The Mystery of the Severed Hand

"Severed Hand or the Howard Mystery" Capper Press, 1974
“Severed Hand or the Howard Mystery”
Capper Press, 1974

He Sought to Prove His Own Death

Dead Hand Commandeered to Help Over Insurance Fraud
Gaunt Relic of ‘Eighties’ Sensation Consigned to Rest

A dead man’s hand, commandeered in the service of a living man’s unsuccessful fraud, and impounded for nearly forty years by the avenging Law at Christchurch, has only recently been released from that chamber of horrors (the evidence exhibit room) in order to follow the normal course of ashes to ashes. This much abused hand is not exactly a Tutankhamen relic: yet it has its history.

When an official of the Christchurch Supreme Court decided the other day to consign to the rubbish destructor a certain glass jar which had for nearly 40 years reposed on a shelf in the dusty and uninviting cubicle where exhibits are stored after having served their purpose in criminal trials, he dispensed with the last link connecting present recollections with a sensation which in the old days stirred public interest throughout New Zealand. About the glass jar itself, there was nothing, excepting its uncleanliness, to arouse curiosity. Neither did its contents, at first glance, suggest anything more interesting than a withered and malformed knot of wood. Closer investigation, however, proved it to be a human hand, severed at the wrist and almost beyond recognition, disguised by shrinkage and time and dust. The spirits in which the hand was originally preserved evaporated years ago, and then, in the process of drying, it was only the bones which kept the whole exhibit from crumbling into dust. Probably nobody knows or ever did know the identity of the person to whom the hand originally belonged, for, although several bodies were exhumed with the object of clearing up this phase of the mystery, nothing definite was discovered and the puzzle remains still unsolved.

“The Severed Hand Case.”

The case was known as “The Severed Hand Case,” and, from the time it first engaged public notice until many months afterwards when the curtain was rung down, it produced a series of sensations which established it as a topic of discussion and conjecture not only in New Zealand, but also farther afield.

The central figures in the case were Arthur Robert Ramage Howard and his wife Jane Anne Howard. Two brothers by the name of Godfrey also figured largely in the events insofar as they had to do with the severed hand. It was alleged by the police that these four persons conspired together to defraud several insurance companies of £2400; and, failing conspiracy being proved, that they attempted to obtain £2400 by false pretences. The first effort of the police, in making the way clear for the conspiracy proceedings, was to prove that Howard and his wife were not legally married. For, if the marriage was a legal one, it was clear that the charge of a wife conspiring with her husband could not be sustained. In order to disprove the marriage, therefore, it was shown that Howard, who was a Scotchman and came out to New Zealand as passengers’ steward on a Scotch ship from Glasgow, had been married on board to Mrs. Howard, who was also Scotch. The ceremony had been performed this side of the Equator by the ship’s Scotch captain, there being no clergyman on board. After hearing considerable legal argument, his Honor Mr. Justice Johnstone held that the marriage was illegal.

Swimmer Disappears.

There is no doubt that Howard, and his wife honestly considered they were legally married. They settled in Christchurch and in 1884 lived in Sydenham, Howard working as a fitter m the Government workshops and receiving 9/6 per day.

On October 10, 1885, Howard, who was considered to be a good swimmer, made it known to several people that he was going to have a bathe, and, as a matter of fact, he was seen on the rocks, but not in the water, at 5 o’clock that evening. The following morning, clothes and a purse and a watch and a hat which had been worn by Howard were found on the beach, but there was no sign of Howard, who had totally disappeared.

Every effort was made, by dragging, etc, to recover the body, but without success and an inquest was opened at the Clarendon Hotel and Mrs. Howard went into mourning. Three days after the supposed drowning, Mrs. Howard caused to be inserted in the “Lyttelton Times” the following advertisement: £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 offer, which in those days was considered very liberal, caused fresh efforts to be made in searching the vicinity of the supposed tragedy, but no further evidence of Howard’s fate was forthcoming.

Insurance Companies Curious.

On October 15, however, five days after Howard had been last seen, letters were written on Mrs. Howard’s behalf, claiming the moneys for which Howard’s life had been insured. It then came to light that in May, of the previous year, Howard had insured his life in the Mutual Association for £1ooo and that on December 27 he transferred his interest to Mrs. Howard. In the same year he had also insured himself for £1000 in the Government Association and £100 in the Accident Association, these interests also being transferred to his wife. The combined Associations, desiring more evidence of death, offered a reward of £25 for definite information.

Meantime, Police Inspector Pender had been quietly puzzling the matter out. In the first place, his suspicions had been aroused through Mrs. Howard making no application for the police to search for the evidence she desired.

Then there was the fact of a nine-shillings-a-day man paying the heavy premiums on the unusual amount of £2400.

