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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
William Brodie: Tried for Breaking into the Excise Office


The trial of this individual for breaking into the Excise Office (then in Chessels's Court, Canongate), on the 5th March, 1788, created an unprecedented excitement in Edinburgh, arising not only from the extent and aggravated nature of the burglary, but from the respectable sphere of life in which the criminal previously moved.

His father, Convener Francis Brodie, carried on an extensive trade as a wright and cabinet-maker in the Lawnmarket, and was for many years a member of the Town Council. On his death, in 1780, his only son, William, succeeded to his business; and he was, in 1781, chosen one of the ordinary Deacon Councillors of the City.

Unfortunately for the prosperity of the young deacon, he had at an early period imbibed a taste for gambling, and acquired considerable expertness in turning this degrading vice to account as a source of revenue; and it appears, from an action raised against him by one Hamilton, a chimney-sweeper, that he did not scruple to have recourse to the usual tricks resorted to by professed gamblers. In this action he is accused of having used loaded or false dice, by which Hamilton lost upwards of six guineas. In the gratification of this ruling passion, he was in the habit of meeting, almost nightly, a club of gamblers at a house of a most disreputable description, kept by a person of the name of Clark, in the Fleshmarket Close. Notwithstanding his profligate habits, Brodie had the address to prevent them from becoming public; and he contrived to maintain a fair character among his fellow-citizens. So successful was he in blinding the world, that he continued a member of the Council until within a short period of the time he committed the crime for which he afterwards suffered; and it is a singular fact, that little more than a month previously, he sat as a juryman in a criminal cause in that very court where he himself soon afterwards received sentence of death!

Although Brodie had for many years been licentious and dissipated, it is believed that it was not until 1786 that he commenced that career of crime which he ultimately expiated on the scaffold. About that time he became acquainted with his fellow-culprit, George Smith; and shortly afterwards, at the gambling haunt, with Ainslie and Brown —men of the lowest grade and most abandoned principles. The motives that induced Brodie to league himself with these desperate men are not very obvious. In comfortable circumstances, and holding situations of trust among his fellow-citizens, it is not easy to guess what could impel him to a line of conduct so very unaccountable. Let his motives have been what they might, however, Brodie, from his professional knowledge and his station in Society, had great facilities for furthering his contemplated depredations, and he became the leader of these miscreants, who acted by his orders, and were guided by his information.

About the latter end of 1787, a series of robberies were committed in and around Edinburgh, and no clue could be had of the perpetrators. Shops were opened, and goods disappeared as if by magic. The whole city at last became alarmed. An old lady mentions that a female friend of her's, who, from indisposition, was unable to go one Sunday to church, was, during divine worship, and in the absence of her servant, surprised by the entrance of a man, with a crape over his face, into the room where she was sitting. He very coolly took up the keys which were lying on the table before her, opened her bureau, and took out a considerable sum of money that had been placed there. He meddled with nothing else, but immediately re-locked the bureau, replaced the keys on the table, and, making a low bow, retired. The lady was panic-struck the whole time. Upon the exit of her mysterious visitor, she exclaimed, "Surely that was Deacon Brodie!" But the improbability of a person of his opulence turning a housebreaker, induced her to preserve silence at the time. Subsequent events, however, soon proved the truth of her surmises. In the most of these Brodie was either actively or passively concerned; but it was not until the last "fatal affair"—the robbery of the Excise Office—that he was discovered, and the whole machinery laid open.

This undertaking, it appears, was wholly suggested and planned by Brodie. A friend of his, a Mr. Corbett from Stirling, had occasion to visit the Excise Office for the purpose of drawing money. Brodie accompanied him; and-, while in the cashier's room, the idea first occurred to him. He immediately acquainted his colleagues with the design, and frequently made calls at the office, under the pretence of asking for Mr. Corbett, but with the sole purpose of becoming better acquainted with the premises. On one of those visits, in company with Smith, he observed the key of the outer door hanging on a nail, from which he took an impression of the wards with putty ; and on the night of the 80th November, with the key formed from this model, they opened the outer door by way of experiment, but proceeded no farther.

