In the early morning of December 1, 1948, a dead body was found on the beach at Somerton, Adelaide, Australia. It was the body of a man, likely between forty and forty-five years of age, 5ft. 11in. tall, with pale, ginger color hair beginning to turn gray around the temples.
His physique suggested that he was in peak physical condition with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. He also had exceptionally well-developed calf muscles. He was clean shaven and his hands were largely unmarked or calloused suggesting a man who rarely, if ever, performed manual labour. His feet were a size 8, then an average-size for a man his size, but a little unusual: the little and big toes met together in a wedge shape usually seen in dancers or people who often wear pointed shoes. His teeth were natural, but over the years he had lost nine from the top and nine from the bottom. Also, he had never grown lateral incisors. His clothes were stylishly contemporary and of good quality.
He was a little overdressed for an Australian beach at that time of year though. Most locals would have been extremenly hot in the pullover and overcoat the Somerton Man was wearing.
Who was the Somerton Man? The unexplained death of this unidentified man has baffled investigators for over sixty years. Who was he?
Police were baffled. No cause of death could be determined, although there were some unusual features in the autopsy:
“The heart was of normal size, and normal in every way … small vessels not commonly observed in the brain were easily discernible with congestion. There was congestion of the pharynx, and the gullet was covered with whitening of superficial layers of the mucosa with a patch of ulceration in the middle of it. The stomach was deeply congested … There was congestion in the 2nd half of the duodenum. There was blood mixed with the food in the stomach. Both kidneys were congested, and the liver contained a great excess of blood in its vessels. … The spleen was strikingly large … about 3 times normal size … there was destruction of the centre of the liver lobules revealed under the microscope. … acute gastritis haemorrhage, extensive congestion of the liver and spleen, and the congestion to the brain.”
The pathologist was convinced that he hadn’t died from natural causes, even though cause could be pinned down: “I am quite convinced the death could not have been natural.” He determined that from the fact that the extreme damage that had been found in the man’s internal organs were all indicative of poisoning of some sort, though no toxic agent could be identified.
The authorities tried to identify this unknown man. They began to search across Australia for clues to the man’s identity. A number of tip-offs came from members of the public, but they all came to dead ends.
The Somerton Man would probably have slipped into obscurity and become just another local mystery if the circumstances surrounding his death hadn’t turned out to be even stranger than originally thought.
In January 1949 an unlabeled suitcase was found at Adelaide Railway Station. Among various items of clothing there was an electrician’s screwdriver, a modified table knife, scissors and a stenciling brush. Also found in the suitcase was a card of the same orange waxed thread that had been used to repair a pocket of the Somerton Man’s trousers.
Eventually the Somerton Man’s clothes were more closely examined as a sense of deeper mystery began to take hold. In a previously unnoticed secret pocket in his trousers there was a small piece of paper. It bore the words “Tamam Shud”. This phrase means “ended” or “finished” in Persian and is more correctly written as “Taman Shud” or “Taman Shod”. But this particular spelling of the phrase is found on the last line of Edward Fitzgerald’s popular translation of The Rubaiyat by Sufi poet Omar Khayyam.
Investigators scrambled to find a copy of The Rubaiyat missing the two words and were amazed when a man contacted them to say that on November 30, 1948, a copy of The Rubaiyat had been left in the back seat of his parked car. Bizarrely, the identity of the man and his profession were suppressed at the time and the authorities even suppressed the reason for their suppression. This copy did have the two words missing, and the paper, print, and ink matched those of the fragment. Even more mysteriously, on the back pages of this copy of the book were faint pencil marks containing a series of sets of letters:
There was also an unlisted telephone number that was traced to someone who came to be known as “Jestyn”.
“Jestyn” was a former nurse, living near Somerton. When asked if The Rubaiyat had any significance to her she explained that during the War, while working as a nurse in Sydney she had owned a copy of the book. But she had given it to a Lieutenant Alfred Boxall in 1945. She had written a verse in the front and signed it with her pet name: “Jestyn”.
Police were convinced Boxall was Somerton Man, even though “Jestyn” couldn’t identify the body from the plaster cast bust or photographs taken before his burial. But Boxall turned up alive and well. He still had his copy of the The Rubaiyat, a different printing than the mystery copy, and the last page was intact.
“Jestyn” was about to be married and asked for her name and reputation to be protected. To this day the identity of “Jestyn” has been kept from the public domain. All that has become known about her is that in 1947 she gave birth to a son who died in 2009. She had died in 2007.
Over the years a number of amateurs and professionals have attempted to solve the mystery of the Somerton Man and crack the mysterious code.
In March 2009 Professor Derek Abbott, of the University of Adelaide, Australia assembled a team who are attempting to solve the mystery of the Somerton Man by analyzing the code and looking at genetic clues to his identity.
Professor Abbott has said:
“When I first read about the case there was something spooky about it. Then I got fascinated by the ‘secret code’ that has never been cracked. The more I investigated the case, more and more information kept surfacing. It’s almost as if its got a life of its own and it is demanding a resolution … There is something compelling about giving the man his name back and finding a family connection.”
While he’s not sure the case will ever be completely resolved he does believe there’s a lot to be learned about Somerton Man’s identity:
“We may never be able to solve who killed him or what the code says, however, what I think is solvable is the most important part of this case: finding the man’s name and his family tree. I am confident we’ll be able to eventually identify him. It’s doable.”
The team is particularly interested in finding genetic clues to Somerton Man’s identity. They hope one day to have permission to disinter the body and take DNA samples that can be compared to available DNA databases. Until that time they’re relying on physiological genetic clues that can be found in evidence from the time.
Somerton Man has two distinctive facial features: his dental abnormality of the missing incisors, and a large upper hollow (cymba) to his ear compared to his lower hollow (cavum). Professor Abbott claims to have seen a picture of “Jestyn’s” son which apparently shows the same features. The likelihood of two unrelated people having these two features is said to be 1 in 10,000,000 and 1 in 20,000,000.
The suppression of evidence at the time, such as witnesses names, raises the possibility that Somerton Man was somehow involved in espionage. At the time Boxall was rumored to be a spy. There are secret codes and books being mysteriously left in cars belonging to anonymous men. Although apparently keen to solve the crime authorities twice suppressed the identities of potentially important witnesses. Somerton is relatively close to Woomera a missile-launching site also used by intelligence services. And in 1947 US Signal Intelligence Service discovered that Australia had been the source of intelligence leaks to the Soviet Union.
Other deaths have also been linked to Somerton Man and the investigation into his death.
In 1945 Joseph (George) Saul Haim Marshall was found dead in Sydney with a copy of The Rubaiyat next to him. The death was ruled a suicide.
In June 1949 two year-old Clive Mangnosen was found dead in sack at Largs Bay (approximately twenty kilometers from Somerton). His father, Keith Waldemar Mangnosen, was found unconscious next to him apparently suffering from exposure and had to be committed to a mental hospital. The pair had been missing for four days. The coroner couldn’t find a cause of death for Clive. Shortly after Clive’s death, Mrs Roma Mangnosen, his mother, claimed she had nearly been run down and “the car stopped and a man with a khaki handkerchief over his face told her to ‘keep away from the police or else’”. Mrs Mangnosen believed that her family became targeted to be silenced because her husband had attempted to identify Somerton Man.
Although it doesn’t tell us who Somerton Man was or why he died, it seems highly probably that Somerton Man was involved in espionage.