The History of Leith

November 6, 2012

William Brodie

FROM such a character as Sir Francis Grant of
Cullen, a single-minded and upright man, the
transition is great indeed to the occupant who
gave his name to the next close—a name it still
retains—a notorious character, who had a kind of
dual existence, for he stood high in repute as a
pious, wealthy, and substantial citizen, until the
daring robbery of the Excise Office in 1788 brought
to light a long-continued system of secret housebreaking
and of suspected murder, unsurpassed in
the annals of cunning and audacity
William Brodie, Deacon of the Wrights and
Masons of Edinburgh, was the son of Convener
Francis Brodie, who had an extensive business as
a cabinet maker in the Lawnmarket; and in 1781
the former was elected a Deacon Councillor of the
city. He had unfortunately imbibed a taste for
gambling, and became expert in making that taste
a source of revenue; thus he did not scruple to
have recourse to loaded dice. It became a ruling
passion with him, and he was in the habit of resorting
almost nightly to a low gambling club, kept
by a man named Clark, in the Fleshmarket Close.
He had the tact and art to keep his secret profligacy
unknown, and was so successful in blinding his
fellow-citizens that he continued a highly reputable
member of the Town Council until within a short
period of the crime for which he was executed,
and, according to “Kay’s Portraits,” it is a singular
fact, that little more than a month previously he
sat as a juryman in a criminal case in that very
court where he himself soon after received sentence
of death.
For years he had been secretly licentious and
dissipated, but it was not until 1786 that he
began an actual career of infamous crime, with
his fellow-culprit, George Smith, a native of Berkshire,
and two others, named Brown and Ainslie.
He was in easy circumstances, with a flourishing
business, and his conduct in becoming a leader of
miscreants seems unaccountable, yet so it was. In
and around the city during the winter of 1787
there were committed a series ot startling robberies,
and no clue could be had to the perpetrators.
Houses and shops were entered, and articles of
value vanished as if by magic. In one instance a
lady was unable to go to church from indisposition,
and was at home alone, when a man entered with
crape over his face, and taking her keys, opened
her bureau and took away her money, while she remained
panic stricken; but as he retired she thought,
” surely that was Deacon Brodie !” But the idea
seemed so utterly inconceivable, that she preserved
silence on the subject till subsequent events
transpired. As these mysterious outrages continued,
all Edinburgh became at last alarmed, and in all of
them Brodie was either actively or passively concerned,
till he conceived the—to him—fatal idea
of robbing the Excise office in Chessel’s Court, an
undertaking wholly planned by himself. He visited
the office openly with a friend, studied the details
of the cashier’s room, and observing the key of the
outer door hanging from a nail, contrived to take alarmed, gave a signal and retreated. Smith and
an impression of it with putty, made a model therefrom,
and tried it on the lock by way of experiment,
but went no further then.
On the 5th of March, Brodie, Smith, Ainslie,
and Brown, met in the evening about eight to make
the grand attempt. The Deacon was attired in
black, with a brace of pistols ; he had with him
several keys and a double picklock. He seemed
in the wildest spirits, and as thfcy set forth he sang
the well-known ditty from the “Beggar’s Opera”—
” Let us take the road,
Hark! I hear the sound of coaches!
The hour of attack
approaches;
To your arms brave
boys., and load.
“See the ball I hold ;
Let chemists toil
like asses—
Our fire their fire
surpasses,
And turns our lead to
gold!”
The office was
shut at night, but
no watchman came
till ten. Ainslie
kept watch in
Chessel’s Court,
Brodie inside the
outer door, when
he opened it,
while Smith and
Brown entered the
cashier’s room. All
save the first carried
pistols, and
Brodie had a
whistle by which he was to sound an alarm if
necessary. In forcing the second or inner door,
Brown and Smith had to use a crowbar, and the
coulter of a plough which they had previously stolen
for the purpose. Their faces were craped; they
had with them a dark lantern, and they burst open
every desk and press in the room. While thus
engaged, Mr. James Bonar, the deputy-solicitor,
returned unexpectedly to the office at half-past
eight, and detection seemed imminent indeed !
” The outer door he found shut, and on opening it
a man in black* (Brodie) hurriedly passed him, a
circumstance to which, not having the slightest
suspicion, he paid no attention. He went to his
room up-stairs, where he remained only a few
minutes, and then returned, shutting the outer
door behind him. Perceiving this, Ainslie became alarmed
But eventually they got clear off with their booty,
which proved to be only sixteen pounds odd, when
they had expected thousands ! They all separated
—Brown and Ainslie betook themselves to the New
Town, Brpdie hurried home to the Lavmmarket,
changed his dress, and proceeded to the house of
his mistress, Jean Watt, in Liberton’s Wynd, and
on an evening soon after the miserable spoil
was divided in
equal proportions.
By this time the
town was alarmed,
and the police on
