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.).


Who’s a bonny lass then? Part 2

Last year I picked up a Vintage Classic two-for-one special: Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Trainspotting formed one pack but cost the price of one book. Cool. I must admit that I only wanted Oliver Twist and would have been perfectly happy purchasing that one when my ever self-righteous mind told me what a smashing idea it would be to read Scotland’s most talked about novel of the 90’s. I mean, you watched the movie a good couple of times; would it kill you to read the book? Didn’t you always say that the book is ALWAYS better than the movie? Why was Ewan Macgregor running down Princes’ Street so fast for anyway?

All these thoughts rushed through my head and I walked out the store feeling quite pleased and content with my purchase. Surprisingly I placed Dickens aside in favour of the Scottish classic. I expected a great read from the beginning. I expected fall-off-your-chair humour. I expected deep, philosophical meaning to seep through to me from within the wretchedness that is a drug addict’s life. I expected…

I could not get past the first page. That was how much my eyes were hurting.

The entire text was written in the Scottish dialect. Almost every word was not spelt as how it should have been spelt but rather as it would have been spoken.  To amuse myself, I read a paragraph out aloud and as sure as day, I was quite convinced that if a stranger was listening to me, they would assume I was born in Leith and lived there all my life (you would like to know that it had not occurred to me that certain Scots from Edinburgh sounded like that even though I had interacted with them for almost two years. Thinking about some of my Scottish friends however, I did realize that their accents are pretty accentuated. My ears had obviously become accustomed to it so that in the end I couldn’t tell. Strange but true). 

Needless to say I didn’t bother reading anymore and chucked the book into a top cupboard, where it exacted its revenge many months later. And I’m glad it did.  It was in this little novel that I found the answer. The answer to what I like to call, in true Conan Doyle style, The Problem of the Scottish Dialect.

Now you might ask yourself that if Trainspotting was set in the present day, how will it help my story that is set 200 years ago? Well, let me tell you that if you ever get a chance to read Welsh’s Trainspotting or perhaps have a glance at the text, to the untrained eye it will look like something out of a medieval text. Chaucer himself might try to dig his way out of his own grave to take a look.

When I compared it to certain quotes from the collection of Edinburgh tales (refer to my previous blog Part 1), I saw no remarkable difference.  In any case it was authenticity I was going for, not naturalism. I will off course be diluting the dialogue a little bit- a mixture of English and Scottish lest you be inflicted with eyestrain.

In the end, does a character’s accent make a difference? I think it does. It enhances individuality and if done right, can make a text that much more enjoyable to read.

I am happy to announce that I am more than halfway to completing Old Mason’s Close. I like to think I have overcome this hurdle. Whether the result is worth the effort is an entirely different story. If it isn’t, you will find me in the pub with a double Scotch in hand. Neat, off course.

Who’s a bonny lass then? Part 1…

Stamp Office Close, Edinburgh

I found myself hitting a brick wall recently while working on one particular short story. It was not the plot or progress of the story that proved to be the problem. It happened, strangely enough, to be the dialogue. The wise axiom, it’s not what you say but how you say it, never proved to be more relevant.
And with this story in particular, having spent nearly two years in Scotland, you would think I would be better prepared with a wealth of knowledge and experience at my disposal to overcome this obstacle. Alas, I am ashamed to say, I may as well have been a stranger to the land of Lochs and haunted castles and never set my foot there. My story, which I have named Old Mason’s Close, is set (as you would of probably guessed) in Edinburgh.
Scotland’s capital is quite the cosmopolitan city. Now if I had to set the scene in present day Edinburgh (as I did with one of my completes: Vigils at Yester, check out My Stories soon!), I would not have a problem. Standard written English would do. Unfortunately Old Mason’s Close is set almost 200 years ago and due to my excessive need for authenticity, I decided that all my characters should speak in the dialect reminiscent of the period in question. Herein lies the problem.
I often wondered about written accents. It’s so easy to hear someone speak and then try to figure out where they could be from but having to write on paper HOW they speak is far easier than it looks.

 In trying to tackle this problem, my thoughts rested on one book I brought back from my travels. It is a series of macabre and supernatural legends from Old Edinburgh. I thought of this source first because the style of the writing was very informal and contained some colloquial dialogue from the various periods in the city’s past. But again it did not prove very helpful. The few direct quotes I found spanned many centuries so there was no consistency in what I was studying and apart from a few common words I managed to extract, it was not enough to pull off entire conversations.
Then it struck me. No really, it really did STRIKE me. As I stood on a stool trying to retrieve a book from a top cupboard, a small pile of books came cascading down on me. Some landed in my arms; some landed on the floor. As I got off the stool to pick those of the floor, I saw it: Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
You are probably wondering how this profane, explicit, self-indulgent morality tale, posing as an artistic attempt to showcase the seedier side of human nature as the result of a society gone bad, saved me sleepless nights and gave me the confidence to proceed swiftly along with Old Mason’s Close?
Well dear friends, I will not give it away just yet. If indeed you have already read Trainspotting(and I must say, I would be incredibly impressed if you did) you probably have an inkling as to how I solved my Scottish dialect problem. Or solving, in the present tense would be a better word as I have not completed my work as yet. Watch this space!

As an avid reader (which I will assume you are), what do you think of written dialects in fiction? Do you think it’s a waste of time on the author’s part, or does it really propel the individuality of a character? Tell me what you think. 

Love always



Image taken from courtesy of P.Stubbs