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Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter XXI — The Mystery of the Severed Hand

page 300

Chapter XXI
The Mystery of the Severed Hand

Eight miles from Christchurch on the seacoast there is a popular watering-place called Sumner. It nestles in a pretty cove or bay between the estuary of the Avon and Heathcote Rivers to the north and a spur of the Lyttelton Hills, called Scarborough, which juts into the sea to the south, and terminates in a bold and precipitous bluff. Between the estuary and the bluff is a curving beach of soft sand—a favourite bathing-place for Christchurch residents, though known to be dangerous in certain states of the tide.

In the years 1885-6 an enterprising resident of Sumner was engaged in constructing what was afterwards known as "Bell's Baths." He enclosed within wooden piles a portion of the sea sheltered by Scarborough bluff, and invited the public for a small fee to bathe within this enclosure, safely protected from sharks and treacherous currents.

To the south of Sumner, on the far side of the Scarborough spur, is another cove or bay called "Taylor's Mistake."

On the afternoon of October 10th, 1885, a man called Arthur Rannage Howard went from Christchurch to Sumner. He seems to have made a page 301point of telling several people en route that he was going down to have a swim. This caused some surprise as it was an exceedingly boisterous day, but then he was reputed to be a good swimmer. He walked part of the way with a shoemaker—W. W. Tanner, a very intelligent and observant man, who afterwards, by the way, sat for many years in Parliament. This man took particular note of Howard's clothes and also of a silver watch with a gold chain attached, which he took out from his pocket in order to see the time. He told Tanner, amongst other things, that he intended to return to Christchurch after his swim by the six o'clock coach.

No one appears to have noticed Howard in the vicinity of Bell's Baths during that afternoon; but early next morning, at about six o'clock, a boy discovered, lying neatly folded in a heap on the wooden pier at the seaward end of the baths, a man's clothes. In the waistcoat pocket was found a silver watch attached to a gold chain. Several people who had seen Howard the previous afternoon at Summer had no difficulty in recognising these clothes as the clothes he had been wearing, and Tanner was able without hesitation to identify the silver watch and gold chain.

Obviously the unfortunate man had lost his life. He had either been swept to sea by a current too strong for him, or had been attacked by one of the many sharks that were said to abound in the vicinity. It became known that he was a married man with two young children, and that he was employed as a fitter in the Government Railway Workshops near Christchurch. Sympathetic inquiries were set on foot as to what provision he had been able to make page 302for his widow and children, and it appeared that his life was well insured. Search was made for the body; but no trace of it was found, even though diligence was stimulated by the following advertisement, which appeared in one of the newspapers a few days after the fatality:

£50 Reward.—Re Arthur Howard, drowned at Sumner on Saturday last. The above reward will be given for the recovery of the body or the first portion received thereof recognisable. Apply Times Office.

The wording of this advertisement and the unusually large amount of the reward offered stimulated public curiosity, and it was soon known in the town that Howard's life was insured in three separate policies for sums amounting to £2,400. All the insurances had been effected within a year or eighteen months, and the premiums for the three aggregated £70 per year. All three policies, within a few months of being taken out, had been transferred into the name of his wife, Sarah Howard. All she had to do, therefore, to obtain the money, was to furnish satisfactory proof of death without the necessity of taking out probate or letters of administration. But when the three insurance companies got together and learned that the wages of the insured were but 9s. per day, and that he was therefore paying away in premiums more than half of his total earnings, they naturally became suspicious and refused to pay. It was then, apparently, that Mrs. Howard inserted the advertisement.

Things remained in this condition of suspense page 303till December 16th, when public interest in the disappearance of Howard was once more aroused. On that day, which was a public holiday, two brothers named Godfrey with their sons drove to Sumner, and, leaving horse and trap there, walked over the Scarborough Hill into Taylor's Mistake, intending to spend the day fishing there. When they got down to the cove the boys went on to the other side of the bay, while the Godfrey men remained talking at the foot of the Scarborough rocks.

