Deacon Brodie’s double life in Edinburgh arguably inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write his famous spine-tingling novella about the respectable Dr Jekyll who transforms into the deformed Mr Hyde.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, first published in 1886, has had a noticeable impact on our popular culture. The story’s continued popularity is due to its representation of a man with a split personality. Significantly, the phrase Jekyll and Hyde is often employed to refer to a person who is thought to have a dual nature (i.e. a good side and a bad or an evil side).
In the novella the dry London lawyer Mr Utterson investigates the last will of his old friend Dr Henry Jekyll, a reputable gentleman who appears to adhere to the moral virtues of the Victorian society. As it turns out, through a drug, he transforms into the opposite of the respectable doctor – the physically deformed and morally degenerated Mr Edward Hyde.
The inspiration for Stevenson’s Jekyll-and-Hyde story seems to be the criminal life of Deacon William Brodie. But, first of all, Edinburgh, the city where Brodie lived, deserves a closer look.
Scotland’s Capital Edinburgh – A City with a Dual Character
Although Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is set in London, it draws a lot on Edinburgh’s topography. Scotland’s capital was Stevenson’s home city. Like the novella’s protagonist (or antagonist), Edinburgh possesses a dual character. Broadly speaking, the city’s Old Town with the Royal Mile – a succession of medieval streets – in its heart contrasts with (or, more precisely, has differed from) the Georgian New Town, whose characteristics include straight-lined streets and large open spaces.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the writer of the play The Melting Pot Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), a London-born Jew, also became aware of the duplicity of Edinburgh’s environment. Judging from his depiction of the sunless courts, some areas of the Athens of the North, one of Edinburgh’s nicknames, gave the impression of constituting a breeding-ground of both crime and evil.
Edinburgh’s dual character fits in with Stevenson’s portrayal of the split personalities of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Appropriately enough, many sources claim that the creation of the novella’s protagonist (or antagonist) was inspired by the double life of Deacon Brodie.
The Real-Life Dr Jekyll – The Criminal Career of Deacon William Brodie
The story of the infamous Deacon brings us to Edinburgh in the second half of the 18th century. During this time Edinburgh was the scene of a series of robberies in which valuable goods and objects disappeared out of several buildings as if by magic. Behind these criminal activities was Deacon Brodie. This man can legitimately qualify as the real-life Dr Jekyll, even though he wasn’t a medical doctor and, needless to mention, didn’t turn into a physically deformed creature like Mr Hyde.
William Brodie (1741-1788) pretended to be a law-abiding citizen. He was a member of Edinburgh’s Town Council and a cabinet-maker. Among his customers were a lot of the richest people in Edinburgh society. Moreover, the respectable Edinburgh citizen Brodie served as the Deacon or head of the Incorporation of Wrights (i.e. skilled woodworkers).
However, his life was also filled with vices such as a gambling habit. In this connection, he had a reputation of cheating by using loaded dice. Besides, Deacon Brodie fathered five children with two mistresses.
Brodie’s extravagant lifestyle or second life eventually required an extra-curricular activity. Consequently, he decided in favour of a criminal career as a daring burglar. By day, the devious Deacon tried to maintain the image of an upright citizen, keeping the dark side of his character hidden from his customers and the public. Then, by night, he became a thief who devised a cunning plan to break into several houses and premises.
Undoubtedly, his profession as a cabinet-maker helped him to be a successful housebreaker. Since he worked in his rich customers‘ houses, Deacon Brodie duplicated their door-keys through wax impressions. Later he even recruited a gang of burglars that consisted of George Smith, a locksmith, John Brown, a thief and Andrew Ainslie, a shoemaker. Nevertheless, their crimes and Brodies’s secret life were ultimately uncovered.
The End and Unmasking of the Double Life of the Devious Deacon
The unmasking of the double life of the real-life Dr Jekyll began in 1788, when Deacon Brodie and his accomplices planned to rob the General Excise Office for Scotland, then in Chessels Court on the Canongate (i.e. a street / section of the Royal Mile) on 5 March. Prior to the robbery, Brodie, amongst other things, had visited the office and memorised the building’s layout.
