Double Dealing

621-21291 (2)

One reason I like going to the courthouse is the snippets you see and hear while you’re there. The other day I was looking at a probable cause affidavit. A PC affidavit is written to set out the reasons why an officer believed he lawfully took a defendant into custody. They are not intended to be works of literature. This one, however, led with the sentence, “I found the defendant, highly intoxicated, standing outside his trailer along with his mother and both his girlfriends.”

Setting and conflict, an opening line that compelled me to keep reading. (Bruce and Brian, it seems, are not the only cops who know how to hook their audiences with a first sentence.)

Yesterday, on the way to looking up something else, I took an internet detour and discovered the following story about an old trial. In a roundabout and inconsequential way, it reminded me of the affidavit.

William Brodie lived as a respectable citizen in Edinburgh, Scotland, circa 1786. His grandfathers were lawyers, his father a deacon (president) of the Wrights and Masons Guild. William, as the eldest son, learned his father’s trade, the repair and building of cabinets.

When his father died, William inherited a tidy fortune and became Deacon Brodie, leader of the Guild. With this position, he also became a member of the Edinburgh City Council.

But William possessed an uncontrolled passion for gaming and cockfighting. He kept two mistresses in separate houses where they raised the children they bore him, but were, apparently, unaware of each other. (Here, perhaps, you see the tangential connection to my PC affidavit.)

His expenses outstripping even his successful business dealings, Deacon Brodie turned to burglary. With access to customers’ houses for his cabinet work, he would make wax impressions of their keys and return at night to steal their possessions. He personified the double-life. His exploits grew and William added accomplices, including a locksmith, George Smith, an escaped thief, John Brown, and a third man, Andrew Ainslie.

In March of 1788, he conceived a plan for the big score, to burglarize the national tax office.

The plan failed, when by varying accounts, Brodie fell asleep or his nerves failed him. He fled to a mistress’s house to establish an alibi.

One accomplice, Brown, snitched on Smith and Ainslie. Brodie, however, unaware that he had been left out of the confession, skipped the city. Once he ran, all three confessed against him.

Brodie escaped to Holland, but sent letters back to his mistress (not the alibi, the other one). These letters were discovered, traced and he was arrested. While in Holland, Brodie had been taking forgery lessons with plans to slip off to America.

At trial, the prosecutors had a problem. By law at the time, a felon could not give testimony, thereby, rendering Brown legally unavailable. The Crown cleared this evidentiary hurdle, however, by pardoning Brown of all crimes. The prosecution also agreed to use Ainslie as a witness and prosecute only Brodie and Smith.

The trial began August 27th, 1788. As if Brodie didn’t have enough trouble, the presiding judge was Scotland’s own hanging judge. In the book, Some Old Scots Judges by W. Forbes Gray published in 1914, the judge, Lord Braxfield is described as follows:

He came dangerously near being destitute of principle and character. Unscrupulous, tyrannical, coarse, dissipated, illiterate, he was morally almost featureless. He had a hard heart, a tainted mind, a cross-grained, domineering nature, and an uncouth exterior. A noble aspiration or a lofty motive he was incapable of appreciating. Without faith, without hope, without charity, he moved continually in a world of sordid interests and ignoble purposes.

(Occasionally, in the middle of a trial, I might have said an unkind thing or two about a judge. My comments, by comparison, were minor league.)

One defense attorney, John Clerk, emboldened himself for final argument by drinking a bottle of claret. He then vigorously attacked “the villain of a witness [Brown] who I tell your lordships is not worth his weight in hemp.”

Against the weight of the accomplice’s testimony, the flight, the letters and evidence obtained from the search of Brodie’s home, a wine-soaked argument proved insufficient. Brodie was found guilty.

Accounts vary, but as a city father, he had either personally redesigned the gibbet upon which he was hanged or, at the very least, approved its construction. Either way, it was upon the gallows he helped build that both aspects of his life came together. William Brodie was hanged on October 1st, 1788.

Robert Louis Stevenson found inspiration in the tale of Deacon Brodie’s duplicitous life. Stevenson wove elements of Brodie’s life and nature into his story of a divided human, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Incidentally, Stevenson’s father owned furniture made by Brodie.

Crime, sex, literature and law, Deacon Brodie’s case was too cool not to discuss. I, The-Strange-Case-of-Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde1therefore, am making it my Trial of the Month for August.

4 thoughts on “Double Dealing

  1. Great story! I see sentencing back then was somewhat harsher than today. California just downgraded certain classes of burglaries to misdemeanors. Even when I worked there, it had to be a pretty heinous burglary to net the suspect state prison time for a first offense. I also love the cop’s opening sentence on the PC affidavit.


  2. The variation in report writing by police officers was often something we talked about in my days as a prosecutor. There was a continuum from “I love her reports” to “please, not his.” Undoubtedly a topic here for a future blog or two.


  3. Great post, Mark! While in Scotland years ago, I visited a Deacon Brodie pub, but never knew the significance. Thanks for sharing!


    1. From what I’ve read of the Deacon, he’d be pleased that you had a drink (or six). He was a member of The Cape Club, the most fashionable club in Edinburgh where he drank with the likes of the poet, Robert Burns. He preferred, however, the drinking establishments of Fleshmarket Close. It doesn’t take a real stretch of the imagination to picture a bar on a street named “Fleshmarket”.(“where gambling by dice was nightly practiced in the select company of sharpers and their dupes” from The Trial of Deacon Brodie.)


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