On December 1, 1948 the body of a man was found on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia.
He was a white male in his early 40s. He was clean-cut and wore a white dress shirt, a red and blue striped tie and brown pants. Strangely, he also wore a brown knit pullover and a European-style overcoat, even though December is summertime in Australia, and the previous day had been quite hot, the previous evening very warm. Even stranger, all the tags had been removed from his clothing (most clothing tags of the day bore the name of the store where they were purchased and not a global designer brand; this was sometimes useful for identifying bodies). None of the items found on the body – a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, an American-made steel comb, a box of matches, and a pack of Army Club cigarettes (which actually contained Kensitas brand cigarettes) – assisted in identifying the body.
An autopsy was performed on the man, and there things only got stranger. The pathologist, Sir John Burton Cleland, was convinced that the man had been poisoned, due to the peculiar damage to the man’s internal organs. But no trace of poison was found in the man’s body. Cleland was even able to determine that the man’s last meal had been a pasty, a British pocket pie similar to an empanada. But no poison was found in the pasty, either.
Local media initially thought the the body might be that of a missing local man called E.C. Johnson. But on December 3rd, the very same Mr. Johnson walked in to a police station to identify himself, so that lead went nowhere. The next day, police announced that they had found no match for the man through fingerprint and dental records. The day after that, newspapers reported that police had started looking through military records after a local claimed to have been with the man at a local hotel bar on November 30th, and had allegedly seen the deceased with a military pension card with the same “Solomonson” on it. This also came to nothing.
Progress appeared to have been made in early January, when two people identified the body as that of a local woodcutter named Robert Walsh. However, that too fell though: Walsh was 63, much older than the dead man. While the deceased had calluses on his hands that indicated he might have been a woodcutter, pathologists determined if the dead man was a woodcutter, he hadn’t done so in at least 18 months, a time when Walsh was known to have worked. The identification was shot down completely when Mrs Elizabeth Thompson, one of the people who originally identified the body as Walsh, recanted after a second viewing in which she noticed that the body was missing a scar Walsh was known to have.
Things got even stranger on January 14, 1949. That’s when workers from the local Adelaide Railway Station brought an abandoned suitcase to the police. The case had been checked in to the station on the evening of November 30th, the night before the man’s body was found. Inside the bag, police found several items of clothing (including a pair of pants with sand in the cuffs), shaving equipment, an electrician’s screwdriver, a table knife which had been cut down into a weapon, a stenciling brush, and a pair of scissors most often used on merchant ships to stencil cargo.
Most of the tags had been removed from the clothing, but police found a necktie with a tag that said “T. Keane”, a laundry bag with the name “Keane”, and a waistcoat (vest) bearing a tag that said “Kean” (without the “e”). They also found laundry tags with the numbers 1171/7, 4393/7 and 3053/7 on them.
Police initially connected the “Keane” items to a missing local sailor named Tom Keane. But several of Keane’s shipmates viewed the now-embalmed body of the mystery man and categorically stated that it was not their friend. Police found that there was no other “T. Keane” missing anywhere in the English-speaking world, and a nationwide appeal for information about the laundry tags produced nothing. Police eventually concluded that the “Keane” tags had been left on the clothes on purpose, perhaps because the dead man’s name was not Keane.
Police were able to connect the suitcase to the dead man because of some thread found inside the bag. There was a cardboard card containing orange Barbour brand thread, a brand not normally sold in Australia and nearly impossible to find there. The thread had been used to repair one of the pockets of the pants the dead man was wearing when found on the beach.
Even stranger was a coat found in the suitcase. The coat had been featherstitched, a technique exclusive to American manufacturers at the time. What’s more, the coat would typically have been fitted to the customer and then finished, much like a man’s suit would be today. This indicated that the owner had either been to the United States, or had purchased the coat from someone who had been to the United States. Police were able to confirm that the coat had not been imported and resold in Australia.
In June of 1949, a formal inquest was held into the man’s death. The pathologist Cleland examined the body again and noticed how clean the man’s shoes were. They appeared to have been recently polished, which was odd for a man who allegedly walked around the city for several hours. Cleland also wondered also why there was no vomit on the shoes, or around the area where the man was found, which you might expect from a poisoning victim. Although witnesses claimed to have seen the body in the exact same place for hours on the evening of November 30, police and Cleland began to wonder for the first time if the man had been killed elsewhere and his body dumped on the beach.
