Shark Arm Mystery: How a Sick Tiger Shark Opened a Murder Investigation

On April 25, 1935, a crowd flocked to Coogee Aquarium in Sydney, Australia. It was Anzac Day, which is like Memorial Day in the United States. Many residents had decided to take a trip to the aquarium on their day off to see the shark tank. The aquarium’s owner, Charles Hobson, had recently acquired a 14-foot, one-ton tiger shark. 

Charles’ brother, Bert, had managed to reel the shark in. Actually, he caught a smaller shark at first. As he was reeling in the smaller shark, the larger tiger shark started to eat it. Somehow, Bert managed to catch the huge shark and get it to his brother. The Hobsons figured the huge tiger shark would liven up Charles Hobson’s business. There was a shark craze at the time, sparked by three attacks that killed three men shortly before the shark was caught.

Strange Behavior

According to a 2022 article, “The Strange Story of the Shark Arm Case Murder,” on Grunge, at approximately 4:30 PM, as the crowd gazed at the massive shark, it began to behave strangely. The website Mysterious Universe describes how the shark seemed in distress and began to thrash about. Then, it began to vomit. At first, a rat, then a bird, and then…a human arm. The arm had a rope tied around the wrist and a distinct tattoo of two boxers facing each other in a fighting stance on the forearm. Charles Hobson called the police to retrieve the arm.

Sharks swim in a huge tank as a crowd watches.
“Churaumi aquarium, Okinawa, Japan” by pelican is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The medical examiner determined that the arm was not bitten off in a shark attack. It was determined that the shark’s teeth couldn’t have been responsible for severing the arm. The medical examiner concluded that a sharp instrument was used to sever the arm and that the person was already dead when it was done. So, the tiger shark was not the killer, and neither was the smaller shark that it swallowed before being caught. The killer was human. 

Grunge reported that the medical examiner estimated that the arm was in the shark’s stomach for 8 to 18 days before being regurgitated. It’s surprising that the tattoo was still clearly visible on the skin due to the highly acidic environment inside of a shark’s stomach. While odd, the situation isn’t far-fetched. If you’re familiar with true crime, bodies of water are popular choices for disposing of corpses. Someone must have dismembered the body and disposed of the remains in the water. 

James Smith

Once authorities found this out, they opened an investigation to find out who the arm belonged to and who was responsible. A 2021 article on Mental Floss, “The Shark Arm Case: Australia’s Most Bizarre Murder Mystery,” reported that Edwin Smith read an article about the incident at the aquarium. The details of the tattoo caught his attention. His brother, James Smith, who had been missing for weeks, had the same tattoo. He called in a tip to the police. The fingerprints from the hand determined that the arm did belong to James Smith.

A shark swims in a large aquarium as a human visitor watches.
“Sand Tiger” by makelessnoise is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

According to many sources, James Smith had a shady past. The 45-year-old former lightweight boxer managed a local billiards bar. However, he had a history of criminal activity and was also believed to be a police informant. Besides working for the billiards bar, Smith worked for the boat-building mogul Reginald Holmes. Holmes was allegedly involved in various criminal activities, including drug trafficking, forgery, and insurance scams. 

Smith reportedly sank an over-insured yacht, The Pathfinder, so Holmes could collect the insurance money. According to Mental Floss, Holmes found out that Smith reported the yacht’s sinking as “suspicious” to the authorities, which prevented Holmes from collecting the money. Needless to say, this led to a falling-out between the two.

Holmes and Brady

Investigators learned that Smith was last seen on April 7 drinking and playing cards with a man named Patrick Brady at the Cecil Hotel in Cronulla. Brady also had a criminal history and was allegedly involved in the Pathfinder incident. According to Grunge, Brady rented a cottage near the hotel. A taxi driver recalled driving Brady to Holmes’ house. Investigators believed that the driver picked Brady up not long after the murder took place at the cottage.

However, police didn’t have enough evidence to arrest anyone for murder. Instead, they brought Brady in on forgery charges. During a six-hour interrogation, Brady claimed that Holmes orchestrated the killing.

A shark swims in a large aquarium.
“London Aquarium – Shark Tank” by davidgsteadman is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

When police arrived at Holmes’ house, he fled on a speedboat. Mental Floss reports that Holmes stopped the boat before a group of witnesses who were watching the chase and said, “Jimmy Smith is dead and there is only another left […] If you leave me until tonight, I will finish him.” Holmes then shot himself in the head—but he didn’t die.

The bullet hit Holmes in the forehead but only injured him. The force of the shot knocked him into the water. Police finally arrested Holmes and he claimed Brady killed Smith. Holmes claimed that Brady, and only Brady, killed and dismembered Smith in his cottage. According to Holmes, Brady went to his house with the arm and threatened him, saying that he would be next unless he paid him a generous sum of money. Holmes told police that he threw the arm in the water.

Another Death 

On the morning that Holmes was due to attend an inquest, police found him dead in his car with three bullet holes in his chest. There are three theories as to what happened to Holmes. One is that Holmes hired a hitman to kill himself since he failed to do it during the chase. Another interesting theory is that Holmes killed himself as a final insurance scam so that his family could collect the money. (In the event of a suicide, a family can’t collect insurance money.) Another theory is that Brady managed to set Holmes up from behind bars.

Holmes was dead. Patrick Brady did go on trial and was acquitted due to lack of evidence. An arm alone wasn’t considered sufficient evidence to prove murder. Brady died in 1965 and maintained his innocence up until the end.

As for the tiger shark, it was killed and autopsied in the hopes of finding more evidence. However, the autopsy yielded nothing further. No one has ever come forward with any further information on James Smith’s death, and the case remains unsolved.

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Written by MD Bastek

Just a person who loves horror and writes about unusual things

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