During an unassuming day at Coogee Aquarium in Sydney on April 25, 1935, their latest attraction – a 4.4-meter (14.4-foot) tiger shark – threw up a human arm sporting a tattoo of two boxers sparring. Amidst the confusion and shark vomit, detectives rushed to the aquarium to be confronted with a question that would haunt them for the rest of their career: “how the hell did a tattooed arm end up in an aquarium shark tank?”
It perhaps sounds like an urban legend or a badly written episode of a 1980s cop show, but newspaper clippings from the Sydney Truth newspaper in 1935 explain that this story was considered just as unlikely then as it appears today. In their words, the story was an “astounding tragedy – a tragedy such as Edgar Allan Poe never dreamed of in his weirdest fiction.”
Thanks to the distinctive tattoo and fingerprints, the victim’s brother was able to identify the body part as the left arm of James "Jimmy" Smith, a 45-year old England-born amateur boxer who worked at a booze-soaked billiards saloon in downtown Sydney.
It later emerged that Jimmy was a bit of a “dodgy bloke,” as the locals say, and had numerous ties to the criminal underbelly of the city – most notably the businessman Reginald Holmes. Through Holmes, Jimmy became involved in the lucrative business of using boats to coordinate drug drops off the coast of Sydney. However, their “business partnership” soured when the pair fell out over a scam involving the sinking of a pleasure cruiser named Pathfinder.
By the mid-1930s, Australia was starting to really feel the pinch from the Great Depression. Strapped for cash and on bad terms with his former business associate, Jimmy threatened Holmes with blackmail and tensions grew within the criminal network.
Jimmy was last seen alive on April 7, 1935, at the Cecil Hotel in Cronulla where he was spotted drinking and playing cards with a guy named Patrick Brady. When enough beer was flowing in the veins, they headed back to a small cottage rented by Brady on Tallombi Street. A cab driver later told police he had driven Brady from Tallombi Street to the street where Holmes lived. The driver also reported that Brady was visibly nervous and hiding something under his jacket.
Fast forward to May 16, 1935, three weeks after the tiger shark had chucked up poor old Jimmy’s arm. Brady had just been arrested by police under the suspicion of murder and he quickly pointed the blame at Holmes. Police interrogated Holmes, but he denied ever knowing Brady. On May 20, clearly shaken by the recent events, Holmes got into his speedboat with a gun and headed to Sydney Harbour. He attempted to get very drunk and kill himself, but he survived and woke up in a dazed stupor. Holmes panicked, revved his speedboat, and led police on a chase around the harbor, before calling it quits and handing himself in.
Once he had recovered, Holmes told police his side of the story. He claimed Brady arrived at his house holding Smith’s severed arm and threatened to blackmail him if he didn’t pay him a significant sum of money. According to Holmes, Brady had killed Jimmy, dismembered the body, and put it into a trunk which was thrown into Gunnamatta Bay, a move known to local criminals in the 1930s as the “Sydney send-off.”
Holmes told police he would recount his story in front of a judge, but on the morning of the court case, he was found dead in his car with three bullet holes in his chest. Without the key testimony, the court case fell through and Brady walked free. To this day, no one has been charged with the murder of James "Jimmy" Smith.
But the obvious question remains: how did Jimmy’s tattooed arm end up in the aquarium?
The leading theory suggests that Brady brought the severed arm to Holmes’ house in an attempt to intimidate and extort him. Panicked, Holmes drove to a seaside suburb of Sydney and flung the arm into the ocean. It's speculated that a small shark had come across the limb and swallowed it whole, only to be eaten by the larger tiger shark within a matter of days.
It wasn’t just Jimmy who was struggling for money around this time. Bert Hobson, the owner of Coogee Aquarium, had also fallen on hard times and was desperate to bring people back to his business. In a wild move, Hobson and his son took a boat to Coogee Beach, caught a wild tiger shark, and transported it back to the Coogee Aquarium in a bid to woo back customers. Against all odds, it was this tiger shark that had unknowingly swallowed the arm of Jimmy.