On April 25, 1935, at Coogee Aquarium in Sydney, their latest attraction – a 4.4-meter (14.4-foot) tiger shark – vomited up a human arm with a tattoo of two boxers sparring. In the middle of the chaos and shark vomit, detectives went to the aquarium, where they were greeted with a question that would plague them for the rest of their careers: “How the heck did a tattooed arm wind up in an aquarium shark tank?”
It may seem like an urban legend or a terrible episode of a 1980s cop show, but newspaper cuttings from the Sydney Truth newspaper in 1935 demonstrate that this story was deemed just as implausible back then as it is now. The story was a “astounding tragedy – a tragedy such as Edgar Allan Poe never thought of in his scariest fiction,” they said.
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 billiards saloon in downtown Sydney, thanks to the characteristic tattoo and fingerprints.
It was eventually revealed that Jimmy was a “dodgy chap,” as the locals call him, with several links to the city’s criminal underbelly, most notably businessman Reginald Holmes. Jimmy became involved in the lucrative business of employing boats to organize heroin deliveries off the coast of Sydney through Holmes. Their “commercial relationship” disintegrated, however, when they clashed over a scheme involving the sinking of a pleasure cruiser named Pathfinder.
By the mid-1930s, Australia was beginning to suffer the effects of the Great Depression. Jimmy, who was short on funds and on poor terms with his old business colleague, threatened Holmes with blackmail, raising tensions within the criminal network.
Jimmy was last seen alive on April 7, 1935, in Cronulla’s Cecil Hotel, where he was drinking and playing cards with a man named Patrick Brady. When they’d had their fill of beer, they returned to Brady’s little home on Tallombi Street. Police eventually learned that a cab driver had transported Brady from Tallombi Street to the street where Holmes resided. Brady was also noticeably frightened, according to the driver, and was hiding something beneath his jacket.
Fast forward to May 16, 1935, three weeks after the tiger shark ripped Jimmy’s arm off. Brady had recently been detained on suspicion of murder, and he was ready to blame Holmes. Police questioned Holmes, who denied ever knowing Brady. On May 20, plainly rattled by the events of the previous day, Holmes boarded his speedboat armed with a rifle and traveled to Sydney Harbour. He attempted to drink himself to death, but he survived and awoke in a bewildered state. Holmes panicked, cranked up his motorboat, and led police on a pursuit around the port before surrendering.
When Holmes recovered, he told investigators his version of the tale. He said Brady showed up at his house with Smith’s severed limb and tried to blackmail him unless he paid him a large sum of money. According to Holmes, Brady murdered Jimmy, dismembered his body, and threw it into Gunnamatta Bay, a move known among local criminals in the 1930s as the “Sydney send-off.”
But there’s still one unanswered question: how did Jimmy’s tattooed arm get up in the aquarium?
According to the dominant scenario, Brady took the severed limb to Holmes’ residence in an attempt to scare and extort him. In a panic, Holmes drove to a beachside district in Sydney and threw his arm into the water. It’s thought that a tiny shark came across the limb and devoured it whole, only to be eaten by the larger tiger shark a few days later.
It wasn’t just Jimmy who was having financial difficulties at this time. Bert Hobson, the proprietor of Coogee Aquarium, had likewise fallen on bad times and was trying to get customers to return. In an audacious effort, Hobson and his son took a boat to Coogee Beach, captured a wild tiger shark, and hauled it back to the Coogee Aquarium to entice guests. Against all odds, Jimmy’s arm had been unintentionally eaten by a tiger shark.