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.