The Mysterious Somerton Man
The story of the unknown man found on a beach in Adelaide.
In most cases, the police have some hint or a clue to help solve the mystery. They are rarely left completely baffled, especially with the advancements in DNA analysis. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with the mysterious Somerton man.
The case occurred in Adelaide, Australia, in December 1948, when a body was discovered on the first day of summer on the beach. Although the case is still an active investigation, the bizarre events have been labelled the most mysterious cold case ever.
Many questions remain, who was the man, what he died of, and is there even a killer to be caught?
The Somerton Man
On 30th November 1948 at 7 pm, a jeweller, John Bains Lyon, and his wife took a stroll along the Somerton beach. At the time, they noticed a smartly dressed man lying on the sand, with his head propped up against the sea wall. His legs were outstretched and his feet crossed. As they approached the man, he extended his right arm and let it fall to the ground, like a drunken man attempting to smoke a cigarette.
Half an hour later, another couple noticed the man, this time from on top of the sea wall. The woman saw that the man was well dressed in a suit and shiny shoes; he was motionless, they presumed he was asleep. Her boyfriend joked that he must be dead to the world not to feel the many mosquitos biting him, a regrettable comment.
The following day John Lyon returned to the beach for a swim and discovered a small group of people around the man. It was apparent that the man was dead; he was in the same position as the previous night. Although his body was cold, it showed no signs of violence. On his collar was a half-smoked cigarette as if it had fallen out of his mouth.
Dr John Barkley pronounced the time of death as 2 am; the cause of death he said was heart failure, possibly brought on by poisoning. The man was in his 40s; he had grey/blue eyes and ginger brown hair, which had started to grey. The gentleman’s pupils were smaller than average; spittle had run down his throat as if he couldn’t swallow.
Internal examination showed an enlarged spleen; his liver was distended with blood. His last meal had been that of a pasty, but his stomach contained blood which also suggested poisoning. So maybe his behaviour on the beach was not that of a drunk man but one succumbing to poison.
Repeat testing by the scientists failed to reveal even the faintest trace of poison, though. At the time, only two toxins were known that decomposed in the body early after death; the two possibilities were Digitalis and Strophanthin, both were not easy to get hold of. Strophanthin is the poison that Somali tribes used to poison their arrowheads and was considered the more likely of the two.
The physical shape of the man was also unusual; he had high well-developed calf muscles and wedge-shaped toes, similar to that of an athlete or woman who wore high heels. Could the man have been a ballet dancer?
I have not seen the tendency of calf muscle so pronounced as in this case…. His feet were rather striking, suggesting — this is my own assumption — that he had been in the habit of wearing high-heeled and pointed shoes.
The Belongings of the Mystery Stranger
In the pockets of the dead man, there was a ticket from Adelaide to Henley beach. It had not been used; it would later be found that he had taken the bus. There were some chewing gum, matches and two combs. There was also a pack of army club cigarettes; however, seven cigarettes from another more expensive brand were inside. He had no wallet, no cash or identification on him.
The clothes he wore had no tags, not even manufacturing labels; they had been snipped out. The pocket on his trousers had been mended using a distinctive orange thread. The authorities had nothing else to go on.
On 12th December, detectives located a suitcase they believed belonged to the mystery man at Adelaide’s central railway station. It had been deposited in the cloakroom on 30th November.
The suitcase was brown and contained no stickers, markings or labels. The tags had been removed from all the clothes except three. The labels on these read Kean or T Keane; all were impossible to trace.
Also within the case was some orange thread that matched those on the Somerton man’s trousers. A stencil kit was similar to that officers on board merchant ships used, knives and a coat that looked American in origin.
Despite this, there were no leads through immigration records. The fingerprints and description of the man had been circulated across many countries; none of these enquiries provided any evidence.
The Hidden Pocket.
