Mary Stevenson (Witherspoon)

Victim of grave robbers


Mary Stevenson, the widow of Joseph Witherspoon a Stirling stonemason, died of dropsy on the 16th of November 1822. She was fifty five.

She was buried three days later in a lair belonging to James Livingston, her brother in law. Helping at the graveside was James McNab, the town’s gravedigger.

Two or three evenings later, McNab opened up the lair again – he and a friend Daniel Mitchell were about to steal the body of Mary for dissection by John Forrest, a local medical student.

McNab and Mitchell were not very successful and were soon caught. They appeared a few weeks later before the Justiciary court in the courthouse behind the Tolbooth. The indictment also contained the name of John Forrest, who by this time was apparently on the continent. This meant that the indictment was suspended and the two men were sent down to the cells.

This was meant to be only a temporary measure but the two men should have been re-charged. The authorities failed to do this and later in the evening the jailer released the two men.

When word of their release spread, a mob armed with sticks and stones gathered outside McNab’s house (where the modern extension to the Municipal Buildings stands).

The town’s sole policeman bravely marched through the mob, arrested McNab for his own safety and took him back to prison.

Mitchell, meantime, had fled over the rooftops from his lodgings near the Tolbooth just before the mob broke in. He too was escorted back to the prison with the assistance of a magistrate and soldiers from the castle. They were armed with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets but unfortunately many were the worse for drink.

They formed up across Jail Wynd and as the mob surged forward, one of the soldiers fell. A shot was fired and a full-scale riot ensued.

Stones were thrown and members of the mob launched themselves at the military with sticks and cudgels. Many more shots were fired, rifle butts and bayonets were freely used and a running battle took place up and down St.John Street, fortunately without serious casualties.

The stone on James Livingston’s lair is obviously an older one with later initials. It shows a grim reaper with gravediggers spade and a recumbent woman…