The Tattletale Tattoo

By Clarence George on April 9, 2013
The Tattletale Tattoo
Police were able to retrieve fingerprints. The victim was small-time boxer Jim Smith.

Upon the well-preserved arm a tattoo of two boxers squaring off. The arm had not been bitten off by the shark, but severed by a knife. In a word: Murder…

“Murder, though it hath no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.”

In reading the latest edition of The Ring, I was struck by an article on an exhibition of Irish boxing memorabilia, which includes an item both moribund and morbid—the mummified arm of heavyweight champ Dan Donnelly. Given my ghoulish sensibilities, it’s little wonder that I was immediately reminded of a case little known to those not Down Under: The Shark Arm Murder.

April 17, 1935 was a lucky day for an unremembered fisherman. His just-hooked shark was swallowed by a 12-foot tiger, a species notorious for its man-eating proclivities. The man brought the larger shark to the Coogee Aquarium Baths, where it was put on display.

Sharks were very much the talk of Sydney at the time, given that they had recently attacked three young men along New South Wales. That, in combination with April 25th’s Anzac Day, assured the aquariumed tiger a large number of fascinated spectators. They weren’t disappointed.

I’ll not soon forget a story my mother told me when I was but a lad in sailor suit and Buster Browns of how as a young girl she saw the cutting open of a shark’s stomach and the emergence of a lady’s parasol still clutched in the lady’s dainty hand. I therefore have some idea of the Aussies’ reaction when the tiger shark vomited up a human arm.

A second, no more, of appalled disbelief, of time seemingly still. The men seeking to shield their wives and children from the floating nightmare, small boys peeking from about their fathers’ waistcoats, their sisters burying their cherub faces in their mothers’ ample bosoms, the women frantically fanning, perspiration upon their brows. How many Sydneysiders share the birth date of on or about January 25, 1936? One can only wonder. 

Upon the well-preserved arm a tattoo of two boxers squaring off. Some unknown Les Darcy wannabe who fell into the drink while in his cups? An accidental windfall for the tiger? No, for the arm had not been bitten off by the shark, but severed by a knife. In a word: Murder.

Given the state of the arm, the police were able to retrieve fingerprints and identify the victim as Jim Smith, small-time boxer and even smaller-time hood.

Smith was last seen drinking in the company of another unsavory character, master forger Patrick Brady. The next morning, according to police, Brady went to visit Reginald Holmes, a seemingly respectable businessman who operated a successful boat-building business. But appearances are often just that. Holmes was also a smuggler and fraudster…and Smith was one of his operatives. The investigation revealed a falling out between the two men. Did the ill will prove sufficient cause for Holmes to order a hit on his erstwhile employee? Was it fear of exposure? The threat of blackmail? Perhaps. Was there a link connecting Holmes to Smith? There was: Brady. He was the last man to see Smith alive and it was he who visited Holmes the next morning. Meaningless coincidence? The police didn’t think so.

The suspects were questioned, but denied everything. Holmes claimed he didn’t even know Brady.

The investigation went nowhere until May 20 when Holmes took a boat out into Sydney Harbor and shot himself. The suicide attempt failed and Holmes began to speed erratically across the water. The police gave chase in what must have been something out of a Preston Sturges comedy. After hours of careening all over the harbor, Holmes finally surrendered.

The supposedly respectable businessman agreed to testify against Brady, who was then charged with the tattooed man’s murder. But just hours before the inquest, on June 12, Holmes was found dead, shot three times in the chest.

Brady stood trial for the Smith murder, but the evidence against him was lacking and he was acquitted.

Which begs the question: Was he guilty? Maybe. But Smith was also a police informer, and had told them that a hard boy by the name of Eddie Weyman planned to rob a bank. Weyman was caught as a result of Smith’s snitching. Did Weyman know or suspect the identity of the “fizzer”? Was he the murderer? But, if so, what would have been his motive for killing Holmes?

There’s some speculation that Holmes ordered his own hit so as not to bring further disgrace on his family. Not at all implausible when one recalls his earlier suicide attempt. But was it he who told Brady to snuff Smith or was it Weyman who gave the order? One or the other, almost certainly, and it’s equally probable that Brady was the triggerman, though he maintained his innocence until his death in 1965.

Australia’s most infamous murder mystery revealed in its events if not in its solution by a belly-ached shark and a tattooed arm.

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  1. Clarence George 11:51am, 04/10/2013

    Worth money, especially if in pristine condition.  And if in the original box!

    http://www.vintagetoysgames.co.uk/images/corgi_aston_vg752/corgi_aston_261_vg752_roof_open.jpg

  2. Mike Casey 10:48am, 04/10/2013

    That’s the one, Clarence!

  3. Clarence George 08:25am, 04/10/2013

    Used to!  The little James Bond in a gray suit behind the wheel, the Asian villain with gun in blue jumpsuit…up through the roof thanks to 007’s trusty ejector seat!

  4. Mike Casey 06:46am, 04/10/2013

    Ah, but do you guys have the original DB5 Corgi model from Goldfinger? I give mine a spin every once in a while when I’m bored. Mind you, this does entail doing a rather silly impersonation of the engine…..

  5. Clarence George 04:37am, 04/10/2013

    I’m sorely tempted to cosset your shameless venality.  The only alternative is to keep the car for myself.  Hmmm…

  6. Matt McGrain 04:19am, 04/10/2013

    I already told you dude, deliver me the car i’ll deliver you the top 5 rankings…

  7. Clarence George 01:57am, 04/10/2013

    Glad you liked it, Mike.  I, too, love the unsolved.  And this one, with that boxing tattoo…how can you go wrong?

    Matt the Shark, eh, Glenn?  I’d already ordered his Aston-Martin—metallic bronze with a cream-white interior.  Still…he knows best.

  8. GlennR 01:30am, 04/10/2013

    He obviously thought that Jack Dempsey was one of the greatest of all time, and the shark disagreed ;)

  9. Mike Casey 12:34am, 04/10/2013

    Love these mysteries, Clarence - good one!

  10. pugknows 03:52pm, 04/09/2013

    Suicide by hit!