Presently, according to the account given by Elisha Godfrey, there appeared from behind the rocks a man who, they said, was a stranger to them. He wore blue goggles and a wig. His garments were all too large for his body and looked, according to Elisha Godfrey, as though he was deliberately disguised. This is the account, or rather one of the accounts, which Elisha gave to the police of the dramatic appearance of the mysterious stranger:

Suddenly a man appeared on the rocks from the beach. He spoke to us and said, "My God! come here; there's a man's hand on the beach." I went to him at once. He then showed me the hand as it was lying in the sand amongst the weeds, within about a yard from the rocks, at the corner, lying flat on the sand. I remarked, after looking at it, "That is Howard's hand, who was drowned at Sumner." The man said, "Poor fellow!—poor fellow!" I said to the man, "What is to be done with it!" He answered and said, "I don't want to have anything to do with it. I hold a high position in town, and it would not do for it to be known I was here." I said, "If you won't have anything to do with it, I will see to it and take it over to Christchurch to the Inspector." I looked to see page 304what I could put it in. He saw me looking, and I said I was looking for something to put it in, and he immediately pulled a newspaper out of his pocket and handed it to me. I stooped down and put the hand in the newspaper. It had the ring on then. The man begged of me to promise I would not let anyone know he was there, that if there was any reward for finding it I could do as I liked with it; that he was in a good position and had plenty of money and did not want the reward, but did not wish to have anything to do with it. The man had a small parcel under his arm, something like a worn piece of canvas glazed. It was a kind of square parcel. He was about going away when I said, "I would like to send a telegram to the Inspector of Police, and either of us should go over to Sumner to send the message by telephone." The man then said, "I am going to Sumner, and will see to that."

This was about two o'clock in the afternoon. The Godfreys apparently did not allow their gruesome find to interfere with their picnic, for nearly an hour later they were still fishing when the mysterious stranger came back over the hill. "He asked both of us more impressively than before not to let anyone know he had been there. He continued begging us not to let anyone know he was there, as he did not want to have anything at all to do with it." At the close of the day the Godfreys and the boys drove up to town with their parcel and took it to the police station. They said nothing to the police about the mysterious stranger at that time, but left the authorities to understand that they had found the hand themselves by chance on the beach.

The hand—a left—had been severed from the page 305arm a few inches above the wrist. On the third finger was a ring, apparently of gold, in the shape of a strap and buckle. On removing the ring the initials "A. H." in Roman letters were found on the inside. When a few days after the discovery of the hand the police showed it to Mrs. Howard, she became very excited and apparently hysterical, and said at once that she recognised her husband's hand —there was no doubt about it.

Several people saw the mysterious stranger in goggles and wig returning from Taylor's Mistake to Christchurch on the afternoon of the 16th, but though they were strangers to him he accosted them and told them that "Howard's hand" had been found, that two men named Godfrey had found it, and even showed these strangers a piece of paper with Godfrey's name and address on it, and said they had asked him to telephone to the police to say they were coming into town with the hand. It appeared afterwards that Mrs. Howard, on the previous day, December 15th, had received a letter from "a friend" asking her to meet him in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, as he had found some cheap lodgings for her. When questioned on this point by the police, she said she did not go to meet the writer of the letter as the hand had turned up in the meantime. Now, news of the finding of the hand at Taylor's Mistake could not have reached town till late in the afternoon of the 16th, so Mrs. Howard either lied about the matter, or she knew beforehand that convenient arrangements had been made for the hand to be found on the beach at Taylor's Mistake. The police ascertained also that Mrs. Howard, on the 18th December, went for a page 306walk with "the mysterious stranger" in goggles and wig, and spent three hours in his company.

No less than ten doctors examined that hand on behalf of insurance companies and other persons interested, and a joint report signed by them all was put in evidence at the inquest, which was solemnly held on the severed hand. There was some difference of opinion among the doctors on minor points, and many learned terms were employed to describe the simple facts they had observed. The drowning took place, if at all, on October 10th. The hand was discovered, cast up by the sea, on December 16th, nearly eight weeks later. The appearance of the hand was quite inconsistent with its having been dead so long. But then, what would be the effect of sea-water in preserving it? Here there was a sharp difference of opinion. The initials inside the ring, "A. H.," had not been engraved by a professional with an engraver's tool, but by an amateur with a clumsy instrument. Several jewellers were of opinion that the engraving was very recent, and quite inconsistent in its appearance with the ring having been in the sea for eight weeks. It was hoped, no doubt, that the Insurance companies would come to the conclusion that the hand had been severed from Howard's body, or Howard's body severed from the hand, by the teeth of a shark, and would then echo the words of the mysterious stranger, "Poor fellow !—poor fellow !" and promptly pay up. But that is not the way of insurance companies or of their medical experts; and these gentlemen had no difficulty in satisfying their confrères that the bones of the arm had been severed not by the teeth of any shark known to page 307science, but quite unmistakably by the teeth of a hand-saw. What proved the most difficult obstacle to Mrs. Howard receiving that £ 2,400 was the opinion of the ten medical experts, unanimous, I believe, though necessarily conjectural, that the hand was the hand of a woman.

