The Story Of How A Cunning Thief Inspired "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde"

The Story Of How A Cunning Thief Inspired "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde"

We all have something about us we want to keep for ourselves, but what happens when this nature comes to life?

Like Frankenstein or Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a well-known story, even for those who haven’t actually read it. These characters have become part of our collective imagination, and for that reason, their stories have been replicated infinite times throughout the years. It’s evident the fascination Robert Louis Stevenson's story causes on its audience. I mean, even when we know that the core of the plot is a man with a double personality, so to speak, the story is absolutely appealing. That's why this is one of the stories that has been reinterpreted and replicated in basically every single medium, call it movies, series, books, video games, music, even in psychology. But where did Robert Louis Stevenson get the idea from? Well, he was inspired by a real-life character that everybody in his native Scotland was familiar with, and that’s William Brodie, better known in popular culture as Deacon Brodie. Who was he and what did he do to inspire such a scary character?

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Brodie was a renowned eighteenth-century Edinburgh citizen. His grandparents were prominent lawyers and his father was a successful businessman, so it was natural for him to become an important character for the city. He was a very talented cabinet maker and locksmith with a prosperous business. His reputation really preceded him, and for that reason, he soon became Deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights of the country as the leader of his guild. His respectability and constant care for his city made him also a City Councillor. Because he was a very trusted man, some of the wealthiest citizens of the city and nearby towns hired him to make their luxurious furniture.

People would give him the keys to their homes so that he could work there, and once he finished, he returned them to the owners. What they didn’t know was that behind that façade of the respectable man lied a cunning, treacherous, and ambitious man willing to do anything to get money at all cost. Not that he needed it, because his business was quite profitable, but he led a fancy and luxurious life that, together with the fact that he had two families and a lot of kids, soon started to become quite difficult to keep. So, while the wealthy proprietors trustingly gave him their keys, he would put into practice his skills as a great locksmith and would make a wax replica of them so that later he could make one exact copy and steal their belongings during the night. His criminal career not only focused on stealing from his customers, but he also robbed the bank without being suspected.

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In 1782 his father died of a paralysis, so Brodie inherited all his properties and money. However, this didn’t make a difference in his secret second job. It’s known that he was addicted to drinking and gambling, which soon took a toll on his fortune. Talking about fortune, four years after the death of his respectable father and after continuing a life of crime, what he saw as a great opportunity became actually the cause of his doom. Now, the success in his robberies lied in the fact that he lived a double life: in the mornings he was the trustful and respected Deacon Brodie, the wealthy owner of a profitable business, while at nights he was, well, just a burglar. However, he had always worked by himself, which made it quite difficult for people to suspect him, since no one knew his dark secret. Sadly for him, in 1786 he got acquainted with George Smith, another filthy criminal who detected Brodie’s true nature. Soon, they began working together, which left them a lot of money, more than he had ever gotten by himself. Seeing that the teamwork was way more profitable than going solo, they soon hired another two men, John Brown and Andrew Ainslie.

While they were preparing their biggest job, Brown heard that the authorities were offering a huge reward for any information on the city’s burglars. He realized that the money they offered was more than what he would get from the robbery and decided to plea for the King’s Pardon and give away the identities of Smith and Ainslie. However, these two decided that if they were going down, they would drag Brodie with them, and so the true face of the respectable and trustworthy Deacon Brodie was unveiled.

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Once he knew his accomplices had rattled on him, he tried fleeing to the Netherlands, but he was caught immediately when he set foot in Amsterdam and was sent back to Edinburgh. He was tried and found guilty. On October 1788 he was hanged before 40,000 spectators; some of them were his devastated customers and victims. According to some stories, and in an act of poetic justice, he was hanged from a gibbet he had recently designed for the city. His story naturally became a legend, and everybody in Scotland knows about the famous Deacon Brodie, the man with the two faces. Actually, before Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson wrote a play named Deacon Brodie, or the Double Life. Sadly, this wasn’t as successful as he expected, but the idea of a character with a double life remained in his head and led to one of the most popular novels of all times, all inspired by the story of a sneaky thief. 


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Images from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)