On the morning of 11th October 1885, a neat pile of folded clothes were discovered by a young lad on Sumner Beach, not far from the Scarborough Heads. The owner was one Arthur Rennage Howard, a mechanic who worked at the Addington Railway Workshops and lived with his wife Sarah and two children at No. 1 Battersea Street, just off the corner of Colombo Street in Sydenham.
Obviously, it was thought that poor Arthur had drowned during his late afternoon swim and had been swept out to sea or maybe killed by a shark. But when no remains showed up, a very distressed Sarah offered a 50 pound reward for the recovery of her dead husband’s remains.
There was no further news until 16th December 1885 when Brothers Elisha (a store keeper) and Fred (a cook) Godfrey made a gruesome discovery of a severed hand amongst the seaweed as they fished on the rocks at Taylor’s Mistake (pictured).
Sarah identified the hand as that of her husband’s, due to his gold ring (the initials A.H scratched into it) being on one of the fingers. She then made her claim to Arthur’s death insurance; but a red flag was raised.
Firstly, Arthur’s death insurance was for a whopping 2400 pounds, quite a huge amount for a mechanic. Secondly, this amount was made up from 3 separate policies. Sarah was denied the money and an investigation was started. This was the beginning of New Zealand’s first serious fraud case!
On Boxing Day, arrests were made of Sarah Howard and the Godfrey brothers for attempted defraud of three insurance companies. The real break in the case happened on the 4th January 1886 when Arthur was arrested at a YMCA picnic at Petone, Wellington. The four faced trail in April 1886. Arthur was sentenced to two years without hard labour and the others were acquitted. The mystery of where the hand came from remains a mystery as Arthur didn’t admit anything. Arthur Howard took that secret to his own grave!
For a more in depth look at the Howard Mystery, please check out the following link: http://www.peelingbackhistory.co.nz/the-case-of-the-severed-hand-the-howard-mystery/
*Image courtesy of the Canterbury Public Library – http://christchurchcitylibraries.com – File Reference CCL Photo CD 10, IMG0080