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The Body on the Beach: The Somerton Man - Taman Shud Case

Overview of the Unknown Man

On the morning of December 1, 1948, a body was found on the shore of Somerton Beach. The man was resting against the seawall, slumped forward, with a half-smoked cigarette lying on his lapel. He was well dressed, in a suit with shined and heeled shoes- odd attire for a beach on a summer day. There was no sign of violence or a struggle. The man carried no identification of any kind.

The police immediately assumed the man had simply died of natural causes while taking a stroll on the beach. When no missing persons reports matched up with the body they found, they were forced to investigate the matter further. Each clue they found only led to more questions. In the 65 years since the mysterious body was found on the beach, no one has come any closer to discovering the identify of the man, what he was doing on the beach that day, or how he died. Popular theories include a man ending his life in despair after losing his lover and son, or a spy linked to secret codes and mysterious poisons. With so much evidence lost or destroyed over the decades, and everyone close to the case now deceased, it seems unlikely that we will ever know the truth.

Why has this mystery endured so long? After all, many John and Jane Does turn up daily in city morgues around the world. What is so special about another unidentified body, from an era before computers could instantly search databases of fingerprints and DNA, and many bodies were never claimed? Perhaps it's the now famous picture of the Somerton Man, with his haunting eyes that seem to follow you from the page, that captures so many people's imaginations. The cipher found in a book linked to the Somerton Man certainly attracts the interest of many codebreakers, from the amateur to the esteemed. The rumors of Cold War spy agencies and secret poisons excite the imagination of many. Whatever the reason, the mystery of the Unknown Man will likely endure for many decades to come.

From the cover of GM Feltus's thorough book, which can be purchased at

From the cover of GM Feltus's thorough book, which can be purchased at

Discovery of the Body

At 7pm on November 30, 1948, John Bain Lyons and his wife were taking an evening stroll on Somerton Beach, a small seaside resort just outside of Adelaide, Australia. They noticed a man lying against a seawall about 60 feet away from them, legs crossed in front of him. He lifted his right arm weakly, before dropping it back to the ground. The couple assumed it was a drunken attempt to smoke a cigarette, and continued on their way.

Around 7:30pm, another couple walking along the seawall saw a man in a similar position. This time they both noticed the man was not moving at all, despite the mosquitoes swarming his face. The man joked that he must be dead to the world to ignore the bugs, but the couple also assumed he was simply in a drunken stupor and moved on.

In 1959, a third witness came forward to share a never-before-revealed story: He had been on the beach in the wee hours of the morning, and seen a man carrying another unconscious man over his shoulder, heading towards the spot the Somerton Man was found. As it was dark, he could not describe either of the men, and it is unknown whether this had anything to do with the case. Because none of the other witnesses saw the face of the man lying on the beach at night, it's possible that he was a different man, and the Somerton Man's body was actually carried to the beach much later that night. There had been no signs of convulsions or vomitting at the scene- common results of poisoning- so it seems plausible that the man had died elsewhere and been carried to the beach.

John Lyons, the same man who had seen the body during an evening stroll with his wife, returned to the beach the next morning for a swim. He met with a friend after his swim, around 6:30am, and they noticed a cluster of people on horseback near the seawall where the body had been the night before. Approaching the group to investigate further, Lyons realized something was wrong when he saw a body in the same position as the night before. He immediately called the police.

The X marks the spot where the Somerton Man's body was discovered.

The X marks the spot where the Somerton Man's body was discovered.

Details About The Body

  • He was 5'11" (180 cm).
  • He had grey eyes.
  • His hair was a mousy ginger color, greying around the sides and receding in the front.
  • He was estimated to be between 40 and 50 years old.
  • He was uncircumcized.
  • He weighed between 165-175 pounds (75-80kg).
  • He was missing 18 teeth, including his 2 lateral incisors, which were most likely never grown in due to a genetic defect.
  • He had small scars on this left wrist, left forearm, and left elbow.
  • His hands and feet were clean and callous-free, indicating he did not do manual labor.

