William Brodie: Double Life of an 18th Century Man

Deacon Brodie was born William Brodie and appeared to be a respectable Scotsman. He was a cabinet-maker, Edinburgh city councilor, and deacon of the trades guild. However, it was revealed in 1788 that he had been maintaining a secret life as a housebreaker and thief and that he was doing so because he found it thrilling and because it helped fund his gambling addiction.

Image of William Brodie.

William Brodie. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

William Brodie was born on 28 September 1741 in Edinburgh to Francis Brodie (a wright and burgess) and his wife, Cecil Grant. The young Brodie grew up in Lawnmarket and when his double life was discovered psychological interest in him made him a well-known and infamous figure. In fact, Scottish author, novelist, and poet Robert Louis Stevenson (who wrote Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and A Child’s Garden of Verses) was strongly interested in him, partly because his father owned furniture built by Brodie.

“As early as 1864 [Stevenson] prepared the draft of a play founded upon it, which … finally took shape in the melodrama, ‘Deacon Brodie, or the Double life,’ … and [was] published in 1892. It may even be that the conception of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ was suggested to Stevenson by his study of the dual nature so strikingly exemplified in [Brodie].”[1]

Robert Louis Stevenson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When William Brodie was a young man, he pursued respectable employment and was viewed as a qualified tradesman. He also became a member of Edinburgh’s most famous social clubs. However, he spent his evenings “largely devoted to gambling and kindred pursuits”[2] at disreputable taverns reputedly using loaded dice and gambling alongside the likes of sharpers and dupes. He also became enamored with cock fighting and began betting regularly on the sport. Between his tavern gambling and cock fighting bets, he lost large amounts of money and that is what forced him to supplement his income in illegal ways that included housebreaking. His life of crime resulted in the following allegations being levied against him:

“One night in August, 1768, the counting-house of Johnston & Smith, bankers in the Exchange, was entered by means of a false key, and upwards of £800 in bank notes carried off. Two nights afterwards £225 of money was found, wrapped in paper, at the door of the Council Chamber; but the balance was never recovered, and no clue to the delinquent could be obtained. The discovery, many years afterwards, of Deacon Brodie’s exploits induced a strong suspicion that he was concerned in the affair. It was then recollected that, prior to the robbery the Deacon had been employed in making various repairs on the premise, and had frequent occasion to be in the bank. The key of the outer door, from which it was ascertained he had taken an impression … usually hung in the passage, a custom of which the Deacon … often afterwards took unscrupulous advantage.”[3]

In 1782, Brodie’s father died, and the younger Brodie inherited his father’s sizeable Edinburgh estate along with £10,000 in specie. Brodie’s gambling lifestyle unfortunately quickly did away with the inheritance, and he ended up living in “deplorable” conditions. In the meantime, he also had two mistresses: Anne Grant, who bore him three children, and Jean Watt by whom he had two boys. Neither woman knew of the other’s existence and his family and friends also knew nothing of the women or his children. Nonetheless, despite his gambling losses and unknown mistresses his reputation remained “estimable.”

Had William Brodie been able to resist gambling and his propensity for “dissipation” it is believed his life would have been “highly satisfactory.” He was earning upwards of £600 as a wright and his social position and business dealings secured “him the best cabinetmaking business in Edinburgh.”[4] Yet, despite all his lucrative dealings he was frequently at a loss for money. How he made up for these losses was described in the following way:

“He knew the locks and bolts of all the houses of his customers; was familiar with their internal arrangements and the habits of the owners; and could, without incurring remark, exhibit in such matters a professional interest in the houses of his friends and acquaintances. No doubt he was sometimes consulted, at a later stage, as to the best means of defence against his own infraction.”[5]

Initially Brodie worked alone in his thefts. However, although he might have started out as a lone robber, he eventually befriended George Smith, a locksmith and grocer, who arrived in 1768 in Edinburgh, the same city where Madame Tussaud would later appear with her traveling wax museum. Smith and Brodie soon joined forces. They began successfully robbing businesses and private homes and before long two other criminals, a shoemaker named Andrew Ainslie and an escaped thief, John Brown, aka Humphry Moore, joined them.