On the evening of October 10th, the day on which Howard was supposed to have been drowned at Bell's Baths, a man who called himself Watt left Lyttelton for Wellington by a ferry steamer. He went by train into the Wairarapa, a farming district north of Wellington, of which Masterton is the chief town. Between the middle of October and the end of the year he was engaged casually as a carpenter and general labourer on several farms in the district. It was observed that he wore a wig. It was also noted as peculiar that he always insisted upon having a separate bedroom. He left one job because his employer refused to put up a partition in the sleeping apartment separating the end he occupied from the rest where his working mates slept. While in the employ of a Mr. Cameron of Te Oreore station he learned that a fellow-employee was going on a visit to Christchurch, and requested him to deliver some letters for him in that town. He got Mr. Cameron's brother to address several envelopes for him to—

Mr. J. Howard,
1st Brick House,
Battersea St.,
Off Colombo St.,

He also got Mr. Cameron to write the letters. He explained that since he had met with an accident in page 308which he lost his right thumb he was not much good at writing. One letter simply explained that the enclosed £2 was in repayment of a loan. To the fellow-workman who was going to Christchurch he gave very particular instructions as to the delivery of the letter. Unless he could find either Mr. or Mrs. Howard personally and deliver it with his own hand, he was to bring it back with him to the North Island, and on no account to post it. All this might have aroused suspicion, but for the very plausible explanation he offered. He was a sailor-man, he explained, who had deserted from a Scotch vessel then lying in Port Chalmers, Dunedin. The police, he said, were on his track. They knew the Howards had befriended him and might open letters addressed to them, through the post, and so he would get them into trouble, besides risking being captured himself. The messenger did in fact find Mrs. Howard in Christchurch and gave her the letter. When she opened it she seemed to be much agitated, but hastened to explain that it was a note enclosing £2 which her husband had lent to "Mr. Watt."

"Mr. Watt" went from one job to another in the Wairarapa. At one place he made the acquaintance of a station cook called Beard, and to him he made a very extraordinary proposal. He called on this man shortly before daybreak one Sunday morning and said that he wanted him to accompany him to a cemetery to open up a grave. This is Beard's account of the matter:

There was a man who had arranged with him to go to see if he could recognise a man who had died in the hospital—to see if it was a man who had page 309some property in some part of Germany. He told me the name of the dead man, but he did not tell me the name of the person who had made the appointment. I asked him if I knew the man, and he said he did not think I did as he was a perfect stranger there. He told me he had got two pounds from the man to go and do it. He did not offer me any money…. He said he would give me one pound if I would go with him, or if he got three pounds he would give me two pounds. I did not go. I told him to go away and not ask me such things, but I would like to see the man that asked him to do it.

Beard was not to be drawn into a "Burke and Hare" partnership in body-snatching, and refused to have anything whatever to do with the project.

"Mr. Watt's" movements in the Wairarapa district were traced from week to week; but he was not found anywhere between December 14th and 22nd, the dates when the mysterious stranger in the blue goggles and red wig was haunting Christchurch, Sumner, and Taylor's Mistake.

In the meantime the police in Christchurch had arrested first the two Godfrey brothers, and then, a week later, Mrs. Howard. They were charged with conspiring to defraud the insurance companies. They were remanded from week to week till some time in the month of January in the following year. Meanwhile Howard was arrested at Petone, a suburb of Wellington, on January 4th.

It is not necessary to explain what the reader has long since inferred, that Howard, "Watt," and the mysterious stranger in blue goggles were one and the same person. It is somewhat strange that he should have evaded detection so long. He had lost page 310the thumb of the right hand and a toe of the left foot. He was in other respects a man easy to describe and identify, and the insurance companies were offering handsome rewards for his apprehension. He had on several occasions between December 14th and 22nd walked through the main streets of Christchurch, passed a number of police officers while wearing what must have appeared to the least intelligent an obvious disguise. In Wellington he had actually been taken in charge by the police and brought in custody to the central station on the complaint of a woman who said he had insulted her in the street, but when she refused to proceed with the prosecution he was allowed to go free. And yet pasted on the wall of the police office he read a printed description of himself, together with an offer of a reward for his apprehension!

When arrested he had in his possession quite an interesting assortment of disguises and material for "make-up"; gloves with false thumb for the right hand, several wigs and false moustaches; a "make-up" box with brushes, dyes, and pink paste, several pairs of goggles, and no less than seven different coats.