Initial Investigation

The body was taken by ambulance to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Dr. John Barkley Bennett examined the body. He proclaimed the time of death to be no sooner than 2am, based on the stage of rigor mortis. (This time of death has since been questioned, as poison affects the process of rigor mortis.) His report listed the cause of death as heart failure, possibly caused by poisoning. The items in the man's possession were also catalogued: an unused train ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach, a bus ticket from Adelaide to Glenelg, a pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, some Bryant & May matches, an aluminum comb, and a pack of Army Club cigarettes containing seven cigarettes of another, more expensive brand called Kensitas. The man was smartly dressed in a suit and heeled shoes, but the maker's labels had been snipped out of the clothes. He was wearing a knit pullover and double-breasted coat- strange attire for a summer beach trip- but he was missing a hat- also strange for 1948. One pocket of his trousers had torn, and been neatly repaired using orange thread.

A full autopsy the following day revealed more detail. The man’s leg muscles were noted during the autopsy- they were high and toned, and his feet were oddly pointed. Expert witnesses suggested he had often worn high heeled and pointed shoes, perhaps as a ballet dancer. It was also noted that his pupils were smaller than normal. His spleen was three times the usual size, and firm. The liver was distended with congested blood. His stomach contained more blood, along with the remains of a pasty. These observations strengthened the poisoning hypothesis, but lab tests revealed no traces of any known poison. The pasty was also tested, and came back negative. The attending pathologist, John Dwyer, was astounded that nothing was found. Thomas Cleland, the coroner, later suggested that there were two deadly poisons that decomposed in the body in a short time, leaving no trace: digitalis and strophanthin. Either could have been used in this case, and decomposed before the autopsy was performed.

It was becoming evident that this was not a simple case of a man dying of natural causes while vacationing on the beach. Police took a full set of fingerprints and circulated them throughout the English speaking world, to no avail. Photos were published in all Australian newspapers, and a slew of relatives of missing persons were brought in to identify the body. No one could. This man did not seem to exist in any official records, nor did he have anyone looking for him who was willing to come forward. All leads were exhausted.

Image of the suitcase belonging to The Somerton Man, found at Adelaide railway station. From left to right are detectives Dave Bartlett, Lionel Leane, and Len Brown.

Image of the suitcase belonging to The Somerton Man, found at Adelaide railway station. From left to right are detectives Dave Bartlett, Lionel Leane, and Len Brown.

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The First Major Lead

Police decided to expand their search efforts, as no one who recognized the photo had come forward. Because the man was not dressed for the weather or the location, they assumed he had been traveling. A call for abandoned property was sent to every hotel, dry cleaner, railway station, bus station, and lost property office in the area. The very next day, police received their first break in discovering this man’s identity.

A brown suitcase had been deposited to the Adelaide Railway Station’s cloakroom on November 30, and never picked up. It was now January 12, and the property was considered abandoned. Because so much time had passed, the staff remembered nothing about the person who had dropped it off. However, a search of its contents yielded a promising item. A reel of a rare orange Barbour thread, not found in Australia, was among the items in the suitcase. This thread was a perfect match for the orange thread used to repair the Unknown Man’s trouser pocket. Between that unlikely match, and the luggage being dropped off on the day before the body was discovered, it seemed almost certain that this suitcase belonged to the Somerton Man.

Further investigation, however was disappointing. A label had been torn off of the suitcase, to hide its origin. Tags and labels had been removed from all but three of the pieces of clothing. The tags left bore the name “T. Keane”, but a search revealed no missing person with that name. The police concluded that those tags were left on knowing the dead man’s name was not T. Keane, and they therefore would not reveal anything if found- although it was also noted they were the only labels that couldn't be removed without damaging the clothing. Also noteworthy in the suitcase was a stencil kit that would’ve been used for stenciling cargo on merchant ships; a table knife that had been sawed down; airmail cards that indicated he was sending communications abroad; and a coat with stitchwork identified as American in origin. These items indicated someone who had traveled, most likely on a merchant vessel, but shipping and immigration records revealed no leads.

