Could a crime writer have conceived such a devilish plot?

A trail of blood, one set of muddy footprints and a corpse in a ploughed field in the Hampshire countryside. Not an ordinary body but a naked one. Fiction however was fact in 1920.

How did he die? Was it murder and who was he? His family said they knew. Others were firmly dismissive.

The intriguing mystery began at about 8am on February 21 when young farmworker Harry Silvester, huddled against the bitter cold, was walking along a lane near the hamlet of East Meon on his way to Privett when he saw a peculiar shape in the field, locally known as Sixteen Acres and owned by Peak Farm. Curious, he scrambled his way through bushes to investigate and plodding through 200 yards of cloying mud, was shocked to discover a body lying in a furrow about 30 yards from a hedgerow.

The dead man, about 5ft 10in tall, between 30-35 years of age, well nourished, of slim build, and with curly auburn hair, blue eyes, long lashes, small ears and a thick neck, was lying on his back. His right leg was bent up and his right arm lay outward across the field. His left leg was straight and his left arm was across his chest. His head was pointed towards the Winchester road.

Having made sure the man was dead, he contacted local bobby Pc Steele and together they trudged to the scene. Steele made a superficial examination of the body which he turned over and found it to be still quite warm.

Daily Echo: Privett, Hampshire. As featured in an old undated postcard.

"Any idea who he is?" the officer asked.

"None," he replied. "I have not seen him, nor any other stranger about yesterday."

Steele noted prints of bare feet 40 feet up the field, and knee and finger marks for a further 12 yards as though he had fallen, but there was no indication of any form of struggle.

The two men searched the immediate area in the hope of finding any of his clothing but without success, before removing his body to the New Inn where he informed Dr Alexander Stafford of the gruesome find. With senior officers and local men, they widened the search for his apparel, scouring woodland and other fields. Again it proved fruitless.

However, the diligent Steele discovered indications the mystery man might have staggered to his death after being brutally robbed.

Was it murder?

Daily Echo: The New Inn, West Meon. From old undated postcard.

By a railway arch on the Winchester road, he found bloodstains on a wooden bench and a trail of it leading towards the field. Prints of naked feet and knees gave the appearance he had come from the direction of West Meon.

Following publicity, police received information as to his possible identity but it was soon discounted, and they were no further forward when coroner Leonard Warner opened an inquest the following week.

Following testimony from Silvester and Steele, he called Dr Stafford who in his post-mortem examination recorded the cuts, abrasions and bruises he had suffered. "There were no fractures of ribs or other bones, and no evidence of puncture wounds from firearms or a stabbing."

Deducing the cause of death as exposure, he added: "The injuries I have described might have resulted from the man struggling through branches and hedges and treading on thorns and such like. It is not possible from an examination of his brain to say whether he was right-minded or not."

Despite major injuries, Supt. Jones, who led the investigation, told the hearing police had not established his identity or what he was doing in the area. Though he accepted the man might have died from exposure and no one else had been involved, he urged Warner to adjourn the proceedings in all the circumstances. His request was granted.

Time passed and it was not until early June that a woman, living in a Portsmouth workhouse with her five children, claimed that from a description and a post-mortem photograph the dead man was her 35-year-old husband, Edward Hubert Wells. His mother-in-law, his sister-in-law and the manager of a concert party concurred.

Daily Echo: East Meon Church.

Wells had served in the First World War and once demobbed, had joined a concert party at the Clarence Pier in Southsea as a baritone. The ensemble later appeared in London but in 1919, he had left to join a company touring the West of England before disappearing. One abounding theory was that he had been suffering from mental illness and one night had thrown off his clothes and tragically gone for a walk.

Others, who knew Wells as a postman before joining the army, were equally adamant Wells's relatives had been badly mistaken or had misled the authorities. They claimed they had recently seen him and he was still a member of a concert party.

All these sensational circumstances led to the lurid minds of Fleet Street feature writers concocting various stories, even suggesting he was on the run for a series of grisly murders or he had been another victim of the notorious army deserter and killer Percy Topliss.

For those who have investigated the circumstances of this extraordinary affair will readily accept the task faced by the police more than a century ago with less forensic equipment was as difficult as any they ever had to solve.

It naturally leads to speculation - was the dead man really Edmund Wells whose remains are buried in East Meon churchyard and had he suffered his numerous injuries in a desperate flight from a robber? No one can ever be sure.