Murder mystery remains: DNA rules out Briggs as Blazing Car victim
Published by University of Leicester Press Office for University of Leicester in Education
Slide with Blazing Car victim's sample on it. Sample taken by Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Credit: University of Leicester
A forensic team from the University of Leicester and Northumbria University has spearheaded an investigation to try and identify the victim of a gruesome murder case from 1930.
Results from DNA analysis have confirmed that William Briggs, a man who disappeared at around the same time that the crime was committed, has been excluded as the victim of the ‘Blazing Car Murder’.
In addition, the results show that the DNA from the tissue sample is that of an uncontaminated profile, opening the possibility that a match could still be identified.
A team from the University of Leicester, led by Dr John Bond OBE from the Department of Chemistry and Dr Lisa Smith from the Department of Criminology worked with colleagues from Northumbria University, Northamptonshire Police and The Royal London Hospital Museum to tackle the riddle of the Blazing Car Murder case from over 80 years ago.
The case involved the murder of a male in a car fire in Hardingstone, Northamptonshire, on 6 November 1930. Alfred Rouse was convicted, and later hanged, at Bedford Gaol in March 1931, for murdering his victim who to this day, has not been identified.
At the time, a post mortem examination was carried out in the garage of the local public house by the Home Office-appointed pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, working alongside another local pathologist.
Sir Spilsbury reported that lavender coloured material and light brown hair were found at the scene. It was further documented that the victim’s jawbone was removed to assist with possible identification and tissue samples taken for microscopical examination.
Two of these tissue samples are still in existence and archived in The Royal London Hospital Museum: one from the prostate to confirm the sex of the victim, and another from the lung to determine whether or not the victim was already dead before the fire was started.
In recent months, attention has turned to the fact that a man named William Briggs left his family home in London to attend a doctor’s appointment at around the same time the crime was committed - and was never seen or heard of again.
As part of their family ancestry research, the relatives of William Briggs wanted to verify earlier generations’ belief that their ancestor may have been Rouse’s car murder victim.
Last year, a number of William Briggs’s relatives approached Northamptonshire Police in an attempt to put the 83-year-old mystery to rest and finally reveal the identity of the victim.
They met with the Force’s curator and archivist Richard Cowley, discussed the story of the murder and were shown artefacts relating to the crime which, at the time received worldwide attention.
With the help of Northamptonshire Police, the family contacted University of Leicester academic Dr John Bond OBE. He and Dr Lisa Smith negotiated with The Royal London Hospital museum to allow one of the remaining tissue samples to be examined.
The slide was released with the approval of Professor Richard Trembath, at Queen Mary College University of London. The slide originates from the old Department of Forensic Medicine which formed part of The London Hospital Medical College. The College was merged with Queen Mary College in 1995.
The University of Leicester team considered whether there might just be enough mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) left on the slide to get a profile to compare with mtDNA from the family.
Mitochondrial DNA is wholly inherited from the maternal line so it is essential to have an unbroken maternal line of descendants to test.
University of Leicester worked with the Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science and Dr Eleanor Graham, a former member of staff at the University of Leicester, and Victoria Barlow to carry out DNA analysis on the samples to see if there was a match from the sample and the relatives.
Fortunately, the scientists obtained a mtDNA profile from the slide to compare to the family.
The results of DNA analysis have confirmed that family members of William Briggs did not have mtDNA consistent with the tissue on the slide. Therefore William Briggs has been excluded as the source of the tissue from the autopsy of the blazing car murder victim. In addition, the results show that the DNA from the tissue sample is that of an uncontaminated profile, opening the possibility that a match could still be identified.
Dr Bond from the University of Leicester stated: “It is obviously very disappointing for the family that the victim is not their missing relative. For the family, the unknown continues and they will now probably never know what happened to William.
“However, from a scientific perspective it is fantastic that we have been able to obtain Mitochondrial DNA from a microscope slide over 80 years old and we now have the mtDNA profile of the victim. So there is still the possibility of identifying the victim if other families with a relative who went missing around November 1930 can be traced.
“In addition, the fact we have obtained a profile from this slide opens the door for other material from other cases to be tested in a similar way and, who knows, we might be able to help other families with missing relatives in the future.”
Dr Smith from the University of Leicester said: “We had obviously hoped to be able to provide some closure for the family after all of these years, however the identity of the murder victim and the whereabouts of William Briggs remain a mystery.
“However, from a historical perspective it has been very rewarding to work on such a famous, local murder case and we remain hopeful that one day we may be able identify the victim now that mtDNA has been successfully obtained from the pathology slide.”
Dr Eleanor Graham from Northumbria University stated: “Cases such as this provide many challenges due to the processes carried out on the tissue at the time of collection, the potential of DNA contamination occurring in the time since collection and the age of the sample itself.
“Despite the challenges faced the team at Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science were able to recover sufficient material for the generation of both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA profiles which can be compared to the living relatives of William Briggs.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Phillips from Northamptonshire Police said: "From our perspective this is a closed case, the offender Alfred Rouse was convicted of murder and hanged, but this has been a long-standing mystery in Northamptonshire as the identity of the victim has never been established.
"Our work at Northamptonshire Police is victim focused so I was delighted to learn of new opportunities to establish the identity of the victim through the development of forensic science.
"It is a shame that the results have not provided closure for the family seeking answers about their missing relative but we remain hopeful that this may be a first exciting step towards this mystery finally being solved."
A member of the Briggs family stated: “Our family has waited 83 years to find out if our missing relative was the victim of this crime. It’s a relief to know that William was not the victim of the Blazing Car Murder and did not suffer a horrific fate at the hands of Alfred Rouse.
“Clearly, much uncertainty remains with regard to the disappearance of Uncle William, and after such a long time we will accept that we may never know what happened to him.
“Our hope is that the work undertaken by the University of Leicester & Northumbria University might provide the opportunity for families of other missing persons of that year to come forward and finally identify ‘the unknown man’.
“We would like to offer our sincerest thanks to the University of Leicester & Northumbria University, Northamptonshire Police and The Royal London Hospital Museum.”
A free course on Forensic Science & Criminal Justice, led by the team who investigated the Rouse case, is available via FutureLearn at: http://www.futurelearn.com/courses/forensic-crim-justice
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