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William Brodie’s double-life inspired Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Posted in English Literature, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Literature, Psychology, Scotland on Monday, 30 April 2012

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This edited article about William Brodie originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 697 published on 24 May 1975.

William Brodie, picture, image, illustration

William Brodie, the real-life Jekyll and Hyde

The young ladies in the drawing-room could not stop talking about the handsome and prosperous bachelor who was coming to tea.

“What a wonderful husband he would make,” they said to each other. “He’s bound to marry soon. I wonder which one of us it will be?”

“Quiet!” said the girl keeping lookout at the window. “He’s knocking at the front door now. He’s dressed all in white – just like a saint.”

And saintly was just how William Brodie appeared to the wealthy merchants he mixed with in Edinburgh society. A bachelor of temperate habits, a city councillor, a skilful cabinet-maker and carpenter, he seemed faultless. The only thing held against him was his shyness and modesty that made him a difficult person to really know.

“He’s certainly polite and charming,” the girls of Edinburgh would say to their mothers. “But he seems a little too perfect. It is as if he is trying to hide something from us.”

They little guessed then that William Brodie was hiding plenty from them. Just what it was emerged in 1788 when Brodie – then forty-eight and still unmarried – was tried and executed at Tolbooth Prison as the leader of a gang of vicious underworld burglars who had long terrorized the city.

After Brodie’s death, stories of his infamy became legend in Edinburgh. Seventy years later, eight-year-old Robert Louis Stevenson listened spellbound to the tales of Brodie’s fantastic exploits. So fascinated was young Robert that he begged his nanny to take him to the Old Town, where he could see for himself the inns and alleys where the carpenter had led his dangerous double life.

At fourteen, Stevenson wrote a crude play about Brodie. He revised it when he was twenty-five and had it staged, with little success, in London and New York. But it was not until he was thirty-six that Stevenson used Brodie as the model for his famous story of the good and evil residing in one man, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In his novel, Stevenson tried to show symbolically what Brodie had represented in real life. Dr. Henry Jekyll, like his prototype, was a professional man beyond reproach. But his scientific experiments made it possible for him to assume the bodily form of another man, the cruel and perverse Edward Hyde.

At first, Jekyll was able to control Hyde and limit his “appearances.” Then, after his “second self” had knocked down a little girl and murdered an aged politician, the doctor found himself turning into Hyde without recourse to drugs. The only way out of this horrifying dilemma was to commit suicide – so killing both men, the mild Jekyll, and the brutal Hyde.

Jekyll’s description of himself as Hyde is both terrible and pathetic. “. . . a being inherently malign and villainous; his every act and thought centred on self; drinking pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture to another; relentless like a man of stone.”

It is doubtful if Brodie took so honest and objective a view of his after-dark personality. The bashful bachelor, in fact, maintained two “wives” in separate houses. He had children by both women, and the only relative to visit him before he was hanged was his favourite daughter Cecill.

Garbed in spotless white by day, after dark Brodie changed into a suit of black for his visits to low taverns, gambling dens, and the rowdy cock-fighting pits that were his favourite place of relaxation. And when engaged on actual break-ins and burglaries, the city councillor wore over his face a mask of black crepe.

During his early career as a rake and burglar, Brodie preferred to work alone. His method was to make putty impressions of the shop keys he had access to during his legitimate working hours, then to use the keys to enter the premises at night. In this way he robbed bank-houses, jewellers, goldsmiths, diamond merchants and even the private residences of some of his closest society friends.

But Brodie was not satisfied to keep his nefarious talents to himself. He wanted around him a gang of henchmen to aid him in bigger coups and to applaud his criminal genius. His hero was Captain Macheath, the highwayman in John Gay’s lyrical drama, The Beggar’s Opera. And, like “Mac the Knife,” he saw himself as a villain with dash, swagger and a gentlemanly disregard for the law and a cavalier regard for the ladies.

Unlike Macheath, Brodie lacked any real style. The nearest he and the four robbers he culled from disreputable gambling dives got to a “prestige” haul was when they stole the silver mace from the library of Edinburgh University. It was this lack of glamour that encouraged Brodie to organize a raid on the General Excise Office for Scotland, where his target was the hundreds of pounds of tax-money kept there.

Already a price of one hundred pounds had been placed on his anonymous head by the Edinburgh police, and his weak and foolish pride wanted to see the reward raised.

The planning and initial progress of the theft went with accustomed smoothness. Then a returning excise official noticed something was amiss in the building and gave the alarm. Brodie and his men escaped, but the following day one of them – a surly, discontented brute who thought that Brodie’s mismanagement had lost them their loot – went to the police and turned King’s Evidence.

Word of this reached Brodie through one of his friends, and with the shocked law officers in pursuit of one of their foremost citizens, he fled to London, and from there bribed a shipping company to sail him to Flushing.

Confident that no one could reach him on the Continent, Brodie gave several letters to post to one of the ship’s passengers. These were to trusted friends telling of his plans to start a new life in the new world of America. Instead of posting the letters, the passenger was suspicious of the plausible runaway, and delivered them to the Sheriff of Edinburgh.

So Brodie was arrested and brought back in disgrace to the city that had offered him so much. His trial was speedy, and despite his pleas to be transported to Australia’s Botany Bay, he was sentenced to be hanged. Yet even after death the wily burglar gambled on life. He arranged for a brilliant French doctor to try to revive his body once it was cut down from the gibbet. And to prevent strangulation, he slipped a silver tube into his throat.

The hangman, however, did his job well. Brodie’s neck was broken from the drop.

There Brodie’s story would have ended had not Robert Louis Stevenson, desperately ill with a lung disease, needed to compose a “shilling shocker” to meet his publisher’s demands. He thought of Brodie, the criminal who had fascinated him from boyhood, and wrote what was to become one of the finest psychological thrillers in British literature.

When William Brodie dreamed of immortality, he could hardly have imagined that he would achieve it as the evil villain of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

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