the alert. Brown
(alias Humphry
Moore), who
proved the greatest
villain of the
whole, was at that
time under sentence
of transportation
for some
crime committed
in his native
country, England,
and having seen
an advertisement
offering reward and
pardon to any person
who should
discover a recent
robbery at the
shop of Inglis and
Horner, one of the many transactions in which
Brodie had been engaged of late with Smith and
others, he resolved to turn king’s evidence, and
on the very evening he had secured his share of
the late transaction he went to the Procurator
Fiscal, and gave information, but omitted to mention
the name of Brodie, from whom he expected
to procure money for secrecy. He conducted
the police to the base of the Craigs, where they
found concealed under a large stone a great number
of keys intended for future operations in all
directions. In consequence of this, Ainslie, Smith
and his wife and servant, were all arrested. Then
Brodie fled, and Brown revealed the whole affair.
Mr. Williamson, king’s messenger for Scotland,
traced the Deacon from point to point till he reached
Dover, where after an eighteen days’ pursuit he
disappeared; but by a sort of fatuity, often evinced
by persons similarly situated, he gave clues to his
own discover}’. He remained in London till the
23rd of March.
He took his passage on board the
Leith smack Endeavour for that port, disguised as
an old man in bad health, and under the name of
John Dixon ; but on getting out of the Thames,
according to some previous arrangement, he was
landed at Flushing, and from thence reached
Ostend. On board the smack he was rash enough
On board the smack he was rash enough , O
to give in charge of a Mr. Geddes letters addressed
to three persons in Edinburgh, one of whom was
his favourite mistress in Cant’s Close. Geddes,
full of suspicion, on reaching Leith gave the documents
to the authorities. Mr. Williamson was once
more on his track, and discovered him in Amsterdam,
through the treachery of an Irishman named
Daly, when he was on the
eve of his departure for
America; and on the 27th
of August, 1788, he was
arraigned with Smith in
the High Court of Justiciary,
when he had as
counsel the Hon. Henry
Erskine, known then as
“Plead for all, or the
poor man’s lawyer,” and
two other advocates of
eminence, who made an
attempt to prove an alibi
on the part of Brodie,
by means of Jean Watt
and her servant, but
the jury, with one voice, found both guilty, and
they were sentenced to be hanged at the west
end of the Luckenbooths on the Ist October, 1788.
Smith was deeply affected; Brodie cool, determined,
and indifferent. His self-possession never forsook
him, and he spoke of his approaching end with
levity, as “a leap in the dark,” and he only betrayed
emotion when he was visited, for the last time, by
his daughter Cecil, a pretty child of ten years of
age. He came on the scaffold in a full suit of
black, with his hair dressed and powdered. Smith
was attired in white linen, trimmed with black.
“Having put on white night-caps,” says a print
of the time, ” Brodie pointed to Smith to ascend
the steps that led to the drop, and in an easy manner,
clapping him on the shoulder, said, ‘ George
Smith, you are first in hand.’ Upon this Smith,
whose behaviour was highly penitent and resigned,
slowly ascended the steps, followed by Brodie, who
mounted with briskness and agility, and examined
the dreadful apparatus. with attention, particularly
the halter destined for himself;” and well might he
do so with terrible interest, as he was to be the
first to know the excellence of an improvement he
had formerly made on that identical gibbet—the
substitution of what is called the drop, for the
ancient practice of the^tiouble ladder. The ropes
proving too short, Brodie stepped down to the
platform and entered into easy conversation with
his friends.
This occurred no less than three times, while
the great bell of St. Giles’s was tolling slowly, and
the crowd of spectators was” vast. Brodie died
without either confessing or denying his guilt; but
the conduct and bearing of Smith were very different.
In consequence of the firmness and levity of the
formes^ a curious story became quickly -current, to
the effect that in the Tolbooth he had been visited
by Dr. Pierre Degraver,
a French quack, who
undertook to restore him
to life after he had hung
the usual time, and that,
on the day before the execution,
he had marked
the arms and temples of
Brodie, to indicate where
he would apply the lancet.
Moreover, it was said
that having to lengthen
the rope thrice proved
that they had bargained
secretly with the executioner
for a short fall.
When cut down the
body was instantly given to two of his own
workmen, who placed it on a cart, and drove at
a furious rate round the back of the Castle, with
the idea that the rough jolting might produce
resuscitation ! It was then taken to one of his
workshops in the Lawnmarket, where Degraver
was in attendance; but all attempts at bleeding
failed ; the Deacon was gone, and nothing remained
but to lay him where he now lies, in the north-east
corner of the Chapel-of-ease burying-ground. His
dark lantern and sets of false keys, presented by the
Clerk iff Justiciary to the Society of Antiquaries, are
still preserved in the city.

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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