When a hand was spotted protruding from a burning rubbish dump at Mill Hill, north-west London, on JUNE 1st, 1931, the rest of the body was uncovered and found to be that of a man. His nose, left temple and jaws were fractured, and he had obviously been beaten.

His killers thought they had successfully disposed of his body when they covered it with rubbish and set the dump alight, but heat had contracted the muscles, extending the tell-tale hand before rigor mortis set in.

Tramps and down-and-outs lived in a number of shacks in a nearby disused lane. Inquiring if one of them was missing, the police learned that 45-year-old Herbert “Pigsticker” Ayres had not been seen for two days, and the body was identified as his. Then detectives were told that on May 29th he had been attacked by two men, William “Moosh” Shelley, 57, and Oliver “Tiggy” Newman, 45.

Arrested, the pair said that Ayres had been stealing from them and they had decided to teach him a lesson. He had died in a fair fist-fight, and they had then concealed his body, setting fire to the dump. Bruises on the back of the victim’s left hand, however, convinced the Home Office pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury that it was a case of murder.

At their Old Bailey trial Shelley and Newman claimed that Ayres had grabbed a weapon, and his hand must have been bruised when they tried to knock the implement from his grasp. But Spilsbury told the court that Ayres’s fractures had been caused not by fists, but by a weapon or kicks. If he had been holding a weapon, it would have taken more than one blow to cause the bruises on the back of his hand. They had more probably been inflicted when he placed his hand on his head to protect himself from a rain of blows.

Convicted of murder, Shelley and Newman were hanged on August 5th, 1931.