Story: Beachcombing

The Howard mystery

The Howard mystery

This severed hand was found on 16 December 1885 at a Christchurch beach. The discovery led to a sensational court case, and the owner of the hand remains unknown.

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Contributed by Jo-Anne Smith.

On the morning of 11 October 1885 a boy discovered a neatly folded pile of men’s clothing on the beach at Sumner. This was the beginning of an intriguing story that captured widespread interest over the next few months in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand, and came to be known as ‘the Howard mystery’.

It was soon realised that the clothes belonged to Arthur Howard, who had apparently gone for a swim the previous day and drowned. His wife, Mrs Sarah Howard, offered a £50 reward and sought to make an insurance claim. Astonishingly, this humble mechanic’s life was insured for £2,400, a large sum in those days. The insurance company was suspicious and refused to pay.

Two months later, another beach find caused a flurry of excitement. On 16 December a severed hand was taken in to a Christchurch police station by Mr Elisha Godfrey, a storekeeper.

In a statement he said he had been fishing off the rocks at Taylors Mistake beach with his brother Fred (a cook at an asylum) when a man called him over and showed him the hand lying in the sand, among the seaweed. Godfrey claimed the man said he was in a ‘high’ position in Christchurch and did not want to be connected with the find.

Mrs Howard was called to the police station and identified the hand as her husband’s. She said she recognised the ring on the hand.

However, the police were now suspicious. On 21 December they arrested Elisha Godfrey and his brother for conspiracy to defraud the insurance company, along with Mrs Howard. They tracked down the supposedly dead Mr Howard in Petone and arrested him on 4 January 1886.

The trial was big news. It was established in court that the hand was a woman’s, had been sawn off a body, and that it could not possibly have been in the water for eight weeks.

Arthur Howard was convicted of attempting to defraud the insurance company and received the maximum sentence of two years’ jail. The Godfreys and Mrs Howard were acquitted.

Recent graves were exhumed in the areas where Mr Howard was known to have been while in hiding (Christchurch, Wellington and Wairarapa), but no handless body was found. The woman whose hand was found on the beach remains unidentified to this day.

Using this item

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira
Reference: The severed hand, or, the Howard mystery: with portraits of Mr and Mrs Howard, the Messrs. Godfrey and the mysterious hand. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1886

Permission of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Sources: Gordon Ogilvie, The Port Hills of Christchurch. Wellington: Reed, 1978; and The severed hand – the Howard mystery. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1886.

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How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Beachcombing - Pieces of history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/community-contribution/7206/the-howard-mystery (accessed 25 January 2022)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 12 Jun 2006