Shocking case of the couple who were buried alive - by their grandson (From Darlington and Stockton Times)
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Shocking case of the couple who were buried alive - by their grandson
8:00am Wednesday 24th October 2012 in News
The mundane task of re-potting a house plant led to a gruesome discovery for a Norton housewife in 1928. True crime writer John J Eddleston reports on a shocking case of greed, double murder - and live burial
AT some time between 1.30pm and 2pm, on Saturday, September 22, 1928, Annie Maria Stirr, who lived at 93 Norton Avenue, in Norton, decided to re-pot one of her plants.
She needed some fresh soil, so left her house, and walked down the lane.
To her delight, she had not gone very far when she saw some loose, recently turned soil underneath a hedge.
Mrs Stirr knelt down and began to dig. Suddenly she saw something white. She blinked hard, for there, poking out of the soil, was a human hand.
Mrs Stirr called the police, and a number of officers attended including Detective Sergeant Clayton Whittaker and Sergeant George Henning.
They were present as the soil was carefully removed, revealing the body of a man, lying on his back.
Even as he was gently removed, the officers saw that there was another body underneath, and this time, it was a woman.
Meanwhile, Constable Thomas Norman Watson, making a search of the fields nearby, had found a discarded spade.
The two bodies were examined by Dr Daniel Steel MacBean. He noted that both were dressed in outdoor clothes and that rigor had not set in.
He believed that they had been buried within the last 24 hours.
Later that same day he carried out the post-mortem examinations. The man had severe head wounds and scratches on both his shoulder blades, showing that he had been dragged to the grave.
The woman had been strangled and she had marks on her forehead, nose and chin, showing that she too had been dragged.
The most horrific discovery, though, was that there was dirt and debris in the throats and windpipes of both victims. They had been alive when they were buried.
The bodies were soon identified. The man was 62-year-old Thomas Kirby whilst the woman was his wife, 64-year-old Emily Frances.
Emily was a market trader, selling tripe from a stall and the couple had lived together at a house called Briar Garth in Victoria Avenue, Norton.
It wasn’t very long before a suspect came to the attention of the police.
Twenty-two-year-old Charles William Conlin lived at 70 Centenary Crescent, Norton, with his mother, his married sister and her husband.
The dead woman was Conlin’s grandmother and the dead man his grandfather by marriage.
There was also the fact that Conlin had been spending rather freely. Until recently, he had worked at the Synthetic Ammonia and Nitrates Company, in Billingham, but in the last couple of months he had earned just £3 7s.
Yet this same man had visited a local garage, on the same day that the bodies had been found, and purchased a Douglas motorcycle for £21 10s, paying in cash.
Charles Conlin had been born on March 28, 1906 and left school was he was 14.
His first job had been working for his grandmother, on her tripe stall, but he had been sacked by her after he had stolen his uncle’s watch.
Conlin had then obtained work with a jeweller at Stockton but there too he had been sacked for dishonesty.
When he was 18 he had joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers but had left in March, 1926, so that he could help support his widowed mother.
The first port of call for the police was the nitrates factory. William Laverick was the wages clerk and he stated that Conlin had quit on September 16 and was in the process of serving out his notice.
George Garland worked with Conlin and confirmed that he was at work from September 18 to 20, when he finished at 12.45pm. Conlin had not bothered to turn up on either of the following two days.
Some interesting information came from George Lumsden, who also worked at the factory but lodged with the Conlin family in Centenary Crescent.
On September 21, George and Conlin’s brother-in-law, John Stiff, were digging over the garden.
They only had one spade so John went next door and borrowed one from Esther Bowen.
The two men went out for a drink at 7.30pm and when they returned, Stiff’s spade was missing.
The next morning, George saw Conlin walking over the fields, towards where the grave was later found, carrying a spade.
When the police showed them the spade Constable Watson had found, Mrs Bowen confirmed that it was hers.
The final pieces of the jigsaw now fell into place.
Conlin had left the family home at 9.40pm on September 21, but had not returned until after midnight.
That same night, a car was stolen in Centenary Crescent, a car later seen close to the house where the two victims lived.
The suggestion was that Conlin had murdered his grandparents, stolen the car to drive their bodies to the grave site, buried them and then thrown the spade over the hedge.
Conlin was arrested and, when he was searched, the police found a grey wallet which had belonged to Thomas Kirby.
At his trial, which took place on November 15, Conlin claimed to have no memory of the crime.
It did not persuade the jury. An appeal in December failed and, on Friday, January 4, 1929, Conlin was hanged at Durham by Thomas Pierrepoint.