#NationalStorytellingWeek – Day Five – Deacon Brodie

#NationalStorytellingWeek – Day Five – Deacon Brodie

Deacon Brodie



Edinburgh History

Today, Edinburgh is known as the beautiful, cultural and historic capital city of Scotland. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Edinburgh has been home to people for over 10,000 years (obviously not the same people) but it wasn’t until the end of the 7th century when they started to even slightly resemble a anything that would be considered a community. In 638 a Celtic fortress was built and that is where the city, as we know it today, began.

It wasn’t until King David I of Scotland came and established an official royal settlement there in the 12th century that things really started to pick up steam.

Within two centuries, writers from across Europe began to refer to Edinburgh as the ‘Capital of Scotland’ and sure enough, it stuck. But that expansion came with growing pains. Up until the end of the 16th century the city was still confined by the snug defensive walls that surround the city. So, rather that growing outwards, buildings began to ascend and climb higher. Some building even reached the height of eleven stories, and this is before the skyscraper era. As you can imagine, all these people living in such a small area started to cause quite a problem. For a long time, Edinburgh was known as one of the filthiest, over populated urban cities in Europe. The high rise tenement buildings were absolutely packed with people.

Beneath the buildings were vaults (a delightful cross between a basement and a dungeon) and as the city started to attract more and more immigrants, they tended to find themselves packed into these shadowy vaults.

However, this was all about to change.

New Town

In the 1760’s the city reinvented itself. The idea, to build a whole new town directly opposite the old one. The town planners had a clean slate so created a grid system opposite Nor’ Loch. As construction went on over the next few years, which had originally jest been a dumping ground for sewage (and supposedly used for witch dunking) was filled in and became what is now known as Princes Street gardens.

When you come to Edinburgh, all those beautiful, ornate buildings you see – The National Gallery, Old Waverley Hotel, Jenners etc. All of it was built on the human waste of Old Town. New Town was, without-a-doubt, stunning. It was modern, beautiful and it quickly drew enlightened minds from around the world. Edinburgh, before too long, picked up the nickname ‘Athens of the North’ (this is mainly credited to Calton Hill which is known for its Ancient Grecian monuments.) With it’s rising popularity among the upper class, Edinburgh soon attracted rich and elite business owners, demanding a market for luxury products. All those magnificent Georgian townhouses basically begged for new custom furniture and decor, right? Those new and wide roads just roared for a new cart to be rode around on them.

New Town, quickly became Rich Town.

A strong divide

Because New Town was built higher up on elevation to Old Town there was a real, literal divide between the two. If you lived in the southern side of New Town you could walk out of your front door and, quite literally, look down on the poor.

As the 18th century transitioned into the 19th century, Old Town continued to suffer in the ever-growing shadow of New Town. Between 1750 and 1850 the population of Old Town tripled from 60,000 to nearly 180,000. Most of those newcomers had to make do and settle into the old part of the city and with them, came illness.

Edinburgh had become a city with a split personality. Old Town represented poverty and weakness whereas New Town represented hope, strength and financial wealth – it was rare for anyone to see both sides. If you were born in the damp, dark, slums of Old Town it was likely that you were going to live there, work there, and even die there. New Town was in a very similar situation. It was a place of knowledge and progress and the people who lived there knew that, so in their own eyes, they were superior to the poor.

However, Edinburgh wasn’t unique in it duality. People, you see, are more than capable of leading a double life as well.

Old TOlbooth
The Old Tolbooth

The untraceable thefts

William’s first crime could be viewed as an act of mercy, maybe – if you ignore all the illegal bits. His friend in Grassmarket was mourning the loss of his son. The boy was barely a teenager and he had been charged with a crime and all the evidence pointed towards his guilt and was set to be hanged in the next few days. One the eve of the planned execution, the two men went down into the Old Tolbooth building (a mix between a courthouse and a jail) and made their way to the jailkeeper. They brought with them a large amount of alcohol and while the father made sure that the jailkeeper drank a lot, and then a lot more, William went and found the cell that was holding his friends son and picked the lock. The boy was smuggled out, but he needed a place to stay, a place where eyes would be off him until he found a way to leave the city. Here is where William Brodie proved just how cunning he was. He took the boy to Greyfriars Kirkyard and then took him to the tomb of George MacKenzie. William broke into the crypt and hid the boy inside.

In 1786, Brodie stepped up his life of crime. He managed to get hold of a counterfeit key which granted him access to a locked desk drawer in the offices of Johnson & Smith – bankers in the Royal Exchange. He stole a pile of money, valued today at around £100,000. William Brodies life as a criminal was going well. But, what’s that saying? You need to spend money to make money. William did just that. He hired a small handful of associates to help him on his ever-increasing heist jobs. .

