The Bizarre Mystery of the Somerton Man
I remember walking through Somerton Park, a suburb of Adelaide in South Australia, back in the early 1960s. The mainly residential seaside suburb is home to the Somerton Park Beach, and whilst enjoying a cold beer there that hot day, I had no idea that this was the location of what remains as the most perplexing mystery in Australia’s criminal cold case records; the enduring enigma of the ‘Somerton Man’, or as they refer to him down under, the ‘Unknown Man’.
In an age of high-tech CSI, DNA and advanced forensic science, we like to think we’re pretty clever at solving murder cases. There’s usually a clear motive, a list of potential suspects soon builds up. Was it the wife/husband? Was there a girlfriend/boyfriend? A mugger, a robber? The starting point is usually the identification of the victim. Yet what happens when absolutely no-one knows whose body it is? This is a mystery laden down with curious clues, hints and false leads, none of which provide an explanation or a conclusion.
Perhaps no-one noticed the smartly dressed middle aged man who stepped from the Melbourne train at Adelaide station at 8.30 am on the morning of November 30th 1948. It had been a long journey. He bought a one-way ticket for the 10.50 am train to Henley Beach, but the ticket was never used. He was carrying a small brown suitcase which he deposited in the station’s left luggage room at around 11 am. At 11.15 am he bought a 7d (seven pence) bus ticket outside the station for a bus going to Somerton, but he got off somewhere along the route. Some researchers suggest that he alighted at Glenelg, close to the St. Leonard’s Hotel. Between 7pm and 8pm that night several witnesses claimed to have seen the man. He stopped somewhere to buy a pasty. This much is known so far. Now the mystery kicks in.
December 1st in southern Australia is regarded as the first day of Summer. It was warm on the evening of Tuesday November 30 when a couple decided to take a stroll along Somerton Beach. John Bain Lyons was a local jeweller and as he ambled along the sands in the direction of Glenelg with his wife at 7 pm, 20 yards away (18.22 m) they spotted a smartly dressed man reclining on the sand, his head propped up against the sea wall. He seemed quite relaxed with his legs outstretched and crossed. Mr Lyons had the impression that the man might be drunk, as the reclining figure lifted up his right arm which then fell back down. It seemed as if he may have been attempting to light a cigarette, but abandoned the idea. Half an hour later, a young couple were out for a walk along the Esplanade, and they had a view of the beach from above, and the reclining figure was still there with his left arm laid out across the sand. His shoes were clean and well-polished, his suit looked immaculate, yet it seemed an odd sartorial choice as beachwear. He appeared to be sleeping, but with a swarm of mosquitos around his face, inspiring the young man to comment “He must be dead to the world not to notice them…”
But the man on the beach was in the deepest sleep of all. He was dead. The following morning, when the jeweller John Lyons emerged from the sea after a cooling swim, he was joined by two men and a horse as they gathered around the dead man, still in the same position as Lyons had seen him the night before, legs crossed and outstretched. There was an un-smoked cigarette behind his ear, and a half smoked stub resting on his collar. There were no signs of violence.
Three hours later the body was taken to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, where Dr. John Barkley Bennett estimated the man had died, possibly from heart failure, at around 2 am. There was a dramatic twist, when the Doctor announced that he suspected the man had been poisoned. The dead man’s pockets were emptied but did not reveal much. To begin with he had no cash or wallet. What was found were two combs, a box of matches, a pack of chewing gum, a pack of Army Club cigarettes and seven Kensitas cigarettes. But there was another puzzle. Any maker’s name labels or tags in his clothing had been carefully cut away, and one of his trouser pockets had been stitched with orange thread.
The police had no leads as to the corpse’s identity. The local press reported that the man found on the beach was ‘E. C. Johnson’, but Johnson turned up alive on December 3rd. A full autopsy and a post mortem were carried out. John Dwyer, the pathologist, found a quantity of blood mixed with the remains of the pasty in the man’s stomach. Further examination revealed the dead man had unusually small pupils, his liver was distended with congested blood, and the spleen was three times normal size. With these results, suspicions of poisoning arose. Yet no cause of death was found, and expert chemical analysis on the man’s organs revealed nothing. So who was this dead man? At the subsequent Coroner’s inquest, the evidence of one expert, who had inspected the man’s legs and feet, suggested his well-developed calf muscles and oddly shaped, pointed feet hinted that this man may have even been a ballet dancer. The cadaver was preserved with formalin and a cast was made of his bust for future examination. The corpse’s fingerprints were taken and circulated around the world, but with no result.
Christmas 1948 came and went with the Unknown Man resting in the morgue. Then, in January 1949, the suitcase he had left at the railway station was discovered. When police opened it, the mystery deepened. There was a reel of orange thread. Of the few items of clothing, the name tags had been removed, but on three the name ‘Kean’ and ‘Keane’ remained. There was a stencil kit, the kind of thing used to stencil names on packing crates, a coat, stitched with a peculiar feather stitching, and a table knife with the shaft cut down, and six pence. Although the names ‘Kean’ and ‘Keane’ looked like good leads, the police could trace no-one, and the local press suggested that the labels were deliberately left as red herrings. Once again the investigation was stalled.