It was not till the 5th of March following that the final attempt was made ; on which occasion all hands were engaged. Their plan of procedure was previously well-concerted, and their tools prepared. They were to meet in the house of Smith about seven o'clock; but Brodie did not appear till eight, when he came dressed in an old-fashioned suit of black, and armed with a brace of pistols. He seemed in high spirits for the adventure, and was chanting the well-known ditty from the "Beggars' 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 the chemists toil like asses—
Our fire their fire surpasses,
And turns our lead to gold."

Brodie also brought with him some small keys and a double picklock. Particular duties were assigned to each. Ainslie was to keep watch in the courtyard; Brodie inside the outer door; while Smith and Brown were to enter the cashier's room. The mode of giving alarm was by means of a whistle, bought by Brodie the day before, with which Ainslie was to call once, if only one person approached—if two or more, he was to call thrice, and then proceed himself to the back of the building to assist Brown and Smith in escaping by the windows. All of them, save Ainslie, were armed with pistols. Brown and Smith had pieces of crape over their faces. They chose the hour of attack from the circumstance of the office being generally shut at eight, and no watchman being stationed till ten.

The party accordingly advanced to the scene of action. Ainslie and Brodie took up their respective positions, while Brown and Smith proceeded to the more arduous task of breaking into the cashier's room. Smith opened the first door with a pair of curling-irons; but in forcing the second or inner door, they had to use both the iron crow and the coulter of a plough, which they had previously stolen for the purpose. Having with them a dark lantern, they searched the whole apartment, opening every desk and press in it. While thus engaged a discovery had nearly taken place, the Deputy-Solicitor, Mr. James Bonnar, having occasion to return to the office about half-past eight. The outer door he found shut, and on opening it a man in black (Brodie) hurriedly passed by 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 hastily behind him. Perceiving this, Ainslie became alarmed, gave the signal, and retreated. Smith and Brown did not observe the call, but thinking themselves in danger, when they heard Mr. Bonnar coming down stairs, they cocked their pistols, determined not to be taken. After remaining about half-an-hour, they got off with their booty, which, much to their disappointment, amounted only to .£16 odds, while they expected to have found as many hundreds. In their search they had overlooked a concealed drawer in one of the desks, where, at the very time, there were £600 deposited. On coming out, they were surprised not to find either Brodie or Ainslie; but, after returning to their former rendezvous, the latter soon joined them. In order to prevent suspicion, Brown and Ainslie immediately went to one Fraser's, who kept a tavern in the New Town, where, in company with some others, they supped and spent the night. Brodie, it appears, had hurried home, where he changed his dress, and then proceeded to the house of Jean Watt (who had several children to him), in Libberton's Wynd, where he remained all night. The parties met on the Friday evening following, and divided the booty in equal portions.

The robbery having been discovered about ten o'clock the same night it was committed, the town was in consternation, and the police on the alert in all directions. Brown (alias Humphry Moore), who appears to have been the greatest villain of the whole, was at the time under sentence of transportation for a crime committed in England; and having seen an advertisement from the Secretary of State's Office, offering a reward and a pardon to any person who should discover the robbery of Inglis and Horner's shop, he resolved on turning King's evidence, foreseeing that the public prosecutor would be under the necessity of obtaining pardon for his previous offence, before he could be admitted as a witness. Accordingly, on Friday evening, immediately after securing his dividend at Smith's, he proceeded to the Procurator-Fiscal's, and gave information, but without at the time mentioning Brodie's name as connected with the transaction. The reason of this appears to have been an intention to procure money from Brodie for secrecy, as, on ascertaining that he had fled, he no longer kept silence. He likewise conducted the officers of justice to Salisbury Craigs, where they found a number of keys concealed under a large stone, which he said were intended for future operations. In consequence of this, Ainslie, Smith, and his wife, and servant-maid, were all apprehended; and, after a precognition, lodged in prison.