Discovering the suitcase did clear up a few details about the Somerton Man’s final day. He must have gone to the train station and purchased the ticket to Henley Beach that was found in his pocket. Records showed that the public baths at the station were closed on November 30. The Somerton Man must have inquired to where he could freshen up, been told the facilities were closed, and been sent to the public baths about half a mile away. He headed to the facilities to shower and shave, but the extra walk caused him to miss his train. He decided to take a bus rather than wait for the next train, and bought the bus ticket to Glenelg that was also found in his pocket. This had all happened around 11am on November 30, meaning there were now 8 hours to account for between him leaving the train station, and first being spotted on the beach.

Photo of the suitcase and its contents.

Photo of the suitcase and its contents.

Some of the contents of the Somerton Man's suitcase.

Some of the contents of the Somerton Man's suitcase.

Items in the Suitcase

  • Dressing gown and cord.
  • Laundry bag with the name "Keane" written on it.
  • One pair of scissors in a sheath.
  • One knife in a sheath (apparently a cut down table knife).
  • One stencil brush.
  • Two singlets.
  • Two pairs of underpants.
  • One pair of trousers (with dry cleaning marks), with a 6d coin in the pocket.
  • One sports coat.
  • One coat shirt.
  • One pair of pyjamas.
  • One yellow coat shirt.
  • One singlet bearing the name "Kean" (without an "e" on the end).
  • One singlet with name torn out.
  • One shirt, without name tag.
  • Six handkerchiefs.
  • One piece of light board.
  • Eight large envelopes, one small envelope.
  • Two coat hangers.
  • One razor strap.
  • One cigarette lighter.
  • One razor.
  • One shaving brush.
  • One small screwdriver.
  • One toothbrush.
  • Toothpaste.
  • One glass dish.
  • One soap dish containing a hairpin.
  • Three safety pins.
  • One front and back collar stud.
  • One brown button.
  • One teaspoon.
  • One broken pair of scissors.
  • One card of tan thread.
  • One tin of tan boot polish.
  • Two airmail stickers.
  • One scarf.
  • One towel.
  • An unspecified number of pencils, mostly Royal Sovereign brand. Three pencils were H.
The Somerton Man's rare copy of The Rubaiyat.

The Somerton Man's rare copy of The Rubaiyat.

Taman Shud

Although the suitcase was an exciting find, it did little to help identify the man. Months went by with no new leads, until John Cleland, professor of pathology at the University of Adelaide, was brought in to reexamine the body in April 1949. Four months after the body had been discovered, the case took its most perplexing turn of all.

Cleland discovered a previously unnoticed, small pocket sewn into the waistband of the man’s trousers, most likely intended to hold a pocket watch. The pocket contained a tightly rolled piece of paper. Inscribed on the paper, in an elaborate font, were the words “Tamám Shud.” (Newspapers misprinted it as Taman Shud, and the misprint has stuck through the years.) A police reporter for the Adelaide Advisor, Frank Kennedy, instantly knew what the words meant. A twelfth century book of poetry, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, had become quite popular in Australia during the war, especially a translation by Edward Fitzgerald. “Taman Shud” was a Persian phrase that closed the final page of the book, loosely translated to “It is ended” or “The End.”

This discovery caused quite a stir- did the man commit suicide? Was this hidden scrap of paper a final message before taking his own life? It did seem to indicate that the man had known, in some way, that November 30th would be his last day. All identification had been removed from his person and his possessions, and he had taken the time to hide this message on his body. Khayyam’s poems all dealt with romance, life, and mortality. Had the Somerton Man killed himself after suffering a broken heart? The case seemed closer than ever to a resolution- a suitcase had been found, his movements were somewhat known, and it appeared he may have planned his death. But the true twist was about to be revealed.

