The ‘shark arm murder’ mystery that shocked Australia
In honor of the 30th anniversary of Shark Week, I wanted to see if I could find a murder that involved this notorious predator. Per usual, Google did not disappoint. I’m a little sad that I had not heard this story before.
On April 25, 1935, families crowded the beaches of Coogee, about 5 miles south (8 km) of Sydney in New South Wales, to celebrate Anzac Day, a day of remembrance for the anniversary of Australia and New Zealand’s first military action during World War I. One of the places that was getting a lot visitors that holiday was the Coogee Aquarium and Swimming Baths.
There was a 14-foot tiger shark on display that had been caught the week before. The shark acted like it was in distress and was thrashing about. Then, in front of horrified onlookers, it threw up a human arm.
In an effort to identify the arm’s poor owner, police published pictures and a description of the dismembered appendage in newspapers throughout the region. The left arm had a tattoo of two boxers in a fighting stance, there was also a rope tied around the wrist.
The dismembered arm of James Smith.
The arm was soon recognized as belonging to 40-year-old James ‘Jim’ Smith, a former boxer and builder with some ties to Sydney’s criminal underworld. James’ wife and brother identified the arm and that presumptive ID was confirmed with fingerprints. Jim was last seen the morning of April 8th by his wife when he left his house to go on a fishing trip with a friend, though he did not say who the friend was.
At first police thought that Smith had died as the result of a shark attack. But that theory was squashed after a physician examined the arm. In an issue of the Sydney Morning Herald published on June 14, 1935, it was reported that the physician concluded the arm wassevered with a knife after the victim was already dead. Furthermore, the person who did this grisly work did not have surgical experience.
The poor tiger shark was killed and dissected, but no other human remains were recovered. The Australian Navy and Air Force searched the surrounding area but did not find the rest of James Smith’s body.
Police started a homicide investigation and tried to discover Smith’s movements after he left his home the day he disappeared. Witnesses came forward who said they saw Smith with Patrick Brady, a 42-year-old check forger, on April 8th at a hotel bar in Cronulla, a beachside suburb of Sydney.
Picture of James Smith whose tattooed was swallowed by a shark.
Police questioned Smith’s employer, Reginald Holmes, to see if he could provide any insight. There was plenty of gossip about the 43-year-old man that investigators found interesting. Like the rumor that Holmes was using his family’s successful boat building business as a front for a smuggling operation. And the rumor that Holmes and Smith had a falling out over an insurance scam and Smith had been blackmailing him over his illegal activities. Holmes denied these accusations and professed to not know Patrick Brady.
Investigators found out that Patrick Brady rented a cottage in Cronulla. According to Max Haines, in his article “Severed arm found inside shark yields few clues to former boxer’s demise,” when police searched the little house they could not find any evidence that a murder had occurred there. But people who had been there claimed there was a mattresses and a tin trunk, that was big enough to fit a body, missing from the property.
When he was questioned, Brady made contradictory statements and even denied going to Cronulla on April 8th. Police arrested him anyway on May 16th for the murder of James Smith.
Things got more bizarre four days later. The police for Sydney Harbor were asked to respond to complaints that a speedboat was being recklessly driven through the harbor. They chased the boat for about four hours. When they caught up to the driver, they found a disoriented Reginald Holmes with blood trickling down his face and a superficial gun shot wound to his head.
Holmes maintained that he was attacked and some unknown assailants tried to kill him, but police believed that he tried to commit suicide. The surgeon who examined Reginald at the hospital said the only reason he survived was because the bullet flattened against the bones of his skull.
When he was interrogated again, Holmes alleged that Patrick Brady told him that he killed Jim Smith because he thought he was cooperating with police against him. Holmes agreed to testify at the coroner’s inquest scheduled for June 13, 1935. But shortly before he was scheduled to take the stand, Holmes’ dead body was found in his car near the Sydney bridge.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he had three gun shot wounds to the head. Police investigated it as a murder but the case went cold.
The coroner’s inquest proceeded without Holmes and the trial was scheduled for a few months later. Once the trial started, Brady’s attorney submitted a motion to dismiss the charges against his client due to a lack evidence. The judge agreed and acquitted Patrick Brady.
As reported in an issue of the The Western Mail on September 12, 1935, police escorted Patrick Brady from the court house through a rear exit on September 10th. When he was about sixty yards from the building, another officer arrested him for check forgery.
No other arrests were made in connection with this case.