The Strange Case of Deacon Brodie – An HML Post

The term “Jekyll and Hyde” has become a famous metaphor for anyone who is two-faced, hypocritical or deceptive. Even if you have never read Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous horror novella, you probably know the gist of the story anyway. A well-respected gentleman by day who, with the aid of a potion, turns into a sadistic debauched monster at night in order to fulfil his animalistic tendencies.
It is a supernatural tale of course but did you know that the story of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was actually inspired by a real person?

The true-life story of Deacon Brodie

Artist’s sketch of Deacon Brodie

William Brodie was born to a prosperous family in Edinburgh in 1741. His father was a respected and reputable cabinet-maker and at the age of 41, William inherited his father’s business and vast fortune. With his financial situation taken care of and a thriving cabinet-making business, he seemed set for life. He acquired many titles as a result of his benevolent reputation: Burgess, Guildbrother and Deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights and eventually rising to prominence as official Town Councillor.However there was one dark secret that the Honourable Deacon Brodie hid from upper-class Edinburgh society: he was a compulsive gambler and often lost large sums of money as a result. The only people who knew of his weakness were the disreputable inhabitants of Edinburgh’s seedy underbelly-the gambling houses, brothels etc. He often fraternized with petty criminals and other men of disrepute.
To add to his secret activities, he also kept two mistresses, whilst putting up the front of being a responsible family man. Rumour has it that he bore over six illegitimate children.

With his gambling debts mounting and having to support three households, William Brodie was soon strapped for cash. He soon had to find other means of making money while still keeping up the appearance of an honourable and affluent citizen.

Edinburgh plagued by burglaries

Between 1786 and 1788, numerous establishments were burgled and looted with no suspects being apprehended. In March 1788, one John Brown came forth with information pertaining to a robbery that had taken place months before at a silk mercer’s shop on the High Street. He admitted involvement in the robbery and turned himself in (motivated by the generous monetary reward that was publicized as well as a promised reprieve from punishment). He also implicated his friend and accomplice George Smith. Brown also admitted to various other crimes and robberies including an unsuccessful burglary at the Excise Office – a building that stored most of the collected taxes and revenues of the entire country. He left out one vital piece of information however.
While both men were ensconced in the Tolbooth awaiting trial, news broke out that Deacon William Brodie had fled Edinburgh for London leaving absolutely no explanation for his sudden departure. The reason however would soon be revealed.

Deacon Brodie exposed

When John Brown heard that Brodie had fled the Scottish Capital, he dropped the bombshell that would leave Edinburgh High society reeling in shock. Brown revealed how, since 1786, it was actually Brodie who had orchestrated the string of robberies, along with him(Brown), Smith and another man Andrew Ainslie. Brown had initially withheld this information in hopes of bribing the lionized Town Councillor.

Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Now that Brodie had disappeared, Brown gave full evidence that brought the Deacon’s double life into the spotlight…

Brodie had been robbing establishments long before the formation of his gang. He would often visit tradesmen for a bit of idle chit-chat at their place of work with a piece of putty concealed in his hands. He would take impressions of the keys to their shops (back in those days, the keys were hung on a nail at the back of a shop) when the owners were busy with other customers, have a copy made and break into the shop later that night.
Robbing humble shopkeepers was not lucrative however and that is when Brodie recruited Brown, Smith(a locksmith) and Ainslie.
Amongst the many ‘jobs’ that the quartet had carried out, it was revealed that it was in fact Brodie’s gang who were responsible for the theft of the College Mace at Edinburgh University in 1787. The disappearance of the silver mace from the College Library made headline news and the next day, Town Councillor Brodie, in true thespian fashion, expressed his shock and outrage at the crime.
Their biggest job however, was not a successful one and inadvertently led to the demise of the gang, resulting in Brown’s confession.
In early 1788, Brodie set his mind on the Excise Office. Given his influence, Brodie had connections within the establishment. Having managed to create a false key to the building, the robbery was planned for the 5th March.

It all goes wrong.

Three of the men found no trouble in entering the building of the Excise Office while Ainslie stood watch outside. The plan went downhill from there however when Ainslie, on seeing an employee rush into the building and then rush out a minute later, panicked and blew the alarm-whistle. He fled thinking their cover had been blown.

