Friday, April 11, 2014

A question of identity.

Alfred Arthur Rouse

The case of murderer Alfred Arthur Rouse (6 April 1894–10 March 1931) is unusual in legal history as the identity of his victim was never known.  The hypothesis of the case was that Rouse had decided to fabricate his own death and to do that he simply picked up a hitch hiker. He then knocked his travelling companion unconscious with a mallet and then placed him in  his own car.
Then he set fire to the car.
Rouse decided that Guy Fawkes night of 1930, (5th November going into the early hours of the 6th) would be a good time to carry out his plan. On that night, with so many bonfires lighting up the skyline, who would notice one more?
His story was that he had picked up a hitch hiker during a drive to Leicester and had left his companion alone in the car to answer a call of nature. He turned round to see the hitch hiker light a cigarette. There was a flash of light then the car burst into flames.

That doesn’t really explain why Rouse was seen walking away from the vehicle and had a conversation with two eyewitnesses where Rouse reportedly said that it was just another bonfire. The number plate proved clearly it was his own car that was on fire. He stood trial in January 1931 and was hanged on Tuesday, 10 March 1931 at Bedford jail.

All that is British legal history.

The Briggs family of London have always wondered if their great great uncle ‘William’ was the  unidentified body found in the car. It has long been a rumour in the family.  Their argument is simple. William disappeared without trace.

In 1930, he left his home for a doctor's appointment, he was 23 years old and has never been seen since. A more recent bereavement in the family had caused the usual search through of papers and belongings of a great aunt, and the family unearthed newspaper clippings and other documentation of the time all relating to the Rouse case. 

                                         The Biggs family, courtesy of Leicester University

Recently – within the last year, there had been an investigation by a forensic team from the University of Leicester and Northumbria University to find out whether  William Briggs was indeed the man in the car.

Even with today's DNA technology, it was still a big challenge.

The team set about going through all the case files and examining all artefacts. Fortunately there were many and they had been well stored and were in  good condition. There was a lot of documentation, eye witness reports, including the statement from the man who was running away from the bonfire – the murderer himself! There was also a reasonable amount of physical evidence from the scene – the mallet used to knock the victim unconscious, debris from the fire, material from the car, bits of twisted and molten metal, and rather poignantly, small pieces of shiny metal that are still easily recognisable as the buckles off a set of braces.


It was the time of the great pathologist Bernard Spilsbury and he carried out the post mortem of the unknown victim. In those days it was customary to take two slides of human tissue from a victim. One to prove sex and one to prove the absence of any other disease  process that  might have caused death. The slides of the victim were held at the Royal London Hospital Archive – a prostate sample and a sample of lung tissue. – fixed under glass for over 80 years with no damage. Yet it could easily, by today's standards, been rendered useless by contamination at the time it was fixed,  there being no precautions as to DNA in those days as DNA would not be really thought about for another thirty years or so.

                                                         From Leicester University

They did manage to get the mitochondrial DNS from the sample ( that’s the one that is carried through the female genetic material). They then invited the females members of the family to provide a cheek swab  for comparison.
 As the experts said – they now had a scientifically justified conclusion
The sample was of a single male profile
Not contaminated by any  secondary  source
It was not wWlliam Briggs.
Both disappointing  and relieving news. Nobody knows what happened to that young man when he left his house that day, but at least he did not die in the fire.
The answer to who did die, is still unanswered,
 I was interested in another aspect of this case, why did Rouse do it  in the first place?


 In the last day of the WW1 Battle of Festubert near Bethune, Rouse was severely injured in the head and thigh by a high explosive shell.  He underwent an operation to remove shrapnel from his temporal region. . His leg injuries meant he could walk, but only with great difficulty and after many weeks of hospitalisation,  an Invaliding Medical Board hearing (9 December 1915) found he only had ¼ capacity.
His medical records then go on to show every sign and symptom of  PTSD. It makes quite harrowing reading. From 1916-1919 he was in receipt of an army pension of twenty shillings a week and the doctors note that much of his disability had been over come due to his own endeavour and strong chaacter.
                                                Rouse as a young man

On 30 July 1919, he was examined again by a doctor who said there was 'no disability' and put it down to 'neurosis'. His army pension was reduced and a year later, they paid him forty quid in final settlement as he only had a 'mild knee injury'.

Another puzzling fact to me is that he had a good job in a period of huge unemployment so therefore he was capable and mentally, it would seem, functioning well as this point. Unfortunately his job was a travelling salesman and his downfall was his fondness for the ladies. At least two of his girlfriends got pregnant, much to the consternation of his wife. Yet another ‘child support order’ was coming his way. And that was why he needed to disappear.

Caro Ramsay 11th April 2014


  1. What a fascinating story, Caro. Makes me wonder about the missing man who was never found. And the descendants of Rouse. His exploits with the ladies were undoubtedly made easier by the dearth of available males, after that shameful slaughter called World War I.

  2. All that because he couldn't keep it in his pants. What a tangled web!

  3. With two pregnant girl friends, this guy Rouse fawked up badly. His biggest mistake was taking the mallet to the wrong head.