October 20, 2021

Who Was ‘The Somerton Man’?

In December 1948, an unknown man was found dead on an Adelaide beach. It was the beginning of one of Australia’s most famous unsolved mysteries.

Somerton Beach, approximate location of where The Somerton Man was found
Somerton Beach, approximate location where the body was found

November 30, 1948 was a warm day in Adelaide.

The city’s popular main beach area, centred around Glenelg, was crowded with a summertime crowd, enjoying the weather. Around 7pm, a local jeweller, John Bain, was walking with his family along Somerton Beach, when he noticed something unusual.

Lying on the sand, propped against the sea wall, was a middle-aged man in a suit, and leather dress shoes. Due to the weather, this outfit looked out of place and caught Bain’s eye. The man appeared groggy, and was awkwardly trying to smoke a cigarette. Bain thought he was probably drunk.

Several other witnesses would later say they recalled seeing something similar.

The Somerton Man
The unidentified body

The next morning, December 1, people out for an early swim found the body, in the same position. Only now slumped down, and cold. Sometime during the night, the man had died.

Police and an ambulance were called, and the body taken to Royal Adelaide hospital.

The body was examined by Dr John Bennett, who placed the time of death around 2am. The cause of death was heart failure, caused by poison, Bennett suspected.

Based on this diagnosis, police treated the death as suspicious, and began to investigate.

The Somerton Man reported in the press
The local press report the story

Their first task was to try and identify the body.

And here they immediately ran into difficulty. The unidentified man was carrying no wallet, or identification. The contents of his pockets did not provide much either; a train ticket from Adelaide to Glenelg, two combs, a pack of gum, a pack of cigarettes and some matches.

More mysteriously, the labels on all of his clothes had been removed. The police did note, a distinctive, bright orange thread that had been used to repair a hole in the man’s trousers.

They had little to go on.

The Digitalis flower
Digitalis: one of the possible poisons used

A coronial inquest was held, to formally determine the cause of death.

While poison was strongly suspected, an autopsy had failed to find any traces in the man’s system.

If the man had been poisoned, the agent would need to be quite specific; lethal in small doses, quickly metabolised by the body, and undetectable by standard testing. Some compounds with these traits were suggested, among them digitalis and strophanthin, although this detail was kept from the public, as they were easily obtainable.

But proof that the man had been poisoned remained elusive. The inquest officially entered the cause of death as ‘Unknown.’

News report about The Somerton Man
Do you know this man?

The police now cast their net wider.

The victim’s fingerprints were circulated Australia wide, so other law enforcement agencies could check their records for a match. And a photo of the deceased was printed in the newspapers, alongside a plea for information. The story was picked up internationally, and the question asked in England and America:

Who was ‘The Somerton Man’?

The Somerton Man's suitcase
The unclaimed suitcase

The investigation now turned up a lead.

At the Adelaide train station, an unmarked suitcase had been checked at the cloakroom on November 30, and not subsequently claimed. Suspecting a link between the luggage and the deceased, the police seized the suitcase as evidence.

Inside, they found a curious collection of objects.

There were several sets of men’s clothes, again with their labels removed. One of the items was a coat, with an unusual type of ‘feather’ stitching, common in America but not Australia. Another piece had been repaired with the same orange stitching found on the dead man’s trousers, which seemed to confirm the connection.

There was also a large knife, and most unusually, a stencil kit. This last item was of a type used in the shipping industry, to apply letters and numbers to boats.

Staff at the train station had no recollection of who had left the suitcase. The cloakroom was busy, with people coming and going constantly.

Professor John Cleland
Professor John Cleland

Unsure what to make of these confusing clues, police brought in an outside expert; John Cleland, professor of pathology at Adelaide university.

Cleland re-examined all of the evidence gathered so far, and made a startling discovery.

In the man’s trousers he found a secret pocket. This had been custom added, and then sewn up again, to conceal whatever was inside.

When police now opened it up, they found the most baffling clue of all.

The Tamam Shud scrap of paper
The Tamam Shud scrap of paper

Inside was a small, rolled up piece of paper. Printed on it, in a distinctive script, were the words, ‘Tamam Shud’.
This was identified as a Persian phrase meaning, ‘It is ended’.

At the suggestion of an Adelaide reporter, it was thought the scrap of paper could have come from a copy of a book of Persian poetry called, the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’. This was a niche item, but relatively popular in Australia at the time, available from specialist bookstores and libraries.

The final poem in the book ends with the words, Tamam Shud.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

As police tried to determine which copy of the book the scrap of paper may have come from, they ran into an obstacle: the unusual font.

Copies that they located had standard type, rather than the very elaborate lettering found in the man’s pocket. This clue seemed to be a dead end as well.

Several weeks had now passed since the body’s discovery. The request for information from the public had turned up no useful information, and the man’s identity remained undetermined.

A cast of the man’s face was taken, and he was buried in an Adelaide cemetery. The case went cold.

The Somerton Man's grave site
The Somerton Man’s grave site

In July 1949, eight months after the body was found, police received a startling new piece of evidence. A Glenelg man presented them with the copy of the ‘Rubaiyat’, that seemingly matched the Tamam Shud scrap of paper.

