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Somerton Man: A True Mystery “Down Under” with Casablanca Intrigue

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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.

Initial Investigation

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.

Recent Developments

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.

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About Steadwell

  • http://stephendowell.com Steve aka “Steadwell”

    Australian Attorney General’s office rejected a request to have Somerton Man exhumed early this month on August 9, 2011. The reason given was that there is no verifiable family member to approve the request.

  • Glenn L. G.

    … “Interestingly, the Somerton Beach case wasn’t the only mysterious death involving a copy of The Rubaiyat in Australia at the time. In June 1945, a 34 year-old Singaporean man named Joseph Saul Haim Marshall was found dead in Sydney with a open copy of the book next to him. He too was thought to have died by poisoning, and it is an interesting coincidence that only two months later the mystery woman gave her copy of The Rubaiyat to Alfred Boxall in Clifton Gardens, just over a half mile away from where Marshall’s body was found.”…

    Excerpt from “Australia’s Greatest Mystery | jimcofer.com”.

  • http://stephendowell.com Steve aka “Steadwell”

    Author’s theory –

    Somerton man met an attractive, seductive type lady and fell into her web of intrigue. A “drop of the doilie” so to speak. The lady, “Jestyn”, had a modus operandi of inducing gentlemen into discussion with “high brow” literature. Omar Khayyan’s Quatrains entitled Rubaiyat are in that category – in my opinion.

    My theory is based on the unsubstantiated fact that a New Zealander, after his release from prison, claimed that he knew the identity of “Somerton Man”.

    It would make logical sense to me that, if “Somerton Man” did time, once he was released from prison would attempt to contact his son. That theory would explain the “on the quick” means of looking presentable and, perhaps, did indeed purchase his clothing from a “second-hand” store. Salvation Army does that sort of thing.

    All of the other coincidentals could mean a couple of things:

    – He wanted to re-enter society

    – And/or was used as a “scapegoat” by observors who had the knowledge that the mother of his child was involved in espionage.

    Maybe, he knew too much?

    A theory – and it is mine!

  • http://stephendowell.com Steve aka “Steadwell”

    Question:

    With the vivid police photo of “Somerton Man” that is widely viewed over the internet, why was Jestyn given a plaster mold of the deceased to make an identification?

  • jestyn

    Jestyn’s name was JESSICA ELLEN HARKNESS. She was born in 1921 in Marrickville, NSW. She married Prosper McTaggart Thomson, an Adelaide car dealer, in 1950. Her son, who had similar features to Somerton Man (Anodontia, Dystonia) was called Robin Thomson and was a dancer in the Australian ballet.

    Jessica Ellen Harkness had a brother who was married to Clarice Beaumont, the first cousin once-removed of the Beaumont children.

  • peteb

    with respect, a better way to the answer may be found here

    http://tomsbytwo.wordpress.com/

  • millicent

    Pete Bowes, stop clouding the issues with this fictionalised narrative.

    Let’s investigate Jessica Ellen Harkness.

  • peterbowes

    Never ..! I’m too lost in there. You should come for the ride Millicent, to the end.