So masterful was Brodie in his ruse of being a respectable citizen no one became suspicious of him or had any inkling of his secret life. Shortly after he and his gang had succeeding in stealing some ceremonial mace from the University of Edinburgh, Brodie decided to organize his most daring crime. It involved stealing the revenues of Scotland and included an armed raid on the Chessel’s Court excise office in the Canongate.

The robbery plan was audacious. Brodie cut the keys to gain access, and, in addition, this time, the gang armed themselves with pistols. However, during the robbery Brodie allegedly fell asleep. Police had in the meantime been alerted to the crime and interrupted the robbers. Thus, the gang barely escaped and made off with a mere £16 for all their efforts.

In the meantime, a reward of £150 for a previous robbery conducted by Brodie and his gang was offered. Brown learned of the reward and could not resist. He went to the police and gave them the names of Ainslie and Smith, who were then arrested. When William Brodie learned of the arrests of his accomplices, he knew he would be arrested next. To avoid capture, he fled to Amsterdam hoping to ultimately settle in America. Unfortunately, a 200-pound reward was offered for him and details about him were also printed in the Caledonian Mercury in March 1788:

“WILLIAM BRODIE is about 5 feet 4 inches; is about forty-eight years of age, but looks rather younger than he is; broad at the shoulders, and very finall over the loins; has dark brown full eyes, with large black eye-brows; under the right eye there is the scar of a cut, which is still a little sore at the point of the eye next to the nose; and a cast with his eye that makes him somewhat the look of a Jew; a sallow complection; a particular motion with his mouth and lips, when he speaks, which he does full and slow, his mouth being commonly open at the time, and his tongue doubling up as it were, shews itself towards the root of his mouth; black hair, twisted, turned up, and tied behind, coming far down upon each cheek, and the whiskers very sandy at the end; high topped in the front, and frizzed at the side; high smooth forehead; has a particular air in his walk, takes long steps, strikes the ground first with his heel, bending both feet inwards before he moves them again; usually wears a stick under hand … his legs small above the ankle, large ankle-bones, … high brawns, small at the knees, which bend when he walks, as if through weakness. ― Was dressed in a black coat, vest, breeches, and stockings, a stript duffle great coat, and halved shoe-buckles.”[6]  

William Brodie

William Brodie. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

Knowing that he was being sought Brodie attempted to escape Amsterdam. Nonetheless, before he could do so he was discovered hiding in a cupboard and apprehended by a Mr. Groves. Brodie was then returned to Edinburgh to stand trial and committed to Tothill-fields Bridewell.

William Brodie was also not alone in being charged with theft. Smith was indicted with him for having “feloniously broken into the house [of] the General Excise Office for Scotland … on the night of March 5, 1788, and from thence stealing money … consisting of bank-notes, silver, and half-pence.”[7] The men were brought before the High Court on Wednesday 27 August 1788. The Scots Magazine reported:

“The public anxiety had been so much excited by this trial, that every part of the court was filled at an early hour. … A quarter before nine o’clock the prisoners were brought into the court in chairs, guarded by a party of the city-guard. Mr. Brodie was dressed in a new dark blue coat, a fancy vest, black sattin breeches, and white silk stockings, and his hair full dressed. Smith was meanly dressed. The demeanour of the first was easy and confident; that of the latter timid and dejected.”[8]

Initially there was no hard evidence against Brodie but soon the tools of his criminal trade (copied keys, a disguise, and pistols) were discovered. These were found in his house and workshops. In addition, testimony given by Brown and the fact that Ainslie was persuaded to turn king’s evidence, along with self-incriminating statements written in letters by Brodie while on the run, resulted in the jury finding him and Smith guilty. Both were sentenced to death.