Brodie, suspecting he stood on ticklish ground, fled on Sunday morning; and, from the masterly manner in which he accomplished his escape, baffled all pursuit for a time. On the Wednesday following, Mr. Williamson, King's messenger for Scotland, was despatched in search of him. He traced Brodie to Dunbar and Newcastle, and afterwards to London: from thence Williamson went to Margate, Deal, and Dover, but lost sight of him altogether; and, after eighteen days' fruitless search, returned to Edinburgh. But for Brodie's own imprudence, impelled apparently hy a sort of fatuity frequently evinced by persons similarly situated, there was every chance of his finally escaping. He remained in London, it appears, until the 23rd March, when he took out his passage, in the name of John Dixon, on board one of the smacks bound for Leith, called the Endeavour. After the vessel had gone down the river Thames, Brodie came on board in a small boat, about twelve o'clock at night, disguised as an old gentleman in bad health. He was accompanied by two of the owners, who stopped on board for a short time. On going out to sea, as it no doubt had been previously arranged, the Endeavour steered for Flushing instead of Leith, where Brodie was put ashore, and immediately after took a Dutch skiff for Ostend.

So far so well: but, unfortunately for Brodie, there had been a Mr. Geddes, tobacconist in Mid-Calder, and his wife, fellow-passengers, with whom he frequently entered into conversation. On parting, he had given Geddes three letters to deliver in Edinburgh—one addressed to his brother-in-law, Matthew Sherriff, upholsterer; another to Michael Henderson, Grassmarket; and the third to Ann Grant, Cant's Close, Brodie's favourite mistress. She had three children to him. These letters, as he might well have expected, were the means of his discovery. On landing at Leith, Geddes became acquainted with the circumstances of the robbery, and immediately suspecting that Mr. John Dixon was no other than Deacon Brodie, he opened the letters, and became doubly strengthened in his opinion; but not having made up his mind how to proceed, Mr. Geddes did not deliver the letters to the authorities till near the end of May. Even, then, however, they were the means of Brodie's apprehension, and were afterwards put in evidence against him. Information of the circumstances was instantly despatched to Sir John Potter, British Consul at Ostend, in consequence of which Brodie was traced to Amsterdam, where, on application to Sir James Harris, then Consul, he was apprehended in an alehouse, through the instrumentality of one Daly, an Irishman, on the eve of his departure to America, and lodged in the Stadthouse. A Mr. Groves, messenger, was despatched from London, on the 1st of July, for the prisoner, by whom he was brought to London; and from thence to Edinburgh by Mr. Williamson, who was specially sent up to take charge of him. On the journey from London Brodie was in excellent spirits, and told many anecdotes of his sojourn in Holland.

The trial took place in the High Court of Justiciary, on the 27th August, 1788, before Lords Hailes, Eskgrove, Stonefield, and Swinton. The Court, from the great excitement in the public mind, was crowded to excess at an early hour. Smith and Brodie only were indicted, the other two having become " king's evidence." The trial commenced at nine o'clock in the morning of Wednesday, and the jury were enclosed till six o'clock in the morning of the following day. All the facts we have previously narrated were fully borne out by the evidence, as well as by the declarations of Smith while in prison. An attempt was made to prove an alibi on the part of Brodie, by means of Jean Watt and her maid; but the jury, "all in one voice," returned a verdict finding both panels "guilty." They were sentenced, therefore, to be executed at the west end of the Luckenbooths, on Wednesday, the 1st October, 1788. When the sentence had been pronounced by the Lord Justice-Clerk, Brodie manifested a desire to address the Court, but was restrained by his counsel. "His behaviour during the whole trial was perfectly collected. He was respectful to the Court; and when anything ludicrous occurred in the evidence, smiled as if he had been an indifferent spectator. His conduct on receiving sentence was equally cool and determined. Smith was much affected."

