"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Crime of Mr. Deacon Brodie

William Brodie was born in Edinburgh on September 28, 1741. The Brodies were respectable and accomplished upper-middle-class stock. His father was a wealthy and talented cabinet-maker, and in due time his son succeeded him in the occupation. William joined Edinburgh's most exclusive social clubs, and became a member of the Town Council. He gained the title of "Deacon" due to becoming the head of the Incorporation of Wrights (the trade union dealing with woodwork artisans.) The younger Brodie looked set to have a quiet and unremarkable, if pleasant, existence.

However, William had other ideas. He proved to be a man of hidden depths. He had a passion for John Gay's popular musical show, "The Beggar's Opera." The opera's hero, the robber-king Macheath, became Brodie's private idol. Unbeknownst to his social peers, Brodie was a compulsive gambler, who could not refrain from gaming in the worst parts of town with Edinburgh's seediest citizens. Even more scandalously, he was the head of three separate households: In addition to his "legitimate" family, he kept two mistresses, Anne Grant and Jean Watt, who both bore him numerous children.

Gambling and womanizing are both expensive hobbies, and despite his family's affluence, William eventually found himself with severe money troubles. It was then that Macheath became not just an object of Brodie's admiration, but his role model. This ostensibly respectable Councillor and cabinet-maker decided to turn professional burglar. His methods were simple: In those days, the town's tradesmen kept their keys openly hung on nails behind the shop door. Brodie would drop by one of the establishments, engage the merchant in some casual small talk, and, when the owner's back was turned, use a small lump of putty to make an impression of the store's key. He would then use this as a mold for making a duplicate key, leaving him free to rob the place at his leisure.

Soon, Edinburgh found itself beset by a mysterious crime wave. Shop after shop was found emptied during the night, seemingly by some phantom who managed to get in and out by some unknown manner. The method used to enter the stores was never discovered, and certainly no one guessed the man behind these baffling burglaries was one of the city's most well-liked and well-regarded citizens.

Brodie might have gotten away with his strange double life indefinitely, if he had not made the mistake of taking on accomplices. In 1786, he made the acquaintance of two minor villains, Andrew Ainslie and John Brown, and a traveling Englishman named George Smith. Smith had been trained to be a locksmith, a talent which presented certain obvious charms for the Deacon. Brodie decided that, like his beloved Macheath, it was time to expand his horizons and become the leader of a gang of professional thieves.

The Brodie Ring started small; a goldsmith's shop here, a tobacconist's store here. Divided among four men, the proceeds were unsatisfactorily small, and the group felt bigger game was needed. A local jewelry establishment was, Brodie decided, "a very proper shop for breaking into." On Christmas Eve 1786, Smith was sent out ahead to pick the store's locks. This done, the men quickly cleaned out the place, netting valuables worth a total of £350. This was followed by a raid on a Leith grocer, the theft of the silver mace kept at Edinburgh University, and several other burglared stores.

The last of these victims, a pair of merchants named Inglis and Horner, felt that enough was enough. They petitioned the government for help finding the perpetrators of this crime spree. Accordingly, in January 1788 His Majesty's representatives not only issued a £150 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the miscreants, but they promised immunity to any accomplices willing to grass on their confederates. It was this last detail that would prove to be the Deacon's undoing.

Shortly before the government's announcement, Brodie found himself in an unrelated dispute. In one of their favorite taverns, he joined Smith and Ainslie in luring another patron into a game of hazard. By means of some loaded dice, they managed to relieve their pigeon of six guineas. Unfortunately for them, their victim soon detected the fraud, and he filed a complaint with the town magistrates. Brodie and his confederates responded by claiming that they knew nothing about the dice, which was, they alleged, provided by the tavern-keeper. Curiously, the matter appears to have been dropped without any permanent stain to the Deacon's respectable facade.

Unfortunately, Brodie did not take this narrow escape as a warning to mend his ways. Instead, he made plans for his criminal crew to take on their most ambitious job to date: the robbing of Scotland's General Excise House, where all the country's tax revenues were stored. The gang planned their raid carefully. Brodie made some excuse for visiting the office, where he made a careful survey of the place. Then, he made another visit in the company of Smith. While Brodie distracted the cashier, his locksmith confederate made an impression of the office key. Ainslie got the job of recording the movements of the watchmen, which enabled him to learn that between 8 p.m., when the Excise House closed for the day, and 10 p.m., when the first watchmen came on duty, the office was unguarded.

