One of the most remarkable criminals ever confined in the Old Tolbooth of Edinburgh was Deacon William Brodie. His position of Deacon meant he was officially the most respected joiner in Edinburgh. He was also a town Councillor.
However, he had a habit of frequenting and gambling on cock fights. He usually lost, running up significant debts. To pay them off he utilised his fine joinery skills. At that time, it was customary for shop keepers to hang their keys on their doors during daytime, in clear view of all.
Brodie took impressions of them in clay. He employed a blacksmith who forged exact copies for him. This enabled Brodie to open the shops of his fellow tradesmen during the night, stealing whatever he wanted.
The ease with which he could repeatedly enact such crime made him an addicted burglar. He was never suspected until after a robbery on the Excise Office in Chessels’ Court in the Canongate part of the Royal Mile. As suspicion grew he fled to Amsterdam in Holland, where he was eventually captured ad brought back to Edinburgh.
At his trial he was convicted and sentenced to death, along with his accomplice Smith. In his cell he cut out the figure of a draughtboard from the stone floor. He amused himself by playing anyone who would join him. If alone he would play his right hand against his left.
His deportment at the gallows on 1st October 1788 displayed a mind at ease. This fuelled suspicion that in his modification of the gallows he had made mechanical adjustments which would save his life.
However, Deacon Brodie proved the excellence of his improvements – the substitution of the scaffold for the ancient practice of the double ladder. He appeared to view the result of his ingenuity with great satisfaction. As he was placed on the small pedestal at the top the executioner placed the rope around his neck. William Brodie remained calm, looking somewhat aloof as he viewed the mass of spectators below. He exited the world with his hand stuck into the open front of his vest.
Fraser Paterson FSA Scot
Freelance Tour Guide
Deacon Brodie Figure from Wikimedia Commons and by Kim Traynor
Deacon Brodie’s Tavern from Wikimedia Commons by Nicholas Mutton