The counsel for the Prosecutor were—Hay Campbell, Esq., Lord Advocate (afterwards Lord President); Robert Dundas, Esq., Solicitor-General (afterwards Lord Chief Baron) ; William Tait, Esq., and James Wolfe Murray, Esq. (afterwards Lord Cringletie), Depute-Advocates; and Mr. Robert Dundas, Clerk to the Signet.

For William Brodie—The Hon. Henry Erskine, Dean of Faculty ; Alexander Wight, Esq., Charles Hay, Esq. (afterwards Lord Newton); Agents, Mr. Robert Donaldson and Mr. Alexander Paterson, Writers to the Signet.

For George Smith—John Clerk, Esq. (afterwards Lord Eldin); Robert Hamilton, Esq.; Mr. Æneas Morrison, agent.

The jurymen were—Robert Forrester, banker; Robert Allan, banker ; Henry Jamieson, banker; John Hay, banker; William Creech, bookseller; George Kinnear, banker; Wiiliam Fettes (afterwards Sir Wm.) merchant; James Carfrae, merchant; John Milne, founder; Dunbar Pringle, tanner; Thomas Campbell, merchant; Francis Sharp, merchant; James Donaldson, printer; John Hutton, stationer; Thomas Cleghorn, coachmaker.

During the whole period of Brodie's confinement, his self-possession and firmness never forsook him. He even at times assumed a Mac-heath-like boldness; and, with an air of levity, spoke of his death as a "leap in the dark." On the Friday before his execution, he was visited by his daughter, Cecill, about ten years of age; and here "nature and the feelings of a father were superior to every other consideration; and the falling tear, which he endeavoured to suppress, gave proof of his feeling. He embraced her with emotion, and blessed her with the warmest affection." Brodie's manner of living in prison was very abstemious; yet his firmness and resolution seemed to increase as the fatal hour approached—the night previous to which he slept soundly for five or six hours. On the morning he suffered, he conversed familiarly with a select number of his friends, and wrote a letter to the Lord Provost, requesting, as a last favour, "that as his friends, from a point of delicacy, declined witnessing his dissolution, certain gentlemen [whom he named] might be permitted to attend, and his body allowed to be carried out of prison immediately upon being taken down"—which request was readily granted.

The following account of the execution we give from one of the periodicals of the day:—"About a quarter-past two, the criminals appeared on the platform, preceded by two of the magistrates in their robes, with white staves, and attended by the Rev. Mr. Hardy, one of the ministers of Edinburgh—the Rev. Mr. Cleeve, of the Episcopal persuasion, in their gowns, and the Rev. Mr. Hall, of the Burghers. When Mr. Brodie came to the scaffold, he bowed politely to the magistrate^ and the people. He had on a full suit of black—his hair dressed and powdered. Smith was dressed in white linen, trimmed with black. Having spent some time in prayer, with seeming fervency, with the clergymen, Mr. Brodie then prayed a short time by himself.

"Having put on white nightcaps, 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, and was immediately followed by Brodie, who mounted with briskness and agility, and examined the dreadful apparatus with attention, and particularly the halter designed for himself. The ropes being too short tied, Brodie stepped down to the platform, and entered into conversation with his friends. He then sprang up again, but the rope was still too short; and he once more descended. to the platform, showing some impatience. During this dreadful interval Smith remained on the drop with great composure and placidness. Brodie having ascended a third time, and the rope being at last properly adjusted, he deliberately untied his neckcloth, buttoned up his waistcoat aud coat, and helped the executioner to fix the rope. He then took a friend (who stood close by him) by the hand, bade him farewell, and requested that he would acquaint the world that he was still the same, and that he died like a man. He then pulled the nightcap over his face, and placed himself in an attitude expressive of firmness and resolution. Smith, who, during all this time had been in fervent devotion, let fall a handkerchief as a signal, and a few minutes before three they were launched into eternity. Brodie on the scaffold neither confessed nor denied his being guilty. Smith, with great fervency, confessed in prayer his being guilty, and the justice of his sentence, and showed in all his conduct the proper expressions of penitence, humility, and faith. This execution was conducted with more than usual solemnity; and the great bell tolled during the ceremony, which had an awful and solemn effect. The crowd of spectators was immense."

