Anytime you try a decent crime there is 50 ways to fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, you’re a genius. And you’re no genius.
~Teddy Laursen (Mickey Rourke) in Body Heat, 1982.
A further 12 families have come forward claiming their relative may have been the victim of the notorious ‘blazing car’ murder in Northampton after the case was featured on a BBC1 show.
The identity of the victim, who was hit over the head with a mallet and burned to death inside a Morris Minor car, has remained a mystery for more than 80 years.
In January, the case was featured on BBC1’s The One Show when it was revealed to the family of William Briggs, who believed he was the victim, that a tissue sample from the ‘unknown man’ did not match their relative, ruling him out as the victim. Despite the results, the scientists working on the case, including ex-Northamptonshire Police scientist, Dr John Bond, said the DNA sample was an uncontaminated profile and had opened up the possibility that a match could still be identified.
Dr Bond said: “Since the show aired we have had 12 families come forward to say their relative went missing at the same time as the murder happened. We will now be able to say conclusively whether it was their relative or not. It will be rewarding to help these families, even if it is only to reassure them their relative was not murdered by Alfred Rouse.”
Alfred Arthur Rouse should have heeded the advice Laursen gave to wannabe murderer Ned Racine. Rouse may have been overpoweringly attractive to the ladies of Great Britain and an adequate traveling salesman, but he was no genius. In fact, his attempt to commit that Holy Grail of malevolence — the perfect crime — collapsed like a house of cards before he even had a chance to really put the plan into action.
It wasn’t all his fault, really. Rouse had served with honor during World War I and sustained a head injury from an exploding shell while in the trenches in France. From that point on his personality changed, friends said. Where there was formerly a mild-mannered, decent young man, there was now a “a promiscuous rake with an enormous sexual appetite” and “a vainglorious man who seems to have been irresistibly charming to some women.”
These descriptions were almost understated, as far as Rouse was concerned. He had wives and mistresses around the country and his job as a traveling salesman provided all of the cover he needed to ensure that no paramour knew of any other. Eventually, 80 “cases of seduction” would be linked to Rouse, who was also amazingly virile, and the father to many illegitimate children. Therein lay his problem. He was earning just £8 each week (worth about £336.97 or $640 today), and that wasn’t enough to meet his child support obligations and maintain him in his comfortable lifestyle.
Desperate to get out from under his obligations, Rouse hatched a plan to disappear and start over. Rather than simply emigrate someplace else, he decided that faking his own death was a better option. It was a stupid idea and Rouse’s execution of his plan was amateurish and weak.
Rouse’s case is notable because it was one of the few prosecutions in Britain where the Crown took its murder case to the jury without being able to identify the victim. That came later, thanks to the astute forensic work of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, whose real-life exploits make those CSI shows pale in comparison.
Rouse’s “suicide by proxy” began at about 2 a.m. November 6, 1930, near Hardingstone, Northampton when a couple of local men, returning from a Guy Fawkes Night celebration, came across a well-dressed man, later positively identified as Rouse, carrying an attaché case who climbed out of a ditch, walked by them without speaking and began walking away. The partygoers were intrigued.
“When you go home at that time in the morning you do not usually see well-dressed men getting out of the ditch,” one testified laconically.
As Rouse walked away, apparently uncertain about which was the best way toward Northampton, one of the men saw a glow in the sky about a quarter-mile away and asked him what was going on.
Rouse replied, “It looks as if someone has had a bonfire down there.”
Perhaps eager to continue their Guy Fawkes Night festivities, or else simply curious about what was burning, the two men headed toward the conflagration. They found the source of the blaze was a Morris Minor which was blazing fiercely. The car’s license number plate was clearly visible: MU 1468. The men summoned the local constable. When the fire had been put out, a charred body was found in the front seat of the car. In addition, police found an empty jerry can. It also appeared that the gas tank and carburetor had been rigged to ignite the fire.
At first, police thought that the victim was a woman because the sole of a woman’s shoe was found in the remains of the car. However, Bernard Spilsbury conducted an autopsy of the charred corpse and determined from the bones that the victim was a man, about 25 years of age, with a “stern visage” who had once worked as a miner. He determined the man’s face was stern because of abnormalities in his jaw and several missing teeth. The man’s lungs contained coal dust, leading Spilsbury to postulate on his occupation. Spilsbury further reasoned that the man was fastidious about his hands because of the excellent condition of his nails.
Through the remains of the man’s clothing, police tracked down the tailor, who confirmed Spilsbury’s assumption. The man recalled making a suit for an ex-miner with a deformed face. The man had, unfortunately, paid with cash.
At the time, however, none of this led authorities to the man’s identification.
Meanwhile, Rouse was nowhere to be found. He had hitched a ride to London, telling the driver who picked him up that his friend who was supposed to drive him had not shown up. In London, Rouse told another stranger that his car had been stolen. Rouse then headed to where one his lovers lived in Gellygaer, Wales, again claiming that his car had been stolen.
Despite having put the first part of his plan into effect — killing “himself” — Rouse was screwing up dreadfully in the follow-through. If he was supposed to be dead, it didn’t help to be seen by several people who knew him intimately. His actions in the following hours indicate that he was getting cold feet.
Regardless, the plan quickly fell apart. The newspapers ran photographs of the burned Morris Minor with the license plate intact. In Gellygaer, Rouse’s girlfriend, her sister, and her father all pointed out that Rouse’s car had been found. Rouse adamantly denied that the burned car was his.
Rouse left Wales and returned home where a detective from Scotland Yard was waiting for him.
“Very well, I am glad it is all over,” Rouse said. “I was going to Scotland Yard about it. I am responsible.”
At his trial in January 1931, Rouse claimed that the death of the as-yet-unidentified man had been an accident. He said the car had broken down and he was outside fixing it when the man inside lit a cigarette and the vehicle burst into flames.
On the witness stand, Rouse had no answer for the most damning piece of evidence, a bloodstained mallet found not far from the site of the blaze.
The jury deliberated just 20 minutes before convicting Rouse. He was sentenced to death and hanged on March 10, 1931. He never revealed the name of his victim. It was the first time in 145 years that an Englishman was hanged when the identity of the victim was not known.
Although the victim’s name was never confirmed, Spilsbury continued to work on identifying the remains and linked the corpse to a missing 26-year-old former miner from Manchester whose parents had reported him missing.
Edward Artus was described as missing two teeth on both his upper and lower jaws, and his parents told Spilsbury that their son, who was trying to establish a career in theater, visited a manicurist twice a month to remove the evidence of his former profession.