Brodie did not want to die and after being convicted, he addressed a letter dated 10 September 1788 to a lady in Edinburgh. He implored her to help him avoid the death penalty:

“Madam―Lett me beseech your ladyship to pardon my boldness in making the present address … this much I am convinced of, that the current of popular prejudice is so strong against me, that it will be well worth me if I can rescue my life on any terms; and tho’ my friends are making application above, I have little hopes of the success, unless some respectable characters … interest themselves in my behalf. With all the fortitude of a man, I must confess … that I feel that natural horror at death … and would willingly avoid it, even on the condition of spending my future years at Botany Bay. … if your ladyship and your most respectable friend, the Right Honorable Henry Dudass, would deign to patronise my suite, I would have little reason to doubt the success. … Think for one moment, but no longer, what it is to be wretched, doomed to death, helpless in chains, an’ you will excuse an effort from life from the most infatuated and miserable of men, who can confer no compliment in subscribing himself, madam, your ladyship’s devoted humble servt.”[9]

Brodie’s plea did not help, and he got no reprieve. He and Smith were hanged at the Old Tolbooth in High Street on 1 October 1788. A crowd of 40,000 were supposedly present. The London Times provided some of the details related to Brodie’s death:

“When the executioner proceeded to bind his arms he requested that it might not be done too tight, as he wished to have use of his hands, at the same time assuring his friends, that he should not struggle. He twice ascended the platform, which was raised much higher than at former executions … before he ascended the platform the last time, he was addressed by his fellow-sufferer, G. Smith, they then shook hands, and parted. Mr. Brodie proceeded to take off his neckcloth, opened his shirt-collar, and mounted with great alertness; he then adjusted the rope about his neck, put the cap on, and taking a friend who stood close to him by the hand, bade him farewell … The platform dropped, he was launched into eternity, almost without a struggle. Thus fell William Brodie a just sacrifice to the law of his country.”[10]

After his execution, rumors persisted that Brodie had somehow escaped death. There were also claims that he had been spotted in Paris and these gave credence to the idea that he remained alive. But William Brodie did not escape death. He was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Cuthbert’s Chapel of Ease on Chapel Street. Nonetheless, some of the rumors from these times were mentioned in 1888 in the Shields Daily Gazette:

“As the day appointed for the execution of Deacon Brodie approached, public excitement increased. The wildest rumors were circulated of an intention on the part of numerous friends to rescue him by breaking into the Tolbooth, as the rioters had done on the night of the Porteous mob. A still more incredible story was put into circulation that means were to be taken to keep him from being strangled when suspended, and to reanimate him the moment he was cut down. A silver tube it was said, would be inserted in his throat, and wires placed from head to feet, to prevent his head from being dislocated. His friend would be ready to receive his body at the earliest moment, and convey it to his own house in the Lawnmarket, where the restoring process would at once be proceeded with. It is needless to say that these rumors were mere offsprings of excited imaginations though some colour was given to the last by a letter which Brodie wrote to the Lord Provost of the city two hours before the execution requesting his Lordship to give orders that his body should be delivered immediately to his friends for interment.”[11]

Perhaps the only good thing that came out of Brodie’s time as criminal was that one reporter provided some useful information to readers about how to avoid being a victim of a robbery. The reporter had talked with the imprisoned Smith before his death and Smith provided him with some useful tips and information:

“A shopkeeper when he opens shop in the morning, hangs his key sometimes on the back, often on the front of his door ― two of a gang enter (and many gangs there are especially in England, who have reduced shop-breaking to a system), and while one of them cheapens goods, the other, with a bit of putty in the hollow of his hand, takes, in an instant, the impression of the key, where it hangs. It was in this way Smith got the key of the Excise Office; and the very first copy he made, though no blacksmith, fitted the lock exactly.”[12]


  • [1] W. Roughead, ed., Trial of Deacon Brodie (Glasgow: Canada Law Book Company, 1906), p. 10.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 13.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 15.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 18.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Caledonian Mercury, “Two Hundred Pounds of Reward,” March 13, 1788, p. 1.
  • [7] “The Scots Magazine,” August 1, 1788, p. 365–66.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 365.
  • [9] A. Fergusson and E. Cust, The Honourable Henry Erskine Lord Advocate for Scotland with Notices of Certain of His Kinsfolk and of His Time (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1882), p. 309–10.
  • [10] The Times, “William Brodie,” October 8, 1788, p. 4.
  • [11] Shields Daily Gazette, “Deacon Brodie or Death in the Dice Box,” May 31, 1888, p. 2.
  • [12] Hampshire Chronicle, October 13, 1788, p. 4.

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