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. 🙂
Deacon Brodie Influences
Deacon Brodie by Stevenson RL. and Henly WE.
Deacon Brodie (1997) starring Billy Connolly. Dir. Phillip Saville
Wilson, AJ; Brogan D; McGrail F. Ghostly Tales and Sinister Stories of Old Edinburgh. Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh & London. 2003(latest ed.).