The Grassmarket in Edinburgh’s Old Town has no grass and no market. But it is a lovely street, and contains a pub called “The Last Drop.” You only realize the macabre double-entendre of the name when you find out that the Grassmarket was also once the site of Edinburgh’s gallows.
This was only one of several gallows used to execute local criminals. The local guides will tell you (without very much evidence to back them up) that the most famous gallows in the city were designed and built by William Brodie, who lived from 1741 until 1788.
Brodie was a skilled cabinet maker and head of the trades guild, which in Scotland meant he had the title of deacon. Being deacon also entitled him to a seat on the city council. He was a well-respected, upstanding member of the community who would socialize with the poet Robert Burns — who would become the national poet of Scotland — and the painter Henry Raeburn — who was the official Scottish portrait painter to King George IV.
Brodie came from a well-respected family. Both his grandfathers were lawyers and his father was a cabinetmaker who catered to the top echelons of 18th century Scottish society. When his father died in 1780, William Brodie inherited £10,000 — a considerable sum in those days — along with a house and workshop on the Royal Mile.
Deacon Brodie was one of the best-known and most successful businessman in the city. A skilled carpenter who made fine cupboards and cabinets, he was also a locksmith, and fitted locks in some of the wealthiest homes and businesses in Edinburgh.
Although by day Brodie was a fine upstanding citizen, at night another side of him would appear. For starters, he had two mistresses and fathered five illegitimate children. He also gambled. A lot. He quickly burned through his inherited fortune and continued racking up large gambling debts. The shady loans he took to cover those debts may have been what convinced him to turn to a life of crime.
In 1768, while he was installing the furniture and locks in one of the city’s banks, he took the opportunity to make copies of the keys. He returned later that night and walked away with a cool £800. The fact that it was so simple to take the money and so easy to get away with it had him hooked.
Brodie teamed up with an English locksmith named George Smith, who could make keys from the wax impressions Brodie took.
Their crime spree continued for the next 20 years. Nobody could work out how the burglaries continued yet the locks were never broken. The Scottish police force wasn’t formed until 1805, but concerned citizens tried and failed to catch the culprits who were walking away with fortunes from the richest citizens of the city.
By 1786 Brodie had decided to expand his operation, and recruited a thief named John Brown and a shoemaker called Anthony Ainslie. Gradually, they carried out bigger and bolder operations. Finally, in 1787, the team hatched a plot to rob the Excise Office, where seriously large sums of cash were kept.
On November 30, they used a copied key to enter the main office, but were unable to break into the cashiers’ room where the money was kept. With the night guard about to arrive at any moment, they decided to beat a retreat, but were unable to lock the door behind them. When the guard found the door unlocked, he realized something was afoot and security in the office was strengthened.
The gang waited until March 5, 1788 and tried again. This time they managed to get into the office, but only found £16 there. While they were inside, a lawyer who worked in the office upstairs returned to collect some papers and discovered the thieves. Ainslie and Brown nearly shot him, but decided to let him get away.
By this time Brown was terrified of being caught. So he went that same night to the Sheriff’s office and turned himself in. He was assured of immunity if he testified against the others. Initially, Brown only named Ainslie and Smith, knowing that nobody would believe him that Deacon Brodie was behind the decades of burglaries. Smith and Ainslie were promptly arrested. Brodie fled to Amsterdam.
Eventually Brown and Ainslee named Brodie, and a search of his house revealed copies of keys, burglary tools and some of the loot, including a solid silver mace that had been stolen from the College of Edinburgh.
An arrest warrant was issued for Brodie, and he was picked up by the Dutch authorities just as he was making plans to leave for America.
Brodie and Smith were hanged on October 1, 1788. Although it is unlikely Brodie actually built the gallows, it is possible that he helped improve the trapdoor mechanism which killed him.
The double life of this well-to-do Scotsman quickly became the stuff of legends. One story tells how Brodie concealed an iron collar beneath his shirt, which saved him from the drop. According to some versions of the legend the collar failed to save him, or the doctor was unable to revive him. But some tell that he survived the hanging and escaped, never to be seen again.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s father had known Brodie, and purchased cabinets from him. The story of Brodie’s double life was the inspiration for one of Stevenson’s most famous stories — “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”
Deacon Brodie and Dr Jekyll both take to an extreme the multiple personalities within each of us. Few people lead two such completely different lives.
