The Shark Arm Murder

Aquariums are a great attraction in any capital city, unfortunately, the Coogee Aquarium and Swimming Baths were struggling. The owner, Bert Hobson, had procured a 4-metre tiger shark in order to drum up some business. It was 1935 and Australia was struggling in the great depression. Between 17 April and 25 April, the shark seemed content, he was eating and had drawn the crowds. It was on 25 April that the shark started acting up. 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, spectators and workers watched on as with a sudden thrash of its body, it coughed up a severed human arm.

Coogee Aquarium and Swimming Baths

The arm was taken away by police and a coroner’s inquest was requested. 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.

Much like with Aunt Thally, people read about the arm being tattooed – they put two and two together and approached the police saying that it may belong to an ex-boxer by the name of James ‘Jimmy’ Smith. It was in fact James’ brother, Edwin, that made the connection. It was not only the tattoo (being uncommon at the time) but also the fact that Jimmy had been missing for several weeks.

“…former billiards marker at City Tattersall’s Club, a well-known suburban billiards saloon keeper, one-time promising lightweight boxer, and a man with seemingly not an enemy in the world…”

Truth, 14 December 1952

What the papers fail to mention is that Jimmy had been starting to become familiar with criminals. This had started while he had been managing a billiards saloon in Rozelle. In the early 1930’s Jimmy started working for Reginald Holmes, who was well-known in the underworld.

Jimmy Smith

He started just by building houses; however, the deeper Jimmy got – the more jobs were done off the books.

Holmes had a successful boat business. By successful, I mean that it was a front for several illegal operations. He had a fleet of speedboats that he used to transport drugs to ships that passed through the Sydney Harbour, particularly cocaine. Smith was enlisted to help Holmes execute forgery and insurance scams.

After the first scheme went well, from Holmes’ direction Jimmy would:

  • Scam builders out of their supplies
  • Operate Holmes’ speedboats
  • Be the caretaker of the boat Holmes owned called the Pathfinder

Holmes not only enlisted Smith but also an ex-convict named Patrick Brady. The three began forging cheques for small amounts of money from well of clients. At some point Jimmy Smith had a disagreement with Holmes which lead to Jimmy blackmailing Holmes with the information about the scams.

Then on 7 April 1935, Jimmy and Brady were out playing cards at the Cecil Hotel (no – not that Cecil Hotel). After which the two went to a cottage located in Cronulla. Later that night a disheveled Brady was driven to Holmes’ house from the cottage later that night. The cab driver later would testify that Brady was ‘frightened’ as well as obviously hiding something in his jacket.

Meanwhile, Smith’s wife began to grow nervous when her husband did not return. He had told her that he had been going on a fishing trip. During one of the nights she waited, an anonymous caller rang and told her: ‘Don’t worry… Jimmy will be home in 3 days’ time.’.

It was on May 17 that Patrick Brady was arrested on forgery charges, though that wasn’t really what they were after. They interrogated him for 6 hours in relation to the death of Jimmy. Their attempts were futile because he refused to admit anything. Upon the police speaking with his wife, he agreed to make a statement. 

Patrick Brady implicated Reginald Holmes in the murder plot. When the police questioned Holmes he pretended to not know Brady. A few days later Holmes took one of his speed boats out into Sydney Harbour, along with a pistol and bottle of alcohol. Accounts of what happened vary; however, the consensus is that he got drunk and shot himself in the head with the pistol. Another person out on the harbour claimed to almost be hit by the erratically moving boat. This is because Holmes survived the gunshot, so he climbed back into his boat and began driving back to Sydney Harbour. It took police 4 hours of chasing Holmes before he was caught, gunshot wound in head and all. Holmes told people he had been shot in the head by strangers and was trying to escape. He mistakenly thought the police in pursuit of him were in fact the ones who shot him.

Reginald Holmes

When questioned about the murder, Holmes claimed that it was in fact Brady who had extorted him – by arriving at his house with Jimmy’s severed arm. He attempted to blackmail Holmes claiming that he would frame him for the murder. Holmes explained that Brady had murdered Jimmy and given him what was known as the ‘Sydney Send-Off’ because it was common for the victim’s body parts to end up in a trunk and tossed into Gunnamatta Bay.

Holmes said he paid Brady the money and in return, Brady left the arm in the living room. Holmes said he panicked by throwing the arm into the ocean. This is where we can assume it was eaten by the shark. Police said unless he cooperated with police and turn state witness, they would charge him with accessory to murder. The inquest was set for 12 June, with Holmes being a witness.

The morning of the inquest Holmes was found in his car with 3 bullet holes in his chest. This time, they were fatal. 

Patrick Brady’s Mugshot

Brady’s trial still proceeded but without its star witness, it fell apart. Part of the argument was by Brady’s lawyer, he argued that according to a British Statute from 1276: A body was necessary to conduct an inquest, and a limb could not be considered a body. They also got shark experts to talk on the digestion of the food a shark eats. The usual window of digestion is 24 hours. If this is the case, then how could you suppose an undigested arm came out of the shark 8-17 days later? Thus the timelines didn’t fit. After a day and a half, Brady was acquitted and released.

The Book

In 2020 Shark Arm: A Shark, A Tattooed Arm and Two Unsolved Murders by Phillip Roope and Kevin Meagher was released. They had extensive access to the police files and upon investigation actually concluded with different suspects who they believe are responsible.

It was true that Reginald Holmes had disagreements with Jimmy Smith. These escalated after Jimmy botched the forgery scam of The Pathfinder. Furthermore, Jimmy was to become known as a ‘fizzgig’ which was slang at the time for a police informant. Just before the murder Holmes had confided in Albert Stannard that he was being blackmailed by Jimmy and Brady, the latter had skipped bail and headed for Tasmania. Stannard saw Holmes slowly going back to his old ways of being a heavy drinker – and he would not stand for that. He enlisted his men; Sammy Berg, Norman Mulcahy, Jack Strong and a man referred to as Cassidy were in fact the ones that killed Jimmy as a warning to Patrick Brady.

Further research found that the three were also responsible for the murder of Reginald Holmes. As the trial grew closer, Stannard was worried that if Reginald broke during a cross-examination they all 5 of them would be up for murder charges. In order to fix that situation, Stannard ordered his men to kill Reginald Holmes the morning of the inquest.

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