Back in November, 2014, fishermen in the Philippines hooked a large tiger shark. Not all that uncommon. But what they found inside was very unusual. A human head and leg. Some believe the victim had been a passenger on the MV Maharlika 2 ferry that sank near Leyte a few weeks earlier on September 13th.
It was a tiger shark that took the arm of surfer Bethany Hamilton several years ago. But the attack didn’t run this brave young woman out of the water though as she continues to be an active, competitive surfer.
This incident reminded me of the famous and fascinating 1935 Shark Arm Case in Australia. One that involved, forgery, blackmail, and murder and one where the shark was another innocent victim. The case was convoluted and confusing and raised many questions—-not the least of which was ”what constitutes a body?” Is an arm enough to say that a person was indeed dead?
I used this case as an example of corpse identification in my book Howdunnit: Forensics
From Howdunnit: Forensics:
FORENSIC CASE FILES: JAMES SMITH—THE SHARK ARM CASE
In April 1935, two fishermen caught a large tiger shark off the coast of Sydney, Australia, and donated the creature to a local aquarium. A few days later the shark regurgitated a well-preserved, muscular, Caucasian human arm. The shark was sacrificed and an autopsy was performed, but no more human remains were found.
The arm appeared to have been removed by a knife rather than by the shark’s teeth. Further, the knife wounds appeared to have occurred postmortem. The arm bore a tattoo of two boxers squaring off. Through meticulous work, fingerprints were obtained, and they indicated that the victim was James Smith, an ex-boxer with a criminal past. His wife identified the tattoo.
Further investigation led the police to Patrick Brady, a known forger and drug-trafficker, who had gone on a fishing trip with the victim just before his disappearance. Police theorized that Brady killed Smith, hacked him to pieces, and stuffed his remains into a trunk that was missing from the fishing shack the two men had shared. Smith’s arm must have slipped free in the water and been swallowed by the shark. Under questioning, Brady implicated another man named Reginald Holmes, who was himself shot to death the day before the inquest into Smith’s death was to begin. Brady’s attorneys obtained an injunction from the court, halting the inquest on the grounds that an arm was not sufficient evidence to bring murder charges. The police charged Brady with murder anyway, but a jury, likely influenced by the court ruling, acquitted him.