But the strangest evidence, which would give this case its mysterious title, came when the Emeritus Professor of Pathology at the University of Adelaide, John Cleland, was brought in during April 1949 to examine the corpse. Sewn into the waistband of the trousers was what has been referred to as ‘a secret pocket’. It contained a tightly rolled, small piece of paper bearing the printed words, ‘Tamám Shud’. A reporter for the Adelaide Advertiser, Frank Kennedy, recognised the words as Persian. They were from a popular work written in the 12th century, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The two words come at the very end of the English translation by Edward Fitzgerald of this popular book of poetry, after the final verse, and mean, literally, ‘It is over’. The slip of paper appeared to have been torn from a book, and the seemingly fruitless hunt for the original copy began. The police began to suggest that this may have been a suicide. But there was much more yet to come.
In June 1949 the body was buried in a plot of dry ground and sealed under concrete, a precaution in case it needed future exhumation. On July 23rd a man from the Glenelg area visited the Adelaide Police station and presented a a very rare first edition copy of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám published in 1859 by Whitcombe and Tombs in New Zealand.. His odd story was that the book had been tossed into the back seat of his car by persons unknown. The torn extract matched the ripped space in the book. The identity of the man who found the book was kept secret, and has remained so. In the back of the book police found five lines of letters written in pencil, and a telephone number. The number was that of a 27 year old nurse who had trained in Sydney’s North Shore Hospital and now lived not far from where the body had been discovered. Soon local media began to refer to the mysterious lines of letters as ‘code’. Was our man a spy?
Attention now focused on the new lead, the nurse. Her real name was Teresa Powell, but was referred to by the media as ‘Jestyn’. She appears to be as mysterious as the rest of the case, as her real name was not revealed until 2002. In 1949, when police interviewed her she gave a false surname, ‘Mrs. Thompson’, although it turns out that she wasn’t actually married. When shown the plaster cast of the deceased man’s bust, she thought that it might be a man she knew called Alf Boxall, yet wasn’t certain, although she claimed she once gave a copy of The Rubáiyát to Boxall at the Clifton Gardens Hotel in Sydney in 1945 when he was serving as a lieutenant in the Water Transport Section of the Australian Army. Apparently she behaved very oddly when questioned, and almost fainted. She need not have worried, because Boxall turned up, very much alive, and he brought his copy of The Rubáiyát, a 1924 Sydney edition, with him. He knew nothing of the dead man and had no connection to him.
The extensive international publicity rolled on as detectives around the globe investigated, but the man remains, to this day, unidentified. Yet as the Cold War developed, the attention focused on the possibility of poisoning, a favourite weapon in espionage circles, and the strange ‘codes’ written in the back of The Rubáiyát. The Adelaide coroner, Thomas Cleland, was informed by an eminent professor, Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks that it was possible that a very rare poison had been used which would have decomposed ‘very early after death’. When Hicks appeared at the court hearing, he stated that the poisons he had in mind were so deadly and secret that he would not speak their names out loud, so jotted them down on a slip of paper and passed them to the coroner. They were digitalis and strophanthin. Hicks suggested the latter as the culprit. It originates from Ouabain, a Somali “arrow poison” which is also named g-strophanthin, poisonous cardiac glycoside. Extracts containing Ouabain have long been used by Somali tribesmen to poison hunting arrows.
So, who was the Unknown Man and was he a spy? At Woomera, they were testing missiles and gathering intelligence. Our man died in Adelaide, which is the closest Australian city to Woomera. Many see this as a connection. It is also possible that he caught his train at Port Augusta, which is much closer to Woomera. Then there is the bizarre pencilled ‘code’ in the back of The Rubáiyát. What does it mean?
Code specialists around the world, including some of the best intelligence experts, even astrologers, have been wrestling with these random characters for decades, so far, without success.
There is still an aura of uncertainty around the nurse, ‘Justyn’ and her relationship with Alf Boxall. It seems that Boxall’s army career may also have involved military intelligence. Justyn died in 2007 and some believe that her real name was kept under wraps as it (or perhaps even her nickname) may have been a key to decryption of the ‘code’. Also, according to a 1978 TV documentary, when she gave Boxall her copy of The Rubáiyát she had written out verse 70:
Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore—but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My thread-bare Penitence a-pieces tore.
Just a young, romantic gesture – or something more cryptic?
In 1947, the year before the mystery man alighted in Adelaide, the United States Army’s Signal Intelligence Service was carrying out Operation Venona, during which they discovered that the Soviet embassy in Canberra had been in receipt of top secret information leaked from Australia’s Department of External Affairs. In 1948 U.S. banned the transfer of all classified information to Australia. Spies would have had to work much harder that year.
