When a Captive Shark Vomited Up a Human Arm—and Sparked a Murder Investigation

Matayang (pool), Bun_Visit (arm)/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Matayang (pool), Bun_Visit (arm)/iStock via Getty Images Plus / Matayang (pool), Bun_Visit (arm)/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The 14-foot tiger shark at the Coogee Aquarium in Sydney, Australia, was behaving strangely. It had lost the energy and appetite it showed when it first arrived at the facility one week prior, on April 17, 1935. It was moving sluggishly around its 25-by-15-foot pool, bumping into the walls and sinking to the tank’s floor, where it swam as if something was weighing it down.

Soon, it revealed just what that something was: In a sudden burst of movement, the shark thrashed its body and coughed up the contents of its stomach. When the foam settled, the crowd of aquarium guests saw a partially-digested human arm floating on the pool’s surface.

Australians didn’t need an excuse to blame a shark for someone’s death in 1935. A string of shark attacks had terrorized the southeast coast that year, and the oversized fish were seen as maneaters. When the aquarium resident regurgitated the disembodied arm, many assumed it was evidence of another deadly shark encounter.

But the incident became more unsettling—and strange—as further details emerged. The coroner’s report revealed that the arm hadn’t been bitten off, but cleanly cut off with a knife. That meant the shark that vomited the remains was an innocent party in the apparent murder. The one witness police had access to was incapable of sharing its story, but they didn’t need the shark’s testimony to move forward; the fingerprints and a boxing tattoo on the severed arm gave them a shot at solving one of Australia’s most bizarre murder mysteries.

Something Fishy

Coogee Beach circa 1905. The Coogee Aquarium is visible in the background.
Coogee Beach circa 1905. The Coogee Aquarium is visible in the background. / Robert Augustus Henry L'Estrange, Wikimedia Commons // CC0

Sydney residents may have dreaded spotting sharks at the beach after the summer of 1935, but they were eager to see one in captivity. Coogee Aquarium proprietor Bert Hobson anticipated the public’s desire while fishing with his son Ron off Sydney’s Coogee Beach in mid-April of that year. A small shark he was reeling in attracted a 14-foot, 1-ton tiger shark that got caught in his fishing line; after bringing the monster to shore, he decided to make it the star of his Sydney attraction.

The new exhibit turned out to be just what the Coogee Aquarium needed. Following the demolition of the nearby Coogee Pier—which had housed a penny arcade and 1400-seat theater—foot traffic through the area had declined. But with a fearsome tiger shark on display, people suddenly had an exciting reason to flock to the aquarium.

The frenzy around the creature peaked on Anzac Day. The holiday is similar to Memorial Day in the U.S., and it’s observed in both Australia and New Zealand on April 25. On their day off, many people bought a ticket to the Coogee Aquarium and made a beeline for the tiger shark tank. After reading headlines of shark attacks all summer, it would have been cathartic to see one up close in a safe environment. The captive creature was a reminder of humankind’s dominion over the seas ... at least up until the moment it spit up a chunk of human flesh.

Narcisse Leo Young, a proofreader for The Sydney Herald, was there that day. "I was three or four meters from the shark and clearly saw come out of its mouth a copious brown froth which smelled really foul," he recounted. In addition to the arm, the shark also expelled a bird, a rat, and a “load of muck.”

As the coroner’s report showed, any characterizations of the sick shark as a maneater turned out to be unfounded. But that didn’t mean there was nothing to be afraid of; there was still a murderer on the loose. Before they could track down the perpetrator, law enforcement officials needed to identify the victim.

Lost and Found

Edwin Smith was reading about what had happened at the Coogee Aquarium when he came across a detail that made him pause: a description of a distinctive tattoo branding the arm recovered from the tiger shark pool. Located on the victim's forearm, it depicted two boxers facing each other, fists poised for a fight.

Smith immediately thought of his brother James, who had the same image tattooed in the same place—and who had been missing for several weeks.

While shocking, the news that Jim Smith had been murdered and become a meal for a shark wasn’t totally unbelievable. The 45-year-old English-born resident of Gladesville, Australia, managed a local billiards bar and had a history as both a criminal and a police informant. Following a failed boxing career, he picked up odd jobs around the Sydney area; in addition to running the billiards saloon, he also worked for a boat-building mogul—and crime kingpin—named Reginald Holmes.

Holmes used his successful boat business as a front for several illegal operations. With his speedboats, he transported drugs from ships passing through Sydney Harbor to sell in the city. He was known to pull forgery and insurance scams as well, which Smith was enlisted to help execute. An ex-convict named Patrick Brady was also involved in these schemes.

