ON NOVEMBER 16, 1822 Mary Stevenson, the widow of Stirling stonemason William Witherspoon, died of dropsy aged 55.

Three days later she was buried in the burial plot of her brother-in-law James Livingstone in the grounds of the Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling.

The town’s gravedigger at the time was James McNab who was not averse to making a little extra cash.

That same night, he returned to the lair with his friends James Shiels and Daniel Mitchell, a road sweeper, and they tried to exhume Mary to give her body to medical student John Forrest for dissection.

The 22-year-old Forrest had paid them four guineas for the fresh corpse. However, they were caught after it was noted her grave appeared to be several inches below the surface of the ground.

A rope was discovered near the top, and, following some investigative digging, this led to the coffin, which had been broken open, and her body removed. Her clothes had been discarded in the empty grave.

On April 19, 1823, they appeared before magistrates at the courthouse in Stirling, and although Forrest was on the indictment, he failed to show up as he had fled abroad.

For the others this meant time in the cells while the court decided what to do. Later that evening they were released by the jailer as Forrest was nowhere to be found.

Word soon got out that they had been freed, and an angry mob quickly gathered outside McNab’s house armed with sticks and stones. A solitary police officer managed to make his way through the crowd and arrested McNab. He took him back to the cells for his own safety.

Meantime, Mitchell had escaped to the roof of his lodging house but the mob broke in. This time a single police officer was not enough.

A local magistrate and soldiers from the 77th Regiment billeted at the castle were called for and he too was escorted back to prison.

However, many of the soldiers, who were armed with fully loaded muskets and bayonets, had been drinking. They formed an orderly line opposite Jail Wynd, but one of them fell and a shot rang out.

This caused the mob to rush against them and a riot ensued with the locals hitting the soldiers with their sticks. Further shots were fired, but luckily no-one was hurt.

What happened to McNab, Sheils and Mitchell is unknown although the case against them was eventually dismissed. For a time, their actions changed the way bodies were buried in the graveyard.

Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser: An example of a mortsafe (Greyfriars)An example of a mortsafe (Greyfriars)

IN THE early 1880s, a gentleman happened to be in the Old Town Cemetery in Stirling and came across an old gravedigger, who was busy reopening one of the graves dating from the early 19th century.

The two men got chatting and the old man entertained the gentleman with stories about his neighbours who were long dead.

Throughout the conversation he continued to dig until his shovel struck something much harder than just the wood of a coffin lid.

The gentleman asked what it was, and the gravedigger replied: "It’s a safe."

Confused, the gentleman asked if people placed valuables in the coffins to which the old man smiled.

He cleared away more of the dirt and revealed a strong iron band surrounding the coffin which was padlocked.

The old man then informed him this was used to stop the body-snatchers at a time when they were prevalent and despised by the locals.

Mortsafes came in all shapes and sizes. They were designed and made by the local blacksmith and consisted of an iron frame or cage that was placed over the coffin and padlocked.

It locked down the lid of the coffin which could not be opened unless the iron bar was removed.

Once putrefaction had begun the grave diggers would open the graves and remove them unless the family had bought one specifically for their loved one in which case it stayed buried with them. This was the kind Mary had had.

Parishes bothered by the resurrection men generally kept one or two of the larger framed devices, which were lowered by two or three men using a mortsafe tackle.

In essence they were used to allow the body to decompose enough so that the medical students would find them of no use in their dissection rooms.

As for medical student John Forrest, he was given a criminal record and outlawed in Scotland for his part in the grisly deed.

In July 1824 he received a royal pardon from George IV although the reason for this is unknown, and he was able to return to his medical studies.

However, he is recorded as having become a qualified practitioner in 1823 at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. In 1825, he received his doctorate and went on the practice in St Ninian's Hospital.

Following his marriage to Anne MacLachlan in 1839, the couple moved to South Africa.

They, along with their three children, returned to England in 1850 and in 1859 he became Honorary Physician to the Queen, Victoria. He died in 1865.