Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Infamous “Shark Arm Murder”

Examining skull
Photo by Hannah Gibbs on Unsplash

Dr. Kris Sperry has been a private forensic medicine and pathology consultant in the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City, Georgia, for more than 35 years. From 1997 to 2015, he concurrently served as chief medical examiner for the State of Georgia. One of Dr. Kris Sperry’s scientific interests is the use of tattoos for forensic identification.

In the world of forensics, experts have long looked for unique identifying skin features such as scars and birthmarks in order to correctly identify dead bodies. Intentional body modifications, such as tattoos, have also proven quite helpful in this process.

A relative early example of using tattoos in a forensic examination was a 1935 criminal investigation in Sydney, Australia, that became popularized among the general public as the “shark arm case” or the “shark arm murder.” This investigation began at Sydney’s Coogee Aquarium, after a tiger shark in one of its tanks vomited up a severed human arm that bore a distinctive tattoo of two sparring boxers. Forensic scientists quickly determined that the arm had been cut, rather than bitten off.

Spurred by this indication of foul play, police quickly used the tattoo to identify the arm’s owner: a saloonkeeper and former lightweight boxing contender named Jimmy Smith. After identifying Smith, they traced his recent interactions to ultimately arrest and solicit a confession from his murderer—major organized crime figure Reginald Holmes.