An Account of the Trial of William Brodie and George Smith


William Brodie (1741-88) was a respectable Edinburgh citizen, a cabinet maker by day, who turned successful burglar by night, using knowledge and familiarity with security mechanisms gained from his trade. After an attack on the Edinburgh Customs and Excise House, Brodie managed to escape to Holland, but was arrested preparing to make his way to America.

Why was Brodie’s trial published at such length? 

Brodie’s was a celebrity trial. He had been a juryman himself, was a town councillor, and a member of Edinburgh society. The dual nature of Brodie’s life excited many, as it became apparent that he had taken to burglary to finance a gambling habit. His accomplices gave evidence against Brodie, and the case against him was partly circumstantial and partly based on his escape attempt and the discovery of a cache of weapons and keys hidden in Brodie’s house. 

Moreover, there was a political element to the trial: the ‘King’s evidence’ (evidence against an accomplice given in return for a pardon) given against Brodie was provided by a former criminal, rendering it inadmissible – the prosecution arranged for a pardon for the criminal under English, not Scottish law. Thus the trial was partially about the issue of who controlled Scottish law (pp. 86-91). 

Brodie’s defence lawyer was a famous advocate, and fashionable people paid to hear him speak in court (pp. 199-212). Nevertheless, Brodie was found guilty and hanged in 1788; immediately one of the jury, a bookseller, who had been a council colleague of Brodie’s, published this account of the trial. 

What is shown here? 

The pages shown describe the burglary when Brodie, Smith and another accomplice were caught, the defence lawyer’s summing up, the verdict and sentence, and the execution of Brodie and Smith. 

Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated by the double life of Deacon Brodie, the cabinet-maker and lock-breaker whose criminal activities were a major source for Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson had in 1880 written with his friend William Henley a play called Deacon Brodie, or the Double Life. For Stevenson there was an added attraction, that his father owned furniture built by Brodie.

Full title:
[An Account of the Trial of William Brodie, and George Smith, before the High Court of Justiciary, on Wednesday the 27th, and Thursday the 28th days of August, 1788; for breaking into, and robbing, the General Excise Office of Scotland, on the 5th day of March last]
1788, Edinburgh
Book / Illustration / Image
'A Juryman' i.e. William Creech
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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