As Arthur Rennage Howard sipped his beer at the Day’s Hotel in Sumner, he looked at the time on his silver pocket watch. It was 4pm on Saturday, the 10th October 1885. He looked out the window as Sumner beach began to empty of sunbathers and swimmers, the sun beginning to lower in the sky.
Putting his pocket watch away, he got to his feet and informed the bar maid that he was off for a dip in the sea, his plan was to catch the 6pm coach back to Christchurch city when he was done. He smiled at her warnings of rough sea tides and to take good care. Arthur wandered from off the Day’s Hotel, and headed down the beach to the Scarborough Heads. He stopped to check the time again, making sure he was witnessed by a Mr. Tanner who sat close by and with that, he headed off into the afternoon, towards the Bell Baths that were under construction.
As night crept over Christchurch that night, a ferry to Wellington pulled out of Lyttelton Harbour. On board was a stranger with red hair (looked like a wig some thought) nervously watched as Lyttelton’s lights blinked out of his view.
As the sun rose the next day, a neat pile of clothes were discovered by a young lad. On top of the clothes was a silver pocket watch, later identified by Mr. Tanner. 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.
Meanwhile, on farms around the Wellington district, a red-headed larborer named Watts was working his way around the stations of the region. A quiet worker who kept to himself, he only demanded to have private quarters, away from the other workers. He also expressed an interest in the locations of nearby cemeteries. Then without a word, he disappeared around December the 14th.
It was then that Sarah was witnessed meeting up with a red-headed stranger in Cathedral Square, walking around with the man for around 3 hours before returning home alone.
Brothers Elisha (a store keeper) and Fred (a cook) Godfrey and their boys planned to take full advantage of the public holiday on offer that 16th December – it was Canterbury’s 35th anniversary of the arrival of the First Four Ships. They packed up their wagon with fishing gear and a picnic and headed off to Sumner. They then carried their gear over the Scarborough Heads to fish all day at Taylor’s Mistake.
As the brothers set themselves up on the rocks for fishing, the young cousins busied themselves with making mischief on the nearby beach. They were a few hours into their fishing when an odd stranger approached them with some shocking news. The stranger, who was wearing a red wig and blue goggles, informed them that he had discovered a severed hand amongst some seaweed. Dropping their fishing rods, the brothers followed the odd man to the gruesome discovery.
When the stranger handed over a newspaper for the hand to be placed in, Elisha noticed an empty canvas bag under the stranger’s arm. The stranger also babbled on, asking the brothers to say that they made the discovery and to tell no one that he had even been at Taylor’s Mistake. He was a wealthy Christchurch business man who didn’t wish have his name associated with the crime. The brothers agreed and the stranger walked away. In spite of the nasty find that was now in the Godfrey’s care, the family continued their day out, not heading to the police until dusk. They made no mention of the stranger as promised.
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 was raised.
Firstly, Arthur’s death insurance was 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 defraud case!
The severed hand appeared to be one of a woman and the marks of where the amputation happened matched those of the teeth of a hacksaw rather than those of a shark. Also the gold ring was examined and jewelers said the initials scratches weren’t professional and not older than a fortnight.
On Boxing Day, arrests were made of Sarah Howard and the Godfrey Brothers for attempted defraud of three insurance companies. All parties declared their innocence; the Godfrey’s finally speaking about the stranger who actually made the find. Witnesses were able to back the brother’s story of this odd character on Scarborough Heads that day. He had even declared to them as he passed that “…the Howard hand had been found…” at Taylor’s Mistake.
The real break in the case happened on the 4th January 1886 when Arthur was arrested at a YMCA picnic at Petone, Wellington. Arrested for a completely different matter – he had verbally insulted a woman – he was brought into the central Wellington police station where he stood close by a description of himself on the wall. Amongst his belongings was some odd items such as seven different coats, several pairs of goggles, make-up and odder still, he wore a red wig. His secret was soon revealed and he was returned to Christchurch.
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. Shockingly, seven graves had been dug up and messed with in the Wairarapa area that December but all remains had both hands intact. The Howard’s took that secret to their own graves!
*Drawing of Mrs. Sarah Howard courtesy of Strange Company – http://strangeco.blogspot.co.nz