photograph COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES
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.
All this is my overly complicated way of saying that it is highly unlikely that Stiles managed to turn on the forklift, get it rolling, raise the blades, and then jump off and stand in front of it while it impaled him. But don’t take my word for it. According to the Press-Scimitar, “Experts and those familiar with the operations of forklifts say it was next to impossible for him to start up the machine and then get in front of it accidentally before it ran 15 feet into the stacks of cartons.”
Here’s something else to consider. Forklifts are not exactly known for their speed. To travel across the factory floor would take more than a minute. Can we really imagine a person who would wait calmly beside some packing crates while a forklift lumbered toward them, and not move out of the way? If you’re intent on committing suicide, that takes a heckuva lot of nerve, more than even the Lauderdales are capable of. And if it’s an accident, how could Stiles — working alone in a deserted factory — not have heard the gasoline-powered forklift start up and roll towards him? And remember, he was facing it; it’s not like it rolled up behind him.
So that left most people in Memphis, perusing this strange case as it unfolded, day by day, in the pages of the newspaper, to conclude that the poor fellow had been murdered. Check the steering wheel for fingerprints, the family implored. The police said the wheel was too “grease-stained” for any prints to show up. (Well then, were Stiles’ own hands also grease-stained? The police weren’t saying.) And if it was murder, let’s put aside the who did it, and consider the how. How do you stab a person to death with a slow-moving forklift? Do you tell them to stand right there and not move? Did someone else hold the poor victim in place? As you might imagine, the crime scene was a bloody mess, but police picked up no one else’s footprints there.
Nobody knew what to make of it. The regional supervisor and even the vice president of the Purex Corporation both came to Memphis to help any way they could, and the attorney general’s office convened a special investigation. They decided they were “ruling out murder at this time” and concluded that Stiles’ death “was accidental, suicide, or a combination of both.” Police commissioner
Claude Armour announced, very cryptically, that he had “12 to 15 reasons why we make this statement, but it was best for the public not to know what the reasons were.”
In a futile attempt to explain just what the heck they were getting at, one of the investigators said that sometimes a death “can be a combination accident and suicide” when a person attempts to injure himself “for a purpose” and then kills himself accidentally. And what would be that purpose? “To arouse sympathy,” he said.
Mary Stiles didn’t accept that argument at all. Her husband had called her from his office just a half-hour before his body was found, and she insisted “he was in good spirits” and had never hinted at any reason to commit suicide, or even attempt it to “arouse sympathy.” For that matter, they were about to buy a new home, she told reporters, and he planned to enroll at Memphis State in a few weeks to earn his CPA license. What’s more, he was looking forward to singing for the Beethoven Club, and in a few weeks was going to be a soloist at a relative’s wedding.
Newspapers reported that the grieving widow would collect $5,000 from her husband’s life insurance policy, which had a “double indemnity” clause that increased the benefit to $10,000 if the death were an accident. Officials with John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company conducted their own investigation and “were sifting reports, newspaper clippings, and other data on the case.” Within a few weeks, they decided that, “in our opinion, payment of the indemnity check was appropriate.”
Even so, nobody could agree how this strange death occurred. On Stiles’ death certificate, the medical examiner listed the immediate cause of death as “traumatic injury” and wrote, “Decedent impaled on forklift.” Death certificates have another section, with three boxes labeled “Accident,” “Suicide,” and “Homicide.” The doctor checked the “Accident” box, but at the same time, he put a checkmark in the box “Not While at Work.”
I just don’t know what to make of it. After weeks of coverage, the Press-Scimitar concluded it was “one of Memphis’ strangest deaths — one of the strangest deaths in the entire U.S.”
Charles Stiles, described by his mother as “a fine, happy, Christian boy who made friends easily and sang at church gatherings,” was laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery.