An Arm Is Not Enough
a shark, a severed human arm, and a high speed boat chase; Australia's strangest unsolved mystery has it all
Anzac Day was fast approaching.
Not just any old Anzac Day, either, but the 20th anniversary of the day when British generals started throwing wave after wave of brave Aussies and Kiwis into the remorseless meat grinder of Gallipoli. People were pulling out all of the stops for this one. There would be memorials and parades and parties galore.
For Charles and Albert Hobson, that meant one thing: they needed a shark.
The Hobson brothers ran the aquarium and swimming baths at Coogee Beach southeast of Sydney. During the summer months their facility was a large salt water swimming pool; in the winter it became an aquarium showcasing local wildlife. That mostly meant sharks. The people of Sydney just couldn’t get enough of them, in spite of (or possibly because of) a decade-long series of grisly shark attacks in the area.
So on Wednesday, April 17th, 1935 Bert Hobson and his nephew Ron took a boat about 2 km off the beach and put out a few fixed line traps baited with mackerel. The next day they returned to see what they had caught. Turns out they’d hit the jackpot. One of their traps had snared a small shark.
That wasn’t the jackpot part.
No, while that small shark was struggling to free itself from the hook it was, in turn, swallowed by a much larger tiger shark that then got tangled in the line. Bert and Ron hauled up the monster 4.4m shark, towed it back to shore, and dumped it into the aquarium. Over the next several days sizable crowds turned up to see their catch, but the shark wasn’t playing along. It refused to eat, and was alternately listless and irritable.
It all paid off on Thursday, April 25th. After the Anzac Day parades wound down, tourists thronged to the aquarium in record numbers. As the afternoon went on, though, they started to wander off to other amusements. By the end of the day there were only fourteen paying customers left in the building.
At 4:30 PM, the shark suddenly became agitated. It started battering itself agains the side of the pool, working the water into foam. Then it swam into the shallow end, circled a few times, and started thrashing around and throwing up. The pool began to fill with shark vomit, which was mostly sea slime and bile, dead birds and rats.
Oh, and also a human arm.
One of the witnesses to this horrible event was Narcisse Leo Young, a proofreader for the Sydney Morning Herald. He called his bosses and let them know there was something at the aquarium worth seeing. The reporters arrived about the same time as the police did. Let me read from Detective Constable Frank Head’s police report:
I proceeded to the baths and there saw floating in the water the left arm of a human being, which had apparently been wrenched from the body at the shoulder joint. We retrieved the arm from the water and on examining it found that it had two large incised wounds on the upper and lower parts respectively. We also found that on the inside forearm there was a tattoo mark of two men in the fighting attitude. There was tied around the wrist in a half-hitch knot, a piece of cheap manila 3/4 inch rope. The arm is in a fair state of preservation except that the skin on the heel and palm of the hand has crumpled and become detached.
The police questioned the Hobson brothers, Young, and several other witnesses. They were able to determine that the shark pool had been under constant observation the whole week, meaning that no one would have had the opportunity to sneak a severed arm into the building and toss it into the pool. It also couldn’t have come in through the salt water intakes, which were covered with a fine steel mesh.
That only left one possibility: that the arm had already been in the shark when Bert Hobson had first caught it a week previously.
This was exactly the sort of case that the local police and the Criminal Investigation Bureau did not want. They were already dealing with a handful of high profile crimes with few witnesses, no suspects or motives, and little physical evidence. The “shark arm” felt like one more incident to throw on the pile of unsolvable cases. They sighed, and called in the Fingerprint Branch. Constable John Lindsay was sent down to delicately cut the skin off of the very pruny fingertips to see if any usable prints could be obtained.
On Friday, April 26th the arm was examined by Government Medical Officer Arthur Palmer, assisted by shark attack expert Victor Coppleson. The two doctors came to the shocking conclusion that the arm had not been bitten off by the shark.
There were no tooth marks or any of the telltale ragged edges that would have been left by gnawing or worrying. There were also scratches on the neck of the humerus that appeared to have been made by a tool. These seemed to indicate that the arm had been severed from a torso by a sharp implement like a cleaver or machete. They did not think the disarticulation had been done as part of a surgical procedure, because the cuts were missing the sort of skin flaps that a surgeon would have left to tie off an amputation.
Other than that, they had nothing. They could not tell whether the arm had been cut off when its owner was alive or dead. They couldn’t even explain how the arm had survived a whole week in the belly of a shark. They hypothesized that the shark was sick, or thrown out of whack by the sudden change in its environment. The police preferred a simpler explanation — the rope tied around the wrist must have become tangled in the shark’s gullet, and prevented the arm from going into the stomach.
The shark itself was cut open on Saturday, April 27th to see if it could offer any more clues. Its stomach yielded nothing other than a few scattered fish bones.
Still, the medical examinations had managed to rule out several of the possibilities. It probably hadn’t been torn off a dead man, either by sharks or a boat motor. The sloppy surgical technique meant it probably wasn’t a discarded cadaver from the Sydney Medical School either.
So murder, then. The police would need a lucky break to make any headway this case.
They got one. The incident at the aquarium caused quite a stir in the press. Newspaper reports made sure to mention the distinctive tattoo on the “shark arm” — two boxers facing each other, outlined in blue, wearing trunks and gloves outlined in red.
Mrs. Gladys Smith of Batesman’s Road in Gladesville thought the tattoo sounded an awful lot like her missing husband Jim’s, a memento from his days as an amateur boxer. On April 29th, Gladys and her brother-in-law Edward went down to the morgue to take a look at the arm, and positively identified it as Jim Smith’s.
That same day Constable Lindsay of the Fingerprint Division was able mount the fingertips he’d sliced off the arm and get a few usable prints from the thumb and ring finger. These matched the prints on file for one James “Jim” Smith, 45, of Gladesville. The file even mentioned that Smith had a tattoo of two boxers on his left arm.
One mystery solved, at least.
Now, you may be wondering why the police had Jim Smith’s fingerprints on file.
Throughout the 1920s Smith owned a series of billiard parlors. They had billiards all right, but they were mostly fronts for Smith’s small-time bookmaking operations. In 1930 he opened a slightly higher-class establishment, the Rozelle Athletic Club.
In September 1932 the police raided Smith’s operation as part of a statewide crackdown on illegal gambling. As part of the process Smith was arrested and fingerprinted. He got lucky, though, and did not receive a jail sentence.
Just a very large fine. To try and pay it off, Smith expanded his business into unlicensed slot machines (which Australians charmingly call “fruit machines”). The cops didn’t take too kindly to that, either, and this time they shut the Athletic Club down for good.
For the next few years Smith made ends meet by doing odd jobs, most of them for two local gents: Albert Stannard, whose family controlled the harbor pilot business, and Reginald Holmes, who ran a local shipbuilding firm. Stannard and Holmes kept Smith busy piloting boats and working as a fishing guide. As simple as those jobs were, Jim Smith still managed to find a way to get into trouble.
In April 1934 he was piloting a luxury yacht, the Pathfinder, off the coast near Terrigal when it sank. Something about it, though, just didn’t feel right. The boat had been fine when it was anchored in Broken Bay a few days previously, and the weather had been nice. Smith seemed to be sober when the boat was lost but he was also cagey and defensive, made a few blatantly false statements to investigating officers, and then changed his story when pushed.
The insurance agency that had been providing coverage for the boat was not happy at all. The Pathfinder had been insured for about £8,500 — in modern terms about $1.2 million AUD — which was about three times its actual worth. Interestingly, once the insurer announced its intention to investigate any possible fraud, the boat’s anonymous owners dropped their claim. Correspondingly, the police and the insurers dropped their investigations.
After the Pathfinder incident no one would put Smith at the helm of a boat, so he made ends meet by forging cheques. He had picked up this bad new habit from old associate and fellow bookie James Patrick “Paddy” Brady. Brady had learned the art of forgery in prison at the hands of fellow inmate and master con man Arthur Alexander Weller, and used it as a fallback skill whenever his bookmaking operations went down in flames. Alas, while Brady was very good at the mechanical aspects of the art he was too greedy to pay heed to Weller’s admonishment to “keep it small.” Things usually ended badly for him.
All that was in Jim Smith’s police records. Gladys Smith was able to add a few more details.
In August 1934 Smith and Brady had some sort of falling out. Brady seemed to think Smith owed him money, and was willing to press his case by bringing pistol-packing thugs to the Smith household on several occasions. After a few of these visits Smith went to Reg Holmes, who took care of things, Gladys wasn’t sure how. All she knew was that Brady was gone and things were back to normal.
In March 1935, though, Smith had a string of jobs that just didn’t pan out. Wires were crossed, important contacts were missed, and he was sent gallivanting all over the city on wild goose chases. This sort of thing happens all the time when you’re a gig worker, but it was strange that it was happening all at once.
So it was a relief when, at the beginning of April, Jim told Gladys that some rich bloke vacationing down in Cronulla was engaging his services as a fishing guide. He seemed pretty excited by the job, which sounded like easy money, and even offered to let his brother Eddie tag along. He told Gladys he would be gone for quite some time, but if she needed to reach him she could leave word at the Hotel Cecil.
On Monday, April 8th, 1935 Jim Smith woke up, ate breakfast, and had a brief conversation with his mother-in-law. At 9:30 AM he left the house wearing a light grey suit, tan shoes, blue shirt, and a grey felt hat.
It was the last time his family ever saw any part of him.
There was no word from Smith over the next week, but that in itself wasn’t unusual. On Saturday, April 13th the family got a phone call from a stranger telling them Smith wouldn’t be home until Monday, but Monday came and went and there was no sign of him. A worried Gladys called around, but none of her husband’s friends had seen him either.
And then on Anzac Day a shark barfed up his left arm.
Gladys Smith hadn’t given the police much to go on, but it was enough. It helped that they knew a few things that she didn’t.
- First, they knew the reason Smith and Brady were on the outs. Jim Smith was a confidential informant, a stool pigeon, and had been since the Pathfinder incident. He’d been handing the cops members of Brady’s gang on a silver platter.
- They also knew Smith and Brady’s beef had not actually been squashed. Smith had had been given a brief respite when Brady fled to Tasmania to escape arrest.
- Finally, they also knew Brady was no longer in Tasmania. A few weeks back he’d been arrested for passing bad cheques, but had skipped bail. Their intelligence said he’d gone back to New South Wales.
While the police tried to figure out how this all fit together, a mysterious letter was delivered to the Smith home on Wednesday, May 1st.
Son, keep your mother quiet. I am in a jam. I plead its okay. Call the cops off. Tell your Mum I will have plenty soon and we will be alright. They want me. Something in town. Never mind. Be a man for me.
Your loving father,
There were only two problems with the note. First, it didn’t sound like Jim Smith. And second, it wasn’t in Smith’s handwriting. It was almost as if the note was a forgery. The police found that very interesting.
In response they descended on Cronulla in force, going from door to door with photos of Jim Smith and Paddy Brady. It didn’t take long before they were able to create a timeline of their recent activity.
After returning to New South Wales at the end of March, Brady had rented a beachfront cottage in Cronulla named “Cored Joy.” For a few weeks he used the cottage to entertain associates, a group that included several known criminals. And also included Jim Smith. Apparently some of Smith’s “missed connections” in March were secret rendezvous with Brady.
When Smith arrived in Cronulla at 2:30 PM on Monday, April 8th, he met up with Brady at the Hotel Cecil. They had a few friendly drinks and played a few hands of dominoes with a mutual friend. The party broke up when the sun started to set at 6:00 PM. After that, no one in Cronulla had any recollection of seeing Jim Smith.
Paddy Brady, though, hung around for about week. On Tuesday, April 9th, he hired a cab to drive him around the city for a day. Brady was white as a sheet, and the cabby couldn’t tell whether he was nervous, sleep-deprived, or sick. Possibly all three. He left the cab for an hour or two to run an errand in a well-to-do neighborhood. A well-to-do neighborhood whose residents included one Reg Holmes.
On Wednesday, April 10th, Brady hired a second cab and had it drive him around to various second-hand stores. He purchased a tin trunk and a mattress, which he brought back to Cored Joy.
Brady left the cottage for good on Monday, April 15th. Landlord Percy Forbes wasn’t sure why, since there were still a few weeks left on the lease. His inspection of the premises did not leave him with a good impression of Brady as a tenant. He had two rowdy guests with him at most times. He had left the cottage’s motorboat a mess and hadn’t bothered to refill the petrol tank. A few small items were missing from the yard, including a kellik-style anchor, some spare weights for the window sashes, and a surprising amount of rope. Inside the cottage a tin trunk had been replaced, though its contents were all accounted for. And the mattress was different.
Once the police heard Forbes’ story they refocused their search efforts on the beaches and waterways near Cronulla. They walked the beaches, looking to see if they could spot the remnants of an old mattress. They started dredging the waters by the cottage with chains. They sent divers to search the sea floor, and even hired a plane to do reconnaissance flights. They were looking for the tin trunk, or maybe a few more pieces of Jim Smith. They found nothing.
While Smith and the tin trunk remained elusive, Brady did not. He’d moved back to Sydney, surprisingly close to the primary residence of one Reg Homes. They made their move on Thursday, May 16th, and caught Brady as he tried to shimmy out of the bathroom window in his pajamas while his wife Grace tried to delay the cops at the door.
They arrested him. Not for the murder of Jim Smith, mind you. Brady was a person of interest in the shark arm case, but the police didn’t have enough to charge him with anything just yet. On the other hand he had jumped bail in Tasmania and had outstanding warrants in New South Wales for passing bad cheques worth thousands of pounds. More than enough to hold him for a few days.
Brady wasn’t giving up much in the interrogation chamber. He freely admitted to having Jim Smith down to the cottage on several occasions in March and April, and gave dates that jibed with the information the police already had. He insisted that he’d seen Smith on April 10th, alive and well and with both arms, but had no idea where he was now. He also denied passing bad cheques, claiming that they were 100% legitimate. If the cops didn’t believe him they could ask his good friend, Reginald Holmes, whose account they were drawn on.
The cops did ask Reg Holmes. Holmes told them he didn’t know any Patrick Brady. Well, when Brady heard that he changed his whole tune. Now he claimed that on the evening of April 8th he and Jim Smith were enjoying a few beers at Cored Joy.
- The evening got off to a bad start when Smith accidentally set a mattress on fire with some cigarette ash, and then damaged a tin trunk.
- Around 7:15 PM they had unannounced visitors in the form of Albert Stannard and a very large, threatening-looking friend. Jim left with Stannard and promised he’d return the next day.
- Then, at 8:00 PM, Reg Holmes dropped by the cottage in a final attempt to convince Brady to stop drawing forged cheques on his bank accounts. Holmes and Brady took a cab into the city, where they had a few beers and worked out a satisfying resolution to their problem.
- When Brady returned to Cored Joy at 11:00 PM, he realized Holmes had left his house keys on the coffee table. He took a cab ride into the city the following day to return the keys like a good friend would.
- The day after, he went shopping to replace the items Smith had thoughtlessly damaged.
Brady’s story certainly seemed to cover all of the bases, as long as you didn’t poke at it to hard. Some of his details were off, and other facts remained unaccounted for. He was also uncomfortably vague about anything to do with the cheque forgeries he was being charged with, as if he couldn’t quite figure out how to throw Reg Holmes under the bus without also getting run over at the same time.
The police went to Holmes and asked him about Brady’s revised story. Holmes once again called Brady’s story a complete fabrication, and promised he would testify to that fact in a court of law.
Reg Holmes may have been telling the police he wasn’t involved, but his subsequent actions said otherwise. He apparently spent most of the weekend crawling inside one bottle after another.
On Sunday May 19th, Holmes stumbled down to the docks clutching an open bottle of brandy, climbed into a speedboat, and headed out to Sydney Harbor. As his boat approached (I kid you not) Shark Island he slowed down, took the last few slugs from the bottle, and then held a revolver up to his forehead and pulled the trigger.
In his drunken stupor Holmes had pushed the barrel of the gun against the thickest part of his skull. The bullet mushroomed against the bone and did not penetrate. The force of the impact, though, was enough to stagger him backwards and he tumbled out of the boat. He instinctively grabbed onto a dangling rope and held on for dear life as the speedboat began making lazy circles.
Eventually, Holmes pulled himself up into the boat and managed to reach a nearby wharf. Workers there managed to convince him that she should go talk to the police. Holmes agreed, but about halfway to the police station the shock of his bungled suicide attempt wore off and he started to panic. He kicked the pilot who was helping him off the boat and started circling the harbor at high speed.
For the next four hours he led the water police on a wild cat and mouse chase, slipping in and out of consciousness. The cops brought in his friend Albert Stannard to try and talk him down, which only made things worse. Eventually, during an attempted parley, his brother Leslie Holmes snuck onto the boat and managed to yoink the keys. Holmes surrendered, and was rushed to a nearby hospital to get the bullet removed from his head.
