WHEN you are supposed to be the inspiration for one of the most famous characters in the whole canon of literature, you would like to think that people would get your story right.

In the case of Deacon William Brodie, the assertion that Robert Louis Stevenson based Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on Brodie’s double life as a respected citizen by day and a wastrel and thief by night is generally accepted by most people who know of the connection.

Some argue that Major Thomas Weir, the Wizard of the West Bow, was more of an influence on Stevenson, not least because Weir was considerably more Satanic than Brodie.

Yet, dual personality though he undoubtedly was, Weir dates from the 17th century and Brodie was much closer to Stevenson’s time – the author’s father actually owned some furniture made by Brodie.

The clinching evidence for Brodie being the wellspring of Stevenson’s imagination of Jekyll and Hyde is plain, because along with the Invictus poet WE Henley, Stevenson wrote a play called Deacon Brodie in 1880.

It is in this work that Stevenson first varied from the actual history of Brodie, portraying a man leading a double life all right, but making him a killer – he never killed anyone – who in turn is killed by a sort of early policeman. The sensationalist dramatisation may well have made Stevenson venture more into the territory of dual personality, because he later touched on the subject in his short story Markheim a year before creating Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1885.

The most pertinent point about Brodie inspiring Jekyll and Hyde is that the Deacon needed no potion to transform from good to evil – William Brodie was perfectly capable of doing that without any artificial assistance. So why did this man who had been born with so many advantages turn to crime?

His birth certificate reads: “Monday, 28th September, 1741. To Francis Brodie, wright, burgess, and Cecil(y) Grant, his spouse, a son named William. Witnesses – William Grant, writer in Edinburgh, and Ludovick Brodie, Writer to the Signet.”

Both these latter gentlemen were his grandfathers and respected lawyers. His father, Francis Brodie, was a substantial wright and cabinetmaker in the Lawnmarket of Edinburgh. He was a burgess, and in 1775 and 1776, he was elected a member of the Town Council as Deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights.

In the latter year he was made Deacon Convener of the Incorporation of Trades in the city, and proof of the respect for the Brodie family was the fact that the close in which their house was situated became known by their name. Brodie’s Close can be found to this day on the south side of the Royal Mile.

Things seemed to go very well for young William, the eldest of

11 children, some of whom died in infancy, and he diligently learned the trade of carpenter and cabinetmaker from his father. By all accounts, he was exceptionally good at it, too.

Like his father, Brodie was made a Burgess and Guild Brother of Edinburgh and, in September 1781, he also became a member of the Town Council as Deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights.

He would retain major positions in the city almost until his death, and the contracts that gained him would have been enough for most men.

Yet for all his respectability by day, Brodie was going progressively off the rails by night.

IN 1775, he joined most famous of the Edinburgh social clubs, The Cape Club. This glorified drinking club included such members as the poet Robert Fergusson, and the painters Alexander Runciman and Sir Henry Raeburn.

We have a vivid description of Brodie at that time – it comes from a wanted-type poster. It appears he was a small man – “about 5 feet 4 inches” – of a slender build, and looked younger than his age. He had “dark brown, full eyes, with large black eyebrows, and a cast with his eye that gave him somewhat the look of a Jew”, a sallow complexion and a peculiar manner of speaking, “which he did full and slow.”

From the details of his dress on the “wanted” citation it is evident that the Deacon was something of a dandy who moved in a proud, swaggering sort of style.

Brodie was certainly articulate and had considerable personal charm, and was always interested in new people arriving in the city – as recorded by the fact that Robert Burns mentions him a couple of times. As he made his way in Edinburgh society it seemed he could do no wrong, but already Brodie was doing plenty of that.

He became obsessed with cock-fighting, “at that time a fashionable recreation among the young bloods of the capital” as one biographer put it. He lost large sums of money on these fights and then took to cards and other forms of gambling, once being accused of cheating with loaded dice.

EVEN with such an advantage, he lost more than ever and succeeded in gambling away his £10,000 inheritance from his father – a massive sum in those days.

Only later did it emerge that he was “seeing” somewhere between three and five mistresses, none of whom knew about each other. He sired at least two children by them and paid the “bastard fee” – the name then given to contributions for the upkeep of illegitimate children.

Running out of funds, Brodie hit on a simple solution – he became a thief, or more correctly a burglar.

He began to venture out at night and steal from former clients – after all, he had the keys to the locks in their cabinets.

He was almost caught on several occasions. Stevenson wrote: “Many a citizen was proud to welcome the Deacon to supper and dismissed him with regret at a timeous hour, who would have been vastly disconcerted had he known how soon, and in what guise, his visitor returned.

