Australia's Greatest Unsolved Mystery: The Case of the Somerton Man
At 6:30 a.m. on December 1, 1948, the body of an unidentified man was found posed as though in peaceful sleep on Somerton beach, just south of Adelaide, Australia. The discovery of his corpse, its head leaning heavy against the sea wall and ankles crossed, would signal the beginning of something much bigger than anyone at the time could have predicted.
The case of the Somerton Man, or as you may have heard it called "Tamam Shud," has become a source of frustration and fascination around the globe, inspiring novels, documentaries, and a host of wild theories in the decades since its occurrence. Its appeal lies not only in the mystery surrounding the man's identity and cause of death, but also with the small scrap of paper sewn into the fob of his pants pocket, its plain surface inscribed with the Persian words, "Tamam Shud," meaning "ended" or "finished."
Now, this is where things get really interesting. You may have noticed that the time in which the Somerton Man was discovered coincides closely with the beginning of the Cold War, a time of heightened international tensions and immense political intrigue. You're not alone, hundreds of amateur investigators have pieced together the many fragmented pieces of evidence into a roller coaster of a theory:
The Somerton Man was a spy.
Before you dismiss the idea as fanciful nonsense, let's delve into the facts, shall we?
The infamous slip of paper discovered in the man's pocket reading "Tamam Shud" was determined by investigators to have been torn from the last page of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a poem about living one's life to the fullest and having no regrets when it ends. The subject of the piece would lead police to speculate the the man committed suicide, though there was no evidence to support their theory.
After authorities conducted a nationwide hunt for the copy of the book the scrap had been torn from, a man identified only under the pseudonym "Ronald Francis" came forward with a 1941 edition of the publication and lo and behold, it was a match.
Inside the back cover of the book, detectives were able to identify the indentations of handwriting, containing a telephone number, an unidentified number, and text that appeared to be some form of encrypted message. Statements from police, presumably gathered from Ronald Francis, stated that the book was discovered in the rear footwell of a car around the time the Somerton Man's body had been found.
The presumed bit of code found on the back cover of the book was made up of five lines of letters, all capitalized, with the second line crossed out. Code experts were brought in to examine and decipher it shortly after it was discovered, but they could make no sense of it. Decades later, in 1978, ABC-TV journalist Stuart Littlemore would attempt another investigation of the code, during which cryptographers from the Department of Defense were asked to analyse the text. The cryptographers in question were unable to derive any meaning from it, and claimed it would be impossible to provide "a satisfactory answer."
You'll recall that there was also an unlisted telephone number discovered amid the scribbled bits of information in the book. Authorities would discover that the number belonged to a nurse named Jessica Ellen "Jo" Thomson (born Jessie Harkness) who lived only 1300 feet from where the body was found.
For many, Jessica's part in the mystery of the Somerton Man is the most intriguing. When she was interviewed by police, she claimed not to know the dead man, nor why he would be in possession of her number. However, she did admit that late in the year of 1948, an unidentified man had tried to visit her, asking her next door neighbor about her.
Thomson proved unusually evasive in many of her future interviews, both with police and the press. Author Gerry Feltus, who spoke with her about the case in 2002, said that due to her behavior, he fully believed she knew the Somerton Man's identity but refused to admit it. Thomson's daughter, Kate, also spoke in an interview with 60 minutes in 2014, saying that she believed her mother had known the dead man.
Unfortunately, while Jessica was perhaps the most promising lead in the case, in 1949 she requested that the police not release her details to any third parties, claiming embarrassment and damage to her reputation. The police agreed to her requests, but their decision put a serious crick in later investigations, since they had to refer to her under a plethora of psuedonyms, and her real name was considered to be a possible decryption key for the code found in the book.
Thompson's reaction to the plaster cast made of the Somerton Man's face and upper body was also markedly suspicious. Detective Sergeant Leane described her as being "completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint, "Years later, Paul Lawson—the man who had made the cast and was present for the viewing—would state in an interview that after seeing the bust she 'immediately looked away and would not look at it again.'" Not exactly the behavior of an innocent woman.
She would also reveal that during the time she was working at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney during World War II, she had owned a copy of the Rubaiyat, which she had gifted to an army lieutenant named Alf Boxall. Boxall was serving in the Water transport Section of the Royal Australian Engineers at the time. Thomson said that after that she had moved to Melbourne and married Prosper Thomson, and although Boxall had sent her a letter, she had replied that she was married and after that received no more correspondence from him after 1945.
Due to the circumstances surrounding her and Boxall's relationship, and the presence of the same book from earlier in the investigation, police surmised that Boxall must be the dead man. That is, until 1949, when he was found in Sydney alive and well, with the words "Tamam Shud," printed neatly on the still intact final page of his copy of the Rubaiyat. In fact, the only unusual thing about the copy was an inscription in the front cover written in verse by Thomson herself:
I swore—but was I sober when I swore?And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-handMy thread-bare Penitence a-pieces tore
Although he claims no knowledge of the Somerton Man, or the police's initial connection of him to the case, Boxall plays a pivotal role in many "Somerton Spy" theories. One of which concerning his alleged intelligence work during and directly after World War II. In a 1978 interview with Stuart Littlemore, the man was asked if perhaps during his intelligence work, he had talked to Jessica Thomson about the details of his assignment. In reply, Boxall was quoted as saying, "No... not unless someone else told her." When it was suggested that there could be an espionage connection to the Somerton Man, Boxall dismissed the idea as melodramatic. However, Boxall's career shows a man who rose very rapidly in rank during his time with a special operations unit (North Australia Observer Unit), having been promoted from Lance Corporal to Lieutenant within a mere three months. This is something that strikes many as suspicious.
To add to the suspicion surrounding Boxall and Thomson, later investigations of the Somerton Man's physical features would reveal Two rare anomalies. The man's ears, unlike those of most individuals, possessed cymbas (upper hollows) larger than the cavums (lower hollows), an ear type that is possessed by only 1 to 2% of the world's Caucasian population. In addition to this, dental experts concluded that the man had hypodontia of both his incisors that is again, present in only 2% of the general population.
Perhaps damningly for Thompson, in June 2010, Professor Derek Abbot managed to obtain a photograph of Thompson's eldest son, Robin, that showed he shared both the same ears, and hypodontia with the Somerton Man. The chance of the two possessing the exact same rare traits by mere coincidence is between 1 in 10,000,000 and 1 in 20,000,000.
Many media outlets and investigators have suggested that the boy, who was only 16 months old in 1948 and died in 2009, was the child of the Somerton Man passed off as Prosper Thomson's son. Unfortunately, the only way to prove the connection would require exhumation of the bodies for genetic testing, and Abbots' request to do so was denied by Attorney General John Rau in October 2011.
This hasn't kept the world from speculating though, and it's a popular opinion that Thompson, Buxall and the Somerton Man could all have been involved in some sort of Cold War Era espionage adventure—although it's important to remember that it's exactly that: speculation.
Regardless of the truth behind the death of the unknown man, the mystery itself has long outlived its creator and the tempestuous times it was born in. Although we may never know the real story, its safe to say the world will never stop investigating. Who knows? Maybe someday we'll discover the true identity of the Somerton Man.