Local folklore suggests that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde was inspired, at least in part, by a nefarious act committed against Adam Pearson, Secretary of Excise For Scotland, and former Chessels Court residents. At the centre of Stevenson’s novella is a character who seems to have two completely different personalities: one good (Dr Jekyll) and one evil (Mr Hyde). It has been suggested that Stevenson was partly inspired by a prominent Edinburgh citizen, William Brodie, who led a secret criminal life and met his come-uppance in Chessels Court.
Brodie was a skilful cabinet-maker, member of the Town Council and deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons. He socialised with the gentry of Edinburgh, and met Robert Ferguson and Robert Burns. However, he had a secret night-time occupation as the leader of a gang of burglars. This was necessary to support his extravagant lifestyle which included two mistresses, children, legitimate and illegitimate and a gambling habit.
Brodie’s last crime was an armed raid on the Excise Office, then in Chessels Court. It went disastrously wrong and although Brodie got away he was later captured, brought to trial and hanged in 1788. Robert Louis Stevenson’s father owned furniture said to have been made by William Brodie and Robert himself was always fascinated by Brodie’s story. Adam Pearson is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard in the new extension.