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A True Tale Of Woe I: Deacon William Brodie-The Real Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde

crashing seas
crashing seas

‘Now if I do that I would not, it is no more that I do it, but sin dwelleth in me.” Romans 7:20

The Setting

I walk the sandy beach of Padre Isle deep in contemplation. I’ve had a hard life, I must confess. Some things have gone as smooth as glass, and yet other events resemble the Great Fire of London.

Nature is similar in its moods, its temperaments. Friday it storms as if the world might end in just a few moments. Saturday starts off sunny, then shifts to cloudy, misty and fog-laden. Draperies of drear hug the shore. I grip my head in consternation, pale vapors conjure mysteriously in the haze just up ahead.

Waves crash randomly on these ancient shores, as if Neptune needs a pat on the back. I pace the shores drifting in and out of consciousness. Why is man the way he is? Does this fickle creature hold up a mirror to nature?

The isle is sunny at one time, then turns sullen, weepy with moisture and obfuscation. Is there a plan to this, or is it random? Does Helter-Skelter perchance rule the day? A clanking poltergeist (not of the imagination) comes closer, closer and utters iambic pentameter, or moans confusion boats. A shroud of the King’s gibbet of ancient times vanishes into frowzy air!

I see ghosts in the mist! Behold, ’tis the countenance of the old Deacon of Scotland. Is man good or is he evil? Or could both ethers have equal billing within one corpus? I thought on the probing tale of Robert Louis Stevenson; this novella (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) considers these very questions. I also was aware of the model that Stevenson had used to forge his tale fantastic.

Many years ago I had given this very case careful treatment in my True Tales of Woe (the first edition) pamphlet, that emerged out of some inquiries made regarding some dastardly annals of crime. Ironically, these misdeeds have outlasted some of our more recent chronicles, that are transient in themes or trivial in their trail of evidence.

Deacon Brodie is the first case, that I’ve heard of, that demonstrates a duality of personality most dramatically, and demonstrates to us that man has a capacity for both good and evil. In this way of thinking, two beings can dwell within one body.

Hear my tale of infamy, Good Christian, and you will know the truth. ‘Tis conceived with an eye on the chronicles of Olde Scotland, whose ancient coat of arms I call my own. In its telling we may learn of mankind’s shaky scruples, and thereby shape a plan to harness our vilest travesties, the ineptitudes that are the skeletons in our closets.

Then maybe the ghost will cease his senseless and restless hovering and roaming o’er the boroughs and slums of old Edinburgh. A calmness will come over him, and he’ll scoot ‘is arse its merry way. Look, Good Christian, hither he blows!

The Rub – A Two-Sided Coin

Brodie (1741-88) was a skillful cabinet-maker by trade. He was also a member of the Edinburgh town council. Furthermore, he was deacon (president) of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons.

The Deacon’s job in cabinet construction required that he install and repair locks for wealthy patrons. Needless to say, he was fully involved in the security business of those times, the 18th century to be exact. Repairing door locks and other security mechanisms were his forte.

Unbeknownst to his puffy peers, he had another side of darker hue to his character. Herein lies the Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde paradigm, that is the rub of our tale today. Facts from records of the day mention that he frequented cockpits most early on in his two-faced Janus career. While this is not as malevolent as dog fighting to the death, such as is the case with Michael Vicks, yet indeed, he did acquire a very nasty gambling habit.

A further quirk in his constitution, that has been detected from these musty records, is that he led a double life, that included two mistresses, neither of which knew one another. Brodie begot five children by these two ladies, and his already sizeable gambling habit only grew in stature to boot.

Thus, he had the greatest need for money and booty that any one man could ever possibly have! Yes, a great amount of lucre must be obtained to keep the machine rolling. Therefore, our Deacon forged a bold and daring burglary ring by night, and hatched a clever scheme to plunder the shops of prosperous burghers, many of which were close cohorts of his.

Financial pressures will play havoc on our spirits! Let me make my point! What with two mistresses, five kids, gambling debts and the good life to lead by day, the usually cool Brodie came undone, turning into a monster by night, he prowls the districts of Edinburgh, filling sacks with merchandise and money to calm the raging fiduciary waters!

Capers in the Night

Because of his day job, Brodie had access to many of the wealthiest merchants of Edinburgh. Beaucoup patrons would leave their latch keys on nails of their shop doors. Brodie would make impressions of them in putty or clay. He then would conceal these copies in the palm of his hand whenever he vacated their premises.

These affairs, these capers, were carried on for quite some time. Brodie’s first burglary of a bank for 800 pounds took place in 1768. The end of his escapades came in 1786. These robberies took place over an eighteen year period. All the while, his crimes were never detected. The victims never were privy to his chicanery, nor did they seem to suspect him. since he came from such a respectable background. After all, we must recall that he was a guild president and member of the burgher council.

The Downfall

Late in 1786 the Deacon’s smooth operations took a U-turn to Hell. Blunders began to surface where previously perfect crimes had couched in idle leisure. A heist (an armed raid), personally planned by the Scotsman, on His Majesty’s Excise Office in Chessel’s Court, on the Cannongate, went terribly awry.

The Deacon made a hasty bail for the Netherlands, and cast his eyes on the United States, as a prize escape. A misfortune indeed! But before he could flee, the authorities arrested him in Amsterdam and returned him back to Edinburgh for trial.

The Trial

From court records we know that the trial began on August 27, 1788. The prosecution had scant evidence to pin Brodie down with. Woe be gone! But with a search of his home, bingo, many specialty burglary tools were found. Other items in an inventory of evidence against him were copied keys, a disguise and pistols. Tools of the trade were plentiful, a well-oiled machine me thinks.

