Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Somerton man

On the morning of 1st December 1948
An unknown man was found dead, slumped against some rocks, on Somerton Beach just south of Adelaide, Australia.

The previous night, witness saw this unknown man alive. Sitting with crossed legs, attempting to raise an arm up, probably to light a cigarette, probably drunk, they thought, and walked on.

Later another couple would see him, slumped against the rocks, mosquitoes in a cloud around his face. They’d joke that he really must be drunk.

One man reportedly told police that in darkness he saw one man carrying another over his shoulder, but it was so dark that he wasn’t a reliable account.

This is the case of the Somerton man.

Despite being a warm summer evening, the Somerton man was dressed in a suit with a knit pullover, and shined heeled shoes, a half smoked cigarette fallen to his chest.
The pocket of the suit trousers had been neatly mended with an orange thread.
There were no labels on his clothing, and unusually for 1948, he wasn’t wearing a hat.
There was no sign of a struggle and no identification on his person.

The items found on his body are as follows:

-An unused bus ticket from Adelaide to Henley beach
-Bryant and May matches
-An army club cigarette pack box, with seven cigarettes of a different brand inside (Kensitas)
-A pack of Juicy Fruit Chewing gum

Autopsy notes:
- His pupils were small
-His spleen was firm and 3x larger than it should have been
-His liver was congested with blood and distended
-His stomach also has blood as well as the remains of his final meal, a pasty, which was tested for traces of poisoning

Despite the suspicion of death by poisoning, the tests came back negative.

However it was later speculated by the coroner, a man named Thomas Cleland, that there were known poisons, namely digitalis and strophanthin, that decomposed quickly in the body and would have been impossible to trace by the time the autopsy was performed.

Another thing worth noting, was that despite being in his 40’s, the man had the legs of an athlete, with pronounced calf muscles and oddly shaped toes, like that of a ballet dancer. 

Despite the police taking and distributing his finger prints, printing his picture in the paper and inviting the families of missing persons to view the Somerton man, there was no leads and the man didn’t seem to exist on any official records. 

They had nothing to go on but the body itself, and so noticing that he wasn’t dressed for the Australian climate, assumed he was traveling.

They asked hotels, bus stations and railway stations if they had been any unclaimed luggage, and were informed by Adelaide railway station that a brown suitcase had been deposited there on the 30th of November, and never picked up.

By January 12th, it had been considered abandoned, and due to how long ago it had been dropped off, none of the staff could recall a visual ID of the person to whom it belonged. 

Amazingly, there was a small but important clue contained within the suitcase- a reel of orange thread, a brand unavailable to purchase in Australia, which matched perfectly with the orange thread used to make the repair on the unknown man’s suit trousers.

Coupled with the fact that it had been deposited the day before the discovery of the man, police concluded that it indeed must have belonged to him.

Sadly, as with the suit, the labels had been removed from the clothes inside of the suitcase, as well as the label inside the suitcase itself. The only tags that remained were signed with the name “T. Keane” but a search for any missing person under the name came back unsuccessful. The labels were concluded as only being left on the garments as any removal of them would damage the fabric itself. The police thought the name bore no connection to the man.

Notable items in the suitcase were:
-A stencil kit known to be used for stenciling cargo on merchant ships. 
(However, despite a search of shipping and immigration records, no trace was found.)
-A sawed down table knife
-Air mail cards for sending communication abroad
-A coat identified as being of American origin

The other items contained in the suitcase were:
Among general clothing there a few note-worthy items:
-Laundry bag also bearing the name “Keane”
-A pair of trousers with a sixpence coin (British) in the pocket.
-One vest with the name "Kean" without the E
-One singlet with name torn off.
-A shirt without a name tag
-Two airmail stickers
-pencils, mostly of the Royal Sovereign brand, three of which were size H

It had been 4 months without a lead.
John Cleland, who was the professor of pathology at Adelaide University, reexamined the body.
He discovered there was a small pocket sewn into the waist band on the unknown man’s trousers.

Inside of the pocket was a small, tightly rolled piece of paper, with the printed words “Tamám Shud.” 

