William Brodie was ostensibly a respectable member of Edinburgh society in the 18th century but he also led a secret life as a thief and was the inspiration for one of the most famous works of fiction.
Brodie was born in 1741 and became a respected cabinet-maker and became the deacon (or president) of the Incorporation of Wrights, the trade association that controlled cabinetmaking.
This position gave Brodie a seat on the town council and he moved among the great and the good of Edinburgh who had no idea that this apparently upstanding citizen hid a secret life that would have scandalised them. For Brodie was a gambler and was the father of five illegitimate children born to two different mistresses.
He needed to raise money to cover his gambling debts and maintain his secret families so by night he turned to crime. Brodie used his job to learn the security precautions of his wealthy clients and to make copies of their house keys so that he could later rob them.
Brodie reputedly began his criminal career around 1768 when he copied keys to a bank door and stole £800 and by 1786 he had recruited a gang of three thieves to support his nefarious activities.
Realising that the game was up, Brodie escaped to London and then to Holland intending to leave Europe for America but he was arrested in Amsterdam and shipped back to Scotland to stand trial.
The tools of Brodie’s criminal trade were found at his home and workshop and along with the evidence of two of the gang members, he was sentenced to death and was hanged on 1st October 1788 before a crowd of 40,000. Ironically, Brodie himself had helped to design the gallows.
According to some, Brodie wore a steel collar so that the hanging would not be fatal and rumour had it that he was later seen in Paris. The reality is that he was buried in an unmarked grave at the Buccleuch Church.
The tale inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write the play ‘Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life’ and later the story we are all familiar with – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.