Alfred Arthur Rouse (6 April 1894–10 March 1931) was a British murderer. It was theorised, though never proved, that Rouse, seeking to fabricate his own death, picked up a hitch-hiker, knocked him out, and then burnt his car with the man inside. His case is unusual in legal history because the identity of the victim was never known and therefore Rouse was convicted of the murder of an unknown man.
The son of Walter Edward Rouse, a hosier from Milkwood Road in Herne Hill, Rouse was born in London. His mother was Irish and reported to be an actress. In 1900, his parents' marriage broke up, apparently because his mother deserted, and Rouse and two other children of the marriage were taken to be brought up by his aunt on his father's side. He went to a council school where he was bright (but not exceptionally so) and athletic.
On leaving school Rouse learned carpentry and also went to evening classes where he learned to sing and to play musical instruments (the piano, mandolin, and violin). He had quite considerable musical ability and his voice developed into a good baritone. He worked first as an office boy for an estate agent, and then in 1909 used his carpentry experience to join a West End furniture manufacturer. A member of the Church of England, Rouse was a sacristan at St Saviour's Church in Stoke Newington.
When war broke out in Europe, Rouse enlisted (8 August 1914), being assigned to the 24th London Regiment as a Private and assigned the number 2011. While training in England before his departure for France, Rouse married Lily May Watkins at St Saviour's Church, St Albans on 29 November.
Rouse arrived in France on 15 March 1915, and was stationed in Paris for some weeks before his unit was sent into battle. During this time, Rouse is known to have fathered a child. His unit was then committed to the Battle of Festubert, near Bethune, which began on 15 May. In a bayonet attack, Rouse came face to face with a German soldier and lunged at him but missed; the memory of waiting just for an instant for the enemy reply stayed with him. Also at this battle was Herbert John Hodgson, who was later to print the first subscriber's edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. Rouse and Hodgson are in a group of soldiers captured on a photograph that must have been taken in the weeks before the battle.
On the last day of the battle, a high explosive shell exploded close to Rouse, severely injuring his head and thigh.
An operation was performed on Rouse's left temporal region to remove shrapnel. His leg injuries left him unable to bend his knee, and his leg suffered from an œdema; he could walk, but only with difficulty. He was repatriated and sent to recuperate at a series of Army hospitals. An Invaliding Medical Board hearing on 9 December 1915 found that his capacity had been "reduced 3/4".
Rouse was formally discharged from the Army on 11 February 1916, and awarded a pension of twenty shillings per week. His medical records show he was still severely disabled. In July 1916 his doctor noted that Rouse's memory was defective and he was unable to wear a hat of any kind because his scar was irritable, although his speech and writing were unaffected and he "sleeps well unless excited in any way". His pension was raised to twenty-five shillings per week the next month.
At the end of January 1917, the doctor found progress, and believed that the injury to his leg could "by degrees be overcome by the man's own endeavour". A year later, Rouse reported some dizziness but the doctor noted how he was talkative and "laughs immoderately at times". In September 1918 Rouse complained of defective memory and bad sleeping.
Return to work
On 30 July 1919, Rouse was examined again by an unsympathetic doctor who observed that he was now in no disability from his head wound, and that while Rouse wouldn't allow his knee to be flexed by more than 30%, there was no physical reason for the limitation and the doctor ascribed it to neurosis. His pension, which since September 1918 had been twenty-seven shillings and sixpence per week, was decreased to twelve shillings per week on 17 September 1919.
In August 1920 a final examination found his head injury healed, and his knee injury only slightly affecting movement. Rouse's pension stopped on 14 September 1920 with payment of a lump sum of £41 5s. in final settlement of all claims.
In fact Rouse had already found work. He became a salesman, and would prove to be an amazingly good one up until the last few months before his crime. In a period of vast unemployment, Rouse managed to make enough money for a house with his legal wife, as well as owning a car, a Morris Minor (1928). The critical problem was his sexual urges. Because he was on the road so much Rouse had plenty of time to go out and meet and entertain various women, at least two of whom would get pregnant from the experience of knowing him. Rouse had already had a child support order imposed on him. He also knew of a second coming up. Also there was another woman expecting him to marry her (they were "engaged"). He really was aware that he had to disappear in order to avoid the coming catastrophe.