As he recovered from his surgery, he started telling his side of the story.
Starting in the 1920s, Holmes and Stannard decided that as wealthy as they were, they would like to be even wealthier. They started running building scams. They would start a dummy corporation for the purpose of building a new block of flats. The fake building company would raise enough capital to finish its project, but then immediately declare bankruptcy before contractors and suppliers could submit their final invoices. Then Holmes and Stannard would buy the properties from themselves for a fraction of their actual worth, realizing all the profits and stiffing creditors and investors. (If this sounds familiar to you, well, this basically the same strategy Donald Trump uses to get all of his properties built.)
This unsavory business brought Holmes and Stannard into contact with Jim Smith, who served as one of their many proxies. He didn’t really have the brains to help plan the scams, but he was one of the men signing his name to contracts. If the scheme was ever exposed, he’d be one of the first to get jail time, and so he was well compensated for his fraudulent work.
Then the Great Depression hit, and no one was building anything any more. Holmes and Stannard shifted from building scams to insurance scams. They would buy boats through dummy corporations, get them insured for vast sums based partly on the expert opinion of noted shipbuilder Reg Holmes, then sink them and take a fat payout from the insurer
The Great Depression also hit Jim Smith hard, wiping out most of his savings. Stannard and Holmes took care of Smith in exchange for his silence, giving him cash from time to time and throwing a few odd jobs his way. One of those odd jobs was sinking the Pathfinder, which Smith bungled badly. When the insurance company began sniffing around, Holmes and Stannard decided it was better to eat the loss than risk exposure.
There was only one problem. Jim Smith couldn’t afford to eat that loss, and he wanted the money he wasn’t promised. When Stannard and Holmes refused to pony up, Smith decided that if he couldn’t get the money by hook he’d get it by crook. With the help of his old buddy Paddy Brady he began forging cheques on Holmes’ accounts.
When Holmes complained, Smith told him to shut up or he’d go to the police and tell them everything he knew. Essentially, he turned the passive blackmail that he’d enjoyed for the last several years into an active blackmail scheme.
Smith and Brady didn’t know the meaning of the word restraint. They started forging cheques for astronomical sums in the neighborhood of £500 to £600 — we’re talking upwards of $80,000 AUD today. And they weren’t limiting themselves to Holmes, either. They had pilfered his client list and were writing cheques against the accounts of some of Sydney’s wealthiest families. They were getting greedier by the month. They were going to get caught, and they were going to take Holmes down with them when they did.
Holmes got to take a breather from the blackmail when Paddy Brady fled to Tasmania in August 1934. When Brady returned in March 1935 he offered Holmes a deal: he would take care of Jim Smith, the dirty squealer, and solve both of their problems at once. Holmes agreed, without quite realizing what he was agreeing to.
Early in the morning of April 9th, Brady turned up at the Holmes residence to announce the deed had been done. He didn’t go into specifics, but did say that the body had been weighed down and dumped into the ocean where no one would ever find it. He also brought proof that would be impossible to fake: Smith’s severed left arm. He left it on the table for Holmes’ perusal, and on his way he casually mentioned he would be taking over Smith’s role in the blackmail scheme.
In his attempt to rid himself of a devil, Holmes had only managed to exchange him for another.
He spent the rest of the day hitting the bottle, and later that night under cover of darkness he took a boat out to sea and threw Smith’s arm overboard. After that, it must have been eaten by a passing shark. From there, the police had basically worked out the rest of the story.
The police had some suspicions about Holmes’ version of events. For starters, it was awfully self-serving, making Holmes the de facto good guy. It was hard to swallow that one of the richest men in Sydney was a passive participant, a mere hapless bystander to a number of serious crimes. It also whitewashed Albert Stannard out of the story, which was strange.
Despite all of its problems, Holmes’ confession was enough to get the ball rolling. The police arrested Paddy Brady again, this time for the murder of Jim Smith.
Things Get Weird
And now we get to the “order” part of our little Law & Order episode, and things are gonna get a little weird. So weird, in fact, that I had to consult in an expert to figure out what was going on — #2, a New Jersey lawyer whose areas of practice include criminal defense law.
On June 12th, 1935 the prosecution of Paddy Brady formally began with a coroner’s inquest.
