The Mystery of the Severed Hand

Who Were the Notorious Howards?

Page 2 Advertisements Column 6 Star , Issue 5532, 2 February 1886, Page 2. Image: PapersPast.
Page 2 Advertisements Column 6
Star , Issue 5532, 2 February 1886, Page 2. Image: PapersPast.

It was a sensation in the mid 1880s, and has continued to fascinate for many decades – the Howard Mystery became the inspiration for New Zealand’s own famous crime writer, Ngaio Marsh, who wrote a short story called “Hand in the Sand” in 1953.

Even before the court had made its ruling on the case, notices appeared in the Press advertising for sale 10,000 copies of a drawing of the “THE SEVERED HAND.’ A full illustrated account of the ‘Howard Mystery’, as it had become known, was published and on sale at all booksellers in Christchurch for 1s, complete with illustrations of all the protagonists. [5]

With a name like Arthur Robert Ramage Howard, he should have been fairly easy to trace. However Howard seems to have only left his mark – with this name – during his time in New Zealand.

Howard’s appearance was that of a working class man. Somewhere during his travels he lost the thumb from his right hand and the toe from his right foot. Accidents at railway stations and workshops were a common enough occurrence, and life and limb were all too often cut short.

Arthur Robert Howard. Police photograph taken on 4 April 1888. Image: NZ Police Museum. The Police Gazette described Howard as being: 5ft 6 3/4"; fresh complexion; brown hair; blue eyes; medium nose, mouth and chin; right thumb and right big toe off; mark of wound in left side, in right side of neck, and on right foot; small cut marks on forehead. Source: Archives NZ.
Arthur Robert Howard. Police photograph taken on 4 April 1888. Image: NZ Police Museum. The Police Gazette described Howard as being: 5ft 6 3/4″; fresh complexion; brown hair; blue eyes; medium nose, mouth and chin; right thumb and right big toe off; mark of wound in left side, in right side of neck, and on right foot; small cut marks on forehead. Source: Archives NZ.

When Howard appeared before the Christchurch public in Court, it was said that those that knew him were unable to recognise the clean-shaved man who stood before them, so different was he from the Howard they had known in former days. “The expression of his face seemed altogether changed; and if it were not for the missing thumb and toe, and other body marks about which there is no doubt, the identity of the man might well be doubted.” [6]

Howard served his gaol sentence at Lyttelton, until his release during the fortnight which ended 14th April, 1888.

By contrast, the history of his wife, Jane Howard is more easily traced. She was one of eight siblings – all daughters of James Kinnear and Jane Low of Edinburgh, Scotland. She was born there in 1858 and, until her emigration to New Zealand in 1874, she’d spent all her early life there.

Her father worked as an engineer and her mother a dressmaker, before they went into the pawnbroking business. Prior to her father’s death in March 1869, two of Jane’s older sisters left Scotland for New Zealand. Mary arrived in Port Chalmers in 1867 and Theresa followed in 1869.

Jane senior continued to run the family pawnbroking business after her husband’s death, but she too died early, on 5th February 1874. This may well have been the catalyst for Jane junior and two more of her sisters to leave their Scottish homeland and join their sisters in New Zealand. Just twenty days after their Mother’s death, on February 25th, 1874 the young women set sail on board the Janet Court for Port Chalmers. The ship’s manifest recorded their jobs as domestic servants.

Spliced in Holy Matrimony by the Captain
Mrs-howard-the-severed-hand-mystery
Jane Howard. Source: The Severed Hand Mystery. Capper Press.

Also on board the Janet Court was a fellow Edinburghian, 24 year old Arthur Howard, who was travelling as the Passengers’ steward. Romance blossomed between Jane and Arthur, and after just over two months at sea the couple were married on board by the Captain, on 3rd May. Witnessing this notable event – one of two marriages celebrated on board – were Jane’s sisters, Matilda and Eliza – although Eliza was ill, suffering from the effects of a journey at sea.

Jane was just seventeen years of age when she arrived in Port Chalmers as a newly married woman. [7] Not long after they had made landfall in the Southern Hemisphere, Mathilda also made a match. She married John Olsen in Dunedin, in August 1874.

What Jane and Arthur did until 1882 is unclear, but around that time they made their way north to Christchurch, along with Jane’s sister and travelling companion, Lizzie (Eliza). She would marry in 1888 to John Beilby Barker, who was from a well known Le Bons Bay family.

Arthur found work as a fitter at the Addington Railway Workshop and the couple were able to purchase a small home in Addington. In 1875, their first son, Arthur junior, was born. His birth was followed in 1877 by younger brother, James.

The Russian War Scare

At some stage Howard left Christchurch to gain work in the North Island, but returned and took up employment again at the Railways workshop, but his new position resulted in a cut in pay. Howard had served in the army in America. He became involved in establishing an Engineer Corp amongst his fellow employees at Addington Railway Workshop, in response to the threat of war with Russia.

