William Brodie, cabinetmaker, Deacon of the Guild of Wrights and Masons, Edinburgh City Councillor, gambler and thief, was hanged on the 1st of October, 1788.
Deacon William Brodie stands out as one of the most interesting and colourful characters of Edinburgh in the 18th Century – a city famous for more than its fair share of scoundrels. The outwardly respectable Brodie was an esteemed member of Edinburgh's society; indeed he was a pillar of the community. In addition to being a qualified and skilful tradesman at the top of his inherited profession as a cabinetmaker, he was a member of the Town Council, Deacon of the Guild of Wrights and Masons, and served on a jury. Brodie enjoyed the public life of a dissolute and licentious playboy who spent his evenings drinking and gambling in the dens of Anchor's Close and Fleshmarket Close. He was a member of Edinburgh's 'in-crowd', belonging to ‘The Cape Club’, which met at the Isle of Man Arms at the bottom of Craig’s Close. That was where he hobnobbed with the gentry; the likes of the painter, Sir Henry Raeburn, and even Robert Burns. However, it was his secret, duplicitous lifestyle that makes the story of Deacon William Brodie a fascinating tale. Unknown to all but his closest associates, Brodie led an ingenious and prolific, criminal lifestyle by night. His professional and social acceptance and the fact that he continued undiscovered for years contributed to his downfall, because in the end he became just too cocky.
William Brodie was born in 1741 and served an apprenticeship in Edinburgh's Lawnmarket under his cabinetmaker father and consequently became a qualified tradesman. In fact, his work was regarded as some of the best in the City and he became a supplier of furniture to the rich and famous. Indeed, Robert Louis Stephenson’s father had at one time commissioned Brodie to make some furniture. When his father died in 1780, William inherited the Lawnmarket business and a great deal of money, said to have been as much as £10,000, which should have been enough to have set him up for life. He also inherited the family home at No. 304 Brodie’s Close, named after his father, Francis. The lower floor of the building was Brodie's workshop and is now ‘The Deacon's House Café’, where much of the original features can still be seen. According to Oliver and Boyd’s Scottish Tourist Hand Book, 20th Edition of 1860, in addition to “the notorious Deacon William Brodie”, No 304 Brodie’s Close “contained the residences of a Mr Clement Little [and] Robert Cullen, raised to the bench in 1709.”
Deacon Brodie’s extra-curricular activity began as a result of his extravagant lifestyle. For one thing, his reckless gambling habit meant that he inevitably ran short of cash as he ran up huge debts. In addition, Brodie had acquired two mistresses, whom he had to support in addition to the five illegitimate children that between them they had borne. His lifestyle became increasingly expensive and as he could neither afford his vices nor the attendant expenses, he became desperate. Now, as it happened, a lot of Brodie’s work was legitimately undertaken in customers' houses or business premises, where he used to install furniture or fit and repair locks. Also, in those days, it was common for people to keep their keys on a latch on the back of the door and, in those circumstances, it was not hard for him to see a solution to his problem. The temptation obviously proved to be irresistible as Brodie could simply wait until the coast was clear and, using wax or putty, take an impression of the keys and return later to steal what he had targeted. Reputedly, his criminal career began in such fashion around 1768, when he copied keys to a bank and got away with the huge sum, for the time, of £800. Late night robberies then became common in the Old Town as Brodie, with an inside knowledge of the comings and goings of his patrons, struck time and again at house after house. He pilfered cash, valuables and such property as he could readily carry, and of course, no one suspected the Deacon.
Brodie soon teamed up with an English locksmith and grocer called George Smith, and the two became increasingly bold. In their highly successful crime wave, they even stole the silver mace from Edinburgh University. By 1786, as his ambitions grew, Brodie had enlisted two more burglars, John Brown and Andrew Ainslie. He then conceived an audacious plan to raid the Excise Office in Chessel's Court, off the Canongate. It was an ambitious plan, which promised to net Brodie and his men an enormous sum, but it was seemingly poorly conceived. Unsurprisingly, the authorities had become increasingly alarmed at the escalating series of break-ins and had increased the presence of the guard. Brodie was on borrowed time and suspicions were being raised as there began to be over many coincidences. The bungled raid on the 5th of March, 1788, was to be the midnight rambler’s last crime. Things went disastrously wrong as Brodie, who was supposed to act as lookout, fell asleep and the ‘Black Banditti’, alerted to the robbery in progress, came very close to capturing the whole gang red handed. Ainslie was caught and quickly turned King's Evidence, whereupon Brown and Smith were soon apprehended.
At the arrest of his men, Brodie fled to Amsterdam, but unfortunately for him, the long arm of the law was quite long enough in 1788. He was captured on the point of boarding a ship to North America and instead put on board a ship back to Edinburgh. In Scotland, Brodie's capture and impending trial became the talk of the town. The trial began on the 27th of August and in the end, the Janus-faced criminal was betrayed by incriminating evidence found at his house. Amongst those items, which included a disguise and pistols, were the Dark Lantern he used when breaking into the Excise Office and a stock of duplicate keys used in sundry housebreakings. The latter two items were donated to the ‘Archaeologia Scotica’ (the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland) between 1830 and 1851. Brodie was sentenced to be hanged and, together with his accomplice, George Smith, was turned off in front of the Tolbooth before a huge crowd, on the 1st of October, 1788. According to William Roughead’s ‘Classic Crimes’, although Brodie may have contributed ironically to the ‘drop’ or trapdoor design of the new gallows, he did not – as per popular myth – construct his own gallows.
Brodie’s hanging should have been the end of the story, but the legend of his ‘escape’ has ensured its persistence and his notoriety. Brodie had been buried in an unmarked grave in the kirkyard of the former Buccleuch Parish Church, but rumours soon circulated that he had been seen in Paris. Had the master of deceit managed to pull off one final scam and cheat the hangman? The story goes that Brodie wore a steel collar, which he bribed the hangman to ignore, and/or had a silver tube inserted in his throat to prevent the hanging from being fatal. His friends had arranged for his body to be removed quickly, in the hope that he could be spirited away, but sadly for Brodie, he could not be revived. Nevertheless, folks still insist that “no one knows for sure” and there are even claims that, when his grave was opened some time later, the coffin was empty. Perhaps he did escape?