The words were from a book that had become popular in Australia during the war. A twelfth century book of poetry, by the name of “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”

The words “Tamam shud” were printed a the end of the final chapter, and translate as”The end” or “It is the end”

The ominous find sparked fantasies that the Somerton man had possibly committed suicide due to heartbreak, as the theme of the poetry in the book was that of love and mortality, that he knew this would be his last day, that he had purposely removed the tags from his clothes and was removing himself from life.

The police began to search for a copy of the book that used the same unique font as the one of the unknown man’s. 

The searched high and low, they searched libraries and reached out to publishing houses to no avail and eventually a man came forward and brought a copy of the book to the police station in Adelaide.

The police turned to the final page to discover the words “Tamám Shud” had been ripped out. 

The rip perfectly matched up with the Somerton man’s piece.

The man who brought in the book said he and his brother had been driving around one evening, and parked their car near Somerton beach. The man had discovered the copy of the Rubaiya on the back seat of his car, but assuming it was his brothers, just put it in the glove box and thought nothing of it.

It was only when he saw the news report that he came forward with the evidence.

The book was tested and it was indeed the exact book the police had been searching for.

They discovered that it had been printed in New Zealand by a chain called Whitcombe & Tombs. However, the chain revealed that the copy they printed was slightly different to the one the police had in their custody. Their print had a similar cover, but had not been printed in that format. 

The same print could not be found anywhere else in the world.

The Somerton man’s copy of an extremely popular book seemed to be totally unique.

The book seemed to hold no clues.

But a Detective by the name of Sergeant Lionel, decided to take a closer examination, and found two phone numbers written on the back, as well as an impression left, as if someone had been writing on the final page before ripping it out.

Using a UV light, he discovered lines of code; one of which was crossed out.

The first phone number was the number of a bank, which yielded no new leads.

The second was of a nurse, by the name of Jessica Thomson (nee Harkness), who the police were protecting under pseudonym at the time, as she feared a scandal or gossip of a romantic relationship with the Somerton man, and was to be married to the man she was currently living with.

Or so she claimed.

She said she had given a copy of the book to a soldier she met while she was a military nurse.
She’d inscribed it with a poem, and the man’s name was Alfred Boxall. 

Police found Alfred Boxall alive and well, still with the copy of the Rubaiyat that Jessica had given to him.

Again, it was a cold lead.

Jessica was brought in to see if she could Identify the Somerton man, and despite only being shown a cast of his face and part of his upper body, the detective noted that she appeared as though she were about to faint.

Many said she seemed to recognize the man, but stuck with her story that she did not.

The only information she could supply them with, is that many years ago a neighbor of hers informed her that a man had come looking for her by name, but she was not home. 

She never saw this man and couldn’t supply a date.

With no information to go on, all they had left was the code.

Despite printing it in the newspaper, presenting it to the best code breakers and even naval intelligence, it remains uncracked. Naval intelligence stated that it was probably in English language and that that it is possibly some sort of verse or poem.

The unknown man remains unknown.

No one will ever be able to confirm or debunk the suspicions that Jessica Thompson did know his identity, as she died in 2007. 

So who was he?
And what about the spy theories of the rare copy of the unknown man’s Rubaiyat being some kind of a key or code pad?

After all, the Somerton man wasn’t the only person to be found dead, with a rare copy of a Rubaiyat somewhere on his person.
Take Singaporean immigrant George Marshall for example; who was also discovered dead in Australia a few years before, with a rare copy of the book near him. His copy was originally printed in London, and only 5 of his edition were in existence. 

This was only two months after Jessica Thompson had given an inscribed copy of the book to Boxhall, who was military intelligence.

And what’s with Jessica’s phone number also being in the Somerton man’s rare copy of the Rubaiyat? 

And what about a woman by the name of Gwenneth Dorothy Graham, who testified at the court hearing in relation to the death of George Marshall being found with slit wrists in her bathtub only a couple of weeks later?

Further reading: 
Here is a Reddit link to an AMA with Professor Derek Abbot who has been studying the Somerton man case for several years:

Also, a more recent article:

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