The big day was set for March 5, 1788. Before hand, the crew met for dinner in Smith's lodgings. Brodie appeared dressed in black and sporting a jaunty cocked hat He greeted his confederates by dramatically singing the "Rogues' March" from "The Beggar's Opera." Regretfully, his colleagues were not amused. The foursome had already decided on their individual roles for the night: Ainslie would go first, to make sure the coast was clear. Then would come Smith with the duplicate key he had made. Brodie would come next, armed with a pistol, and then finally Brown with the necessary tools. When they reached the Excise House, Smith easily unlocked the door, and then he and Brown broke into the cashier's room.

Everything was going according to plan, when an unexpected disaster occurred: An employee of the Excise House, a Mr. Bonar, realized he had left certain important papers in his office, and he returned right in the middle of the robbery to collect them. When Brodie saw Bonar arrive, he panicked and made a cowardly flight for safety. Bonar saw the Deacon leave, but in the darkness, assumed he was simply a fellow employee. He collected his papers and left.

Meanwhile, Smith and Brown were discovering, much to their disgust, that the cashier's desk contained nothing more than sixteen pounds. They collected this pitiful sum--a disheartening reward for their labors--and left. They did not find out until much, much later that the desk had a secret drawer which held over six hundred pounds sterling. The following morning, the confederates split these pitiful wages of sin, and went their separate ways. Brodie went about his normal business, while Smith and Ainslie made plans to flee to Newcastle.

Brown, however, had secret plans of his own. He was so dissatisfied with the results of the robbery that he decided to cash in on that reward and free pardon offered by the government. He was already wanted on an old charge of having murdered an innkeeper, and saw this as the perfect chance to avoid punishment for all his crimes, past and present. Besides, he was carrying a grudge against Brodie for the way the latter had so cravenly abandoned his associates. Proving the old adage about there being no honor among thieves, Brown went straight to the Procurator-Fiscal (the Scottish equivalent of public prosecutor) and told all. Well, almost all. He omitted Brodie's name from his recital, probably, as crime historian William Roughead theorized, with the intention of netting additional funds by blackmailing the Deacon.

On March 8, Smith and Ainslie were arrested. When Brodie heard the news, he again showed a total loss of nerve unbecoming in a would-be Robber King, and quickly fled Edinburgh.

This act of cowardice proved to be his last, great mistake. When Smith and Ainslie heard their chief had done a runner, they decided there was nothing for it but to confess completely, and unlike Brown, they had no hesitation in naming Deacon Brodie as their ringleader. A reward of £ 200 was immediately issued for Brodie's capture, along with minute--and, in their subject's eyes, immensely insulting--details of the fugitive's appearance. After seeing a copy of the "wanted" notice describing him as "about five feet four inches...a cast with his eye...a sallow complexion--a particular motion with his mouth and lips when he speaks, which he does full and slow, his mouth being commonly open at the time and his tongue doubling up as it were, shews itself towards the roof of his mouth...moves in a proud, swaggering sort of style..." Brodie put the blame on the faithless Brown. "I can see some strokes of his pencil in my portrait," he grumbled. "May God forgive him for all his crimes and falsehoods!"

Brodie made it to London, where he arranged to sail to Flanders under the name of "John Dixon." Unfortunately for him, his ship encountered bad weather and had to retreat to the port at Flushing. "Dixon" then hired a skiff to take him to Ostend. Before leaving, he entrusted two fellow-passengers he had befriended, a couple named Geddes, with the delivery of three letters to Edinburgh. Two were addressed to friends of Brodie's, and the third to his mistress Anne Grant. However, soon after they had parted company, Mr. Geddes read the description of Brodie in a Leith newspaper, and immediately recognized his new friend "John Dixon." He opened the letters Brodie had so stupidly given him, and the contents confirmed his identity. Geddes went to the authorities, with the result that Brodie was soon traced to Amsterdam, where he was captured and extradited back to Edinburgh.

Brown was duly given his free pardon in exchange for his testimony, but the Lord Advocate felt that this habitual criminal's word was not sufficient to bring charges. Accordingly, Ainslie was also offered the chance to give King's Evidence, a get-out-of-jail-free card that, naturally, he took. It was one of those cases where the authorities felt it was worthwhile to let little fish go in exchange for reeling in bigger ones. (Incidentally, Brown's treachery got him nowhere. Despite his pardon, he went on to commit other crimes which eventually got him hanged in his native England.)

Smith and Brodie stood trial on August 27, 1788. The Deacon made a dashing appearance in "a new dark-blue coat, a fashionable fancy waistcoat, black satin breeches, and white silk stockings...his hair fully dressed and powdered." His companion in the dock, by contrast, was "but poorly clothed."