Now this is where things get really weird.
At about the same time as the inquest, investigators found a small piece of paper deeply hidden inside the fob pocket of the dead man’s pants. On one side of the paper were the printed words “Tamam Shud”. The paper had neatly been cut around the words. Police solicited the help of local library staff, who determined that the phrase, which means “ended” or “finished” in Persian, came from the famous book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Police launched a nationwide search for a copy of the book with the missing phrase, and a local man showed up at the police station a day or two later. He had left his copy of the book – a rare first edition published by a New Zealand company called Whitcombe and Tombs – in the back seat of his unlocked car near Somerton Beach on November 30, 1948… the night before the man was found dead.
Police determined that the “note” on the dead man had come from that particular copy of the book, due to a page being torn from it, as well as that translation’s unique bungling of the words “Tamam Shud” (it should have read “Taman Shud”). They also found two very curious things in the back of the book: a phone number that the owner didn’t remember being there before, and the following cipher scribbled in pencil, in capital letters:
Police called the number in the book, and found that it belonged to a woman who lived less than a half mile from where the body was found. The woman said that she had worked at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney during World War II, and had owned a copy of The Rubaiyat, which she had given to a man named Alfred Boxall in 1945.
According to the woman, she moved to Melbourne after the war and married, and Boxall wrote to her some time after that. But she rebuffed his advances because she was already married. The woman also said that in 1948 a mysterious man contacted her next door neighbor asking about her. Police, thinking that Boxall was the Somerton Beach man, showed the woman a plaster cast of the dead man’s face, which she didn’t recognize as Boxall or anyone else.
Come to find out, Boxall was very much alive, and was, in fact, working as a mechanic at the Randwick Bus Depot… the same job he’d had before the war. Police questioned him, and he produced the copy of The Rubaiyat the woman had given him, with all its pages intact. She’d copied verse 70 of the book into the front leaf as a dedication:
Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore–but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My thread-bare Penitence a-pieces tore.
Boxall was evasive when asked what the verse meant to him and the lady. The lady also asked that her real name not be used, as she was married and did not want her name dragged into the newspapers. Various people have searched for her name since then, for reasons we shall see soon.
* * *
By June, the Australian police had run out of leads and ideas. They had combed the nation’s fingerprint, dental and military records and found nothing, and appeals to British, American, Canadian, South African and New Zealand authorities had produced nothing. The unknown man’s body was therefore released to volunteers from the Salvation Army, who buried him in Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery on June 14, 1949. The man rests there, still unknown, to this very day.
Police were suspicious of the mystery woman. She had moved from Melbourne to Glenelg, a suburb of Adelaide, and it seemed too much of a coincidence that the dead man had written her unlisted phone number in a book and died just over 2,500 feet from her front door. Police also had concerns about Boxall, his wartime career in the Australian Army, and his evasive answers to their questions. But even with all that, the police really had nothing other than hunches, and so the case was written off.
Part of that might have to do with an almost equally bizarre case that landed in the laps of Adelaide police a little over a week before the Somerton Beach man’s burial.
On June 6, 1949, the body of a two year-old boy named Clive Mangnoson was found in a sack in the hills around Largs Bay, around thirteen miles south of Somerton Beach. The boy’s father, Keith Mangnoson, was found next to him, barely alive. He was taken to a local hospital and treated for exposure, then sent to a mental hospital.
As with the unknown man, the coroner could not determine an exact cause of death for the boy, although poison was once again suspected. When police went to the Mangnoson home, Roma Mangnoson, wife of Keith and mother of Clive, reported being harassed by a masked man who attempted to run her over with his car. A similar person, possibly the same man, had also been spotted casing the Mangnoson’s house. Mrs. Mangnoson believed that the harassment was due to her husband’s desire to speak to the police about the Somerton Beach man. Keith Mangnoson believed that the mystery man was Carl Thompsen, a man he’d worked with in 1939. The acting mayor of Port Adelaide and the secretary of the Largs North Progress Association even received threatening phone calls from persons unknown about Mangnoson. To top the whole thing off, the Mangnoson men were found by a man named Neil McRae, who claimed to have dreamed about them and their exact location at Largs Bay the night before.