One of Holmes’s most infamous cons involved the destruction of an over-insured yacht. After recruiting Smith to surreptitiously sink the Pathfinder, Holmes filed a claim for the damages. He later learned that Smith had reported the incident as “suspicious” to the police, and he ended up eating the cost of the boat. This led to a falling-out between the two men, which was exacerbated when Smith reportedly began blackmailing Holmes.

Smith was last seen drinking and playing cards with Patrick Brady at the Cecil Hotel in Cronulla on the night of April 7. As the night progressed, they relocated to a cottage Brady was renting on Tallombi Street. When a disheveled-looking Brady later took a cab from his cottage to Holmes’s house, Smith was no longer with him.

The tattooed arm that came from the shark shed light on the mystery of Jim Smith’s disappearance. Edwin called in a tip to the police connecting the limb’s tattoo to his missing brother. Law enforcement officers also had the victim’s fingerprints, and using a new forensic technique, they were able to match the hand to Smith. The man had clearly been the victim of foul play, and investigators already had their primary suspects.

Untangling the Tale

Even with two suspects, a motive, and a severed arm, the case was far from closed. Police still didn’t have the hard evidence necessary to make arrests in connection to Smith’s disappearance. Instead, they brought in Brady on forgery charges unrelated to the crime. It took the cops six hours of grueling interrogation to get him to confess what they already suspected: Reginald Holmes was the mastermind behind the plot.

Holmes must have heard that the police were on to him, because by the time the authorities arrived at his house, Holmes was on a speedboat in the middle of Sydney’s harbor. He managed to evade his pursuers while imbibing a bottle of liquor he had grabbed before fleeing. At one point, he stopped the boat and rose before a group of spectators that had gathered to watch the chase, uttering a nonsensical warning: “Jimmy Smith is dead and there is only another left […] If you leave me until tonight, I will finish him.” Then he shot himself in the head and fell into the water.

For a moment, it looked like the case had come to a dead end—but miraculously, Holmes survived.

The bullet left him with a nonfatal wound to his forehead, and he was able to haul himself back onto boat. After a dramatic chase, the cops finally arrested Holmes, but dragging a confession out of him would prove just as difficult. He identified Brady as Smith’s murderer and painted himself as a victim of blackmail. According to his story, Brady had acted alone while killing and dismembering Smith in his cottage on Tallombi Street. He allegedly dumped most of the body parts in the sea but held onto the arm as a threat to Holmes. In this version of events, Brady brought the limb to Holmes’s house and warned him he would be next if he didn't deliver a generous pay day. Holmes claimed to have panicked and gotten rid of the arm by tossing it in the water, where the tiger shark swallowed it whole.

Regardless of how truthful this story was, investigators concluded that the arm was likely consumed after being disposed of in the ocean. The timeline made sense: Tiger sharks have a slow digestive tract, and the arm could have been sitting in the animal’s stomach for up to 18 days before it was hacked up. It’s even possible that the arm was inside the first, smaller shark Bert Hobson caught before the tiger shark ate it, creating a very unappetizing version of turducken. But the question of how it got separated from Smith’s body and into the water in the first place remains unanswered.

The Case Goes Cold

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On the morning of the inquest into the case, which Holmes was meant to attend, police found him in his car with three bullet holes in his chest. He had likely hired hitmen to do the job after taking out a substantial life insurance policy on himself. The policy would have been voided if he had died by suicide, so he used his con artist skills to pull off one last grift for his family.

Patrick Brady survived to see his murder trial, but it wasn’t the open-and-shut case prosecutors had hoped for. They suffered without Holmes’s witness testimony, and the physical evidence they had was less incriminating than it seemed. One arm wasn’t proof of a murder, the defense argued, and it wasn’t right to convict a man of the crime when it was possible Smith had survived. Brady was acquitted of the charges and maintained his innocence until his death at age 76 in 1965.

Smith and Holmes weren't the only casualties of the shark arm case. Shortly after disgorging the arm, the tiger shark from the Coogee Aquarium was killed and cut open. The autopsy turned out to be a waste, as it didn't reveal an additional body parts or answers to the questions raised by the curious incident.

Though much has been clarified since that day at the Coogee Aquarium in 1935, we will likely never know the full story of what happened the night of Jim Smith’s disappearance. And if new evidence does emerge in the case, chances are slim it will overshadow the story’s dramatic, messy beginnings in the public’s consciousness.