As part of my research for my novel Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings I looked at some real crimes which took place during the era in which the story is set – the 1930s and 1940s. The first in this series is a case that made legal history because the murderer was convicted even though no one knew who the victim was.
It also shows that with modern techniques evidence can remain many decades after a murder.
On 6th November 1930 psychotic travelling salesman Alfred Rouse faked his own death by smashing his victim’s head with a mallet, bundling the body into his own Morris Minor and setting light to it.
His plan went wrong when he was spotted running away from the scene. He was hanged for murder but took the identity of his victim to the grave with him.
Thirty-six year old Rouse suffered from a personality disorder due to a head wound sustained in the First World War. He had fathered two illegitimate children and was heavily in debt.
Tissue removed at the post mortem and archived in the Royal London Hospital Museum included a sample from the prostrate to confirm gender and one from the lung to determine whether the victim was already dead before the fire started.
Researching into their family history a few years ago, relatives of William Briggs who went missing at the time, suspected he was Rouse’s victim.
During an investigation by a forensic team from the University of Leicester and Northumbria University, the Northamptonshire police and the Royal London Hospital Museum a full mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) profile was obtained from the victim’s tissue to compare with the maternal line of the family.
MtDNA is genetic material transmitted in the womb and can only be passed through the maternal line. People have much more mtDNA than nuclear DNA and it remains in the body much longer so mtDNA testing can be used in cases where the victim has been dead a long time.
Disappointingly for the family the analysis ruled out William Briggs as the victim so the mystery remains.
But with the profile obtained by the investigation there is still a chance the true victim will be identified in future.
coming next: the Julia Wallace case – was it the perfect crime?