Four months after the body had been found, the most bizarre clue to date came to light. A small pocket was sewn into the waistband of the trousers. A piece of paper was ripped from a book; the paper contained two words ‘Tamam Shud.’ Tamam Shud is a Persian phrase that means ‘it is ended.’ Leading authorities to speculate further that the man had committed suicide. The paper had been torn from a New Zealand book of poetry called The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam.
This was strange in itself, but as detectives looked into the paper, the mystery deepened. The page had been ripped from a rare volume that could not be identified.
Burying the Somerton Man
With no clues, authorities decided to bury the unknown man. Before burying, he was embalmed and a cast made of his face and body. His body was then sealed under concrete in the dry ground, all precautions to maintain the body if the need arose for it to be exhumed.
The grave was marked with a plaque stating the man was unknown. Regularly flowers are laid on the grave from an unknown source. No one has ever been able to trace the flower giver.
The Nurse and the Book
Eight months after the mystery started, a man walked into the police station with a copy of the missing book and a strange story.
Early the previous December, just after the body had been found, he went for a drive in his brother-in-law’s car. The car had been parked one hundred yards from Somerton Beach. Lying on the back seat of the vehicle was the copy of the book with the missing section. The man had thrown the book into the glove compartment; there it had stayed, each man believing the book belonged to the other. Finally, the media attention had alerted him to the book and he brought it to the police.
When examined, the book had a pencilled telephone number written on the back cover. The number was unlisted but was later found to belong to a nurse who lived close to the beach. The nurse, Jestyn Thompson, admitted to giving the book to a man she had met during the war; she said his name had been Alfred Boxall. Did the Somerton man finally have a name?
Police traced Alfred Boxall and found out that he was very much alive; not only that, but he still had his copy of the book completely intact.
The authorities questioned Thompson some more; she stated that a stranger had come looking for her before the body was found. The police showed her the cast of the man who had been found at the beach. Despite stating she had no idea who he was and had never seen him before, her emotions betrayed her. Police commented that she looked genuinely shocked and upset when she saw the cast.
The police then went back to the copy of the book, this time studying it under a UV light where it was revealed to have lines of code written on it. Unfortunately, the code appeared to be unbreakable; it has not been solved to this day.
The police once again had hit a brick wall. The man had no identity, and they could not even be sure he had been murdered. So the case was virtually closed in 1958.
The Many Theories
The lack of clues and progress has not stopped several armchair detectives from trying to solve it. Some have made some significant advancements.
It seems likely that the nurse, who has since passed away, knew the man. Following this thought, her World War Two activities have been studied. It seems that she could have been in the habit of handing out copies of Rubaiyat to men she met. After the war, being married, she wanted to hide this fact. Others have looked further into her life and discovered a remarkable similarity between the unknown man and her son. The case was made that he killed himself when he found he could not see his family. Although, it seems an unlikely method of suicide to poison yourself.
Instead, some have said that he was a spy who was poisoned. The poison could have been placed into his cigarettes. This would explain the different brand of cigarettes in the packet.
Another fact which confused many is that the edition of Rubaiyat has never been identified elsewhere, except for one edition. Police discovered this edition on another corpse in Australia, a Jewish immigrant named George Marshall. Was this edition a code pad for secret spy messages? Some cyphers are known to use specific books with page and word references to send messages.
Another statement from a witness to the incident has also been found. This man stated he saw a man carrying another across his shoulders near the water’s edge on the night of the death. Was the man carrying the Somerton man to his resting point?
When I think about the theories, I am drawn to the fact that the man was a spy and used the book to decode messages. I believe he may have strayed from orders to find a nurse he met in World War Two and a son he had never seen. This deviation from orders had led to him being killed through poison.
We may never know the true story of how an unknown stranger ended up on a strange beach in Australia. However, we may be getting closer to finding his identity. His body was exhumed on 19th May 2021; authorities are convinced with the advancements in DNA profiling, they will find a genetic match for him shortly and finally uncover the identity of the Somerton man.