On Christmas eve of the same year they underwent their first job as a team. They broke into a high end jewelers called Bruce Brothers they walked away with around £50,000 worth of goods. Proud of their work as a team, Brodie and his heist team took on a long string of jobs spanning around 10 months. Late in 1787, they somehow managed to gain access to the room in Edinburgh University where the ceremonial mace was kept. Brodie and his team made off with it with relative ease. The city went crazy with rumours, the city was plagued by a thief/thieves that could not be caught. As you could imagine, shopkeepers everywhere were scared of becoming the next victim. People even started to ramp up the stories of a supernatural presence. It wouldnt be 18th century Edinburgh without a few whispers of the supernatural.

William Brodie and his team weren’t going to be caught anytime soon, but not because they were talented, which they were. But because everyone was looking in the wrong place. A master thief going around stealing expensive items could only be the act of a poor man from Old Town, right? Nobody would expect a member of town council to commit such crimes, for what need would they have. William Brodie was a deacon and head cabinet maker for the city. He inherited the cabinet business from his father, He inherited a lot: four houses, the cabinet business and a bank account worth around £1.6m in today’s currency. Brodie was an upstanding, respected and emulated man in Edinburgh. His position in the council made it easy for him to commit his crimes. As the master carpenter, he was often called to repair the cities security mechanisms, front doors to shops etc. All of this work gave William Brodie access to all the keys necessary to gain access to all these buildings.

But, you can only keep a secret for so long. Sooner or later, the world is going to find out the truth.

A Scene from ‘The Beggar’s Opera’

Brodie‘s influences

Brodie hasn’t always been criminally inclined, so historians say. When he was a child, he was obsessed with a play called ‘The Beggar’s Opera’The play’s story centres around the world of thieves and the upper class women who loved them. The main character is the charming and dashing leader of a whole gang of criminals who also managed to balance not one but two mistresses. This character must have had some appeal to the young William Brodie, as he grew older and older, he took on more and more of the characters persona.

Brodies Lives

Brodie was also an avid gambler, he was part of a secret gentleman’s club called ‘The Cape’. He managed to balance the gambing addiction, a full time job and city appointments, he still managed to find time to father 5 children by 2 separate women, without either of the women knowing the other even existed.

You can probably imagine that paying for this lifestyle wasn’t easy, which is where his night-time hobby came into the picture. As good as he was at being a thief, he never seemed to stopped.

Excise Office
Excise Office

 The last heist

In 1788, Brodie began to plan the biggest heist of his long career as a thief. It would also prove to be his last. The job? An armed robbery of His Majesties excise office. The building where all the tax revenue of Scotland was kept locked up. He assembled his team and the plan was put into action. Unfortunately, this time they had no key.

The events of the night aren’t clear, but we do know that Brodie and his team managed to gain access to the building. Brodie stayed outside of the door to keep as lookout while the others gained access to the loot. It was then that an excise official returned to the building, why he came back remains unknown. When William Brodie saw the man, he turned tail and ran, leaving his team abandoned, they still managed to escape but not with the large fortune that was promised to them by Brodie.

Some of the team felt it would be more profitable to just turn Brodie into the police. But Brodie was nowhere to be found.

 Amsterdam and Capture.

William Brodie fled the country and headed to Amsterdam. While he was away the story broke back in Edinburgh and William Brodie’s carefully orchestrated double life quickly shattered leaving the city in shock. Brodie was caught in Amsterdam and sent back to Edinburgh where a trial was set. It went on for 2 days with very few breaks. He was eventually found guilty of theft and sentenced to death by hanging.

A crowd of over 40,000 gathered to watch the execution in 1788. They had come to see a hanging, they had come to see one of the New Town elite get the treatment of an common Old Town pick-pocket, they had come for justice.

Despite this, Brodie appeared in a good mood that day, he dressed in his best suit and wore a powdered wig and even helped the executer tie the noose around his neck and pulled the hood over his head. His final act was to pull an handkerchief from his pocket and dropped it into the crowd. Rumors circulated that he designed or even built the platform that he was hanged on. Another legend suggests that he had inserted a tiny metal pipe into his throat to stop his neck from breaking and then a french doctor would come and take him to safety. Sadly, none of this is true.


Maybe its the fact that it gives you the ability to live out fantasies, maybe it’s to do things you aren’t usually able to do, maybe its just the thrill of it, whatever it is, the idea of double lives is certainly attractive. It is, according to historians, what got William Brodie into it in the first place.

The saying goes that our true self is who we are in private and makes you wonder, who are we? Really.

It’s a question that another Edinburgh citizen tried to answer almost a century later, a writer. He had written a play in his youth about William Brodie that he called ‘The Double Life’. Sadly, it was a commercial flop and this was taken personally by the writer. He felt he had a personal connection to Brodie, his parents even owned furniture that had been hand crafted by the master thief himself. The story was something that always stuck with him, even far into his writing career. In 1885 he was sick in bed, and one night he awoke from a deep sleep with a plot to a book in his mind. Surely, this would satisy his publishers demand for a cheap new thriller or a ‘Shilling Shocker’.

Today, that novel is one of the best selling thrillers in all of British literature. If it weren’t for William Brodie, we wouldn’t have the book at all. So, let’s thank Robert Lewis Stevenson for his novel, which he called, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.