The more you dig into the murky undergrowth of Tamám Shud the denser the tangled roots become. For example, three years prior to the death of the ‘Unknown Man’ the body of Joseph (George) Saul Haim Marshall, a 34 year old from Singapore, was found in Ashton Park, Mosman, Sydney in 1945, with an open copy of the The Rubáiyát (reported as a seventh edition by publishers Methuen) laid on his chest. It was recorded that he’d committed suicide by poison. However, Methuen only issued 5 editions of The Rubáiyát, so either this was a reporting error or a copy of the NZ Whitcombe and Tombs edition. It may be some kind of synchronicity or simple loose association, but a quick look on Google Earth reveals that Sydney’s Ashton Park is a short walk from Clifton Gardens. It was in Clifton Gardens, just two months after the dead Marshall was found with a copy on his chest that Jestyn gave Alfred Boxall a copy of The Rubáiyát. So who was Joseph (George) Saul Haim Marshall? It transpires that his brother was the famous barrister and Chief Minister of Singapore David Saul Marshall. Joseph Marshall’s inquest was held on August 151945. A woman testified at the inquest. She was Gwenneth Dorothy Graham. Within a fortnight of testifying, she was found naked and dead in a bath face down, with her wrists slit. Omar Khayyám seems to have had a lot to answer for.
Also in 1949, as the Adelaide police were still scratching their heads over the Unknown Man, at Largs North, just 12 miles (20km) along the beach from Somerton, where he’d been found, another bizarre case unfolded. A two-year old boy named Clive Mangnoson was found dead, his body in a sack, on 6 June 1949. It was established that the child had been dead for 24 hours. Keith Waldemar Mangnoson, his unconscious father, was lying alongside him. The man was taken to hospital suffering from exposure and weakness, then ended up in a mental institution. Father and son had been missing for four days. It gets even weirder; the two were discovered by Neil McRae, who said he had established their location in a dream the previous night. As with the Unknown Man, the coroner did not believe the boy had died from natural causes.
Then came the revelation by the boy’s mother, Roma Mangnoson, that she’d been threatened by a masked man who almost ran her down outside her house in Largs North’s Cheapside Street. The man was driving a battered, cream coloured car, saying that “the car stopped and a man with a khaki handkerchief over his face told me to ‘keep away from the police’ or else.'” She believed this to be connected with the fact that her husband had been to identify the Unknown Man at Somerton, who he believed to be someone he had worked with in 1939 named Carl Thompsen. Local dignitaries, including the mayor of Port Adelaide, A. H. Curtis, and J. M. Gower, the Secretary of the Largs North Progress Association received some strange, anonymous phone calls, threatening an ‘accident’ should they ‘stick their nose into the Magnonson affair’. The distraught Mrs. Magnonson was so affected by her meetings with the police that she required subsequent medical attention.
South Australia’s Major Crime Task Force still regard this as an open case. The Unknown Man’s bust is held by The South Australian Police Historical Society, and it contains strands of the man’s hair. Unfortunately, after being embalmed the chemicals used may have destroyed much of the DNA. In any case, a recent request to exhume the body was refused. Witness statements appear to have disappeared from police files, and the suitcase found at Adelaide Station and its contents were destroyed in 1986. There have been approaches from people in Eastern Europe who believe the Somerton man might be one of many missing from the area during the Cold War. But it looks as if we may never know who he was and how he came to die on that beach. So let’s give the last word to our 12th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyám;
‘They change and perish all – but He remains…’ Tamám Shud; ‘It is ended.’
©2016 ROY BAINTON
ON LINE: As this is an Internet cause célèbre with dozens of links a simple Google of Tamam Shud will give you all you need.
Feltus, Gerald Michael The Unknown Man, Klemzig, South Australia, 2010, ISBN 978-0-646-54476-2.
Greenwood, Kerry Tamam Shud – The Somerton Man Mystery, University of New South Wales Publishing, 2013 ISBN 978-1742233505
Stephen King frequently refers to this case in his novel The Colorado Kid, which in turn inspired the series Haven.
 By early February 1949, there had been eight different “positive” identifications of the body. Some thought it was a missing stablehand and two men from Darwin thought the corpse was of a friend of theirs, and others suggested he was a sailor or a Swedish man. Police from Victoria suggested the man was from their state, as his the laundry marks were similar to those of dry-cleaning firms in Melbourne. Following publication of the man’s photograph in Victoria, 28 people claimed they knew his identity.
 Retired detective Gerald Feltus interviewed Jestyn in 2002 and found her to be either “evasive” or “just did not wish to talk about it,” He agreed not to disclose her identity or anything that might reveal it. Feltus believes that Jestyn knew the Somerton man’s identity.
 http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/result?l-publictag=Taman+Shud this site offers a selection of press coverage on the case.
 Often mis-named as ‘Stanford Hicks’, Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks came to Adelaide in 1926 after an outstanding student career at the University of Otago in New Zealand, war service and a research studentship at Cambridge. He was appointed Professor of Human Physiology and Pharmacology from 1927, a position he retained until 1958 when he became Emeritus Professor. He was knighted in 1936 for his services to medical science.
 A sufficiently concentrated ouabain dart can fell a Hippopotamus causing respiratory and/or cardiac arrest. Only one creature is immune to its effects; the Galapagos Tortoise.
 Inside Story, presented by Stuart Littlemore, ABC TV, 1978.