An 83-year-old mystery surrounding the identity of a murder victim persists today – despite the efforts of forensic scientists on Tyneside.
Dr Eleanor Graham, a senior lecturer at Northumbria University’s Centre for Forensic Science, and PhD student Victoria Barlow worked on the case of William Briggs and what came to be known as the “Blazing Car” murder.
They examined an archived tissue sample from the unidentified victim found in the burned-out car to see if there was sufficient DNA to compare with living individuals who, for years, have believed that the mystery victim was Mr Briggs, who was one of their family.
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.
Last night, the results were announced on TV’s The One Show – and they showed that the victim was not Mr Briggs.
Dr Graham, who lives in Tynemouth, said: “It was a surprise because there was so much circumstancial evidence pointing to Mr Briggs. The mystery remains, but now there are two mysteries – what did happen to Mr Briggs and who is the victim in the car?”
The Northumbria experts worked with a team from the University of Leicester’s Departments of Chemistry and Criminology, Northamptonshire Police and the Royal London Hospital Museum, where the tissue sample had been stored.
Dr Graham said: “It was a fantastic opportunity to work on such a case. This sort of challenge doesn’t come up every day and to get DNA from the sample was quite remarkable .”
The case involved the murder of a man in a car fire in Hardingstone, Northamptonshire, on November 6, 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, who took tissue samples.
Two samples are still in existence and archived in The Royal London Hospital Museum – one from the prostate to confirm the sex of the victim, which was the material investigated at Northumbria University – and another from the lung to determine whether or not the victim was already dead before the fire was started. As part of their family ancestry research, the relatives of Mr Briggs wanted to verify earlier generations’ belief that Mr Briggs may have been Rouse’s car murder victim.
Last year, William Briggs’s relatives approached Northamptonshire Police in an attempt to put the mystery to rest and finally reveal the identity of the victim.
That set in motion the involvement of the academics and the comparison of DNA from the sample with that from family members.
A member of the Briggs family said: “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.”
Dr Graham said: “Projects such as this highlight the fact that forensic DNA analysis is not confined to catching criminals. DNA analysis also has a critical role to play in the identification of those who have been killed during criminal acts, accidents or natural disasters, which have occurred recently, or many years ago.”