As I was reading about this I was surprised by the extent of the coroner’s inquest, because in my head a coroner’s inquest was a relatively dry medical procedure. For those at home who don’t know the difference, could you explain the difference between a coroner’s inquest, an autopsy, and a grand jury?
Over here in the United States, you’re exactly right. A district attorney or prosecutor’s office exclusively handles the criminal end of an investigation, and a coroner or medical examiner only does the science. Whereas over in Australia, at least back then, coroners have a bifurcated duty at the beginning of an investigation. A coroner works in the local jurisdiction both as a medical examiner and also as a quasi-magistrate who does a little bit of a criminal investigation beyond the scope of your typical Quincy, MD, looking at the body and determining the cause of death. The coroner starts the investigation. If they find enough, it’s sort of a pre-probable cause investigation. Then they hand it off to the police who would proceed to put together a formal case that would eventually be presented before the Supreme Court over in Australia.
Right out of the gates, the inquest ran into a huge stumbling block. At 1:10 AM that morning, police stopped to investigate a car parked beneath the Harbour Bridge with its lights on and front door open. Inside they found the state’s primary witness, Reginald Holmes, who had been shot three times by a .32 caliber pistol.
How badly does that screw their case over?
In this particular instance, very badly. This was, at best, the authorities piecing together a number of different angles of evidence to try and create, in the aggregate, the body of the prosecution. You’ve got limited physical evidence to connect that guy to it and your star witness is gone, plus that other guy in the history of this case was saying that the other guy did it. That’s even worse. A jury would end up ultimately having to listen to both and determining who they believe, but you only have one side of that argument.
During the inquest, Crown officers presented most of the evidence we’ve already covered.
There were a few new developments. Dr. Palmer, the Government Medical Officer, threw out a novel new theory that the reason the arm was so well preserved was that the smaller of the two sharks the Hobsons had caught had swallowed the arm, and its dead body had protected the arm until it was completely digested.
In general, though, without Holmes the Crown was screwed. They tried to introduce the substance of his confession at the inquest by interrogating and several police detectives who had interviewed Holmes, as well as the dead man’s distraught widow. Brady’s defense counsel, Clive Evatt, raised the salient point that this was all hearsay. The corner ignored his objections.
Mind you, Inie Parker Holmes did have some very interesting things to say. At the inquest she openly accused her husband’s business partner, Albert Stannard, of having Reg murdered so he could not testify. Too bad it was all irrelevant to this particular inquest.
Defense counsel Clive Evatt was worried about how things were turning out for his client. It had nothing to do with the evidence which, as we’ve established, was weak at best. The problem was that Brady was losing the case in the court of popular opinion. So Evatt filed an appeal with the Australian Supreme Court to stop the inquest on habeas corpus grounds.
The inquest goes on for several days, almost a week, and then suddenly at the end of the week it is shut down by procedural objections raised by Brady’s barrister, Clive Evatt.
The objection is, we don’t have nearly enough information so far, and you guys are already trying to put together and hang this on my client. Until more information is discovered, he is in custody. You’re not, under most common law jurisdictions, supposed to be able to be held in perpetuity in jail while that’s going on without at least showing some sort of probable information that it will get to where it’s trying to get to. But they were sort of trying to do two things at once, and it probably would have behooved them to put a little more time getting their ducks in a row before they actually started dragging people in.
The immediate sensationalistic claim by Evatt, is of course, that a severed human arm is not enough to prove that there’s been a murder.
Yes. That, in and of itself, especially with somebody who has his own reasons to necessarily want to hide and keep himself from being discovered because he has a bunch of criminal buddies who may not be happy with him for a number of different reasons, there is the possibility that he could be out there without an arm, trying to keep the rest of him intact and safe, and you don’t necessarily know if he’s in hiding or if he’s dead. You can’t prove it with just the arm.
How much of a body do you actually need to start assuming that there’s a murder?
The question isn’t even whether or not a murder has taken place, it’s whether a death has taken place in and of itself at all. First you have to establish that the guy is dead, then you have to establish that he died by means of intent or murder as opposed to accident or negligence. Because again, this is all very hypothetical, but the argument could be made that this guy was just having a bad fishing day and ran in the water and Jaws was there waiting for him. How do we even know that he died by the hands of another person? With just an arm and nothing beyond that to necessarily explain any more, your entire case is just based on the testimony of these witnesses who are all trying to point the finger at each other with regards to culpability.
