The mystery of the severed hand

A new book re-tells one of Christchurch's most puzzling crime stories from the 1800s. MIKE CREAN reports.

Waves washed up a human hand entwined in seaweed on Taylors Mistake beach. Two brothers delivered the hand to the Christchurch Police. It sparked a sensation.

The citizens of 1880s Christchurch had been puzzled by the disappearance of Addington railway worker Arthur Howard who was known to have gone swimming in Sumner. Their interest spiked when they learned the man presumed to have drowned had recently bought a fortune's worth of life insurance. And now, a severed hand in the surf - they were quick to make the link.

The story of the hand dominated the news for weeks. Sensation swelled to furore when the missing man was found, alive and well in the North Island.

Christchurch historian and author Geoffrey Rice calls it "probably the most widely reported and thoroughly discussed criminal case in 19th-century New Zealand".

Rice highlights the story in his latest book, Christchurch Crimes and Scandals, 1876-1899. The front cover illustration is a grisly picture of the hacked-off hand.

Howard was arrested, charged with fraud and appeared in court. The public gallery was packed. He was convicted and sentenced to two years in Lyttelton Gaol. He served his time, with one botched escape attempt. He died a terrible death, slipping off a tram in Melbourne.

Through it all, Rice adds, the fraudster never revealed the source of the severed hand. Graves were dug up, bodies exhumed, to find where it had come from. More than a century later, the mystery remains.

The facts outlined in court were that distinctively dressed Howard took a tram to Sumner, telling anyone who would listen that he was going for a swim. His clothes were found, neatly folded on a rock next morning. Searches for the body were mounted but, even with Howard's wife, Jane, offering a [PndStlg]50 reward, no trace was found.

A little later, it became known that Howard had recently insured his life with three companies for a total of [PndStlg]2400. Rice equates this to about $430,000 in today's values. He says the premiums would have cost more than half his income. The insurers refused to pay Howard's wife the sum insured.

Two months after the disappearance, as Christmas began to distract the public's attention, the hand was found in the surf. Brothers Elisha and Frederick Godfrey said they had gone fishing at Taylors Mistake. A man showed them the hand among the seaweed. They took it, wrapped in newspaper, to the police. Their evidence would later prove contradictory.

Other evidence also seemed at odds. The hand was found to have been hacked from an arm, as if with a simple knife. The seaweed clinging to it was of a type not found in the area. On one finger was a ring with Howard's initials, not engraved but seemingly scratched on the inside with a knife.

Wherever people gathered, their talk assumed a fraud. Their questions included: Was Howard's wife complicit in the fraud? Was she insane at the time? Was there a conspiracy among the Howards and the Godfreys? And where was Howard?

Reports of a strange-looking man in ill-fitting clothes prompted searches. Police scoured New Zealand and watched every port. At last, a suspect was tracked down in Wairarapa. He looked little like the published descriptions of Howard but bore the one distinguishing feature that Howard could not conceal. When ordered to remove his gloves, he had no option but to show the lack of a thumb on his right hand.

Rice describes the court hearings that followed in intriguing detail. He tells how the timbers groaned and creaked under the weight of dozens of curious onlookers. Fear of the public gallery collapsing under the mass of people forced hearings to be switched to the larger Provincial Council chamber.

Most people had no doubt about Howard's guilt but many felt sympathy for his wife and their children, seeing them as abandoned by a cruel husband and father. From Rice's account, it is likely the jury was confused as much by the weight of public braying as by the intricacies of legal argument from opposing counsel. Finally the judge had to instruct them in reaching their verdicts. They found Howard guilty, and his wife not guilty, of attempting to defraud by making false pretences. They found all four not guilty on further charges of insurance fraud.

The judge, Mr Justice Johnston, regretted the maximum penalty allowed was too soft. Addressing Howard, Johnston referred to "a great fraud", "deliberately planned", "with an enormous amount of effrontery". He said Howard had shown "gross inhumanity" towards his wife, "leaving that poor woman desolate".

"I only regret that the law does not allow me to pass a severe sentence," the judge said. He favoured hard labour for this "most impudent and daring (fraud)" but had to settle for two years imprisonment at Lyttelton.

Rice quotes from an editorial in The Press: "Howard is evidently a daring and unprincipled man and his wife a weak and ailing woman". The newspaper labelled Howard's hacking of a hand from a corpse as "detestable sacrilege".

Howard made a break from prison but was found while changing into civilian clothes that had been planted for him behind a church. He served the rest of his sentence.

It emerged in court that the Howards' marriage was probably not valid. With her husband in prison, Jane eloped with a wealthy businessman, taking the children with her. It is thought they headed for America, then Australia.

On his release, Howard set out to find them. He found, instead, his death in falling from a tram.

There the story might have ended but for one question - where did Howard obtain the severed hand?

Rice tantalises readers with the information that defence counsel Thomas Joynt 20 years later admitted to Judge Oscar Alpers that he alone knew the answer.

How the judge must have longed to know more. But Joynt died before letting him in on the secret.

Christchurch Crimes and Scandals, 1876-1899, by Geoffrey Rice, Canterbury University Press, $35

The Press