The Double Life of the Respectable Edinburgh Citizen Deacon Brodie – The Inspiration for Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

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.

The Royal Mile at night

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. 

The Mercat Cross and St Giles‘ Cathedral

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.  

Quite Franklin – Stereotypical Views and Benjamin Franklin’s Vicious Comments about Germans

During the 18th century, one of the U.S.A.’s most famous Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, expressed his contempt for immigrants from German states to colonial America. In general, there have been stereotypical views about Germans in the U.S.A.  

Mass immigration has always represented a contested issue in North America as in almost every country of the Western world. On the one hand, a huge number of people nowadays demand stricter immigration laws. On the other hand, many people support a liberal immigration policy.

The U.S.A. is commonly referred to as ‘a nation of immigrants’, though colonial North America was predominantly settled by migrants from England or Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the U.S.A. was founded, the Congress of the new American republic passed several federal legislation including the Naturalization Acts in 1790, 1795, 1798 and 1802. These acts only addressed immigration indirectly. Instead, as the name makes clear, they focused on the process of naturalization.

During this period (i.e. between the 18th and 19th centuries) these naturalization laws were comparatively generous. Broadly speaking, they allowed foreign residents in America to gain relatively easy access to citizenship as long as these persons fulfilled specific criteria.

Besides an oath of loyalty and the completion of the period of legal residence, the criteria included the renouncement of former and / or other allegiances and of all foreign titles. Moreover, the candidates for naturalization had to convince a court to have a “good moral character” and to believe in “the principles of the Constitution of the United States.” However, only “free-born white persons” could be naturalized.

Correspondingly, notwithstanding that free blacks were given citizenship in some states of the U.S.A., these Naturalization Acts particularly excluded slaves, a lot of free blacks, American Indians and indentured servants until the naturalization laws were changed in the 19th century. Today, the exclusion of certain ethnic or foreign groups is usually conceived of as ‘racism’ or ‘xenophobia’.

But the white people of colonial British America and the early American republic also viewed other groups of British migrants (as well as their descendants) and non-British immigrants with suspicion or contempt. At this point, we can, for example, point to the aversion to 18th-century immigrants from German states. One of the people who expressed dislike for them was Benjamin Franklin.

This illustrious figure among the U.S.A.’s Founding Fathers worried about large German communities in Pennsylvania. Before turning to Franklin’s vicious comments about Germans, we should elaborate on how Americans in the past perceived people from Germany.

Beer, Sauerkraut and “the Adipose Society” – American (Stereotypical) Views and Images of Germans

From the late 17th century to the mid-19th century, masses of people came to North America from the German states, which formed a German nation state in 1871. Germans were generally associated with beer and such an association is still common. Not by chance. Well-known American beer brands have a German origin. In this context, it is worth mentioning the founder of the Miller Brewing Company, Frederick Miller (1824-1888), and Adolphus Busch (1839-1913), the co-founder of the brewing company Anheuser-Busch.

Germans and Their Beer – A 19th-century lithograph that is taken from page 49 of the anthology From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: E pluribus unum? (Ed. Peter Freese, 2005).

Apart from this, Germans have been regarded as embodiments of gluttony, overindulgence or obesity. Appropriately enough, a 19th-century American lithograph depicts stereotypical Germans. We see, for example, an obese couple, transporting beer barrels. The girl sits on one barrel, while the boy appears to drink beer.

As far as the overindulgence or obesity issue is concerned, it is remarkable that in 1963 the American TIME Magazine published an article about (West) Germany with the title “West Germany: The Adipose Society.” A few passages of this article read as follows:

“Following the early ’50s, when the postwar boom set off what Germans call the Edelfresswelle, the gorgeous gobbling wave, buttocks and bosoms have expanded even more rapidly than the economy, and doctors have recognized two universal ailments: Doppelkinnepidemie, double-chin epidemic, and Hängebauch, or bellyhang.”

Parts of the article are certainly based on some stereotypical views.

Needless to say, more threatening images or views of Germans emerged in the U.S.A., when the two World Wars broke out. Then, the German word Sauerkraut was also replaced by the English term ‘liberty cabbage’. Long before the 20th century, Germans had made themselves unpopular among Americans with a British background by, for instance, going to the park on Sundays to play loud brass music and do exercise, which the Germans called ‘Turnen’.

During the colonial period many of the people from German states moved to Pennsylvania. Eventually, in the mid-18th century the colony of Pennsylvania was one-third German. Because of this fact, Benjamin Franklin reacted sharply.

“These Palatine Boors” – Franklin’s Malicious Comments about Germans in Pennsylvania

Franklin expressed his contempt for the immigrants from German states. He stated the following in one letter to Peter Collinson (1694-1768), a Fellow of the Royal Society in Britain, on 9 May 1753:

“I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans: and am not without Apprehensions, that thro’ their indiscretion or Ours, or both, great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us; Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation, and as Ignorance is often attended with Credulity when Knavery would mislead it, and with Suspicion when Honesty would set it right; and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain. Their own Clergy have very little influence over the people; who seem to take an uncommon pleasure in abusing and discharging the Minister on every trivial occasion. Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it;…”

His writings contain more malicious comments about Germans, as a part of his essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” (1751) demonstrates:

“And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”

He clearly feared the dominance of the German language in Pennsylvania.

His main concern was that the Germans would not adopt the English language and English customs. On 12 August 1753, Collinson suggested some remedies in a letter to him:

“Hints Humbly proposed to Incorporate the Germans more with the English and Check the Increase of their Power

1st To Establish More English Schools amongst the Germans.

2dly To Encourge them to Learn English Lett an Act of Parliament pass in Great Britain to disquallifie every German from accepting any Place of Trust or Profit Civil or Military Unless both He and His Children can speake English inteligibly.

3d To prohibit any Deeds, Bonds, or writeings &c. to be Made in the German Language.

4 To Suppress all German Printing Houses that print only German. Half German half English in a Page of Books or publick News papers To be Tolerated.

5th To prohibit all Importation of German books.

6 To Encourage the Marriages of Germans with English and Contra by some Priviledge or Donation from the Publick.

7ly To Discourage the sending More Germans to the Province of Pensilvania When Inhabitans are so much Wanted in Georgia, North Carolina and Nova Scotia &c.”

Franklin later responded in another letter in 1753, giving answers regarding the proposals.

At the beginning of the letter, he advised careful measures: “With regard to the Germans, I think Methods of great tenderness should be used, and nothing that looks like a hardship be imposed.” What is especially noteworthy is his answer to the sixth proposal:

“The sixth Proposal of Encouraging Intermarriages between the English and Germans, by Donations, &c. I think would either cost too much, or have no Effect. The German Women are generally so disagreable to an English Eye, that it wou’d require great Portions to induce Englishmen to marry them. Nor would the German Ideas of Beauty generally agree with our Women; dick und starcke, that is, thick and strong, always enters into their Description of a pretty Girl: for the value of a Wife with them consists much in the Work she is able to do. So that it would require a round Sum with an English Wife to make up to a Dutch Man the difference in Labour and Frugality. This Matter therefore I think had better be left to itself.”

To put it mildly, from today’s point of view, his statements were extremely politically incorrect.


Freese, Peter (Ed.). From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: E pluribus unum ?. Berlin et al.: Langenscheidt, 2005.

Gerber, David A. American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.