About a week after Evatt raises his objections, the case goes before the Australian Supreme Court. The Supreme Court does not listen or debate very long before deciding in Evatt’s favor. Can you explain the substance of their ruling?
The substance of the ruling was that there were just too many questions that had still gone unanswered in the presentation of the entire case and that the only real evidence that was produced at all was a lone arm that was pulled out of the stomach of a shark that was pulled out of the stomach of a bigger shark, without any further information or evidence whatsoever other than also the rope that was tied around the wrist, but that doesn’t necessarily show anything. If I’m a defense attorney, I’m going to argue that looks like a guy who was using ropes on the side of a boat, maybe fell in, tried to pull himself back out, and then a shark got him. It doesn’t necessarily prove any sort of wrongdoing or harm being brought to him. If the arm is really all you’ve got, and circumstantial testimony of co-conspirators, some of whom aren’t even available, that’s not enough to amount to a case to even charge somebody let alone convict them as far as the judge was concerned.
So is it your opinion that perhaps the bits about an arm alone being insufficient for an inquest are largely sensationalistic and the judge has deeper worries about the conduct of the prosecution in this case more than just, “an arm’s not enough?”
The arm not being enough covers a number of different things. I think it’s easy to simply say “an arm is not enough,” but what they’re really getting at is, “an arm is not enough, and by the way the extra stuff that you had to go along with the arm really sucked, even at its best presentation.” I can’t even guarantee had Holmes been alive to testify at the trial that it still wouldn’t have been an exceedingly muddy waters as far as whodunnit and if Brady was actually the triggerman or knifeman. We don’t even know how the heck the guy died, or if he even is dead. How do we know he’s not just walking around without an arm?
The coroner’s inquest was shut down. Brady’s legal team trumpeted the decision as a great victory for about all of five seconds, because the police promptly re-arrested their client on yet more charges related to his cheque forging spree in Tasmania.
While Brady was stewing in jail on those charges, the police continued to gather evidence and build their case. They launched a formal prosecution of Brady in September 1935, only to have that one shut down after two days of testimony with a directed verdict of “not guilty.”
While Brady is in jail serving time for those other offenses, the prosecution now feels like they’ve got a solid enough case to proceed with a formal prosecution, which they begin in September. That case lasts a whole two days before Evatt raises an objection, and he manages to get a directed verdict from the judge that the jury needs to find Brady innocent of all charges.
This is basically just a matter of having history repeat itself. It was all the same issues regurgitated again at the trial, which got into the directed verdict.
The only thing that was procedurally strange, is that most courts, especially these days, even moreso back then, would have let the process play itself out and then maybe made an after the fact ruling instead of telling the jury what to do in a directed verdict. Which we do have here as well! But I can tell you directed verdicts are extremely rare as far as any judge taking advantage of them. But this judge didn’t seem to have that compunction, went right ahead and basically told the jury what they should rule based on the limited evidence.
And that was it for the trial of James Patrick Brady for the murder of James Smith. Brady was a free man. Well, at least as far as the murder was concerned. The cops had him dead to rights on forgery. He spent the rest of his life in and out of prison. At the time of his death in 1965 he was still insisting he had not murdered Jim Smith.
Police tried to put together a case against Albert Stannard for the murder of Reginald Holmes, but once again were hampered by an almost complete lack of evidence. Stannard’s first trial ended in a hung jury, and his second trial ended in a controversial acquittal. (Basically, he threw around enough money and weight to ensure a not guilty verdict.) Later, it would be discovered that not only was Stannard was mobbed up to the gills, involved not only in insurance fraud but drug smuggling, murder, and worse.
Today, the shark arm case remains one of Australia’s most spectacular unsolved crimes. Even though everyone knows whodunnit.
Do you think Brady did it?
I’ll say this. I think that he probably did, but I have no problem with him not being convicted for it, simply based on this is how the law is supposed to work. The fact that you and I, almost 100 years later, could still come up with a dozen different theories about what exactly happened. That by itself is the definition of reasonable doubt.
Photograph courtesy of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.
If you’re still hungry for more Shark Week content, well, we discussed the infamous series of shark attacks that traumatized the Jersey Shore during July of 1916 in series 8’s “Scarlet Billows.”
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