The police also fossicked out the information that, just previous to his disappearance, Howard had disposed of certain of his properly, and had, in his anxiety to raise capital, sold a section for just what the Building Society was prepared to advance on it.

On top of this, came pretty definite information in November that Howard was in the North Island, where he was passing under the name of Watts or Watson and working as a carpenter for a Wairarapa contractor. While in the North Island. Watts (Howard) was in communication with his wife, and, on November 5, he sent a letter to her, purporting to contain money to pay an account owing by Howard. This letter, with others, was entrusted by Watts (Howard) to a man who was particularly instructed to deliver them personally to Mrs. Howard and not to post them. The man eventually handed the letters to Mrs Howard, who opened one of them in his presence and extracted some notes.

Wairarapa Daily Times, 15 January 1886 .”The Severed Hand Mystery”. PapersPast.
Dead Man Reappears in Disguise.

During this time, however, the insurance company had failed to pay the moneys as requested on December 5 and Mrs. Howard caused to be sent to them formal claims for payment. Then, on December 18 when the insurance money had not arrived, Howard came to Christchurch. He had shaved his beard, and was wearing a false moustache and a wig, and also black goggles. He got into communication with his wife by entrusting a letter to a boy named Coleman, and she met the disguised sender of the letter that evening and spent several hours with him. The following day the man in goggles, who was subsequently identified as Howard, was seen on the Sumner Road, carrying a small handbag, and his movements were traced to Taylor’s Mistake.

It was at this stage that the two Godfreys entered into the matter. They were at Taylor’s Mistake, ostensibly fishing, when the disguised man came out from behind some rocks and had an interview with them.

The stories of the Godfreys concerning that conversation were contradictory, but its effect was that Howard had drawn their attention to a human hand which was lying in some seaweed near the water’s edge, and which, he had said, must have some connection with the Howard drowning fatality. He had insisted that they take the severed hand to the police and obtain the reward, as he did not want to be identified with the “find” because he was a civil servant, with plenty of money, and the reward did not appeal to him.

The Hand Reaches the Police

At any rate, the Godfreys delivered the hand to the police in Christchurch, but, when the reward was spoken of, they disclaimed it and said that the clearing up of the matter was the main consideration. The hand bore a wound similar to one which was on Howard’s hand when he disappeared, and on one of the fingers there was a gold buckle ring like Howard’s and bearing Howard’s initials on the inside. The hand had apparently been only recently severed.

Mrs. Howard was called in for the purpose of identifying the hand, and, when she saw it, she became very upset and said it was her husband’s. It seems that immediately following the finding of the severed hand, Howard returned to Wellington and went on to Masterton under a changed disguise. The police were still busy, however, and Constable Harnett, whose suspicions were aroused by the top of one of Watts’s (Howard’s) thumbs being off, as was stated in the official description, closely watched his man for some time before arresting him. During that time Howard was leading an industrious and sober life, his only departure being that he was making advances to a Salvation Army girl. He denied all knowledge of any conspiracy but was nevertheless taken to Christchurch, together with his luggage, which contained several wigs, goggles, suits of clothes and grease paints such as actors use for “making up”.

Hand’s Owner Never Located

The arrest of Howard did not mean that the work of the police had finished, however. Their next job was to connect their man more definitely with the severed hand. Towards this end, several graves were opened up and bodies were exhumed, but all to no purpose; and, although the fact that one of the Godfreys had been working as a cook at a mental hospital left certain theories to be formed, the police could suggest nothing definite. Neither could they succeed in establishing Howard’s actual possession of the hand. It was shown, however, that he had approached a man at Masterton and asked his assistance in opening up a certain grave. He explained that a man in Wellington had given him £2 to open the grave and find out whether the person buried tallied with the description of a man who had recently died, leaving certain property In Germany.

The trial of Howard, his so-called wife, and the Godfreys opened at Christchurch Supreme Court on April 18, I886 and lasted several days, no less than 45 witnesses being called by the Crown. The prosecution’s submission that the Godfreys knew of the Insurance and that their conduct implicated them in the conspiracy, was unsupported by the evidence and they were acquitted without their defence being called upon. Mrs. Howard was also acquitted on both the conspiracy and false pretences charges; and, it being then impossible to convict Howard singly of conspiracy, he was acquitted on that charge and found guilty on the second count.

The Judge, in sentencing Howard to two years’ imprisonment, said he regretted that he could not give him a longer term as his offence was a particularly brazen one, in which all the arrangements had been made with skill and consummate effrontery.

Source: “He Sought to Prove His Own Death” NZ Truth , Issue 959, 12 April 1924, Page 5.

>> Story 3: A Police Inspector’s Reminiscences.


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