The Burning Car Mystery
A philandering salesman created a web of affairs and then dreamed up a way of escaping his romantic entanglements.
The fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot …
This English folk verse recalls the Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. The plot was foiled, and ever since, the British have burned bonfires and let off fireworks on the anniversary to commemorate the event. So, if you want to set fire to something without drawing too much attention what better time to do it than “Bonfire Night?”
Alfred Rouse’s Attempt to Disappear
Alfred Rouse was born in 1894 and served in World War I where he was severely wounded. A piece of shrapnel was removed from his brain but he was left with a personality disorder; an insatiable sexual appetite.
After being patched up he took a job as a travelling salesman. His charm and smooth talk served him well in his job and those qualities also worked with women he met.
Although married, Rouse was constantly acting on his urges. Being away from home on his sales calls gave him ample opportunities to play Jack the Lad. He also had a car, a rarity in England at the time. As the barrister Sir Patrick Hastings noted later “Rouse took scores of young women for a ride in his car, much to their undoing and regret.”
Multiple liaisons led to a couple of pregnancies and the onerous burden of support payments.
Ceasing to exist seemed like a good idea to Rouse although he didn’t particularly fancy dying. He needed to find someone to do the messy bit of croaking on his behalf.
Bonfire on the Highway
Late on the night of November 5-6, 1930, two young men were walking home from the city of Northampton to their homes in the village of Hardingstone when they noticed what appeared to be a fire burning ahead of them. They met another man going the other way who said “somebody must be lighting a bonfire.”
The two young men continued until they came upon the flaming wreckage of a Morris Minor car with what appeared to be a body inside.
Having been spotted near the scene Rouse panicked and took off to visit one of his lady friends in Wales. Police quickly traced the car to him and went to his home. He was not there, but Mrs. Rouse was interviewed and asked to attend an identification.
Because of the condition of the remains she was not allowed to see the body. However, she was shown fragments of clothing and a wallet. The clothing, she said, looked like Alfred’s, and the wallet was definitely his.
Police were waiting for Alfred Rouse when he returned home to London.
A Plausible Story
Rouse told police he’d met a man in a pub in London and had agreed to drive him north to Leicester. Rouse fed his passenger whisky and he became drunk. Rouse said he stopped to answer a call of nature and asked his companion to put gasoline in the car from a can in the trunk.
The inebriated man spilled some gasoline and then tried to light a cigarette, said Rouse. Up went the car and the man in a gasoline explosion; a horrible accident. He tried to open the car door to get the man out but the heat was too intense. Then, he said, he panicked and fled the scene.
He might have got away with his crime but the garrulous Rouse couldn’t stop himself from boasting to police about his bedroom conquests. He referred to his collection of female companions as his “harem.”
This made police suspicious. How could a man on Rouse’s income afford to support all of his paramours? Now, there was a motive for faking his own death.
The Rouse Trial
At trial, the prosecution presented evidence that the car’s carburetor had been tampered with to allow gasoline to flow into the vehicle.
A wooden mallet had been found not far from the scene and it was suggested Rouse had used this to render his victim unconscious.
In addition, Rouse had callously said that the unknown victim had told him he had no family and that he was just a person who nobody would miss. And, nobody did at the time.
The trial lasted six days under the watchful eye of Mr. Justice Talbot. His instructions to the jury were rather pointed: “Of course, there can be no doubt about it that these facts create grave suspicion against this man who was the owner of the car, and who drove it to the place where it was burned. If he is an innocent man he has created a grave suspicion against himself by his own folly.”
It seems Rouse believed his charm and sales skills would persuade the jury to acquit him. He was wrong. The jury returned a guilty verdict in 25 minutes and Rouse was sentenced to death.
Shortly before his hanging on March 10, 1931, Rouse confessed to the murder and the reason for it.
Who Was the Victim?
The dead body remains unidentified to this day.
A London family has long thought their relative, William Biggs, was the unfortunate passenger in Rouse’s car. He had left his home in 1930 and was never seen nor heard from again.
Scientists at the University of Leicester began to investigate. The pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury had taken tissue samples during his autopsy and preserved them in glass slides. They are still in good condition.
Biggs family members gave DNA swab samples and the university boffins compared them with the dead man. It was not William Biggs.
As a result of the Biggs story appearing on television, at least 15 other families have come forward expressing concern a relative might have been the victim.
Forensic scientists are still trying to put a name to the man through DNA samples.
At the time of the murder, thousands of men had gone missing in Britain, many of them were suffering from the psychological trauma of serving in World War I.
Shortly before his execution, Alfred Rouse wrote a letter to The Daily Sketch newspaper in which he confessed to the crime. He was up to his neck in trouble with his mistresses and their pregnancies, and said he “wanted to start life afresh.” He met his victim outside the Swan and Pyramids pub in north London. “We talked a lot [on the journey to Leicester], but he did not tell me who he actually was. I did not care ... The man was half-dozing – the effect of the whisky. I gripped him by the throat with my right hand. I pressed his head against the back of the seat. He slid down, his hat falling off. I saw he had a bald patch on the crown of his head. He just gurgled. I pressed his throat hard ... he did not resist.”
The victim was buried in a graveyard near where he died along with a metal box containing newspaper clippings about the case. For several years after the murder village children placed flowers on the grave on November 5.
- “Alfred Rouse ‘Blazing Car Murder’: Victim Could Be Missing Man.” BBC News, December 28, 2014.
- “Northamptonshire: Every Tombstone Tells a Story.” Byron Rogers, The Telegraph, April 20, 2002.
- “Alfred Arthur Rouse.” MurderUK.com, undated.
- “Will the Legendary and Victimless Murder by Arthur Rouse Finally Be Solved?” Bob Couttie, All Things Crime, January 21, 2014.
- “Alfred Rouse ‘Blazing Car Murder’: DNA Tests Fail to Identify Victim.” BBC News, July 18, 2015.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor