It was just after World War II at the onset of the Cold War years and many of Australia’s wartime rationing policies were still in effect. On the warm evening of November 30, 1948, a couple walks along Somerton Beach taking in the beach scenery at the start of the summer season in the southern hemisphere – “down under.” They notice a well-dressed gentleman lying in the sand with his head propped up against the seawall, his legs stretched out and his feet crossed. The man is moving his right arm as if positioning a smoke to his lips but the arm drops back down in the sand. The couple think nothing more of it, pass the man off as perhaps having had one or two too many cocktails and move on.
Another couple venturing along the beach later that evening notice the well-dressed man lying in about the same position. The male member of the duo makes the joking comment that the mosquitoes buzzing around him don’t seem to bother him at all, it’s as if “he’s dead to the world.”
Nobody that night gets a descriptive look at the face of the man “relaxing” in the sand.
At about 6:30 AM on December 1, a couple of men are going for an early morning stroll along that beach and discover the man seen the night before in the same location with his left arm extended out in the sand, his right arm doubled-up beside him and half a cigarette resting on his lapel against his cheek. The man really is dead to the world.
Thus begins the most profound unsolved case in the annals of South Australian detective casework. Until recently, the mystery was fairly confined to the continent of Australia, but it has now obtained international exposure.
Of course, the first task to undertake would be to identify the corpse, which was seemingly a dead-end right from the start. “John Doe” had no identification, no cash and nobody had any recollection of the stranger. There was nothing of note regarding any odd behavior, accents, nothing, except for a pack of cigarettes with some off-brand cigarettes in it, a few matches in a matchbox, a train ticket and a bus pass stub. Even the labels had been removed from the clothing – perhaps from a second-hand store?
Another key component of an investigation involving a death is answering the “cause of death” question. The autopsy indicated that “John Doe” was in exceptionally good health, physically fit, especially for a man in his middle 40s, and showed no toxic substances in his tissue analysis. It was concluded that the man was an athlete of some sort due to his physical condition and especially the development of his calf muscles which indicated that he was a runner, dancer, sea diver, or participated in some activity of that nature. It was found at autopsy that the man’s organs were engorged three-fold and the presence of congestive blood was found in the stomach, liver, spleen, and lower intestine as well as the brain. This finding created the commonly accepted conclusion that the death was caused by a poison. No poison was found in the system of the deceased but the symptoms of death by poisoning were all but undeniable.
Two weeks later, the staff at the train station in Adelaide discovered a suitcase checked into a locker on the morning of “Somerton Man’s” last full day alive. The contents were tied to the case due to the discovery of some wax thread that matched the thread used to mend the inside of one of the man’s trouser pocket linings. Again, all clothing tags were removed except for a couple of laundry tags with the name “T. Keane” and “Kean” which were discounted as being planted there as false and misleading evidence. That would go against any suicide theories, but it is still accepted by some that the mystery case was indeed a suicide. The suicide approach would explain the lack of ID and money.
In the weeks that followed the discovery of Somerton Man, many readers of the press responded with claims of knowledge of the man’s identity but they were all disproven after being followed up. Finally after many weeks, the body was embalmed and a cast made of the head and shoulders. Australian police had never had a case like this in their collective memories.
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Link
It wasn’t until June of 1949, at the close of a coronial inquest that was begun a couple of days after the body was found, that a concealed pocket was found inside the pocket lining of the dead man’s trousers, and inside the pocket was a small rectangle of paper printed in a Persian-styled font that read “Tamam Shud.” “Tamam Shud” is Farsi for “It is ended” and is the last line of Omar Khayyam‘s book of poetic quatrains entitled Rubaiyat. When this news hit the papers, a doctor realized the importance of a copy of Rubayait thrown into the back seat of his unlocked car the day before the body was found. A portion of the final page of the publication had been torn out. The paper found in the dead man’s obscure fob pocket matched the book turned in to police by the doctor, and in the rare, first edition Rubaiyat were a penciled-in phone number and four lines of what appeared to be a coded message. Police contacted a lady at the phone number, who explained that she was a nurse during the war and had owned a copy of Rubaiyat which she gave to an Australian Army Officer named Alfred Boxall over drinks one night in 1945. Boxall was later found, alive, with his copy of the book and the final page intact.
The Mysterious Nurse
The nurse, whose identity had been withheld since the investigation began, has been simply referred to by her nickname of Jestyn. Jestyn resided only blocks away from where the body was found.
Before it was known that the recipient of Jestyn’s copy of the book was still alive, she was shown the cast of the face and shoulders of Somerton Man. Jestyn was unable to positively identify the man but it was noted by the questioning policemen that her response clearly indicated that she was taken aback by the unveiling of the bust and at one point seemed as if she were about to faint.
Ties to Espionage
During this period of time, Operation Venona was in full motion and in the region not too distant from Somerton Beach in Adelaide was Woomera, the top-secret military testing grounds of the United Kingdom. Operation Venona was a joint project between the U.S. and the U.K. to cryptanalyze coded messages intercepted from the Soviets. Through the Venona project, a leak of classified documents to the Soviet Embassy at Canberra was uncovered.
A common means of inconspicuously ending a life during those years was through the use of non-traceable poisons, as in the case of Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department who was charged with delivering U.S. secrets to the Soviets. Doctors describe digitalis and similar substances that were easily obtainable at that time and could very possibly have been the culprit in the case of Somerton Man.
Eventually, investigators found information showing that Boxall, the recipient of Jestyn’s copy of Rubaiyat, was involved with intelligence operations during the war years.
Jestyn married another man a few years after her encounter with Boxall, and this man was presumed to be the father of her son who was born in 1947.
Many years after the investigation had gone dormant, a Professor of Anatomy noticed deformities in Somerton Man’s ears. Also present was an odd deformity manifested by the lack of certain incisors in his bite. Only one to two percent of Caucasions have these deformities. The son of the nurse presumed to have been fathered by her husband also had them. The odds of the son not being the son of Somerton Man are between one in ten million and one in 20 million. Could it be that the victim came to the area with the intent of making contact with his son?
The case remains open, as there is no statute of limitations if murder is suspected. Efforts have been underway as recently as 2009 to exhume the bodies of Somerton Man as well as the son of the nurse to extract DNA samples for comparative analysis.
It was later found that Jestyn married the claimed father of her son in 1950. The husband had been married previously in 1936 and most likely waited until the divorce was finalized before being wed to Jestyn. Jestyn’s request for anonymity was to protect her husband from the embarrassment of her being exposed to Boxall, the Somerton Beach Man, and the likelihood of the son not being his own.
Jestyn died in 2007. Her son passed away in 2009.
This extraordinary account was brought to my attention while scanning through Smithsonian.com as a subscriber to their newsletters. The story is entitled Past Imperfect – The Body on Somerton Beach and the comments are as captivating as the article itself.
Life’s true dramas are oftentimes more perplexing than anything conjured up by even the best of mystery writers.