At just what point Rouse decided on his scheme is not settled, nor how he arrived at it. He may have read a plot about substituting a corpse in a burning car from a spy novel of that time, The "W" Plan. Also there had been some recent burning car murders in Germany. However, he did seem to have a fixed plan, setting the timing of the fire in the car to be on Guy Fawkes' Night (5–6 November 1930), the anniversary of the failure of The Gunpowder Plot. On that night, traditionally, many bonfires are set throughout England on which figures (like scarecrows) representing Guy Fawkes are burned. Rouse may have thought that one more pyre would not be noticed that night.
In the early hours of 6 November 1930, two young men returning from the town of Northampton to their home in the nearby village of Hardingstone saw a fire in the distance. A man approaching them from the direction of the fire observed that 'somebody must be lighting a bonfire'. The two men went to investigate and discovered the fire was coming from a vehicle that was ablaze, containing a body charred beyond recognition. The number plate identified the car as belonging to an Alfred Arthur Rouse, a north-Londoner. Rouse had gone to Wales to one of his girlfriends, but returned to London a day later. He was arrested and confessed,[clarification needed] saying that he had picked up the victim during a ride to Leicester. While Rouse went to defecate, the man lit a cigarette in the car. According to Rouse, there was a flash of light, and subsequently the car burst into flames. Alfred Rouse stood trial in Northampton in January 1931, and was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
Rouse's personality was the cause of his failure to win support for the counter-theory that the man in the car was responsible for the explosion that killed him. Rouse, after initially trying to run off, decided to hand himself over to the police. But while giving his statement of what he claimed happened (an accident – but the other fellow was to blame) he let slip a comment that got into the newspapers, referring to his career as a salesman and the women he knew. He referred to these ladies as his "harem". That did not sit well with the public. His failure to explain why he picked up the unknown person (supposedly just to give him a lift) was dented when he made the callous comment that the unknown person was just somebody who nobody would miss. The final blow to the accident theory was delivered not by Sir Bernard Spilsbury (who did give forensic evidence of the remains of the unknown person), but by an expert on cars who studied the remains of the Morris Minor, and found somebody had forcefully turned a nut and screw to allow petrol to flow into the motor (making a fire all the easier to set). The chief prosecuting counsel at Rouse's trial was William Norman Birkett, 1st Baron Birkett and the chief defence counsel was Donald Finnemore.
On Tuesday, 10 March 1931, he was hanged in Bedford Gaol. He confessed to the crime shortly before the execution.
In Alan Moore's novel Voice of the Fire, set in Northampton at various times throughout history, one chapter tells Rouse's story in first-person narrative, an evasive and self-serving musing to himself as he sits in the dock during his murder trial. The chapter ends with Rouse seemingly convinced of his ability to charm his jury into acquitting him, with his judgment in this matter proving as poor as it had been throughout the entire story.
Identity of the victim
In May 2012, it was reported that the family of Williams Briggs were seeking to determine if he was Rouse's victim. Briggs disappeared without a trace in 1930 after leaving his home in London for a doctor's appointment. In January 2014, following an investigation by a forensic team from the University of Leicester and Northumbria University, it was announced that William Briggs was not the murder victim.
- At his trial, Rouse declared "I have always understood that I was thirty-six, but I have no proof of that". See Trial, p. 138.
- Sidney Tremayne, ed. (1931). The trial of Alfred Arthur Rouse: the blazing car murder. London: Geoffrey Bles.
- "Northamptonshire Police may look at 1930 'blazing car murder'". BBC News. Bbc.co.uk. 3 May 2012. Retrieved 1 August 2012.
- Devlin, Laura (14 January 2014). "DNA found in Northamptonshire 'blazing car' murder case". BBC News (BBC). Retrieved 14 January 2014.
- "Blazing Car Murder victim still a mystery". University of Leicester. 20 January 2014. Retrieved 2 April 2014.
- Helena Normanton, ed. (1931). Trial of Alfred Arthur Rouse. London: William Hodge & Co Ltd.
- Gaute, J.H.H.; Robin Odell (1991). The New Murderers' Who's Who. Intl Polygonics Ltd. ISBN 1558820930.
- Whitaker's Almanack, 1932