Police began searching libraries and bookshops for a copy of the Rubaiyat with the same fancy typeset seen on the scrap of paper. Nothing turned up. The search was broadened to include publishing houses, and eventually extended world wide. It looked fruitless. But on July 23rd, 1949, the book was finally found. A man from the town of Glenelg, slightly north of Somerton Beach, brought a copy of the book to the Adelaide police station. The final page, which had contained the phrase “Taman Shud,” was torn out. The font perfectly matched the dead man’s scrap of paper. Testing revealed the scrap of paper matched that used in the book. The Glenelg man explained that just after the body had been discovered in December of the prior year, he and his brother-in-law had gone for a drive in a car he kept parked near Somerton Beach. They found a copy of the Rubaiyat in the back seat of the car, but both silently assumed the other had left it there, and threw it in the glove compartment without another thought. It wasn’t until a news report mentioned the police search for the book that the man realized he might be holding key evidence.

Having the unknown man’s copy of the Rubaiyat, from which he had torn his hidden message, was an exciting break, but seemed to offer little help. Detectives looked for another copy of the book, but none seemed to exist in the world. They now knew it was published by a New Zealand chain called Whitcombe & Tombs, but an inquiry revealed that Whitcombe & Tombs had never published that book in that format. They did publish a similar version with the same cover, but it had a squarer format. No other publishing house in the world published anything that was a closer match. Where had this man obtained his completely unique copy of such a popular book?

The scrap of paper discovered in a concealed pocket in the dead man's trousers.

The scrap of paper discovered in a concealed pocket in the dead man's trousers.

This is a police scan of the handwritten code found in the back of a copy of The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam, believed to belong to the dead man, found in the back of a car in Glenelg, 1 December 1948.

This is a police scan of the handwritten code found in the back of a copy of The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam, believed to belong to the dead man, found in the back of a car in Glenelg, 1 December 1948.

The Nurse, The Code, and the Army Officer

Detective Sergeant Lionel Leane wasn’t satisfied that the book contained no additional clues. He examined it closer. There were two telephone numbers listed on the back cover, and he saw the faint impression of other letters, as though someone had written on the final page of the book- the page containing “Taman Shud”- before tearing it out. Ultraviolet light was used to make out what was written. There were five lines of letters, with the second line crossed out. It appeared to be a code of some sort.

Starting at the beginning, the police called both numbers listed in the book. One belonged to a bank, and provided no leads. The second belonged to a nurse who lived very near Somerton Beach. The police agreed to protect her identity, and for many decades she was known only as Jestyn, but eventually it was revealed that her name had been Jessica Thomson (nee Harkness). Jessica was very reluctant to speak with the police, and they seemed reluctant to press her for details. She was, at the time, living with a man who she would later marry. She was very worried about a scandal arising, perhaps because of a romantic affair she’d had with the Somerton Man and kept hidden from her soon-to-be-husband… or perhaps because of links to government intelligence programs and spy networks?

Regardless of her reason for keeping quiet, Jessica denied any knowledge of the case, but did admit to giving a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man named Alfred Boxall. Jessica had been an army nurse during the war, and Boxall an officer. She gave him the book when they met in an army hospital, and had inscribed it with one of the verses of poetry that she signed with her nickname- Jestyn. The police decided the unknown man must be this Alfred Boxall, and were quite disappointed when they found him a few days later, alive and still bearing his copy of the Rubaiyat, complete with Jessica's inscription on the last page. It was not the same unique edition the dead man had possessed.

When the Alfred Boxall lead proved fruitless, Jessica was brought in to the police station to view the body. Upon seeing his face, Detective Sergeant Leane noted that she seemed “completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance she was about to faint.” She was only shown a cast that had been made of his face, and not the actual body, so this shock was not due to being faced with a dead body. Even if it had been, as a nurse, she already had experience being faced with death and sickness, so her reaction still would have been suspicious. It was clear to many that she recognized the man, but she continued to deny any connection to him. The only other piece of information Jessica offered was that some time the previous year neighbors had told her a man had come asking for her when she was not home. She wasn’t sure of the date.