Interestingly, the Somerton Beach case wasn’t the only mysterious death involving a copy of The Rubaiyat in Australia at the time. In June 1945, a 34 year-old Singaporean man named Joseph Saul Haim Marshall was found dead in Sydney with a open copy of the book next to him. He too was thought to have died by poisoning, and it is an interesting coincidence that only two months later the mystery woman gave her copy of The Rubaiyat to Alfred Boxall in Clifton Gardens, just over a half mile away from where Marshall’s body was found. Marshall was the brother of David Saul Marshall, chief minster of Singapore…. so a high-profile inquest was held on August 15, 1945. A woman named Gwenneth Dorothy Graham testified at the inquest, and was found dead in a bathtub, naked and face down with her wrists slashed, thirteen days later.
You might be wondering by now if the mystery man was a spy. Many others have wondered that, too. If the Somerton man was really an Eastern European masquerading as an Englishman or Australian, that would explain the lack of dental or fingerprint records, as well as the lack of recognition by the general public (an eerie picture of the corpse, dressed in his shirt and tie, had run multiple times in newspapers all over the country).
During World War II and continuing through the beginnings of the Cold War, British and American intelligence services noticed that secret information was being leaked to the Soviets. They launched a joint investigation called the VENONA project, which tracked down several leaks, one of the most prominent being a Soviet spy ring run out of their embassy in Canberra. In 1948, the United States banned all transfers of classified information to Australia. The Aussies, cut off from vital CIA information, created their own security service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, as a direct result of the embargo. Whether our mystery man was somehow involved in this is impossible to tell: neither the Australian, American or Russian governments will comment on the matter.
And that brings us to the matter of the cipher. I copied it down earlier in the article, but here’s the text in the mystery man’s own hand:
What it all means is yet another mystery. Dozens of professional and amateur cryptographers have tried making sense of it for years, to no avail. In 1978, the Australian Department of Defence took a long, hard look at the code and determined that: a) it wasn’t long enough for frequency analysis (in other words, it was too short to have any patterns); b) the letters could be a complex substitution code… or just meaningless letters written by a crazy person; and c) that they could not crack the code at that time.
And this is why the woman’s name is so important. Many think that the woman’s name is the encryption key needed to unlock the cipher. In a TV program about the case, she’s named as “Jestyn”, due to her signature next to the dedication of Boxall’s copy of The Rubaiyat. This might have been a lover’s nickname, however, and it doesn’t seem to help in any way with the decryption. In another TV special, Paul Lawson, who made the plaster cast of the mystery man’s upper body, refers to her as “Mrs Thompson”, although he doesn’t give a first name. In 2007, researchers found that the woman had died, but I do not know if they were able to find out her real name, and if so, if that’s been any help to the cryptographers working on the code.
Like a lot of other famous mysteries, people pop up from time to time with information about the case. Sometimes this information appears to be nothing, like a man named E.B. Collins, an inmate at Wanganui Prison in New Zealand, who said on November 22, 1959 that he knew the identity of the dead man (he was – surprise, surprise – lying). Other times the new “information” is more of an opinion. In 1994, John Harber Phillips, Chief Justice of Victoria and Chairman of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, declared that he was certain the unknown man had died from digitalis poisoning. It seems like a slap in the face to Sir John Burton Cleland, as digitalis has been used as a poison for centuries. But Philips backs up his claim by citing the death of Harry Dexter White, a former high-ranking member of the US Treasury Department who was accused of spying for the Soviets and got caught up in the VENONA project. White most certainly did die of digitalis poisoning on August 16, 1948.
The South Australian Major Crime Task Force still considers the case to be open. However, the suitcase and some other physical evidence was destroyed in 1986. Witness statements have disappeared from the file over the years. And although the plaster cast (with hair samples) and the body still exist, the formaldehyde used in the embalming is thought to have destroyed or damaged most, if not all, of the mystery man’s remaining DNA.
So… who was the mysterious “Somerton Man”? We may never know. But, just like some of history’s biggest mysteries, people are still researching it, so we may have an answer one day.