Brown and Ainslie told their stories of the robbery, but perhaps the most compelling evidence against Brodie were the letters he had entrusted to Geddes. They gave the whole story of the Excise House job and his own lead role in "the dreadful subject." The defense was unable to offer any evidence in Smith's favor, and all they could do for Brodie was to produce his brother-in-law, a Matthew Sheriff, as well as Jean Watt. Sheriff stated that he had dinner with Brodie the evening of the Excise House robbery, while Watt claimed the Deacon had spent the night at her house. These alibis were not seen as convincing. The next day, the jury found both the defendants guilty, and the judge pronounced the sentence of death. The hangings were set for October 1.

While awaiting execution, Brodie kept up his spirits by efforts to have his sentence commuted to transportation. When this failed, he turned to a scheme for cheating death. He made arrangements that immediately after he was hanged, his friends would rush him to a surgeon who would, he hoped, manage to revive him. He spent the night before his execution entertaining his fellow prisoners with selections from "The Beggar's Opera."

Brodie's Macheath-like bravado continued as he made his way to the gallows. When one of the Magistrates expressed sympathy for his plight, Brodie shrugged and replied, "What would you have? It is la fortune de la guerre." Smith, who was described as "highly penitential," was the first to hang. He died quietly and without incident.

Brodie, on the other hand, mounted the gallows almost cheerfully. He requested that the hangman not bind his arms, and told a nearby friend to let the world know that he "died like a man." He was not even fazed by an unnerving accident. At the last minute, the executioner realized that his halter was too short, requiring the prisoner to come down from the platform while the necessary adjustments were made. Brodie observed nonchalantly that the gibbet was "a new construction, and wanted nothing but practice to make it complete." When he remounted the platform, it was discovered that the rope was still too short. At this second delay, the Deacon showed "some little impatience," and made a few derisive comments about his incompetent executioner. The third attempt to hang William Brodie was, at last, successful.

It is doubtful if the Deacon would have gone to his death with such insouciance if he had known that attempts to revive him would prove unsuccessful. Although his body was smuggled to an obliging French surgeon to be bled, Brodie was fated to remain well and truly dead.

Dead in body, at least, His spirit lives on in Edinburgh to this very day, where he is well remembered as one of Scotland's most popular rascals. His fame was made secure when Robert Louis Stevenson--whose father had owned furniture made by Brodie--was inspired by the Deacon's strange double life to write the classic novel "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Hyde may not be as flattering a character as Macheath, but he certainly proved to be a more enduring one.


  1. My dear Deacon, I could forgive you for being brought to a Galvanist for revival but to a bleeder? Poor planning indeed.

  2. A lesson on how not to base your life on a character from fiction - especially from comic opera.

    1. Yeah, the Deacon was a sort of Walter Mitty gone bad.

  3. More of a Dr. Moriary than a Mr. Hyde? Only, the incompetent Dr. Moriary of the movies, not the literary master criminal.

    1. Exactly. The 'real' Moriarty's lackeys would never dare cross him. That's when you know you're a master criminal.

  4. Congratulations on your re-telling of Deacon Brodie's story – it's no easy tale to condense. There's one (small) point regarding John Brown on which you are incorrect however, when you state, “He [Brown] was already wanted on an old charge of having murdered an innkeeper.”

    In 1784, Brown had been found guilty of theft, in London, was sentenced to seven years transportation, and had escaped to Scotland. Fleeing a sentence of transportation meant, if caught, he would've been hanged! Taking advantage of the, previously offered, King's Pardon, Brown – on the same night as the Excise robbery – approached the authorities.

    I think the charge for murder you mention was a charge brought against a George White. He and Brown got into an argument with a 'changekeeper' at “an infamous house of bad fame” (a brothel, rather than an inn). Brown, however, was left off the indictment, and only White was charged and tried (on a reduced charge of culpable homicide for which he was found guilty and only given an eight month sentence). The significance here, was that Brown had a crucial part to play in the trial of Brodie and Smith – he couldn't, if he had been a prisoner.

    As (perhaps) an aside, the King's Pardon itself caused much debate in court. The defence argued against it being applied to Brown's previous crime in England as, pardon or not – a convicted felon was *barred* from giving any evidence in a Scottish court (then, as now, two different legal systems) – but this argument was eventually denied by the court.

    Regardless, it's great you've given the Deacon an airing (although I can't foresee a time when he wont – the intrigue around the man will last forever).

    David Hutchison (Author of Deacon Brodie: A Double Life)


Comments are moderated. Because no one gets to be rude and obnoxious around here except the author of this blog.