With Jessica refusing to relay any information of value, officers turned to the code. With only four short lines to work from, it proved impossible to crack. Naval Intelligence tried to decipher the code. It was published in newspapers for amateur sleuths to take a crack at. The best code breakers from all over the world were called to examine it. No one could give a definitive answer, although many guesses were made. The Navy decided the most reasonable explanation, based on the line breaks and frequency of occurrence of letters, was that the code was in English and “the lines are the initial letters of words of a verse of poetry or such like.” And, despite many ongoing efforts, the trail ended there.

The inscription Jessica Thomson wrote in the copy of the Rubaiyat that she gave to Alfred Boxall

The inscription Jessica Thomson wrote in the copy of the Rubaiyat that she gave to Alfred Boxall

Tombstone of The Somerton Man, at his gravesite. He died 1 December 1948 and was buried on 14 June 1949.

Tombstone of The Somerton Man, at his gravesite. He died 1 December 1948 and was buried on 14 June 1949.

Conclusion of the Investigation

In June of 1949, more than six months after the Unknown Man had been discovered, the body was beginning to decompose. The police had the body embalmed, and made a plaster cast of the head and upper torso. A plot of dry ground was chosen, to help preserve the body in case it was ever necessary to exhume it. The Somerton Man was finally laid to rest on June 14, 1949, with a small ceremony, his name still unknown and his death unavenged. The casket was sealed under a layer of concrete, and in the following decades two other bodies have been placed in this same grave. Flowers were intermittently found on the grave until 1978, although no one ever saw who placed them there.

Jessica Thomson passed away in 2007. Her son Robin, who many believe to be fathered by the Somerton Man, died two years later. Her husband, Prosper Thomson, had passed in 1995. Any secrets “Jestyn” held were taken with her to her grave. The rare copy of the Rubaiyat was lost by police in the 50s, and no matching copy has ever turned up. The brown suitcase was destroyed in 1986. The final results of the investigation, published by the South Australian coroner in 1958, concluded with the line, “I am unable to say who the deceased was… I am unable to say how he died or what was the cause of death.” Requests to exhume the body in order to extract mitochondrial DNA have been denied. Unless new evidence comes to light in the future, or the code is eventually cracked, we will never know exactly who this man was, or what happened to him.

Burial of the Somerton Man on 14 June 1949. By his grave site is Salvation Army Captain Em Webb, leading the prayers, attended by reporters and police.

Burial of the Somerton Man on 14 June 1949. By his grave site is Salvation Army Captain Em Webb, leading the prayers, attended by reporters and police.

Suicide Theory: Heartbreak and Despair

The first of the two popular theories involving the Somerton Man is that he killed himself after being rejected by the nurse. The “Tamán Shud” note in the man’s pocket definitely supports the suicide hypothesis. The Rubaiyat contains poems focusing on living life to the fullest and not being sorry when it’s over. The meaning of the phrase, “ended,” obviously indicates the man was facing an ending of some kind when he tore the scrap out. The labels were not only removed from his clothing, which a murderer could’ve done to prevent identification of the body, but they were removed from his suitcase and all of its contents. He must have done that himself, before leaving the train station. He had no significant bruises, injuries, or defensive wounds that would normally be present if he had been attacked and fought for his life. The pastry that made up his final meal contained no poison. It seemed that, whatever the cause of death was, it was self-inflicted- not administered through force or secretly poisoning his food.

Assuming, then, that this death was a suicide, why did he do it? This brings us back to the nurse, Jessica Thompson. Although the police at the time were respectful of her privacy and did not push her, later investigations have turned up many interesting details about the woman formerly known only as “Jestyn.” In her interviews with police, she claimed to be married, and gave her last name as “Johnson”. Marriage records, however, tell a different story. Jessica was dating, possibly even living with, a man named Prestige Johnson. Prestige had gotten married in 1936, and was still technically married. In 1946, Jessica became pregnant and moved in with her parents. In 1947, she moved to Glenelg and took her future husband’s last name. Her son was born in July of 1947. It wasn’t until three years later, in May 1950, that Prestige’s divorce was finalized and the two of them married.

