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On This Day... 1st October 1788: Poor Wullie

By Alexander Clapperton, October 1, 2018 - 12:45am
Deacon William Brodie and some of his tools

1st October 1788 - On this day Deacon William Brodie was hanged along with his accomplice George Smith for burglary and housebreaking.

Prior to his arrest, Brodie had been living a double life. By day he was known around the upper-class parts of town as a successful businessman, council member and deacon of the Edinburgh Incorporation of Wrights and Masons. He was a professional carpenter, and did work for some of the richest people in the city.

However, by night he could be found in the taverns of the Cowgate, where he was known as a prolific gambler and womaniser. His nocturnal activities included founding two illigitimate families, and ran him deeply into debt.

His legitimate occupation provided him with the means to make considerably more from his clients than they had intended. When working on a house or other property, Brodie would usually be provided with a key to allow him access (since the occupants would not wish to be present during the work). He would make a copy, and then wait a while after completing the work and returning the original. He would then use his copied key to enter the unsuspecting client's property and rob them of all their valuables, entering and exiting without leaving a trace of his presence. His first crime was the robbery of a bank, whose safe he installed and then emptied of £800.

This technique proved incredibly successful, and Brodie quickly found it to be far more exciting than his previous gambling career had been. He became a one-man crime wave, committing so many flawless burglaries that the council was forced to form a special commission to investigate. Brodie, as a highly-respected council member, was of course asked to join it, and derived even greater pleasure from investigating his own crimes.

Brodie's thrill-seeking addiction to crime only increased, and he decided to form a gang to commit even larger thefts. He found three willing accomplices, and together they decided to rob the Excise Office in the Canongate.

The plan might have gone off without a hitch, except that Brodie, who was acting as lookout, had decided to make the robbery even more exciting by getting drunk first. Alarmed by the sound of an approaching guard, Brodie fled the scene and left his gang to be captured.

Knowing it was only a matter of time before his accomplices informed on him, Brodie fled the country. he was eventually arrested after having been identified in Amsterdam, trying to book passage for the Americas. He was found hiding in a wardrobe and brought back to Edinburgh to face trial.

It did not take long to find the erstwhile deacon guilty, and he was sentenced to hang on the recently installed set of gallows on the Royal Mile, which Brodie (as chief carpenter in Edinburgh) had helped to design and fund only the year before, though he did not as popular legend holds build it himself, nor was he its first victim).

It has been suggested that Brodie planned to cheat the hangman through the use of a silver tube concealed in his throat to prevent strangulation, or a set of cunningly-rigged chains and hooks to support his weight. If this was the case, then his devices let him down, as he was declared dead on the scaffold and buried later that day in an umarked grave in Buccleuch.

The deacon's double life eventually helped inspire Robert Louis Stevenson to write The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Stevenson's family had owned a cabinet made by Brodie, and the story had fascinated the author as a boy: a man who could divide his nature between upstanding moral paragon and criminal monster with no-one ever learning that the two were linked, until the monster destroyed the man. Brodie's history was a perfect exploration of the duality of human nature, and the dangers of indulging our darker sides.