He was wrong however. The employee had rushed in having forgotten some documents. The man bumped into Brodie whose presence there raised no suspicions and he left soon after. Brodie, feeling the heat however, departed as well, leaving Smith and Brown in another part of the building.
Smith and Brown ransacked the areas that were most likely to have money stored. But they failed dismally in their search, managing to only find £16. Comically, they missed a secret drawer containing £600!
John Brown was not happy with Brodie for having deserted them and that’s when the gang parted ways.
When the Deacon fled Scotland in March of 1788, a £200 bounty was placed on his head following Brown’s full confession. For months, Brodie evaded capture. His whereabouts were eventually traced to Amsterdam. He was captured and held by Dutch officials until July, when he was returned back to Edinburgh.
Given his fame, Brodie’s trial became the centre of an 18th century version of a media circus. It seemed unbelievable to the people of Edinburgh how such an upstanding member of society could have deceived almost everyone by leading such a life of corruption and wickedness.
On 28th August 1788, Deacon William Brodie was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in 1850, more than 60 years after the death of Deacon Brodie. Even though the two men were a generation apart and never met, Stevenson’s father knew the famous Brodie who actually built a cabinet for Stevenson Snr. which currently stands in the Writers’ Museum in the Scottish capital. Stevenson must have heard tales of the famous Brodie as a child.In 1880, Stevenson wrote a play with WE Henly simply titled Deacon Brodie, loosely based on the disgraced former Town Councillor. The author’s interest in Brodie did not wane after that though. The idea of the duality in man’s personality continued to fascinate him and in 1886, he wrote The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which many consider to be a masterpiece in horror fiction.

“I had long been trying to write a story on that strong sense of man’s double being … For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterwards split in two, in which Hyde for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers”. – RL Stevenson

The spirit of Deacon Brodie will forever live on in this invented tale of evil and metamorphosis, proving once again that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. 🙂

NM  🙂

Deacon Brodie Influences

Books/Plays (Fiction)

Deacon Brodie by Stevenson RL. and Henly WE.


Deacon Brodie (1997) starring Billy Connolly. Dir. Phillip Saville

Main Reference

 Wilson, AJ; Brogan D; McGrail F. Ghostly Tales and Sinister Stories of Old Edinburgh. Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh & London. 2003(latest ed.).


30 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Deacon Brodie – An HML Post

  1. Fascinating reading. I love Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, so does Will. I read it to him all the way through, whilst stopping for constant discussion. It’s a great way to share a book with a teenager. Did your interest in Deacon Brodie start when you lived in Scotland? More posts like this please, please please.

    • Nisha says:

      Great, glad you like it. Yes, I’ll admit, I might never have known who he was if I didn’t live in Edinburgh. Absolutely gorgeous city with the most incredible history and legendary figures!
      The only problem I had with Jekyll and Hyde was that, because the metaphor is so popular, I already knew the twist in the story. Apparently the reason the novella was such a big hit when first published was because the first-time readers never saw the twist coming! I would love to have been one of those first time readers… 🙂

      • I’ve never actually been into Edinburgh. Years ago, I drove straight past it whilst working – boo. I really want to go though. Yes, can you imagine being a first time reader in those days. I’ve said that to Will about quite a few of the books from that period. Imagine sitting there with only a candle for light and having all the superstitions of the times – Frankenstein also must have been pretty frightening. Do you think you’ll go back to Edinburgh or is that the dim and distant past? Ignore me if I’m being nosey.

      • Nisha says:

        Oh I definitely want to go back. When though, is another question entirely. With Frankenstein I must be honest, I didn’t know the story very well, my perception of it was somewhat warped as I discovered. Like I didn’t realise that, not only could the monster speak, but was incredibly eloquent as well! I think that’s what made it enjoyable for me.

      • Yes, it’s amazing how so many people have seen films of Frankenstein and believe that is how the book is. Another common perception is that people call the monster Frankenstein. Were you in Edinburgh in August during the literary festival and Edinburgh Fringe?

      • Nisha says:

        That’s what modern pop culture does-with so many movies giving their own depictions of the original stories, famous books are misinterpreted by people who have never read them. Same with Dracula as well.
        Edinburgh in August and September is like a madhouse. But its also very exciting. You and Will should definitely go there for the weekend. You won’t regret it 🙂

      • Yes we definitely want to do that. I love literary festivals. Have a great weekend.

  2. nelle says:

    Excellent, so engrossing and interesting! You’ve been missed!

  3. thahir says:

    well worth the wait. i think all of us have the jekyll and hyde syndrome.
    i love these kind of posts especially re telling it to some unexpectant know-it-all and watching their reaction.
    very impressed with the detail. i am now eagerly awaiting to read your short stories.
    next time please keep the sabatical to under a month;)

  4. beckyday6 says:

    Oooh this is really cool. 🙂 A very interesting post, as always. I must admit I don’t really have much knowledge of The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde except that which I’ve gathered from general pop culture references. I would love to read it at some point though, especially now, knowing the interesting background behind it!
    Missing the £600 though! Yikes, that’s gotta burn with hindsight! Did they ever find out that they missed the £600?