Jessica claimed the son was Prestige’s, and the two raised him as their own. However, there is speculation that Jessica had been seeing more than one man when she became pregnant. Jessica admitted to giving Alfred Boxall a copy of the Rubaiyat over drinks at the Clifton Garden Hotel in August of 1945. She became pregnant in 1946, well before moving to Glenelg with Prestige. Could she have been dating more men between 1945 and 1946, other than Prestige and Alfred? Even Paul Lawson, who showed her the cast of the body, had noted her “nice figure” and that her level of beauty was “very acceptable.” It’s very reasonable to think she had a host of suitors, one of whom may have been the Somerton Man. He may have believed her son was his, and traveled to Adelaide for a last-ditch effort to win her heart and be with his lover and child. Jessica's neighbor mentioned a man had come asking for her- maybe he did find her, made his plea, and was turned away. In a fit of despair, he wandered the 400m from her home to the beach where he was found, took the vial of poison he had prepared for such an occasion, and collapsed. This theory does support that fact that no signs of a struggle, convulsions, or vomiting were found at the scene- he may have taken his poison at the water’s edge, thrown its carrier into the ocean and begun to convulse and vomit there, before dragging himself up the beach to collapse near the seawall. It's even poetic- facing west, watching the sun set over the ocean one last time. It does, however, seem strange that no one would have noticed such a scene.

The driving force linking the Somerton Man to Jessica Thompson's son is the apparent similarity of many rare genetic traits the two men share. Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide who leads a team working on cracking the case, claims to have obtained a clear picture of Jessica’s son, which shows both his ears and teeth. You’ll remember from the autopsy report that the Somerton Man was missing his two lateral incisors due to a genetic disorder called hypodontia, present in 2% of the population. Studying pictures of his ears (found below), it is also apparent that his upper ear hollow, or cymba, is larger than his lower ear hollow, or cavum- another condition found in only 1-2% of the population. According to Abbott, Jessica's son clearly has both of these genetic traits. The odds of this being a coincidence are estimated to be between 1 in 10,000,000 and 1 in 20,000,000. This picture of Jessica's son was apparently pulled from a newspaper clipping, but has not been made available for public viewing.

Photo of Somerton man's ear, compared to normal ear

Photo of Somerton man's ear, compared to normal ear

Spy Theory: Espionage and the Cold War

A number of facts in the case lead many to believe the Unknown Man was actually a spy, and murdered over a piece of intelligence. Of course, all of these facts could easily be coincidences, as there is no hard evidence linking him to espionage.

The Australian government had very recently announced that it would establish a national secret security service, the Australian Secret Intelligence Organization. One of their bases, Woomera, was in South Australia. It was a top-secret missile launching and intelligence gathering site, and was a short train ride away from Adelaide. Based on train schedules and the timeline police established for the Somerton Man’s last day, he easily could have taken a train from Woomera and arrived in Adelaide in time to check his luggage, shower, and head to Glenelg.

The modus operandi of the man’s death also leads to spy rumors. A poison so rare and unknown that it could kill a man, then disappear from his body within hours, so that no medical testing could trace it? It certainly sounds like something the military would develop and use in its espionage network. Thomas Cleland, the Adelaide coroner, did suggest digitalis and strophanthin as possible poisons that could kill a man with no trace, and were available in most pharmacies. It was never proven what actually killed the man, so this is where you can let your imagination run wild. Was it a secret chemical weapon the government had developed? Was it a drug that anyone with know-how and connections could get from a pharmacist? Even if it was a common drug, was it administered because this man was a spy who knew too much? Was it even poison that killed him, or some other cause that simply appeared to be poison?