In explanation of the wonderful degree of firmness, if not levity, displayed in the conduct of Brodie, a curious and somewhat ridiculous story became current. It was stated that he had been visited in prison by a French quack, of the name of Degravers, who undertook to restore him to life after he had hung the usual time ; that, on the day previous to the execution, he had marked the temples and arms of Brodie with a pencil, in order the more readily to know where to apply the lancet; and, that with this view, the hangman had been bargained with for a short fall. "The excess of caution, however," observes our worthy informant, who was himself a witness of the scene, "exercised by the executioner, in the first instance, in shortening the rope, proved fatal by his inadvertency in making it latterly too long. After he was cut down," continues our friend, "his body was immediately given to two of his own workmen, who, by order of the guard, placed it in a cart, and drove at a furious rate round the back of the Castle." The object of this order was probably an idea that the jolting motion of the cart might be the means of resuscitation, as had once actually happened in the case of the celebrated "half-hangit Maggie Dickson." This woman had been executed for child-murder, and her body delivered to her relatives for interment, who put it in a cart to transport it a few miles out of town. Strange to say, half the journey was not accomplished, when, to the consternation of those present, the poor woman. revived. She lived afterwards several years, and bore two children to her husband. The body was afterwards conveyed to one of Brodie's own workshops in the Lawnmarket, where Degravers was in attendance. He attempted bleeding, &c, but all would not do; Brodie "was fairly gone."

Before closing our memoir of Deacon Brodie, it may not be uninteresting to give one or two extracts from those letters which proved the means of his discovery. In one addressed to his relative, Mr. Sherriff, he says—"My stock is seven guineas, but by the time I reach Ostend it will be reduced to six. My wardrobe is all on my back, excepting two check shirts, and two white ones. My coat out at the arms and elbows." In another addressed to Henderson, dated April 10, he writes—"I arrived in London on the 13th March, where I remained till the 23rd, snug and safe in the house of an old female friend, within rive hundred yards of Bow Street. I did not keep the house all this time, but so altered, excepting the scar under mv eye, I think you could not have rapt (swore) to me. I saw Mr. Williamson twice; but although countrymen usually shake hands when they meet from home, yet I did not choose to make so free with him, notwithstanding lie brought a letter to me. My female gave me great uneasiness by introducing a flash man to me, but she assured me he was a true man ; and he proved himself so, notwithstanding the great reward, and was useful to me. I saw my picture [his description in the newspapers] six hours before, exhibited to public view; and my intelligence of what was doing at Bow Street Office was as good as ever I had in Edinburgh. I make no doubt but that designing villain Brown is in high favour with Mr. Cockburn [the' Sheriff], for I can see some strokes of his pencil in my portrait. Write me how the main went—how you came on in it—if my black cock fought and gained," &c. He was passionately fond of cock-fighting. Here we have the mind of Brodie strongly imbued with his ruling passion for gambling. Immediately the recollection of his unhappy situation conjures up matter of serious reflection. He feelingly alludes to his children —"They will miss me more," says he, "than any other in Scotland. May God in his infinite goodness stir up some friendly aid for their support, for it is not in my power at present to give them any assistance. Yet I think they will not absolutely starve in a Christian land, where their father once had friends, and who was always liberal to the distressed." He then states his intention of proceeding to some part of North America, probably to Philadelphia or New York, and desires that his working tools might be purchased for him, and forwarded to either of those places, adding, that although it is hard to begin labour at my years, yet I hope, by industry and attention, to gain a livelihood. He was anxious to know what became of Brown, Smith, and Ainslie. And, in allusion to them, says—"I shall ever repent keeping such company; and whatever they may allege, I had no direct concern in any of their depredations, except the last fatal one, by which I lost ten pounds in cash; but I doubt not all will be laid to my charge, and some I never heard of."


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