The man who really was Jekyll and Hyde --

DOUBLE TROUBLE!: Deacon Brodie with the
dice and cards that lead to his downfall

William Brodie was a well-respected man in Edinburg in the mid-18 c., and he shone as a model of “civil sobriety” in a straitlaced-type city. He was the son of a prosperous cabin-maker and was a deacon of the masons’ guild, as well as a city councillor (featherless fellow, perhaps, but well-gestured, distinguished and meant a great deal to the “big wigs” in the area). However, Mr. Brodie was also the model of one of English literature’s most horrifying characters, Robert Louis Stevenson’s schizophrenic scientic, Dr. Jekyll. For Brodie, like the gentle doctor, had a secret life behind his mask of virtue. By day, he was a businessman, but by the time the night-gulp crushed itself into the aura like stepping on dark-purple grapes, he was a mighty gambler (perhaps irritably?) and a vicious thief (very irritably). Bizarrely-enough, these “self-involved” secrets were unknown by anyone, not even known by his two mistresses (who had given birth to his five children). In fact, they did not even know about each other (not exactly Dostoievskyan!).

William Brodie was 27 years old when he turned to crime. In August of 1768 he made copies of the keys to a city bank and robbed it of 800 pounds (about $4,000). But as he went on to burgle scores of buildings over the following 18 years, no hint of suspicion from anyone ever fell upon him.


Getaway and Capture

The beginning of the end, however, came in 1786, when he joined forces with three petty thieves. Together, this thieving-conglomeration planned Brodie’s most daring “raid.” The head of the Scottish Customs and Excise. The gang was surprised by an employee, and even though Brodie escaped the chaos, one of the thieves, John Brown, turned king’s evidence to escape deportation for other crimes he had committed in England.

Brodie fled to Amsterdam, hoping to escape to America. But on the eve of his departure, the police caught up with him. Brodie was extradited and put on trial in Edinburgh. The evidence was damning; the police found the proof of his double identity: false keys, pistols, and a burglar’s black suit (reminding me of a particular Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode). Brodie was condemned to death, but on the night before his execution, he wired his clothes all MacGyver-like from neck-to-ankle to lessen the jerk of the rope and lodged a silver tube in his throat to cheat the noose. Unfortunately for him, neither trick worked. On October 1, 1788, he died on the Edinburgh gallows.

Nearly a century later, R.L. Stevenson and William Henley wrote a play based on Brodie’s exploits, which was titled Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life. The play was first produced at the Prince’s Theatre in London in 1884. In the play, the burglar explains the freedom he finds in his nocturnal life of crime. Two years later, Stevenson turned the theme into The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which of course was his memorable short story about the darker side of mankind. In the story, Dr. Jekyll discovers, through experiments with a drug (and in the book, Stevenson provided the concoction [recipe] for what he was drinking), that “man is not truly one, but truly two,” and describes how “I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man.” He goes on to explain the fascination with the experiment:

If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.
In this way, Stevenson explained the way in which the evil inherent in man took its hold on the good Deacon Brodie.

Deacon Brodies Tavern, Edinburgh

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