“Many stories are told of this redoubtable Edinburgh burglar, but the one I have in my mind most vividly gives the key of all the rest.

“A friend of Brodie’s … stayed the night in town. The good man had lain some time awake. It was far on in the small hours by the Tron bell when suddenly there came a creak, a jar, a faint light.

“Softly he clambered out of bed and up to a false window which looked upon another room, and there, by the glimmer of a thieves’ lantern, was his good friend the Deacon in a mask.”

Brodie stole frequently and successfully, once raiding a silk merchant and taking away £400 worth of material that would have fed a family for years. Another commodity he burgled was tea, then many times more expensive than it is now.

After his initial burglaries and realising the need for accomplices, Brodie teamed up with a crew of thieves and fellow gamblers. He became the leader of the little gang of four – himself, George Smith, Andrew Ainslie and John Brown, aka Humphrey Moore.

They carried out some burglaries together before Brodie hatched a serious plan that he hoped would make them very rich – they would raid Scotland’s Excise Office in Chessel’s Court.

Smith later described the raid on March 8, 1788 and Brodie’s part in it, saying that he and Brodie along with John Brown and Andrew Ainslie “between the hours of eight and ten o’clock at night, broke into the Excise Office and carried off from that about sixteen pounds, consisting of two five-pound notes, four guinea notes, one twenty-shilling note, and about seventeen shillings and sixpence in silver; that this money was divided among them, and Brodie received his share.”

Had an exciseman not happened to visit the office, Brodie allegedly running away when he arrived, they would have made off with much more, but even the sum they got outraged the Government of the day and a hue and cry was raised across the country.

It frightened John Brown so much that he walked in to the office of Sheriff-Clerk William Middleton and confessed all in return for a Royal Pardon for all his crimes. Smith and Ainslie were immediately arrested but Brodie got clean away.

He went south via Dunbar before taking a boat from London to Flushing in the Netherlands, thinking that he would escape to the USA which was then in its infancy.

The long arm of the law stretched to the Continent however, and he was arrested in Amsterdam and brought back in chains to Edinburgh to face multiple charges.

The trial was always going to be sensational, as Lord Braxfield was on the bench and Henry Erskine and John Clerk were among the advocates, all three of them famous lawyers.

Apart from Brown and Ainslie, who had been persuaded to turn King’s evidence, the chief snitch was one John Geddes, a passenger on the boat to Flushing who told the court that he had been asked by “Mr Dixon” to convey letters to Scotland.

Geddes never delivered the letters. He said in evidence: “After landing Mr Dixon we sailed for Leith. When I arrived in Leith, from the accounts I heard about Brodie, I was convinced that Dixon and Brodie were the same person.

“Next day I went to Mid-Calder and about three weeks afterwards was at Dalkeith, where I had occasion to see the newspapers, and the description of Brodie therein given confirmed me in the above suspicion. I then delivered the letters to Sheriff Cockburn. I had previously opened the packet and read them. I know that these are the letters I received from the prisoner and delivered to the Sheriff. I opened them and delivered them to the Sheriff for the good of my country.”

The letters were self-damning, as were the tools of his burglary trade found in the Deacon’s own home, and Brodie stood no chance of reprieve when Ainslie and Browne did their worst.

Despite a strong defence of Smith by John Clerk, there was little anyone could do for the pair, though in modern Scotland the trial might not have proceeded due to the fact that star witnesses Ainslie and Browne had previous criminal convictions.

AFTER the inevitable guilty verdict, the judges, led by Lord Braxfield, decreed that Brodie and Smith were “to be carried from the bar back to the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, therein to be detained till Wednesday, the first day of October next, and upon that day to be taken furth of the said Tolbooth to the place fixed upon by the magistrates of Edinburgh as a common place of execution, and then and there, betwixt the hours of two and four o’clock afternoon to be hanged by the necks, by the hands of the Common Executioner, upon a Gibbet, until they be dead; and ordain all their moveable goods and gear to be escheat and inbrought to His Majesty’s use: which is pronounced for doom.”

On October 1, 1788, Brodie was duly hanged along with Smith. A crowd of 40,000 is said to have watched the Deacon executed on a gallows that, as a Town Councillor, he had commissioned.

The story didn’t end there as rumours grew that Brodie had somehow escaped by using a lead device to stop himself being choked to death, and there were even “sightings” of him in Paris. Too many people saw him dead for those stories to be taken seriously and both the respectable councillor and cunning burglar died in the one body.

The last word on that dual existence which so inspired Stevenson must go to that indefatigable chronicler of Scottish criminality, William Roughead:

“So long as human nature remains the same will the story of the Deacon’s downfall be accorded an indulgent hearing.”