1st October 1788

William Brodie is hanged before 40,000 spectators

What better day job could a housebreaker have than installing and repairing locks? William Brodie was just such a man.

He was a high-flier in Edinburgh society, who met and knew the great and the good and was welcomed into their homes. The only problem was, he frequently returned to those homes uninvited at night or when the occupants were away.

Brodie’s bigger plans

But Brodie’s ambitions grew and, as they did, so did the danger in which he was placing himself. On 5 March 1788, he devised a scheme to rob the excise office using a key he had already duplicated, and he gathered a band of conspirators to help.

Unfortunately for the gang – and for Brodie in particular – they were disturbed when one of the employees returned to the office unexpectedly. They fled with just £16, but one of the men went to the police and, in exchange for immunity, turned in the others. Two of them were arrested, and Brodie fled.

A reward of £150 was offered for his capture, alive, to which a further £50 would be added should he be convicted. Announcing the potential rewards, the Caledonian Mercury of 13 March 1788 described him as “about 5 feet 4 inches tall; is about forty-eight years of age but looks rather younger than he is; broad at the shoulders, and small over the loins; has dark brown full eyes, with large black eye-brows… a particular motion with his mouth and lips, when he speaks, which he does full and slow, his mouth being commonly open at the time, and his tongue doubling up, as it were, shows itself towards the roof of his mouth…”

Brodie on the run

Brodie’s route south through England was a long and convoluted one designed to throw off the law. He reached the south coast, then returned to London, where he caught a boat to the Netherlands. That might have been his salvation had he not handed some letters to a fellow passenger, asking him to deliver them to Edinburgh. Instead, the passenger handed them to the police, who now had the lead they needed. They tracked him down and arrested him.

The Hampshire Chronicle of 21 July 1788 described how “on Tuesday afternoon… persons sent to Amsterdam with a requisition from this Court to the States of Holland for William Brodie to be given up, in order to be brought to England, set off from Bow-street for that place and arrived there on the Friday following. On the succeeding Tuesday the Magistrates of Amsterdam assembled at the State House; and on Brodie being identified by a gentleman resident in that town, the Magistrates, with readiness, delivered him up the same day.”

Brodie brought back to Britain

He was taken by boat to Harwich, from there to London’s Bow Street and, in turn, to Edinburgh to stand trial. The crossing from the Netherlands to Harwich cannot have been a comfortable one for the accused. The Scots Magazine of 1 September 1788 described how “Brodie was watched two hours alternately on board by the ship’s crew; his hands and arms confined, and his meat cut for him.”

The hearing began on 27 August, with Brodie appearing in court alongside his co-accused, Edinburgh grocer George Smith. Both pleaded not guilty, but the prosecution called an impressive string of witnesses, including Smith’s wife. Smith’s counsel objected to her being called to give evidence against him, but the court ruled that she could give evidence against Brodie, even though convicting one defendant without simultaneously incriminating the other would be close to impossible. Also in the witness box was Andrew Ainslie, another member of the gang, who had agreed to give evidence against his accomplices.

Brodie found guilty

Brodie and Smith were each found guilty and, on 3 September, sentenced to be hanged on the first day of the next month.

The Chelmsford Chronicle of 5 September was among many papers that reported how “Mr Brodie’s behaviour during the whole trial was perfectly collected. He was respectful to the court, and when anything ludicrous occurred in the evidence, smiled as it he had been an indifferent spectator. His demeanour, on receiving the dreadful sentence, was equally cool and determined. He was carried back to prison in a chair.”

William Brodie is hanged

Brodie’s behaviour at the moment of his execution was equally assured. The Newcastle Courant of 4 October described how he mounted the scaffold from which he would be hanged “with briskness and agility, and examined the dreadful apparatus with attention, particularly the halter designed for himself, which he pulled with his hand. It was them found that the halters had been too much shortened, and they were obliged to be taken down to alter. During this dreadful interval… Brodie stepped lightly down to the platform, took off his nightcap, and waited patiently till the ropes were adjusted. He then sprung upon the table, but the rope was still improperly placed, and he once more descended to the platform, showing some little impatience, and observed that the executioner ought to be punished for his stupidity.”

The Caledonian Mercury of 2 October said that “at least 40,000 spectators” had turned out to witness the execution which, with the ropes having been adjusted to their appropriate length, was swift



Other events that occured in October

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