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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Burglar William Brodie's double life inspired a well-known character

By Paul Niemann

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[February 19, 2009]  The location was Edinburgh, Scotland. The time frame was the 1780s.

William Brodie (1741-1788) lived a double life. Unlike most of the stories in this column, though, our subject was not an inventor. He did, however, inspire a writer to invent a new character based on his life. Read on this one will surprise you.

Brodie was a cabinetmaker. His work as a cabinetmaker also included installing and repairing his clients' locks. Born in Edinburgh to a father who was also a cabinetmaker, he would later inherit his father's business.

Robert Louis Stevenson's father owned one of the cabinets that Brodie had made.

Brodie also served as an inspiration to the younger Stevenson (1850-1894). But not in the way you might think, as Brodie led a double life. He was a respected cabinetmaker and town council member by day and a burglar by night.

In an effort to support his wild lifestyle, which included gambling, two mistresses and five illegitimate children, William Brodie the cabinetmaker embarked upon an 18-month crime spree beginning in 1786. He gained entry into his, uh, customers' homes by making wax replicas of their house keys during the day and returning at night to steal. In fact, Brodie was often hired to repair the doors that he had broken into the previous night.

In addition to building cabinets, Brodie also designed some of the gallows where hangings took place. Now you know how his story ends, but there's something else about him that you probably didn't know.

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I mentioned earlier that he was not an inventor, but he did inspire Robert Louis Stevenson to invent a new character for one of his stories. This character was based on Brodie's life.

You see, William Brodie was the real-life version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

But you knew that all along, didn't you?

Brodie was caught while trying to escape to America. He was brought before a judge whose nickname was "The Hanging Judge." Now there's a lesson to be learned here: If you're going to face a judge, be sure to get one whose nickname is not "The Hanging Judge." You'll thank me for it later.

Brodie met his match in the form of a hangman's noose. Ironically, Brodie was one of the people who had earlier helped create the design for the gallows. On the day of his hanging, he bribed the hangman to help him escape by hiding a steel collar inside the noose, but it didn't work. While William Brodie was able to cheat his clients, he wasn't able to cheat death.

In the end, one of the great literary stories of all time had been born.


Paul Niemann's column is syndicated in more than 70 newspapers, and he is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2009

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