All four prisoners were tried at the Supreme Court in Christchurch on April 8th, 9th, and 10th. Mr. Justice Johnson presided. Howard was defended by Mr. T. I. Joynt, a brilliant Irish advocate, then at the zenith of his powers. Mrs. Howard had for Counsel Mr. T. W. Stringer, who was then at the beginning of what proved to be a distinguished career at the Bar. Mr. Holmes defended the Godfreys. They were jointly charged with conspiring to defraud the insurance companies, and on page 311a second count with attempting to obtain money by fraud. The question of the validity of the marriage of Howard and his wife became one of great importance. If the marriage was a valid one, then the charge of conspiracy failed, so far as the woman was concerned, because husband, and wife cannot conspire. Moreover, if the marriage was valid, the female accused had the advantage of the pre-sumption of acting under compulsion of the husband.

The Crown therefore attacked the marriage. The police were able to produce as witness the man who had been first mate on board the Scotch sailing-vessel, the Janet Court, on which they had come out to New Zealand together, Howard as passenger-steward, Mrs. Howard as a passenger. The mate deposed that they were married when the ship was some weeks out to sea. It took place in the saloon, and the skipper performed the rite. The mate remembered each party answering "I will" to the usual question, but could not remember anything about a ring or the signing of any book. The marriage would no doubt have been perfectly valid according to Scottish law, but the ship, though on the Scottish register, was of course outside Scottish territorial waters when the contract was entered into. Mr. Stringer argued forcibly for the validity of the marriage, and concluded with a sentence which, perhaps because of its rhythmical sonority, has lingered in at least one memory for over forty years. "This man and this woman were as validly wed by the captain of that ship as though they had been married by the Archbishop of Canterbury with all the pomp and circumstance of a cathedral ceremony." The Court ruled that page 312the marriage was no marriage, and the trial proceeded on that footing. But as the parties had lived together as man and wife, had two children, and clearly believed themselves to be validly married, the jury probably determined to treat them by their verdict as though it were a valid marriage, in spite of the Judge's ruling to the contrary.

The case against Mrs. Howard appeared to be a strong one. She had, for example, at no time made any reference to her husband's ring until a few days before the hand was discovered. She then expressed a hope that there might be found either the left hand with a ring on one finger, or the right hand with the thumb off. The evidence, however, did not connect her so clearly with her husband's fraud before the alleged drowning as with complicity in the subsequent attempts to prove death by the production of the mysterious hand. Nor was there any evidence that the God-freys participated in the original conspiracy. Such evidence as was produced against them, based largely on inconsistent statements to the police, implicated them either in a good-natured attempt to enable the widow to get the insurance money or in some effort to secure the reward for themselves. It seemed a reasonable inference that they had more than a suspicion as to the identity of the mysterious stranger in goggles, but the jury evidently came to the conclusion that the circumstances amounted to suspicion only. They returned to Court therefore with a verdict of "Not Guilty" as regards the Godfreys. They found Howard guilty on the first count for conspiracy. When the Judge page 313pointed out that this was an impossible verdict, inasmuch as Howard could not conspire with himself, the jury retired again and returned with a verdict of "Guilty" against Mr. and Mrs. Howard on the second count of attempting to defraud, and "Not Guilty" against the two Godfreys. But the Judge pointed out that this verdict also was inconsistent. For, if the jury found that Mrs. Howard was not aware that Howard was alive till December 15th, how could she know that he was dead on October 29th and December 4th, the dates on which she made application to the insurance companies for the money? The Judge also said he could not see how Howard could be guilty on the second count unless they believed Mrs. Howard was acting for him in obtaining the money. The jury deliberated again, and finally returned a verdict of "Guilty" against Howard on the second count; the other three prisoners they found "Not Guilty."

As the law then stood the maximum sentence which could be passed upon Howard on this verdict was two years' imprisonment without hard labour. This sentence accordingly the Judge did pass upon him, remarking as he did so with some emphasis, "I assure you, and I say so sincerely, that I regret I cannot give you more as your fraud has been a most impudent and daring one."

But whence came that severed hand? That was a mystery at the trial, and after forty years it still remains a mystery. No less than seven recently buried bodies were exhumed in various parts of the Wairarapa district where Howard had been working at or about the time of their burial, but all were found to have both hands intact. Twenty years page 314after, when I commenced practice in Christchurch, the venerable Court usher showed me with Impressive interest and solemnity the severed hand, preserved in a jar of spirits of wine. He evidently regarded it as the most treasured exhibit in his gruesome museum. On one occasion, in conversation with Mr. T. I. Joynt, he spoke to me of the mystery of the hand. "That still remains," said he, "and always will remain, a mystery. Howard, in fact, told me where he got the hand from, but that secret will die with me, for I am the only survivor now of the three persons who alone knew the answer to the riddle." Within a few months of that conversation Mr. Joynt too was dead.