The jury was able to convict Brodie, along with his trusty henchman, George Smith, a grocer. Smith, an English locksmith, was a seasoned thief in his own right. He even purloined the silver mace from the University of Edinburgh.

Henry Erskine, Brodie’s lawyer, painted a picture of the Deacon as a ‘pillar of virtue.’ Most certainly William was an upright citizen, someone known from their very birth as reputable, and incapable of the horrendous crimes that he had been charged with.

It’s said that Brodie dressed in a full suit of black clothes, that was significantly derived from silk, and his comportment was gentlemanly and composed throughout the whole ghastly affair. In the condemned room an old friend was astonished to find him singing from the Beggars’ Opera, ” Tis woman seduces all mankind.”

It’s referenced in the ‘logs of the day’ that he carved out a dice-board on the stone floor of his drafty dungeon, that he called his home in his final days. He remained in merriment and was dressed to the T until his date with the hangman. Coolness and aloofness were his way of dealing with his dodgy predicament.

The Hanging

Some inconsistencies crop up in accounts of the hanging of Brodie at the Tolbooth on October 1st, 1788. One thing is clear though, he does seem to have made a contribution to this improved design of the gibbet. The change in design is the use of the drop, and the discontinuation of the antiquated double ladder. I assume (but am not totally certain) that the drop method entails a trap door opening and the condemned falls rapidly down as the full breadth of rope goes taut.

William Roughead states in Classic Crimes that Brodie did lend a hand to the design of the gallows, but “it was certainly not of his construction, nor was he the first to benefit by its ingenuity.”

Another account purports that Brodie bribed the hangman to overlook a steel collar and silver tube, that could help to cushion the burn of the rope. Plans had been laid to secret the body out of the Tolbooth jail, and sidle it to a safehouse for restoration back to the reach of the living. Yes, Brodie fully believed that this would come true. He would live a second life, this cat burglar of Edinburgh!

In any case, William did die that day, along with his confederate, George Smith, the grocer. Brodie was given a pauper’s burial, indeed, plopped in an unmarked grave at Parish Church in Buccleuch. Later, there were claims that the Deacon was spotted in Paris.

Oh, one other item. It is said that Brodie inspected his work in an instant before his door dropped. He boasts to the crowd of the efficiency of his facility design. It is also noted that he was extraordinarily calm before he met his demise. He exuded downright gaity as the executioner adjusted the rope around his neck. Dailies sketch a man with his hand inserted in his vest. Think Napoleon!

Robert Louis Stevenson

Fast forward the tape now up 100 years or so to 1886. This would be the time when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote and had published his novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It was immensely popular almost immediately after its initial publication. Stevenson used William Brodie as the model for his Victorian tale of a split personality, which has diametric opposites (good and evil) contained in one single body. RLS is responsible for the enduring memory of Deacon Brodie, I believe.

Fitting Deacon Brodie into Psychological and Social Templates

Other scenarios paint a picture where Edinburgh, Scotland is divided into two sectors. The older sector is where the poor reside and is riddled with crime. The newer side of town is the modern sector where proper people reside. This way of interpreting this odd phenomenon of twin personalities is a sociological way of understanding this schizophrenic condition.

This one makes more sense to me and would fit nicely in with the Brodie brouhaha, the object of our affection in this rundown. It makes sense, when gadding about on the bad end of town by night, he acts out his vice-tinted impulses, but by the clearness of day, he’s the very portrait of Jim Dandy O’Handy, ever the gentleman, polite and aiding old ladies as they ‘cross Scottish cavernous mud-puddles with bundles of vittles for their ‘ongry young uns.

One may be able to bring the bitter woodworm of Calvinism into play here, a faith so widely worshipped in Scotland. People will easily repress feelings, such as sexuality, and it can surface in most perverse ways at a later date-collective Hydes will be lurking around the streets like zombies in search of fresh meat to gobble down for a hearty lunch. Too, there are Scottish devil tales and Gothic yarns, such as Count Dracula, that may surface swiftly, if you don’t watch your Ps and Qs.

The Visitation

I wake up from a bubble-dream of reverie that grips me as I stroll the sands of Isle. Jean Lafitte had once called this home, so I scour the white sands for forgotten doubloons of Spanish gold, left by frightened buccaneers, who made hay while the sun shines, a sultry siren beckons them to distant isles. “Let’s be on our merry way, me lads, for greener pastures!” says their wary Captain with urgency. Gold can not be an object of pleasure when the King’s rogues be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’ on a bloody gibbet.

Seagulls squawk, salty foam crashes the coast, me thinks I see a crusty cadaver, coated with slimy seaweed and coral, and a stretched neck, from a hanging two decades previous, ahead, look aloft me scalawags!!…Ahh…it’s Deacon William Brodie guffawing in the briny brink, he’s back to pilfer the rich, where Kit-Kat carousing are his stock in trade…his hideous rumblings, he bespeaks mumblings of botched robbery and lost ladies likely misbegotten… he gallops to the gallows…is there a Ghostbuster in the house?

My sources were Wikipedia, Historic-UK.com, Extract from Traditions of Edinburgh by Robert Chambers, The Encyclopedia of Crime and my own recollections and experiences. Some day a more thorough treatment of Deacon Brodie will come our way! The engravings are by John Kay, the photo of crashing seas is mine and that’s John Barrymore as Mr Hyde.

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