This week on 2SER Breakfast, the Dictionary’s special guest Minna Muhlen-Schulte talked to new breakfast host Tess Connery about a crime story that’s been fascinating Sydneysiders since 1935.
The Shark Arm Case is a quintessentially Sydney story, with murders, cocaine smuggling, crooked bottom of the harbour schemes, speedboat chases and sharks, just begging to be made into a movie or television series.
On 17 April 1935, fisherman 17th April 1935 fisherman Bert Hobson and his son Ron had hooked a small shark off Coogee Beach. While they were pulling it in however, a 4m tiger shark ate the smaller shark, allowing it to be caught too.
Instead of dumping his catch, Hobson took the shark to the nearby Coogee Aquarium Baths (now the Coogee Pavilion) owned by his brother Charlie, thinking it would make a wonderful attraction for the Anzac Day weekend coming up. There’d recently been a spare of shark attacks and the lure of a monster of the deep in the pool would be a certain crowd-pleaser.
Sure enough, people flocked to see the shark, even though it had begun looking decidedly green about the gills. As crowds watched on Anzac Day, the shark vomited up a human arm, complete with tattoos, despite the acidity of the shark’s stomach.
At first it was thought that the arm was that of another shark victim, but it became apparent that the arm had no bite marks and had in fact been severed with a knife, changing the nature of the enquiry completely.
To find out more about the victim, the police published a photo and depiction of the tattoo, a depiction of two men boxing. Recognising the tattoo, Edwin Smith came forward to identify it as his brother Jimmy’s, who hadn’t been seen for a couple of weeks.
Police took fingerprints from the hand to confirm the identification.
Jimmy Smith had been a jack of all trades, a builder, bookmaker, boxer, and a small time crim. He’d last been seen having drink with mate Patrick Brady in Cronulla. Brady was a shearer and WWI veteran, who also happened to be an expert forger. On investigating, the police found a cab driver who said that Brady had taken a cab from Cronulla the next morning after drinking with Smith to North Sydney, where he got out at the house of Reginald Holmes, a successful, well respected local boat builders. Who, it transpired, also allegedly collected cocaine, cigarettes and other contraband from ships passing the heads using his speedboats.
Smith had apparently worked for Holmes, helping with the smuggling racket. It was speculated that they had fallen out over some kind of insurance scam and that Smith had begun to blackmail Holmes. The links Brady had with both men put Holmes under suspicion.
When questioned, Holmes denied knowing either of the men or anything about the arm, and as the evidence was all circumstantial so far, the case stalled until 20 May. That day, Holmes left his boatshed in one of speedboats, sped out into the harbour, and, pulling out a pistol, attempted to shoot himself. The shot knocked him into the water, but a rope caught around one of his wrists as he fell, stopping him from drowning. The shock of the water revived him, and he crawled back aboard. The water police were alerted to these goings-on, and for four hours they chased Holmes, out past Circular Quay, through the mid-morning ferry traffic, right down Sydney Harbour until, finally, he gave up just outside Sydney Heads.
After this, Holmes decided to change his story and agreed to be a witness against Brady who was subsequently charged with the murder of Smith. On the morning of 12 June, hours before he was due to appear in court as the star witness, Holmes was found dead in his car on Hickson Road. He had been shot at least three times. With the loss of their witness, the Crown’s case collapsed and Brady was acquitted.
Nobody was ever found guilty of either murder.
More information emerged later revealing that Jim was a police informer (otherwise known at the time as a ‘fizzer’ or a ‘fizzgig’), informing on one of Sydney’s notorious criminals Eddie Weymark, so it was also possible that the murders may have been revenge killings.
To read more, head to the Dictionary of Sydney https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/shark_arm_murder_1935
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Victorian War Heritage Inventory, Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) and Mallee Aboriginal District Services. In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!
The Dictionary of Sydney has no ongoing funding and needs your help. Make a donation to the Dictionary of Sydney and claim a tax deduction!