As a footnote to the poisoning theory, let’s examine the fact that there were no defensive wounds, no signs of a struggle, and no obvious injection site. How, then, was the poison administered, if he didn’t take it himself and it wasn’t in his food? Think back to how the man was found, and what was found on him. He was slumped over with a half-smoked cigarette on his lapel, held in place by his cheek. He had a pack of Army Brand cigarettes, with Kensita brand cigarettes inside. Because of wartime scarcity, it was fairly common to hide cheap cigarettes inside expensive packs. It lent the appearance of wealth without needing to spend the money securing expensive and rare cigarettes. But this man had put expensive cigarettes into a cheap case. What was the reasoning? Could it be that someone had replaced his cigarettes with others that had been laced with poison? Unfortunately, the Australian police disposed of the cigarettes before they could be tested.

One very simple question that lends credence to the spy theory is that no one ever claimed the body. The man’s pictures, finger prints, and physical details were spread throughout the world. If this was a normal man, with an average job, friends, a family… someone would have missed him. Someone would have come looking for him. Someone would have recognized his pictures and come forward, instead of letting the mystery endure for 65 years. Even in his activities throughout the day before he passed, he was only spotted by two witnesses, after he had slumped over on the beach. In most cases, of course, it’s easy to go through a day without being truly noticed by anyone. But if he was a foreigner from a non-English speaking country where the Somerton Man story was not as well-known, it can be assumed that he had a thick accent. A well-dressed man, with a thick foreign accent, wearing a knit pullover and jacket on the beach in the summer, yet missing a hat as was common in that age, eating pastries and walking around for 8 hours, would’ve had to been noticed by someone. He must have either been adept at blending in and hiding his accent, or had somewhere to be between noon and 7pm. If he wasn’t visiting with Jestyn, where was he?

Of course, the strongest sign that this was no ordinary man was the indecipherable code in the unique copy of the Rubaiyat. Intelligence officials and professional code breakers have agreed that this does not appear to be the insane markings of a mad man, as there is a discernable pattern. Yet no one has ever gotten close to cracking the code. There is one explanation that stands above the rest. Spies commonly used “one-time pads” as ciphers. A special edition of a book could be used to encode a message, and the book itself was needed to decipher it. For example, certain letters or patterns in the code would refer to a specific page number and word on that page. If the code used numbers, “37-12” might refer to the twelfth word on the thirty-seventh page. In this case, the letters could have been substituted for numbers, and represent words that could be pulled from the book to form a message. The Australian police lost the copy of the Rubaiyat that was linked to the Somerton Man, and no other identical copy has ever been found in the world. The fact that this book appears to be unique could be explained by it being not a published book at all, but a one-time pad used by a spy ring. Once the Somerton Man had read the message, he tore out the page it was written on and threw the book into the backseat of a nearby car. See “related cases” for more on this theory.

Finally, there is the matter of his clothes and possessions being stripped of any way to identify him. It’s easy enough to infer that if he was murdered, his wallet would have been stolen. Maybe the murderer would even remove the label from his clothes. But his suitcase was checked in long before he died, and it was also stripped of identification. If he was a spy, he would’ve been careful to travel with nothing identifying on him. However, there could be a simpler explanation. During the war, most goods were scarce, including clothing. It was common for people to write their name on all of their possessions. When selling to a second-hand shop or to a friend, though, those name tags would be removed. This man could’ve bought his clothes and suitcase used, explaining why the labels were all cut off. Many of the clothes, and the suitcase, did appear fairly new and not worn-in, so it seems unlikely that they were second-hand, but it is still a plausible explanation.

There have been a few cases in Australia that seem to be somehow linked to the Somerton Man.

