ON NOVEMBER 5, 1930, a quiet country lane became the scene of one of Northamptonshire’s most notorious murders.
Alfred Rouse was no stranger to the wrong side of the law, but when found himself with spiralling debt and hounded by a harem of disgruntled lovers, he decided to commit his most daring crime yet.
The 36-year-old salesman resolved to fake his own death in a move he hoped would give him freedom from his past.
For the plan to work he needed a suitable victim and, while the man he chose has never been conclusively identified, the facts of the murder are brutally clear.
After clubbing his victim to death, Rouse drove his Morris Minor to Hardingstone, where he doused the body in petrol and set fire to the vehicle before fleeing to what he hoped would be a new life in Wales.
It seemed like the perfect murder. But a massive police hunt was launched when village constable Bert Copping realised what he had thought was a scorched rugby ball was the remains of a human skull.
Forensic evidence soon proved the body was not Rouse’s and as the net closed the former soldier returned to England where he was arrested and taken to Northampton’s Angel Lane police station.
There was little doubt of his guilt, but when he was finally hanged following a six-day trial at Northampton Assizes, he took with him the name of his victim.
During the next seven decades various names would be suggested, but, with the 72nd anniversary next Tuesday, regulars at Hardingstone’s Crown Inn, which was used as a makeshift mortuary, are planning their own tribute to the mystery murder victim.
“Most people who live in Northamptonshire have heard of Alfred Rouse,” said landlady Chris Reed, who took over the pub with her husband, also Chris, this year. “I grew up in the area and it had always fascinated me, but until recently I hadn’t realised how much the pub had been involved.
“It turned out that the corpse was stored in the garage as the police waited for forensic experts to carry out their investigations.
“Just saying it sends a shiver down my spine. Down the years, people have said the murdered man haunts the place, but as yet neither of us have yet to seen any ghosts. However, I have to admit I don’t go into the garage after dark. I don’t want to take any chances.”
On Tuesday – exactly 72 years after the murder – the Reeds and their regulars will have a quiet reflection for the murder victim, whose remains lie down the road in the grounds of St Edmund’s Church.
The grave, marked with a simple cross bearing the inscription “In memory of an unknown man”, was erected for a man most believe lost his life by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It’s quite a horrific tale,” added Mrs Reed. “Rouse was found to have been associating with more than 80 different women, fathering a number of children on his travels and running up maintenance charges he would never be able to pay.
“He had been a soldier in the Great War, where he suffered a head wound. If reports are to be believed, it left him with what today would probably be described as a personality disorder.
“It really is a very sad tale because not only was this poor man murdered, but his identity was never discovered. This is our way of remembering the man whose murder is part of Northamptonshire’s history.”
The men named as Alfred Rouse's murder victim . . .
William Thomas Briggs
On March 10, 1930, William Briggs waved goodbye to his mother on his way to a doctor’s appointment.
However, he never arrived at the surgery and would not be seen alive again.
Believing that he had no enemies and no particular worries, his family thought he would eventually return. But when, two months later, there had still been no sightings of him, they finally reported him missing to the police.
In the wake of the Rouse murder, despite being listed on police files, he was not earmarked as a likely victim until six years later, when his two sisters raised the matter again.
The similarities were striking. Both men were in their 20s, with auburn hair and, when last seen, Briggs – who frequented the same billiard halls as Rouse – was wearing a plum-coloured jacket under a light overcoat, the same clothes as those of the burned murder victim.
The evidence was persuasive, but when the family later called for the case to be reopened they were told by the police the records had been destroyed.
A man named Pepper
Another theory emerged in 1948. According to reports, a Mr Pepper had emigrated to Canada from England before crossing the border into the United States, where he became involved in organised crime.
It seemed he was good at it and quickly progressed through the ranks, ending up as a lieutenant of the infamous Al Capone.
For reasons unknown, Mr Pepper decided to return to England, but not before faking his own death in a bizarre rehearsal of the Rouse incident.
This time the victim was a small-time criminal known as Moti, who he picked up in his Cadillac, drove to Illinois and killed and burned.
Back in England, he resumed a life of crime, but he could not replicate the success he had enjoyed in the US and was soon planning murder most foul again.
On November 5, 1930, Mr Pepper apparently told his girlfriend he was going to Leicester with a gullible chap with plenty of money and would be back by Friday.
However, he never returned and his girlfriend believed the plan had backfired, with Pepper becoming the victim rather than the murderer.
Two years ago, another name was thrown into the ring when Rugby pensioner Daphne Townsend contacted the Chron.
The retired warehouse packer believed she held the key to the mystery which had baffled detectives for 70 years.
Mrs Townsend, then 74, claimed her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Townsend, had always maintained the victim was her brother, Bill.
In an exclusive interview with the Chron, she told how Bill was known for his Bohemian lifestyle, travelling around the country for months on end.
While he was absent for much of the year, he always returned to the family’s north London home for Christmas. But in 1930 Christmas came and went and old Mrs Townsend became convinced her brother had fallen victim to Rouse’s evil plan.