The mystery of Australia’s so-called “Shark Arm Man” began with high drama on Anzac Day, 25 April 1935, when a monster 3.5 metre tiger shark which had been caught a few days before off Sydney and was being displayed to the public at the seaside Coogee Aquarium Baths, disgorged a human arm. The macabre discovery would lead police and detectives on a bizarre ride through Sydney’s underworld, in a tale many have commented would sit more easily in the pages of fiction than of fact.
The arm which the horrified spectators saw leave the shark’s mouth bore a distinctive tattoo, of two boxers shaping up to fight, and banner newspaper headlines followed. When the limb was examined by doctors, it was found not to have been bitten off by any shark, but crudely hacked off with a blade. With public interest in the case mounting unabated, it wasn’t long before a number came forward with information leading police to the conclusion that the tattooed arm belonged to a man called James Smith.
Smith was a known small-time figure in Sydney’s flourishing underworld of the 1930s. A former boxer and illegal SP bookmaker, he had been a familiar sight in the bars of Sydney pubs. He was also known to be a police informer. It’s believed he had been involved in a large-scale attempted maritime insurance scam, but when he unwisely attempted to blackmail his criminal associates over it he signed his own death warrant.
Suspicion settled upon two men: Smith’s employer Reginald Holmes, and a criminal associate of Smith’s, John Patrick Brady. On the basis of circumstantial evidence - such as Brady’s landlord saying that at the time of Smith’s disappearance Brady had scrubbed the walls and floors of his cottage clean, and that a metal trunk and certain heavy objects had gone missing then - Brady was taken into custody, but police were well short of conclusive evidence against him.
The spotlight shifted to Holmes in a sequence of extraordinary events. Holmes ran a successful boat building business in Lavender Bay, and was known as a speedboat enthusiast, but he is now also thought to have used his small fast boats for more nefarious ends, such as smuggling in cigarettes and other contraband, as well as cocaine, from ships standing offshore.
A month after the arm was discovered, water police pursued a speedboat manoeuvring erratically on Sydney Harbour. Holmes was found at the wheel, his head bleeding from a seemingly self-inflicted bullet wound in a failed suicide attempt. Under questioning from police, Holmes revealed that soon after Smith’s disappearance Brady had arrived at his home carrying a bag from which he had produced Smith’s tattooed arm, saying if he didn’t do what he was told he’d end up the same way. Holmes’s wife Inie Parker-Holmes also spoke to police, telling them her husband had told her Brady had said he had murdered Smith, chopped up the body and placed it into a trunk which he had dumped out at sea.
On the night of 11 June 1935, only hours before he was due to appear as the star witness at Smith’s inquest, Holmes was found slumped over dead at the wheel of his car in Sydney’s Dawes Point docklands. The three bullets found in the back of his head had been fired at close range, in an execution-style killing. With Holmes dead and the absence of Smith’s body to help provide conclusive evidence even that a murder had taken place, the Crown case against Brady failed, and he walked away from his subsequent trial a free man. Two well known identities from Sydney’s waterfront were later charged with Smith’s murder, and also acquitted.
While for many years the question remained as to who murdered Holmes, with Brady held in police custody at the time he was shot, prominent law expert Professor Alex Castles later provided the extraordinary opinion that Holmes had arranged the killing himself. “In the afternoon before his death, Holmes went to his bank, took out 500 pounds and arranged for the 500 pounds to be paid to the hitman who was then told he had to kill Holmes that night to make sure that Holmes wouldn’t have to make an appearance at the Coroner’s Court in the morning.” Professor Castles also expressed the view that Smith’s most likely killer was a Sydney criminal called Eddie Weyman, whom Smith in his role as an informer had “dobbed in” to police.
One can only speculate about what Holmes could possibly have feared more than three bullets in the back of the head. As a coda, the last link with the main players in the mystery, Homles’s wife Inie, died in a fire at her home in November 1952, which while not closing the case entirely did effectively end a chapter of Australian criminal history.
From my book Dead Famous: Deaths of the Famous and Famous Deaths.