Despite his plan, the armed robbery was a disastrous failure. In the end, Brodie and his accomplices managed to steal only £16. Subsequently, one of his accomplices betrayed the gang for a reward. While the other gang members were arrested, the devious Deacon successfully escaped to the continent.
Yet, this was the beginning of his end. Before he was about to flee to America, he was captured and brought back to Edinburgh where he was tried and sentenced to death. On 1 October 1788 he was publicly executed close to St Giles‘ Cathedral and buried in an unmarked grave.
According to many sources as well as popular myths, he had himself constructed the wooden gallows on which he was hanged. After his death other wild rumours, legends and tales circulated. One of them stated that he attempted to fake his own death by wearing a steel collar to prevent the hangman’s noose from being fatal. He was even said to have been seen alive in Paris afterwards.
Interestingly, the novella’s final chapter ‚Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case‘ ends with the following words:
„Will Hyde die upon the scaffold? or will he find the courage to release himself at the last moment? God knows; I am careless; this is my true hour of death, and what is to follow concerns another than myself. Here, then, as I lay down the pen, and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.“
The statement at the end of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde reveals Dr Jekyll’s disappearance and why in a previous chapter Mr Utterson (together with Jekyll’s butler Poole) discovers Mr Hyde’s body in the doctor’s cabinet. Jekyll’s other self, Mr Hyde, commits suicide, killing Dr Jekyll at the same time.
By contrast, Deacon William Brodie didn’t kill himself. Furthermore, the physical transformation of the protagonist / antagonist is, of course, fantastical. Notwithstanding these and other aspects, the devious Deacon is arguably the two-faced model for Stevenson’s main character, who has a divided self. Fittingly, Dr Jekyll realises that „(m)an is not truly one, but truly two“. Accordingly, he just creates the means to finally make the division between his two selves concrete.
With regard to his famous novella, Robert Louis Stevenson might have been also influenced, apart from Deacon Brodie, by other Edinburgh citizens or residents. Possible candidates are the serial killers Burke and Hare as well as Major Thomas Weir, a strict Covenanting soldier who later confessed to be a vicious occultist and to have had an incestuous relationship with his sister. Similar to Brodie, they lived a secret or double life in Edinburgh, a city with a dual character, as pointed out above.
Locations and Objects Associated with Deacon Brodie in Today’s Edinburgh
Today, the devious Deacon is commemorated by a few locations in Edinburgh’s Old Town. For example, in the vicinity of St Giles‘ Cathedral on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile visitors find the well-known Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. In short distance from this pub, there are Brodie’s Close and the Deacon’s House Cafe. These locations used to contain Brodie’s residence and his workshop.
Another significant object is exhibited in the Writers‘ Museum, which can be reached from the Royal Mile through Lady Stair’s Close. This museum dedicates itself to the life and work of three renowned Scottish writers – Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Stevenson. It is noteworthy that in one of the rooms visitors can see a wardrobe that was, in fact, made by the infamous Deacon and was owned by Stevenson.
Despite his plans, the armed robbery was, in fact, a disastrous failure. In the end, Deacon Brodie’s and his accomplices managed to steal only
Brennan, Matthew C. The Gothic Psyche: Disintegration and Growth in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997.
Daiches, David. Edinburgh. London: Hamilton, 1978.
Daiches, David. „Stevenson and Scotland.“ Stevenson and Victorian Scotland. Ed. Jenni Calder. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981. 11-32.
Mighall, Robert. Introduction. The Picture of Dorian Gray. By Oscar Wilde. New York (et al.): Pinguin Classics, 2000. ix-xxxiv.
Royal, Trevor. „The Literary Background to Stevenson’s Edinburgh.“ Stevenson and Victorian Scotland. Ed. Jenni Calder. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981. 48-61.
Sager, Peter. Schottland. 2nd ed. Berlin: Insel Verlag, 2015.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 (1886).
Turnball, Michael T.R.B. Curious Edinburgh. 2005. Reprint, Stroud: The History Press, 2010.