In 1930, in Northampton, England, a man was cracked over the head with a mallet and then burned to death. A man was subsequently sent to the gallows for the heinous murder, but took the name of his victim with him to the grave. Samples of the man’s tissue were taken and preserved during the autopsy, and those samples have provided scientists investigating the eighty year old crime with a complete male mtDNA profile. That DNA is now being compared to that of a family, one of whose members came across a possible connection with the victim and her family when tracing her ancestry.
Samantha Hall was investigating her family lineage when her grandmother revealed during an interview that she believed that her uncle was the murder victim who had been beaten to death and burned in a car. The uncle, William Thomas Briggs, left his London home for an appointment with his doctor in November 1930, but was never heard from or seen again. Thirty years later, after her chat with her grandmother, Samantha Hall and her family asked the Northamptonshire police to re-open the case.
The family believed that their uncle could have crossed paths with the convicted murderer, Alfred Rouse; a traveler who it was rumored wanted to fake his own death. It is known that Rouse suffered from a personality disorder caused by a head wound during the First World War. He was described by those who knew him as “a promiscuous rake with an enormous sexual appetite.” Rouse had fathered at least two illegitimate children, and child support was causing him serious financial difficulty.
Police believed at the time that Rouse had overpowered some homeless tramp who would not be missed if he disappeared. It was clear that Rouse’s intent was for himself to be identified as the victim, as he used his own car to burn the victim (the license plate was found intact), and he left some of his possessions in the car.
He staged the scene so that it would look as if he died in a crash, and counted on the body being completely burned so that it could not be positively identified. Rouse started the fire in the early hours of the morning so that no one would notice it, but two boys saw the flames and called the police. Rouse then fled to Cardiff, but he was eventually arrested, found guilty, and hanged for the murder.
Ms. Hall became intrigued with the case and contacted Northamptonshire Police in 2012, hoping that DNA analysis could prove the murder victim was her uncle. Because the case had been closed, as there was a conviction, it could not be re-opened, and ms. Hall and her family were put in touch with the University of Leicester, which had successfully identified the bones of King Richard III when they were discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012.
For months, the University of Leicester team worked with Northumbria University, The Royal London Hospital Museum, and Northamptonshire Police in solving the riddle. The key to finding an answer would be to get enough mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the sample to form a profile to compare with the Hall family’s mtDNA. “Fortunately, the scientists obtained a full single male mtDNA profile from the slide to compare to the family,” a spokeswoman for the team said.
A result has been reached, but the answer will only be revealed to Ms. Hall and her family on the BBC’s television program The One Show on a date yet to be announced. We are keen to find out the answer, but I think it is quite the clue that they have produced a television show around revealing it!