In the world of unsolved cold cases and mysterious crimes some stand out as being particularly bizarre and off-the-wall. These are the cases in which all of the elements and strange quirks just came together in such a way as to be almost a divine comedy, leaving us to wonder how this all happened. One such case happened in Australia, and involves a shark, a severed arm, and a mysterious, unsolved murder.
It all started as a leisurely day out fishing. On April 17, 1935, Albert Hobson and a friend were out fishing off the coast of the suburb of Coogee, about 5 miles south of Sydney, Australia, when as Hobson was reeling in a small shark his catch grew to immense proportions when a massive, 14-foot-long tiger shark emerged from the depths to swallow the smaller fish on the line. It was startling, to be sure, but the two men managed to reel the shark in, and that’s when they had an idea. It just so happened that Hobson’s brother was the owner of the nearby Coogee Beach Aquarium, and considering the aquarium had been losing business lately and shark was in good condition they got it into their heads to see if it could be put on exhibition to draw in crowds. Amazingly, they were able to drag it to shore alive and intact, and the shark was soon prowling about in a pool to the delight of aquarium visitors.
For the first week the shark was allegedly placid and acting normally, and was a big draw, but then on April 23 it began displaying odd behavior. By all accounts it suddenly went nuts, thrashing about and displaying wildly erratic behavior, as if in great distress. At that point, as the frightened aquarium goers looked on, the shark spontaneously vomited up a human arm, the macabre sight bobbing about in the tank much to the horror of onlookers. When the arm was fished from the pool it was found to be a man’s left forearm, with a tattoo of two boxers facing each other in a fighting stance and oddly a piece of rope tied around the wrist. This was strange enough, but it would get even odder upon further inspection.
The arm was found to have been severed, and while the logical conclusion was that it had been bitten off by the shark, but this was not the case, rather having been roughly hacked off with some sharp instrument, according to a coroner while the victim had already been dead. It was also found that it had not even been the larger tiger shark that had swallowed the arm, but rather the smaller shark it had eaten, making it even weirder. It was baffling as to why this arm had been cut off of a dead man and then found its way into this shark’s stomach to be vomited up in an aquarium tank, and police were soon trying to determine who the victim was.
Considering that the fingerprints were still intact and the tattoo was very distinctive, it did not take authorities long to find that the victim had been a shipbuilder, former boxer, small time crook, and sometimes police informer by the name of James Smith. Interestingly, Smith had vanished without a trace on April 7 of that month, and so theories began to swirl. There were those who thought he had to have been killed by the shark, but the coroner’s insistence that the arm had been hacked off with a knife after death seemed to squash this idea. There was also the notion that he had committed suicide and the body snacked on by the shark, but even if this were the case why was only his disembodied arm eaten? Police began to suspect that they had a murder investigation on their hands, and that the shark possibly held some answers, but much to their chagrin the aquarium had it killed before it could be properly analyzed. Police had it dissected anyway, but there were no further body parts found.
They then began looking into the events surrounding Smith’s vanishing. According to Smith’s wife, he had gone off on a fishing trip with an unidentified friend right before the disappearance, but it had taken the wife a full two weeks to actually report it to police, after which the case had gone cold. They approached Smith’s employer, Reg Holmes, but this led nowhere, and the police were forced to follow some gossip that Smith had last been seen drinking and playing cards with a man named Patrick Brady on April 7 at the Cecil Hotel in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla. A look into Brady’s past showed that he was not exactly an upstanding citizen, having been arrested in the past for forging checks, and indeed at the time awaiting trial for this. It was also found that Brady happened to have been renting a cottage in Cronulla at the time, and so police moved in to see if there was anything they could dig up.
The cottage was subsequently searched, and although no sign of a struggle or violence could be found, the police did learn from witnesses that a mattress and a large tin trunk were now missing from the room. This led police to come up with a possible scenario in which Smith had been killed and dismembered on the mattress and the remains had been stuffed into that trunk and then dumped into the sea, after which the arm had floated off to be eaten by the shark. There was no really evidence of this, but it was enough for them to move in on Brady, who was quick to point the finger at Smith’s employer Holmes, saying that they had all been involved in a forgery ring. When approached about this Holmes completely denied this, and claimed to have never met Brady before. With no other sign of the body and no real concrete evidence, police were forced to let Brady and Holmes go, but they were still on their radar.
Just a few days after being released, Holmes apparently tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the head in a boat shed, but this backfired when the bullet merely stunned him with a superficial wound and sent him falling into the water. He then crawled into his speedboat and took off at high speed, starting off a police chase around Sydney Harbor. It must have been quite a sight, this wild-eyed man with a bullet hole in his head rampaging around the harbor with police boats in high pursuit, and this went on for hours before Holmes was finally apprehended.
After being arrested, the wounded Holmes ranted that someone was out to kill him and had attacked him, but under further questioning he would concede that it had been self-inflicted. He would also come clean to say he not only knew Brady, but also that Brady had killed and dismembered Smith before throwing the remains into Gunnamatta Bay, where he had quite literally become food for the fishes. Holmes also claimed that Brady had soon after come to his home threatening to kill him unless he coughed up a large sum of money, which the terrified Holmes did. This was somewhat supported by the testimony of a taxi driver who claims to have driven Brady away from the scene and that the man had appeared disheveled and in an agitated state.
This was enough to get Brady rearrested, but despite a massive search of the area for the rest of Smith’s body nothing could be found, which was a hindrance to the trial because one arm is not really enough to prove a murder. Making things even more problematic was that the main witness for the prosecution, Reg Holmes, would inconveniently die of a bad case of three bullet holes to the chest and be found dead in his car right before he was to take the stand. With no witness, no body, and no established motive, there was nothing that could be made to stick, and Brady was acquitted of all charges shortly after. Indeed, there were still rumors that Smith might not have even been dead at all, maybe still alive out there somewhere minus an arm. Unfortunately for Brady, he was still later found guilty of forging checks.
Interestingly, Brady would adamantly deny having had anything to do with the murder of James Smith, still proclaiming his innocence all the way up to his death in 1965. What happened to James Smith? How did his arm end up in that shark within another shark? Where is the rest of his body? No ones knows except the killer and that shark, and they aren’t talking. What has gone on to become known as “The Shark Arm Murders” has become one of Australia’s most famous and weirdest unsolved mysteries, and we are no closer to solving it now than we were then.