Why the Somerton Man Endures As One of Australia's Most Fascinating Cold Cases

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Illustration for article titled Why the Somerton Man Endures As One of Australias Most Fascinating Cold Cases

He’s one of the most famous figures in Australian history ... only because police can’t figure out who he was or what happened to him. On December 1, 1948, a man’s body was found propped up against a stone wall at Somerton beach. He had no identification whatsoever.

Really, truly, no identification whatsoever: The tags on the man’s clothes, all made and obtained in America, were missing. A half-smoked cigarette rested on his right shirt collar.

Police pillaged his pockets and came up with a laundry list of odd items: an unused second-class rail ticket to Henley Beach, a used bus ticket from the nearby city of Adelaide, an aluminum American-made comb, a half-empty packet of Juicy Fruit gum, cigarettes, and matches. After digging a bit deeper, they found a hidden compartment in his pants with a scrap of paper torn from the last page of a rare book of Persian poetry, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

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The only words written there: Tamam Shud. “It is finished.”

Armed with this one important clue, the police started searching for the book that had originally held the page. A man came forward days later saying he had found the valuable, first-edition tome on the backseat of his car one morning after leaving the window open. The car had been parked near Somerton beach.

Inside the book, they found a handwritten cipher, penciled in all caps. One of the lines was crossed out. There was also an unlisted phone number.

Illustration for article titled Why the Somerton Man Endures As One of Australias Most Fascinating Cold Cases
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After experts couldn’t crack the code (they said it wasn’t long enough to establish a pattern in the letters), the police found the owner of the mysterious phone number.

Her name was Jessica Thomson, and she worked as a nurse in Somerton. Her house was a stone’s throw from where the dead man was found. Thomson claimed she had never seen the man before, although witnesses later stated they had seen him knocking on Thomson’s door the day before he was found. When she didn’t answer, he left and walked down to the beach. Although police questioned Thomson further, she never gave them any useful information, and they crossed her out as a suspect.

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An autopsy revealed the man had been extremely healthy and strong, and the coroner ruled a case of foul play. Although police suspected he was poisoned, tests came back inconclusive. If he really died from poisoning, it was a substance that wasn’t known in the country.

All the clues—indecipherable code, exotic poison, American-made personal effects—pointed toward the Somerton Man being a Soviet spy. Police suspected Thomson might be a spy as well, but they had no evidence to charge her.

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After Thomson died, her daughter Kate came forward saying her mother knew more than she told police. Kate had long suspected her Russian-speaking mother to be a former Soviet spy, who not only knew the Somerton Man, but had had an affair with him. In fact, she thought her half-brother, Robin, was probably the man’s son.

Government officials have since refused requests to exhume the body and test it for DNA evidence. So even if Kate’s theories are correct, Jessica Thomson and the Somerton Man’s secrets are staying with them in their graves.

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Sources: 60 Minutes, The Advertiser

Images via Wikimedia Commons

This post by the Lineup Staff originally appeared on The Lineup. It has been republished with permission.

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DISCUSSION

glentomkins01
Glen Tomkins

Several of the features presented suggest suicide.

Death by poison. There is no attempt to conceal the body. No ID, no valuables (in someone dead of poison rather than the violence a robber would be expected to use) — the letting go of all worldly possessions. The deceased went so far as to avoid letting a valuable first edition of the Rubaiyat go to waste, though he kept the last page with the suicide note suggestive phrase, “It is finished.”. The journey to a strange place to die, with this suggestion of one final — rejected — attempt to reestablish contact with a former lover and perhaps son.

That said, no cause of death found on autopsy is not a great indicator of foul play (poison in this case because no evidence of violence, which would show up). A dysrhythmic death would leave no evidence on autopsy (various structural heart defects make dysrhythmias more likely, but they occur as well in anatomically normal hearts), and even a myocardial infarction that caused sudden death wouldn’t have time to create changes in the myocardium that would show on autopsy.

If it was natural causes, though, you have to suppose that someone nicked his wallet after he was dead, and that he had no identifiers on him except the wallet. That’s a feature that points to suicide, and complicates, but doesn’t refute, the idea that he died a natural death.

The idea that he was a spy doesn’t explain any of the features presented here. A suicidal spy maybe, but just as likely a suicidal car salesman, and there are a lot more car salesmen than spies, so the odds are for something more mundane. I guess that people do tend to be out to eliminate spies, so perhaps they are more likely to be murdered than car salesmen, but I would think that spy-killers wouldn’t want to leave the body lying around. They would have more reason to conceal or destroy the body, and you would think more organization to achieve that end.

Exotic poison? What toxins did they test for in 1948, in Australia? I doubt that you would have to be the CIA to come up with something that was beyond the forensics of the day.

Yes, a simple cipher is impossible to decode if you don’t have enough of it, and/or you have no accurate ideas about the subject matter of the encoded text. You don’t have to bring in some super-subtle CIA or KGB code craft to explain a cipher that can’t be cracked. I imagine they tried all the espionage subject matter they could think of as candidate text. That they came up empty-handed is just more proof that espionage was not involved.

Oh, and American-made personal effects. If that doesn’t mean Soviet spy, I don’t know what does.

And these counterspies left behind their whole reason for rubbing this guy out — that cipher code! Of course only international spies use cipher codes, or for that matter read the Rubaiyat. Actually the former is almost disqualifying, and the latter only a bit less.