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A Cabinet of Curiosity by Nigel Roth



In 1990, a block-and-shell desk, patinated over time by age and wear and smoke, and made by Rhode Island cabinetmaker John Goddard, sold for twelve million dollars. It remains to this day the most expensive piece of American future sold at auction.


In 1990, a few years after IKEA arrived in the UK (in flat-pack boxes, one presumes), a table, patinated over time by age and wear and smoked salmon, and created by a Swedish designer, was nearing the end of its life in my mother’s dining room, looking shapeless (both the table and my mother), and joined rather loosely in places (again, both) where my father couldn’t get the screws in properly with that alum key thing. Its remains to this day are scattered somewhere in a landfill in Hertfordshire, England.


But there’s one large mahogany cabinet that has a much more interesting provenance than the brilliantly-crafted Goddard desk or that bland wobbly do-it-yourself teak effort that graced our Italianate-ish dining room, and which had far greater impact than either.


To find that piece of furniture today, you’d need to travel to one of my favorite cities, Edinburgh, and to the Writer’s Museum, in Lawnmarket.


But if you wanted to find it around 1855, you would've had to have knocked on the door of Tom and Maggy Stevenson, and asked to take a peek at it. Funnily enough, the law in Scotland does indeed allow you to visit any house you wish to, providing your reason is to make use of their toilet.


Anyway, if Robert, their young son, had been asleep, or playing in his nursery, or out for a walk with the nanny, maybe you would’ve been allowed to take a look in his room.


While the Goddard piece exhibited some of the unique features that symbolize mid-eighteenth century Rhode Island furniture, like the block-and-shell motif, and the open-talon ball-and-claw feet, and exquisite early American craftsmanship, the cabinet you would've found at the foot of our young protagonist, Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson’s bed, was, by all accounts fairly ordinary.


In some ways.


It has an upper cabinet with two banded doors. The banding appears to be of the same wood variety but cut slightly differently, and it has a beautiful flame or burl in the centre of each door. It sits atop a chest of six drawers, three on the left, three on the right, with several pulls now missing. It has square, very ordinary feet, and a slightly utilitarian appearance.


And, it sat at the end of Stevenson’s bed for many years, and managed to inspire one of the greatest stories in literary history.


Now, I want to introduce our second, much older protagonist.


His name was William Brodie, born in 1741, in the same great city.


Brodie was such a well-respected Edinburgh socialite that he was awarded the moniker Deacon, a kind of president of his craftsman's guild, which gave him two very important accolades: a seat on the city council, and a position beyond reproach.


Brodie was always good with locks, which he added to the cabinets he made and drawers he constructed, and, as his clients were so pleased with his work, they asked him to build locks for their front doors.


Which he did, with delight and a cunning pleasure.


Because, he’d surreptitiously make a quick wax impression of the key, reproduce it in a strong metal, brass or nickel silver, and burglarize his clients homes while they slept, without breaking any windows, raising any alarms, annoying the dog, or leaving any clues whatsoever. While his wealthy residents wondered why their silent companions hadn't done the job that ADT’s false-lights do today, Brodie scarpered with a bag of shiny guineas.


It was the ultimate duality of personality; the respectable, well-dressed, cabinetmaker by day, and the brazen thief by night. He also had a serious gambling habit, was a fence for stolen goods, and kept two mistresses with whom he fathered at least five children.


It was at the age of forty-seven that Brodie attempted his coup de grace, an armed robbery of the excise office of Chessel's Court on the Canongate, which held the tax money collected from the goods the upright citizens of Edinburgh had produced. For this venture, Brodie employed several accomplices, two of whom were promptly caught by the equally-cunning and far more well-bearded police force, although the ‘new’ police act wasn’t introduced until 1805 in that fair city.


Still, that didn’t matter. Those sous-thiefs were nabbed and made to confess their crime, and, of course, give up the identity of their commander-in-thief.


By that time, Brodie had decamped to Amsterdam for an evening of swing and a plate of sugar-dusted poffertjes, but was captured and sailed back to Scotland for a trial.


Despite his upstanding civil record, he was found guilty as charged and fairly quickly gibbeted for his crimes, on October 1, 1788.


Whether he was hanged till dead on the gibbet (which it has been claimed he actually built years earlier), or alternatively interred within the metal gibbet cage until he starved or rotted to death is unknown, but either way, it was a public execution, intended to deter other craftsman-turned-burglars from emulating the Deacon’s choice of work.


What it actually did, of course, was make Brodie a hero, where he soon became another of those Robert ‘Hobbehod’ Hod-type characters, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, although in this case, Brodie appears to have shared it mainly with his gambling comrades, his harem of mistresses and children, Dutch waffle houses, and himself.


He wasn’t alone in death, though, because almost forty-thousand came to see the event or the subsequent body-rotting exhibit, and he became a legend, to stand tall beside Rob Roy, another, outlaw and member of the dreaded MacGregors, William Wallace who was hanged in London, Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded in Fotheringhay Castle in 1587, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose Jacobite Risings failed miserably at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.


Scots heroes have a habit of dying, or at least not winning.


Anyway, almost seventy years after Deacon Brodie swung, Robert ‘Louis' Stevenson was woken one braw, bricht, muinlicht nicht after a vivid dream inspired by that strange and ominous cabinet. He pulled the covers up higher around his small but well-formed head, peaked out over the very top of the blanket, and saw, in his mind's eye, the story that would make him famous.


That cabinet is today one of only a few known examples of the craftsmanship of the duplicitous cabinetmaker and Scots hero, William 'Deacon' Brodie, and the young Stevenson was mesmerized by its proximity to his bed and the two-faced and double-dealing life of its former maker.


It would be another thirty years before The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would appear in print for the first time, with the quiet professor Henry Jekyll committing brutal crimes after ingesting an experimental serum, under the guise of the mysterious Edward Hyde.


Stevenson was loath to talk about the cabinet and often denied the link, though for obscure reasons that will remain the privilege of the writer. It certainly haunted his childhood, launched his career, and made him a household name, and it was possibly the failure of an earlier work of his that galvanized him to write The Strange Case.


That earlier work was an unsuccessful play written by Stevenson, called Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life.


Necessity really is, it appears, the mother of reinvention.



photo by Oriel Frankie Ashcroft



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