served his apprenticeship at his father’s side, still exists just off the Royal Mile.

By the time he took over the business he was a respectable and trusted gentleman of Edinburgh with a clientele of the rich gentry, businesses and banks.

It is thought that he knew Robert Burns, the painter Sir Henry Raeburn and that his father had supplied cabinets to the family of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Brodie’s story should have been as that of a respectable public figure, a master craftsman and City Councillor (a position that meant he helped to design and authorise the gallows), Deacon to the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons and Head of the craft of Cabinet-makers. However, William had a second life. Known locally as ‘Deacon Brodie’ he frequented the infamous gambling dens of the city and lost money. He also is said to have supported two mistresses and numerous children.

Soon he was living beyond his means, so he hatched a lucrative plan to meet his mounting debts.

Deacon Brodie

Edinburgh Castle

He was a trusted pillar of the establishment. People came to him to have their homes made secure against burglary. This was when inspiration struck him. If he copied the keys to the locks of the gentry, banks and businesses, making wax impressions of the new keys, he could take what he wanted at a time and from a place that was convenient to him. He had the freedom to plan ahead and be careful, reducing his risk of being caught as he knew his victims, their needs, habits and buildings.

So he continued to be a respectable and trusted craftsman during the day mixing with the Edinburgh gentry and then in 1768 he began to burgle his clients’ homes or businesses, when funds were required, at night. He seemed to have come up with the perfect solution. His newly burgled clients would then come to him for more secure locking mechanisms and sturdier cabinets, so his business prospered too.

So what went wrong?

Basically, Deacon Brodie became greedy. In 1786 he expanded his nocturnal activities to include three other men: John Brown, a thief who was escaping seven years transportation, George Smith, a locksmith and Andrew Ainslie, a shoemaker. Their downfall came when Brodie fell asleep as a lookout on a very daring armed raid on His Majesty’s Excise Office, in Chessel's Court off Canongate. Brown wanted a King’s Pardon and gave information against Smith and Ainslie who were arrested the next day.

Brodie left Edinburgh for London. From there he travelled to the Netherlands, but the authorities chased him and caught him as he was about to board a ship that would have taken him to the United States. Brought back to Edinburgh in chains his home was searched and the evidence of his nocturnal activities was found: the wax trays for duplicating keys and equipment, a disguise and guns used in the raid. When his gang gave evidence against him Brodie’s fate was sealed.

Deacon Brodie

St Giles Cathedral

On October 1st 1788, 40,000 people watched his execution at the Old Tolbooth, near St Giles Cathedral, in the High Street. Ironically, he was hanged on the same scaffold that he had helped to design and authorise as Councillor.

Even that may not have been the end of Brodie. It is said he had made a metal mechanism to act as a collar, so that if he was cut down quickly he could be revived and escape again. The official version of events is that he died and is buried in an unmarked grave in Buccleuch Church graveyard.

The double life of Brodie is said to have fascinated Robert Louis Stevenson and eventually led to The Double Life of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

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