Out of the big three horror novels-Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-the best of the lot is clearly the latter. Perhaps that is because Robert Louis Stevenson was the best writer of the bunch. Claims have been made to tie both Dracula and Frankenstein to real life precursors with varying degrees of success, but in fact there really was a character whose story bears a strong likeness to Jekyll/Hyde and that was inarguably a profound and direct influence upon the novel. Any person who leads a secret double life today-from Mel Gibson to Sen. Larry Craig-is bound to be referenced back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at some point, but William Brodie was the real deal. By day Brodie was a well-respected businessman, he was on the city council and he was even a deacon in the Masonry Guild; during the night he was an equally disreputable thief and gambler. Such was Brodie’s ability to defend his façade that even though he kept two mistresses and five children, none of them knew a thing about the other.
William Brodie was already pushing thirty when he descended full-time into the darkness of Mr. Hyde’s world. When he was 27 years old he was able to make a copy of the key to one of the banks of the city, whereupon he went about relieving that bank of the equivalent of $4,000 of its assets. For almost two decades after that, Brodie led a common life during the day while engaging in the most corruptible behavior of the time during the inky black cover of sundown. It would not be until 1786, eighteen years after that first bank robbery, that Brodie’s nocturnal activities would be revealed and cast far more than a pall over his daytime respectability. Brodie unwisely threw his lot in a few other thieves who possessed not nearly his own ability in an assault on his most impressive target ever, the Scottish Customs and Excise headquarters. As luck would have it, though Brodie himself made a successful escape, one of his compadres was so nimble-toed. As might be expected, the pinched thief made a full confession, implicating John Brodie.
Rather than face the music he knew was coming and would be especially hard upon his ears-like Celine Dion singing an Eminem song-Brodie ran away to Amsterdam on the hope of one day reaching America. On the very day that Brodie was set to sail for the new world, the police finally caught up with this real-life Mr. Hyde and dragged him back to England. The evidence was even more overwhelming than in the O.J. Simpson trial, though in this case justice was served and Brodie was condemned to death. Not to be outdone, however, Brodie made one last fantastic attempt at escape the curse of the noose; he had inserted a wire into his clothes all the way from his neck down to his ankle while at the same time swallowing a tube, all in an effort to reduce the fatal design of the gallows.
It turned out to be all for naught, however. The real life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde died as a result of being hanged to death on October 1, 1788. Almost a hundred years later, a play was produced titled Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life, in which Brodie’s character explains how letting loose the necktie of respectability at night enthused him with a freedom and lust for life he had never before enjoyed. The writer of the play was Robert Louis Stevenson. Two years later, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, so appalled by the manuscript she had just read, threw the papers into the fireplace. Working entirely from memory, Stevenson reconstructed that novel-in-progress and titled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.