  • Joseph George Marshall: George Marshall was a Jewish immigrant from Singapore, who passed away in 1945, a few years before the Somerton Man was found. Marshall was found in AshtonPark, Sydney, with a copy of the Rubaiyat open on his chest. The death was ruled a suicide by poisoning. His version was published by a London publishing house called Methuen, and was a seventh edition. However, Methuen only released five editions of the book. It appears Marshall’s copy of the Rubaiyat was as unique as the Somerton Man’s was. Perhaps these books were really one-time pads used by this specific intelligence ring to encode messages to each other. Remember that the nurse, Jessica Thompson, gave Alfred Boxall a copy of the Rubaiyat in Clifton Gardens, just two months after Marshall was found dead. Clifton Gardens is next to Ashton Park. (This links the nurse to all three men- she gave Boxall a copy of the Rubaiyat over drinks, her phone number was written in the Unknown Man’s copy of the Rubaiyat, and she was in the immediate area when Marshall was found dead with a copy of the Rubaiyat on his chest. Was Thompson a main link in a spy chain?) Marshall was the brother of the Chief Minister of Singapore. When an inquest was held for his death, a woman named Gwenneth Dorothy Graham testified. She was found dead two weeks later, her wrists slit in a bathtub.

  • Keith and Clive Mangnoson: This case’s ties to the Somerton Man are somewhat strained. On June 6, 1949, two bodies were found 12 miles down the coast from Somerton Beach. One was two-year-old Clive Mangnoson, found dead and tied up in a sack. His father, Keith, was alive, but unconscious and severely injured. Clive’s cause of death was undetermined, although natural causes were ruled out. Keith was rehabilitated, then sent immediately to a mental hospital. His wife, Roma, began reporting threats she received, including phone calls and a masked man trying to run her down with his car. She was warned to “keep away from the police or else.” She believed the tragedy occurred because her husband had gone to the police to try to identify the Somerton Man’s body, thinking it was a coworker whom he had worked with a few years prior. When he returned from the police station after viewing the body, Roma stated that Keith had appeared quite shaken up, unable to talk about it or take his afternoon tea. On March 21, 1950, Mangnoson escaped from the mental hospital he had been held in. His clothes were found on Henley Beach, where the Somerton Man’s train ticket had been purchased to go. He was captured on April 26, 1950, eating almonds in a rubbish dump. He could not tell police where he had been for the past month. Roma Mangnoson filed for divorce in June of 1953, on the grounds of “habitual cruelty”, although her husband was still being held.
Artist's sketch of the Somerton Man when he was alive

Artist's sketch of the Somerton Man when he was alive

H. C. Reynold's ID card, which may be linked to the Somerton Man

H. C. Reynold's ID card, which may be linked to the Somerton Man

Ongoing Investigation

Derek Abbott, an engineering professor at the University of Adelaide, has taken a special interest in the mystery of the Somerton Man. For the past 20 years, he has studied the case intensely, and involved students in his quest. The portrait to the right shows Professor Abbott's most recent update on the case. He realized that an autopsy photo is rarely a good image of what the person looked like while alive, yet the autopsy photo was all that was released of the Somerton Man. He commissioned an artist's rendering of what the man may have looked like while alive, and is hoping the picture will gain traction in the media. Maybe someone will finally recognize him, whether an old friend or someone going through old photo albums or newspaper clippings.

Another recent discovery is that of a US seaman's identification card, found by an Adelaide woman while going through old documents. The card is dated February 28, 1918, and lists the man's age as 18 and nationality as British. The man in the photograph does bear a resemblance to the Somerton Man, and would've been 48 when the Somerton Man's body was found- an appropriate age, based on autopsy findings. There have been many arguments against H. C. Reynolds being the Somerton Man by people close to the case, but a professor who examined the photo finds the theory plausible.


Kate Thompson, the nurse's daughter, has come forward to request the Somerton Man's body be exhumed. She believes her mother was romantically involved with the Somerton Man, and they were both part of a Soviet spy ring. She even believes her mother may have been involved in his murder. Her mother refused to give any details regarding how she knew the Somerton Man before her death, and said only that his identity was known to an authority higher than the police. Kate's suspected half brother, Robin Egan, she believes to be the son of the Somerton Man and Jessica Thompson, and Robin's daughter would now like the body exhumed and tested to see if the Somerton Man is in fact her grandfater.

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