Dark Capital is a series that explores the intersection of business, wealth and crime
Iwas dreaming a fine bogey tale.”
Robert Louis Stevenson had spent the night in his sickbed enveloped by a nightmare that had descended like a swift-forming fog, swirling together memories and discarded thoughts. Illness plagued Stevenson his whole life, and he’d suffered especially after he and his wife, Fanny, moved to Dorset on the English seaside in 1884. He had spent the previous evening trying to recover from a respiratory infection, but a fever kept restful sleep from him, and Fanny eventually roused him after he cried out several times.
To Fanny’s surprise, he rebuked her for waking him. He’d wanted to stay within that shrouded mix of thoughts, where an idea had started to form—a fine tale of a bogeyman and his mirrored opposite, a gentleman. Stevenson, then in his mid-30s and already a famous author after Treasure Island was published in 1881, rose and went down to eat with his family. There, he was obviously “in a very pre-occupied frame of mind,” his stepson Lloyd Osbourne observed, hurrying “through his meal—[an] unheard-of thing for him to do—and on leaving said he was working with extraordinary success on a new story.” The writer left very clear instructions: He was not to be disturbed, even if the house caught fire.
For three days, Stevenson wrote constantly, filing “page after page” from bed. Later in life, Fanny would reflect on this moment in their lives, thinking back on what inspired Stevenson’s marathon effort, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She recalled that her husband had recently read an article in a French scientific journal about the subconscious, about the mind’s inner workings and buried desires. Yet that was not the only thing on Stevenson’s mind when the dream came to him. There was something else, too, and Fannie knew it: “his memories of Deacon Brodie.”
Who Was Deacon Brodie?
At first glance, Brodie would’ve resembled any other well-to-do young man in 18th-century Edinburgh. He was a successful artisan, known particularly for his cabinetry skills. (As a child, Stevenson, also an Edinburgh native, had a Brodie-made bookcase and chest of drawers in his room.) Brodie belonged to the city council and served as its “Deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights”—hence his epithet, Deacon. He’d been born William Brodie in 1741, the son of an already successful builder. When his father died, he inherited a £10,000 fortune, a princely amount (worth about $2.1 million today) at a time when the average Brit might earn a few pounds a year.
Brodie made as much as £600 annually, pushing him well into the ranks of Edinburgh’s wealthiest. Those fortunate circumstances put a “particular air in [the] walk” of the slender, youthful-looking man, as one of chronicler of Brodie’s life later noted, allowing him to dress in fine suits, often ensembles of all white.
But there was a dark side to Brodie’s nature. He loved to gamble, regularly losing large sums on cockfighting matches. (He kept several cocks himself in a pen at home, a large, high-ceiling manse that featured a mural depicting a Bible scene, the Adoration of the Magi.) Brodie partied and drank—in places high and low, a member of Edinburgh’s tony Cape Club and a frequent patron of one of the city’s lowest dives, a tavern on Fleshmarket Close. And he kept at least two mistresses, with whom he fathered five children.
It was, presumably, his spendthrift nature that helped push him from his rarefied world into the underworld, becoming one of Britain’s most notorious criminals. At night, he transformed into a top-notch burglar—his face obscured by a crepe mask—and spent 20 years capering across the city. Often, he robbed friends and acquittances, finding opportune moments to swipe their keys, create duplicates, replace the original and later use the copy to enter their home or business.
It’s likely Brodie began his double life as early as 1768, but his most prolific period came in the 18 months beginning in July 1786. At that time, he grew close with two men who would become his chief accomplices, George Smith, a traveling salesman, and John Brown, a convicted felon on the lam in Scotland facing deportation to an overseas penal colony. The trio, who all enjoyed drinks and cockfighting, struck up a fast friendship. From there, the Brodie Gang embarked on a blitz of burglaries, starting with a goldsmith’s store the following fall.
They followed that with the robbery of a jeweler’s on Bridge Street, carrying off ten precious watches; a grocer’s on St. Andrew Street, where they purloined 350 pounds of highly valuable black tea; and even the University of Edinburgh, which lost a precious school heirloom—a silver mace—to the bandits.
By January 1788, “authorities were straining every nerve to discover” those responsible for the growing number of thefts, according to a chronicle at the time, claiming the crimes were “strik[ing] terror to the hearts of wealthy” Edinburghers.