This edition of the book was from a small run, printed in Christchurch, New Zealand. It used the same unusual font, and the final page of the book, where Tamam Shud should be found, was missing.

Analysis of the paper used, confirmed the match.

The man who turned it in said he had found the book in the back seat of his car, parked in Somerton, and had not known how it had gotten there. He had thought it odd, but had put it aside without thinking much of it, and had only come forward when he had read an article about the case.

This book also revealed new information, that brought the investigation back to life.

The Somerton Man's copy of the Rubaiyat
The Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat

Written in the back cover of the book was a phone number.

This was unlisted, but police traced it to a young nurse who lived in Somerton, only 400 metres from where the body had been found. Police questioned her, but suppressed her name to the public, at the woman’s request.

She was known at the time only by her nickname: Jestyn.

Alfred Boxall
Alfred Boxall

Jestyn had lived in Sydney during World War II, and had worked as a nurse at the Royal North Shore hospital.

There she had met a returned Lieutenant, Alfred Boxall, and the two had struck up a friendship. She had given him a copy of the ‘Rubaiyat’ as a gift.

Could Boxall be the unidentified man?

Police traced him to Maroubra, but found him very much alive. Boxall also still had the copy of the book Jestyn had given him, confirmed by an inscription she had written inside the front cover. It was not the copy the Tamam Shud fragment had come from.

Jestyn stated that she did not know the unidentified man, or how her phone number had come to be in the back of his book.

It seemed to be another dead end.

Cast of The Somerton Man's head
Cast of The Somerton Man’s head

But some parts of Jestyn’s story were suspicious.

Under questioning, she recalled that sometime the previous year, her neighbours had told her that an unknown man had called at her residence, asking for her. He did not say what he wanted, and had not been seen again.

Sergeant Leane, who questioned Jestyn, would later also recall her unusual reaction, when shown the cast that had been taken of the dead man’s face:

‘She seemed completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance she was about to faint.’

 

– Sergeant Leane

Police suspected that she knew The Somerton Man, but a link could not be found.

The Somerton Man coded message
The Somerton Man coded message

The copy of the Rubaiyat the police had also yielded one final, strange clue.

Examined under ultra violet light, a series of letters was uncovered on one of the pages. This seemingly random assortment of characters was suspected to be some kind of code and the police sent it to the office of Naval Intelligence, who attempted to decipher it.

The message was subsequently released in the press, setting off another media frenzy, as amateur sleuths across Australia also tried to crack it.

But breaking a code using such a short message is extremely difficult. Neither the intelligence officers, or the public, had any success; to this day the message, if it is indeed a code, remains unbroken.

The press report The Somerton Man code mystery
The public try and crack the case

The police eventually concluded their investigation. Their assumption was that the death was probably a suicide, although the means was unusual, and the motive unknown.

But without an identification of the body, they had nothing further to go on.

A final, official re-examination of the evidence and testimony, conducted by the coroner’s office in 1958, was inconclusive.

‘I am unable to say who the deceased was… I am unable to say how he died or what was the cause of death.’

 

– Coroner’s report, 1958

And there the case rested, as an unsolved mystery.

But in the ensuing years, amateur detectives and journalists have continued to try solve the case.

One of the book's written about the Somerton Man mystery
One of the book’s written about the mystery

A popular conspiracy theory is that the Somerton Man was involved in espionage.

If he was a spy, this may explain his lack of identification, and the removal of his clothing labels; he was trained to cover his tracks. And the code found in the Rubaiyat seems like a piece of spycraft.

Alf Boxall, Jestyn’s friend from Sydney, had worked in army intelligence during the war: could all these facts be connected?

While this circumstantial evidence makes a compelling case, nothing more tangible has come forth in the decades since. No government agency has claimed The Somerton Man as an agent, as has happened in other suspected spy cases, and his mission remains obscure.

If he was a spy, what was he working on?

One suggestion is that he may have been probing the English military base at Woomera, where nuclear weapons tests were conducted. But no tangible evidence has been found to prove this.

Jenny Thompson and her son
Jenny Thompson and her son

A more straightforward idea is that The Somerton Man was a former lover of Jestyn’s, trying to re-establish contact. Alf Boxall had a copy of the Rubaiyat as a gift, perhaps Jestyn had done the same with other men she had known.

One amateur investigator, Professor Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide, discovered in later years that Jestyn, finally revealed to be a woman named Jenny Thompson, had a son, whose existence had been unknown during the police investigation.

This theory has The Somerton Man as the unknown stranger, who tried to visit Thompson/Jestyn the year before. Perhaps he had learned of the son’s existence, and tried to make contact. If he had then been rejected, could this be a motive for the subsequent suicide?

But this does not explain why the man was never identified. Or, why the Tamam Shud fragment would be sealed in a secret pocket, hidden in the man’s clothing.

And, by the time Abbott’s theory was presented, both Thompson and her son were deceased, and so it could not be put to them.

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