Forklift Murder Mystery

Ask Vance



photograph COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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Dear Vance: In the mid-1950s, a strange death occurred — the apparent murder of Charles Stiles, who sang as a tenor with the Memphis Open Air Theatre. He was employed downtown and found one morning killed by a forklift, the accident taking place at night when the company was closed. No rational explanation was offered at the time. Was his death ever explained? — j.g., memphis.

Dear J.G.: You’ve sent me interesting queries before, but I wasn’t sure what to make of this one. Was he run over by the machine? Did it fall on him? What could be so mysterious about such a seemingly humdrum industrial accident?

But then I researched it and turned up the original news accounts and even the fellow’s death certificate, and I must say it’s definitely a curious event in our city’s history. Even the police commissioner, Claude Armour, admitted, “It was one of the strangest cases on police records.”

Here’s the sad story, gleaned from the newspapers of the day. I’ll let readers decide if the fate of Charles A. Stiles was a suicide, an accident, or murder.

Thirty-one-year-old Stiles lived with his wife, Mary, in a pleasant apartment complex at 2639 Central. For several years, he had been working as a clerk for the Purex Corporation, a bleach processing factory located at 743 Corinne, an industrial part of North Memphis close to the Firestone plant. On August 10, 1957, which was a Saturday, Stiles told his wife he was going into the office for a few hours. Then he planned to get a haircut on the way home, and they would go out to dinner together. He seemed “in very high spirits,” she told police later.

I need to point out that Stiles’ duties at Purex were confined to the office. As far as anyone knew, he never ventured into the warehouse and distribution section of the plant. And as far as anyone knew, he had never operated a forklift in his life.

Around 2:30 that afternoon, a Purex electrical worker came into the empty warehouse to retrieve a motor he had been repairing. There he discovered a horrifying sight, and I’m sorry, but there’s just no nice way to put this, if you want the complete picture. According to the Press-Scimitar, he discovered Stiles “spitted through the navel on the razor-sharp prong of the forklift truck, forced against a stack of warehouse cartons, the blade protruding from his back into the paperboard.” Yes, he was dead.

The police investigation revealed that the forklift had been driven some 15 feet from where it had been parked the night before, and Stiles had been speared while facing it. The initial conclusion, which astonished everyone, was that the man had committed suicide! When family members protested that they couldn’t imagine a single reason why he would take his own life and, in fact, had made plans for that evening, the police still argued that Stiles might have acted “impulsively.”

Now look, as my co-workers can attest, I am a skilled practitioner of impulsive and downright bizarre behavior. But goodness, if for some unknown reason you go berserk and decide to end it all, I can think of better (and faster) ways to do it than death by forklift. Good grief, the man worked in a bleach plant. Just grab a jug of Purex and take a swig!

So investigators began to hint that the death was an accident, while others began to suggest, rather darkly, that this “mild-mannered man, who didn’t have an enemy in the world,” had been murdered.

But here’s the problem with all of those possibilities, as explained to investigators and reporters by Grady Jones, owner of the equipment company that had sold the Towmotor 460 that had been the death machine. Now, we understand that Grady would be very reluctant to admit that his forklift was to blame, but he pointed out that these machines had basic safeguards in place.

First of all, they required a key to start them. Stiles had no key, and no access to the keys. Second, forklifts employed two different levers to drive and operate them. It’s not something you can just “figure out” — no matter how impulsive you are. Third, forklifts usually had what’s known as a “dead-man” switch, which means the driver has to stay in the seat, or keep his foot on a pedal; if he tumbles off (or leaves his seat intentionally), the machine comes to a stop. Finally, the forklift was designed to lower its blade to ground level when it’s turned off, so nobody walking by when it’s parked will accidentally get jabbed. It would take a trained operator to raise those blades to chest-level, as the machine was found on that Saturday afternoon.

 

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