Brodie, undaunted, planned their biggest heist yet. The city Excise Office was too tempting a target, and so after a dinner of chicken, herring, gin and beer on a blistery spring evening, Brodie, Smith, Brown and another man broke into the place armed with pistols. They turned up little, though, and their night was spoiled when an Excise Office employee returned, sending Brodie and the others into a hurried, disorganized retreat.
The police stepped up their search, and Edinburgh’s newspapers filled with ads placed by the investigators requesting information from the public. The reward had increased: £150 and the promise of a pardon, too—a clear ploy to break apart co-conspirators. It worked.
Brown cracked first, then Smith. Brodie fled the country, decamping for Amsterdam, a “hair-breadth escape…from a well-scented pack of bloodhounds,” he remarked in a letter to a friend. A police search of his home turned up pick-locks, a set of false keys and pistols buried near his beloved gamecocks’ coop. A riveted public was scandalized by the revelations, with one editorial in the Edinburgh Evening Courant summing it up: “With what amazement must it strike every friend to virtue and honesty to find that a person is charged with a crime … who very lately distinguished rank among his fellow-citizens?”
Deacon Brodie became Stevenson’s Kilgore Trout, his Randall Flag. A character he could not quit.
Brodie was apprehended a few months later. His trial was swift, lasting little more than a day, but the courtroom was packed; the public’s interest in Brodie’s case well stoked. Throughout it all, he displayed nothing but refined manners—“perfectly collected…respectful to the Court, and when anything ludicrous occurred in the evidence he smiled as if he had been an indifferent spectator,” the Edinburgh Advertiser noted—even when the jury handed down its verdict: guilty. Brodie would hang for his crimes.
The following October, he ascended the gallows dressed as finely as ever, hair carefully powdered in keeping with the trend of the time. “A last step into the air … brought the career of Deacon William Brodie to an end,” wrote Stevenson in Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, the first of several times he would feature Brodie in his work. “He may be seen, a man harassed below a mountain of duplicity, slinking from a magistrate’s supper-room to a thieves’ ken, and pickeering among the closes by the flicker of a dark lamp.”
Tormented Dreams To Horror Classic
Deacon Brodie became Stevenson’s Kilgore Trout, his Randall Flag. A character he could not quit. After Edinburgh in 1878, he and his friend the poet W.E. Henley joined up to dramatize Brodie’s life. They produced a five-act play, Deacon Brodie, or, The Double Life, which took some significant liberties with the deacon’s escapades. This included making him a cold-blooded murderer. In one scene toward the play’s end, his sister discovers his evil-doings:
Mary: Wille, Willie!
Brodie: (taking the bloody dagger from the table). See, do you understand that?
Mary: Ah! What, what is it!
Brodie: Blood. I have killed a man.
Mary: You? …
Brodie: I am a murderer; I was a thief before. Your brother … the old man’s only son!
Stevenson’s dialogue was not dagger sharp, and Deacon Brodie flopped almost immediately after opening in Bradford, England, shortly after Christmas 1882. George Bernard Shaw described it as “pasteboard scenes and characters.”
But four years later, Stevenson’s novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde drew praise on both sides of the Atlantic, with the New York Times deeming it “thoroughly delightful,” while The Times of London found it “sensational,” comparing it to the “sombre masterpieces of Poe.” “Either the story was a flash of intuitive psychological research, dashed off in a burst of inspiration; or else it is the product of the most elaborate forethought, fitting together all the parts of an intricate and inscrutable puzzle,” The Times concluded.
Stevenson wasn’t shy about how he came up with the tale. When reporters caught up with him on a trip to New York, Stevenson, still sunken-eyed and sickly, explained his good doctor’s origins, saying that “it came to me as a gift. ”
“I am so much in the habit of making stories that I go on making them while asleep,” he said. “Sometimes they come to me in the form of nightmares, in so far that they make me cry out aloud. … So soon as I awake, and it always awakens me when I get on a good thing, I set to work and put it together.”
A few stray voices criticized the work as an overcooked fable that relied on cheap scares, but Stevenson only grinned in response. “Such criticisms,” he said, “cannot fail to be suggestive of the braying of asses.”