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1788: William “Deacon” Brodie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inspiration

October 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1788, the real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was hanged at Edinburgh’.


The Execution of Deacon Brodie, by Alexander Hay Ritchie.

William Brodie, respectable burgher by day, Deacon of the Guild of Wrights, wasn’t the type for the gallows. Actually, the upright citizen is said to have proposed an improvement in the old Tolbooth gallows, replacing the old-school ladders with a forward-thinking drop mechanism.

“Brodie,” says Traditions of Edinburgh, “was the first who proved the excellence of [the] improvement … He inspected the thing with a professional air, and seemed to view the result of his ingenuity with a smile of satisfaction.”*

Insouciance in the face of mortality … but Brodie had plenty of practice in compartmentalization.

With a gambling habit, a couple of mistresses, and five kids, Brodie the oleaginous society man had a double life, or treble, or more. By and by, the well-known tendency of such profligate pastimes to lead a man to venture his neck in order to keep up appearances worked its will upon Brodie, who began using his contracts with Edinburgh’s upper crust to case their houses and copy their keys … returning at night to burgle his employers.

It was taking on partners that did in the budding master thief; inevitably, someone flipped to dodge the gallows himself. Brodie’s cover was blown, and he hanged with his confederate George Smith, keeping up appearances to the very end.

A century later, native Edinburgher Robert Louis Stevenson would tap this extraordinary local history (and maybe some similar predecessors) as inspiration for that classic novelistic exploration of the soul’s duality, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In fact, prior to that work’s 1886 publication, Stevenson (who grew up with Brodie furniture in the house) co-wrote a play called Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life.

That earlier composition hasn’t been entrusted to celluloid, to my knowledge (though there is a Deacon Brodie film of recent vintage). But Jekyll and Hyde has been.

Brodie’s striking case does not live on only through his literary doppleganger(s); you can enjoy the company of the hanged criminal to this day on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile at Deacon Brodie’s Tavern.

Brodie himself is supposed to have made his own bid to live on by surviving the hanging. William Roughead in Classic Crimes describes these machinations whose generally attested failure is now and again disputed anew.

Of the plans, various and futile, formed for the resuscitation of the Deacon there are two contemporary and competing versions. One is that the hangman was bribed to tamper with the rope, so as to give a short fall and avoid dislocation of the vertebrae. But by an excess of caution that officer first made it too short and then too long. The body, when cut down, was placed in a cart and driven furiously round the back of the Castle to the Deacon’s woodyard at the foot of Brodie’s Close, so that animation might be restored as in the historic case of “half-hangit Maggie Dickson,” a lady whose departed spirit was recalled by similar Jehu methods. In his own workshop his veins were opened by a French surgeon, whose services had been retained to that end; but all the resources of science could not bring the Deacon back to life. According to another account, he had, before leaving his cell for the last time, been supplied with a small silver tube for insertion in his throat at the final ceremony in order to prevent suffocation, and wires were carried down both his sides from head to foot to counteract the jerk of the fall. In spite of these precautions and of subsequent bleeding by a surgeon, his friends had reluctantly to admit that “Brodie was fairly gone.”

* This “tradition” of Edinburgh is kin to a folkloric subgenre and should not at all be presumed dependable. Roughead:

Of the many picturesque legends of old Edinburgh which, in defiance of truth, cling like ivy about her vanished past, one of the most persistent is that Deacon Brodie was the first to suffer upon the new drop which he himself designed. This myth, upon research, I found myself reluctantly compelled to disprove. He may have planned the “moveable platform for the execution of criminals,” which the Town Council caused to be erected in 1786 at the west end of the Tolbooth; but it was certainly not of his construction, nor was he the first to benefit by its ingenuity. The place of execution was the roof of a low building which projected from the west gable of the prison — roughly where the Buccleuch statue now stands. A beam was drawn out from an aperture in the wall above the platform and from this depended the fatal rope.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Organized Crime,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Scotland,Sex,The Worm Turns,Theft

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