The case of the missing hand.
When police officers dug up the body of 67-year-old Helen Rayner in 1885, they fully expected to find her minus one hand.
Instead she still had both.
So whose was the severed hand police had in custody?
Helen Rayner (nee Bland, known as Betsy) came to New Zealand from England in 1853 with her husband John aboard the Lady Cornwall. Initially they set up home in Lower Hutt with their many children.
One of their sons John (junior) moved to Masterton where he married Elizabeth and farmed on the Taratahi Plain. In their retirement, Helen and John (senior) joined their son in Masterton, where John senior died in 1881 and Helen in 1885.
On October 11 that same year, Christchurch railway worker Arthur Robert Ramage Howard, a fitter from the Addington workshop, apparently went missing while swimming at Sumner Beach. His widow Jane Howard claimed his £2400 in life insurance from three companies. The companies were, however, not convinced that he was dead, so they advised Jane Howard that they would pay out if a body, “or a portion thereof”, was located.
The portion duly showed up on the beach at Sumner on December 16; a hand with a ring on one finger. So Jane Howard tried to claim the money again. Unfortunately for her, the medical experts found the hand belonged to a woman.
Jane Howard was arrested and the hunt was on for the missing Arthur Howard.
Early in 1886 Arthur was found in Petone. He was wearing a wig and had dyed his moustache (and ironically missing a thumb on one hand) and called himself John Watson.
Arthur Howard was a friend of the undertaker in Masterton, and mourners remembered seeing him at Helen Rayner's funeral on November 25, 1885.
It became “common knowledge” in Masterton that Arthur had dug up her body after the funeral and had sawn off her hand.
Under pressure from Helen’s distraught family to check if the rumours were true, the police organised for an exhumation and at 10.30pm one night a party went to Archer Street cemetery to disinter her body.
They found she still had both hands.
A friend of Howard’s claimed he had been asked to go to the cemetery to dig up a body, but he had refused. Police proceeded to dig up further bodies to check but found nothing amiss.
Despite the fruitless search for the handless arm, Arthur and Jane Howard, and the two men who claimed they found Arthur's hand, Frederick and Elisha Godfrey, went to trial. Arthur was found guilty of fraud and was sentenced to two years jail. His wife and the other two men were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud.
It wasn’t the end of Arthur’s problems though. While he was in prison, Jane ran off with a Christchurch butcher.
After his release from prison, Arthur was deported back to Australia but died in a shunting accident in 1889.
In the meantime, police never discovered who the hand had belonged to.