However, there is one Biblical character that acts in two different ways that appear to be incompatible (though unlike Brodie and Jekyll who had one good side and one bad side, both of this character’s personalities were used to serve God and protect the Jewish people).
Everyone knows the story of Samson and Delilah, the most famous haircut in history and how after he was captured and blinded he killed hundreds or thousands of Philistines and died with them. That story is in Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges. And some people know the story of Samson’s first wife, a Philistine woman from Timna, and how he used the riddle of the honey in the lion’s carcass as a pretext to kill 30 Philistines and then another thousand after they tortured and killed his wife. Those stories are chapters 14 and 15.
But in between those two events which lasted a few weeks each, is a single verse (Judges 15:20), which describes the majority of Samson’s life.
“And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines for 20 years.”
For two decades Samson led the Jewish people, acted as their spiritual leader and legal decider. He was a role model, and at a time when there was no king, he was the closest thing to a monarch the Israelites had.
It seems almost incomprehensible to us that Samson the judge was also Samson the destroyer. Yet the final verse of the story (Judges 16:31) reiterates, “He had judged Israel for 20 years,” as if to stress that was the most important part of his life.
The story of the prophecy of Samson’s birth is read as the Haftara to this week’s Torah portion. Superficially, it is connected to Parshat Naso because Samson was a nazir and Naso contains the laws of a nazir.
Yet on a deeper level the dichotomy between two very different alternatives is a major theme in the Torah portion.
The name of the portion, “Naso” — translated as “count” actually means “raise.” And it reminds us of the interpretations Joseph gave to Pharaoh’s butler and baker when they were in jail with him.
Joseph told the butler that his dream of the vines meant that, “In another three days Pharaoh will raise (yisa) up your head — and will return you to your position” (Genesis 40:13). And when Joseph interpreted the baker’s dream he began using identical language. “In another three days Pharaoh will raise (yisa) up your head — from off your [body].”
There is such a fine line between salvation and destruction. The same word, which is also used as the name of our Torah reading, can mean to raise up to greatness or to death.
And in fact, the Levites, who are counted and numbered in this week’s portion, risked their lives every time they packed up and carried the Tabernacle.
“And afterwards the sons of Kehat shall come to carry [the Tabernacle], but they must not touch the holy lest they die,” (Numbers 4:15).
Although this dangerous task was entrusted to the Levites, originally it was to have been the job of the firstborn. And according to Rashi, this dicing with death, the fine line between holy and profane, that convinced Esau to sell his birthright.
“And Esau said, behold I am going to die, so why do I need this birthright?”
Rashi on that verse, (Genesis 25:32) explains:
Esau asked, ‘What is the nature of this service?’ [Jacob] replied, ‘There are many warnings, punishments and death sentences connected to it… [Esau] said, ‘I am going to die from it. If so, why do I want it?’
One famous Biblical example (2 Samuel 8:6-7) of the closeness to holiness causing death is Uzza, who tried to stop the Ark of the Covenant from falling as King David was transporting it to Jerusalem.
“Uzza reached out to the Ark of the Lord and grasped it, because the oxen stumbled. And the anger of God was kindled against Uzza, and the Lord smote him there for his error, and he died there, with the Ark of the Lord.”
David had forgotten the verse in our Torah reading (Numbers 4:15) — that the Ark must be carried by the sons of Kehat, and not placed on an ox-drawn wagon.
There were any number of villains and scoundrels in 18th century Edinburgh. It was Deacon Brodie’s elevated status within society that made his crimes and execution so shocking. Similarly, there were many judges in ancient Israel and many heroes. But the combination of both in the person of Samson is shocking and difficult for us to understand.
In a similar way, it is shocking that the Ark, the holiest object in Judaism, that contained the Ten Commandments and sat in the Holy of Holies, was also the same object which killed anyone who went near it without the correct preparations, actions or beliefs.
The priests, who were camped closest to the Ark, carried it on their shoulders, and were the holiest tribe in the camp, faced the greatest risk of being killed by this holy object for the slightest deviation from their role.