Saturday, 1 October 2011

It's unofficial.......

While I’m slowly progressing with the panelling for The Green Room in The Tenement I thought I would tell you the story of a well know Edinburgh rogue – Deacon William Brodie. I pass the Deacon Brodie bar on the Royal Mile every Wednesday on route to my little volunteer slot at Gladstone’s Land.

Deacon Brodie was born 28th September 1741 and died 1st October 1788 so for the purposes of this blog, today is unofficially "Deacon Brodie Day".

*William Brodie’s father was a respected cabinetmaker in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket and became a member of the Town Council but William enjoyed the life of a playboy and although he also became a skilled wood-worker, he spent much of his time gambling (reputedly with loaded dice). Nevertheless, he was able to charm his family and the wealthy customers. On the night of his father’s death he was gambling as usual.

Having inherited the family business, Brodie led a double life, first as a qualified tradesman and pillar of the community, but also with a dissolute side, gambling heavily. His expenses were increased by his support to his mistresses and five illegitimate children. He also socialised with the gentry of Edinburgh and is known to have met Robert Burns and the painter Sir Henry Raeburn.

Inevitably running short of money, he began to take wax impressions of the keys to houses in which he was working legitimately as a wood-worker. He would then return at night and rob the houses of the items he had identified during the day. He teamed up with an English locksmith, George Smith and together they became very “successful” and daring. They even stole the silver mace from the University.

Two more partners in crime were added to the gang and this was to be Brodie’s undoing. During a bungled raid on the Excise Office, Brodie fell asleep during the robbery and the gang only just managed to escape. One of the gang decided to accept the large reward offered by the Town Council but Brodie heard of the arrest of his accomplices and fled to Amsterdam. He was found later (on the point of sailing to America) and was extradited to stand trial.

His capture and trial so captivated the citizens of Edinburgh there was a reputed crowd of 40,000.   Found guilty, he was sentenced to be hanged. The story goes that he was hung on a new style of gibbet of his own design. It was also suggested that Brodie hired a surgeon to insert a bendable tube down his throat which would prevent his neck from breaking. It is here that Brodie’s notoriety was to increase for it was also said that he was provided with a harness to cheat the hangman and that he was spirited away afterwards by friends to a doctor in an attempt to revive him. Did they succeed? Rumours circulated later that he had been seen in Paris.

Some years later when his coffin was opened – it was empty. Was he spirited away by friends to enhance the legend or did he defy the hangman’s noose and continue to live a contented and debauched life?

The double life of Deacon Brodie as the respectable tradesman and daring thief is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.

* With grateful thanks to Scottie of Rampant Scotland for the use of the text.


  1. What a very interesting story! I love when you tell us about Edinburgh and Scotland.
    By the way did you tell the staff at the Gladstone's Land that you are making one in miniature? It must be fantastic for you to spend time there as a seller.

  2. Thank you for sharing this amazing tale. They certainly packed a lot into their short lives!!

  3. I must say that this story impressed me a little ... Only recently I discovered this method to deceive the Executioner, so I tend to believe that yes, the coffin is empty because he has continued to fool everyone ... somewhere else ;-)
    Mini hugs, my friend
    P.S I' am still at the mercy of flu, I am really down, but I hope to recover soon ...

  4. Irene, this Rascal is one for the Ages! And Spooky enough for Halloween..... :)

  5. Thanks everyone. It was an interesting little diversion. Unfortunately one or two folk have problems leaving a comment - I don't know what happened with that but thanks for the thought anyway.

    Flora - I hope you're keeping better and I have another little tale up my sleeve for another time.

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