    Edinborough sounds like such an amazing place with so much history, especially where writing’s concerned, and it looks like such a beautiful place as well. I would love to go there some day in the future. If I do, I’ll have to pick your brains as to which parts I should visit. 🙂

    • Nisha says:

      You should definitely read it, and its not long- only about a hundred pages. Didn’t take me long to read at all, and thats saying something! LOL. 😉

      Ha ha, and remember, back in those days, 600 was a LOT of money. They probably were told at the inquiry maybe, when details of the robbery was discussed but I’m not sure. Better for them if they didn’t know though, imagine if they had found the money? They would not have been mad at each other and Brown would not have snitched on Brodie! Ah, hindsight is a sure thing, LOL.
      Oh you should definitely go and pay the city a visit. I know this is not my place to say, but have you ever thought of studying at Edinburgh University? (just throwing it out there 😀 ) I always say the best writers come from Edinburgh- A.C Doyle, JK Rowling, RL Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, A McCall Smith , the list goes on. It’s a magical place, no wonder writers get inspired there… 🙂

      • beckyday6 says:

        Ohh really? In that case, I’m sure I’ll be able to fit it in at some point no problem. I think it would be quite refreshing to have a book that short actually! Ahh yes…I’m still stalking your currently reading page by the way. 😛 Not in a creepy way though….promise!

        Wow yeah…crazy times! That’s why I love history, so many various factors have to come together at once to create an outcome that can change the future as we know it, whether it’s something that changes the course of literature, or wars like Nazi Germany or the downfall of Nicholas II Tsar of Russia. If only S and B they had looked better, tut tut!

        Ohh damn, that’s such a great idea, why didn’t I think of that!? I can’t pick it now, I had to pick my choices quite a while back, and at the time I’m not sure I knew anything about Edinborough. It was Storytelling Nomad that piqued my interest with her A to Z holiday posts. And then I investigated and discovered that it had so much literary history. Damn, damn, damn. Ohh well, maybe for a post grad eh? If I ever make it that far. 😉

      • Nisha says:

        What ‘Currently Reading’ page? 😛 I have noooo idea what you are talking about…*maintains nonchalant facial expression*

        And stop it, you will make it further than that. You destined for great things and even if you dont do a postgrad there, you can always lecture there(?) 😉
        Ah, yes history. Such an undervalued subject, and Edinburgh is an historian’s heaven! Yeah, Katy’s posts certainly brought back some great memories. Made me sad too, cause I really would like to go back. Take advantage of your global location Becks, and get on a train there. And don’t forget to take your camera! 🙂

      • beckyday6 says:

        Hahaa haa nice try 😉

        Your faith in me is….well inspiring haha. 🙂 I just don’t like to plan too far ahead, it seems like the further ahead you plan the more you are disappointed. That may be pessimistic but it’s the way my mind works. Heck a couple of years back I didn’t even think I would be good enough to move on to ALevels! How things change. xD Hopefully the good suprizes will just keep on coming. Lecture there one day….wow, now THAT would be cool!

        I will, and when I get to go I might even post about it on my blog, seeing as it vaguely literary related. 😉

      • mj monaghan says:

        Not from California, Nisha?? 😉

      • Nisha says:

        MJ, shall we have a blog face-off to see which city has the best literary pedigree? 🙂

  5. So fun learning the background of one of my favorite classics. Thanks, Nisha!

  6. Katy says:

    How interesting, I had no idea about any of that! I’m planning a trip back to Scotland next year, so will have to retrace some of these steps, me thinks 🙂 Thanks for the fascinating read, Nisha.

    • Nisha says:

      You going back? Yay! Take me with you! Ha ha! Yes, the whole country has such an incredible history that I don’t even know most of it, and I lived there!
      Glad you enjoyed the post Katy, take care! 🙂

      • Katy says:

        Yes! It will be my treat to myself once I’ve finished my Masters. I CANNOT WAIT! And this time, instead of three days, I plan on dedicating a whole MONTH to that beautiful country. *swoon*

  7. mj monaghan says:

    Very interesting post, Nisha. I had no idea Stevenson borrowed this from real life; but then again most authors do, don’t they.

    • Nisha says:

      In some form or another they certainly do! Inspiration has to come from somewhere and when your hometown has a history of legendary characters like Deacon Brodie, it’s difficult not to be inspired! 😀

  8. Barb says:

    This reminds me that Jekyll always lives in Hyde in all of us. Great post.

  9. There is certainly a lot to learn about this topic.
    I really like all the points you’ve made.

  10. deaconbrodie says:

    I’ve just bumped into your _excellent_ post on this intriguing man. Your take has a depth which others have missed (or, simply, got wrong). Having grown up in Edinburgh, I was aware of the Deacon from an early age and, although Stevenson set Jekyll and Hyde in London, it’s the duality of Edinburgh which leaps forward. The city _still_ has it :-).

    Regards, David.

    • Nisha says:

      Thank you for your lovely comment, it really made my day. Having lived in Edinburgh myself I truly agree, the city has a personality (or personalities) of its own.

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