He worked alongside James William Nicholls, an Englishman who had served his apprenticeship with the London and North-Western Railway at Warburton, and at Kew as a fitter. Nicholls also lived in Addington and became a close family friend. [8]

Also working with them was Samuel Wilson, who had served in the 8th Hussars and was a survivor of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Samuel died in July, 1884, at his home in Addington, and was buried with military honours. A large number of his fellow workers followed his remains to the grave, while the Addington Workshops Band played “The Dead March in Saul.” Not long after, Howard and Nicholls set about organising fundraising to assist Wilson’s widow and her children. [9] Wilson arranged a benefit performance, which was patronised by the City and Sydenham Borough Councils, and Howard collected subscriptions for the fund.

Howard obviously fancied his talents as an actor, although by all accounts he wasn’t particularly skilled – but still good enough to fool some members of the constabulary. It seems Howard – and from her actions after Howard’s disappearance, probably Jane too – had been planning the deception for some time. Howard had purchased the various insurance policies, selling his house in Addington to fund them. He made them over in favour of his wife before faking his drowning at Sumner – just days before the official opening of Bell’s new baths.

‘…the first brick cottage off Colombo Street’

After the sale of their house in Addington, the Howards moved into rented accommodation in Battersea Street in Sydenham, living in the ‘first brick cottage off Colombo Street’. Up until the time of her arrest, Jane Howard boardered with Elizabeth Dowdall, a widow living in Harman St, Addington whose house adjoined that of the Howard’s friend, James Nicholls. Nicholls placed the infamous reward advertisement in the Lyttelton Times and wrote several letters, on behalf of Jane, to the insurance companies, requesting her payout.

NEWS AND NOTES. Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume VII, Issue 1129, 16 January 1886, Page 2. Image: PapersPast.
NEWS AND NOTES. Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume VII, Issue 1129, 16 January 1886, Page 2. Image: PapersPast.

Jane Howard was acquitted at the Supreme Court for conspiring to defraud, having been tried alongside Howard on April 5, 1886, and was released from Addington gaol. [10] A short time prior to Howard completing his sentence of imprisonment, she was said to have eloped with a well known local businessman – a married butcher – taking her children with her to San Francisco.

Crushed to Death Between Two Trucks

On release, Howard was believed to have tracked them to America and then to Australia. He had supposedly obtained employment in the Spenser street railway yard in Melbourne, and was crushed to death between two trucks in July, 1889. Another story had him killed when he fell off a tramcar he was riding one day. [11] Neither Jane nor her children; Arthur Robert Ramage Howard and James Ramage Howard have been traced. They appear to have made a better job of disappearing than their father did.

As to the story of Howard’s death, no newspaper reports could be found of an accident that fitted the time or Howard’s profile. A namesake – a 32 year old Englishman called Arthur Howard, who also worked on the railway but at Redfern Station in Sydney – died from injuries receive in an accident on the 19th day of November 1888. He left behind a grieving wife and young family. Whilst this unfortunate man does not appear to have been the same ‘Arthur Howard’ of the ‘Severed Hand Mystery’, his death on the railway had the same tragic circumstances attributed to his infamous namesake.

General view of the Addington Railways Workshops, 1909. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 25 MARCH 1909 p013. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19090325-13-1
General view of the Addington Railways Workshops, sheds and yards, 1909. [12]
  1. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19100210-14-1
  2. This appears to be an error, Arthur Howard’s wife was Jane Ann Low Howard, nee Kinnear.
  3. According to the recollections of Mr George Gill in 1892, who in 1885 was secretary of the Assurance Association and was the first to doubt the bona fides of the Howards, Howard had obtained a passage on the SS Hawea under the name John Blair Watt. However shipping reports show the Hawera travelled from Lyttelton south arriving in Port Chalmers on the 9th of October – two days before Howard disappeared. The Wanaka was laid up in dock at Port Chalmers undergoing an overhaul, and was replaced on the rest of the trip by the Wanaka, which sailed into Lyttelton on the 12th and on to Wellington the following day. It may well have been the Wanaka that Howard actually made his escape on. Source: THE SEVERED HAND. (1892, December 10). Oakleigh Leader (North Brighton, Vic. : 1888 – 1902), p. 4.
  4. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Wellington Provincial District]
  5. Advertisements. Press, Volume XLIII, Issue 6423, 21 April 1886, Page 3
  6. “Howard’s Appearance at Police Court.” Star, Issue 5511, 8 January 1886, Page 3.
  7. Shipping. Otago Witness , Issue 1175, 6 June 1874, Page 16.
  8. THE WORKSHOPS INQUIRY. Star, Issue 9492, 16 March 1909, Page 2.
  9. Source: DEATH OF ONE OF THE SIX HUNDRED. New Zealand Herald, Volume XXI, Issue 7085, 1 August 1884, Page 5. THE WILSON FUND. Press, Volume XLI, Issue 6045, 30 January 1885, Page 3.
  10. Police Gazette, Return of prisoners reported as discharged form gaols during the fortnight ended 17th April, 1886. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch.
  11. THE SEVERED HAND” 1892, December 10, Oakleigh Leader, North Brighton, Vic., p. 4 Supplement: SUPPLEMENT TO THE LEADER.
  12. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 25 March 1909 p13. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19090325-13-1.
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