Somerton Man: the perfect murder or a tragic love story?

The Somerton Man has been called ‘one of Australia’s most profound mysteries’. All sorts of solutions and theories have been put forward about the Man’s identity and his death. This is my own take on how it might have happened.

 

On December 1, 1948, the body of a man was discovered on Somerton Beach near the Adelaide suburb of Glenelg. The man has never been identified, neither has his cause of death, presenting us with a case that has been described as ‘one of Australia’s most profound mysteries’. While he had no identification on him, other clues were discovered over time that, in fact, only added to the mystery. These included a small slip of paper found in his fob pocket. Torn out of the last page of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, it bore the phrase ‘Tamam Shud’ meaning ‘it is finished’ or ‘it is over’ in Persian, which gives this mystery its alternative name.

Despite extensive police investigations and a coronial inquest, it has never been ascertained whether the man died by suicide, murder or misadventure. If it was indeed murder, it was the perfect murder, as there was no clue as to how it was done, why or by whom. This has left a great vacuum for online amateur sleuths to fill with myriad websites and videos covering every aspect of the mystery and offering every possible solution – from crime of passion to communist espionage.

I’ve become enthralled by the mystery of Somerton Man myself. However, I’ve also been torn on whether or not I should write about it. On the one hand, it won’t leave me alone. On the other, is there any point in my adding to that multitude? What could I say that hasn’t already been said? But in the end, I realized that I don’t really write to inform the public. I write for my own edification, and to scratch an itch that won’t otherwise go away.

I should also take advantage of my last window of opportunity to speculate, as Somerton Man’s body was finally exhumed in May this year in the hope that DNA might be extracted that could identify him at long last. So here is my own take on the case and a possible solution.

Rather than repeating what is so readily available, I’ll redirect you to the Wikipedia entry so you can catch up on the details of the case if you don’t already know them. I also recommend a recent episode of ABC TV’s Australian Story.

Police examine the contents of Somerton Man's Suitcase
Police with the contents of Somerton Man’s suitcase.

The facts that I believe are pertinent to the case are the following (Somerton Man will also be referred to as SM from hereon):

  • Somerton Man’s body was discovered lying undisturbed with his head raised and leaning against a stone wall. A half-smoked cigarette had fallen on his chest.
  • He was well-dressed, but didn’t have a hat, which was unusual at the time, nor a wallet, or any form of identification.
  • He was in his forties, physically fit, clean-shaven and had muscular legs characteristic of a dancer.
  • Among the items found on him were a few cigarettes in a packet of a different brand, an unused train ticket to Henley Beach and a bus ticket to Glenelg.
  • The cause of his death was never ascertained. Due to the condition of his internal organs, poisoning was suspected but could not be proven.
  • His last meal had been a pasty which he had not vomited up as he would have if he had been poisoned.
  • A witness last saw him move around 7pm on November 30 and the pathologist gave his time of death as 2am.
  • Despite enquiries world-wide, no one fitting his description had been reported missing.
  • A suitcase, which could be identified as his because it contained the same unusual thread used to repair clothing he was wearing, was discovered at Adelaide railway station.
  • The suitcase contained American made clothing, but with all labels and name tags removed, except for the name T. Keane on his underwear which has never been traced.
  • Other items in the suitcase would be used by the third mate or cargo master on a cargo vessel.
  • A shred of paper saying ‘Tamam Shud’ was discovered in his fob pocket and proved to have been torn from a rare edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
  • The book the shred had been torn from was discovered in a car which had been parked by Somerton Beach on the evening of November 30.
  • Indentations in the back of the book proved to be two Adelaide phone numbers and five lines of random letters, one of which had been crossed out.
  • The letters look like they might be a secret code such as those used in espionage, but despite many attempts, they have never been decoded.
  • One telephone number was for a bank and had no connection to the case while the other led detectives to the home of Jessica Thomson (née Harkness) only 400 metres away from the beach where the body was discovered.
  • Mrs Thomson denied that she had ever seen that copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam but did tell the police she had once given a copy of the book to an Alf Boxall who was found alive and well and still had his copy.
  • Mrs Thomson said she had not seen the man the police described, but he might have been the stranger who asked her neighbours about her.
  • When Mrs Thomson was taken to see SM’s death mask, she reacted with distress, but maintained she did not recognise him.
  • The police did not question her further and she never admitted to knowing SM, even when questioned many years later by Gerald Feltus (see below).
  • Mrs Thomson asked the police not to involve her in the case so her real name was not recorded and was only discovered many years later by Gerald Feltus.
  • Mrs Thomson was born in Melbourne but spent some time working as a nurse in Sydney during World War II. She had recently moved from Melbourne to Adelaide with her husband Prosper Thomson and baby son, Robin.
  • Jessica and Prosper Thomson were in a de facto relationship in 1948 and did not actually marry until 1950 after Prosper obtained a divorce.
  • Many years later, Mrs Thomson confessed to a friend that Mr Thomson was not Robin’s father.
  • Robin Thomson shared several rare features of his teeth and ears with SM.
  • Mrs Thomson took Robin to ballet lessons from an early age and he became a professional ballet dancer, a career she always supported.
  • Mrs Thomson’s daughter claimed her mother spoke Russian which led her to suspect she might have been a Communist spy.
  • An American identity card for a HC Reynolds which, based on the photograph and date of birth it bore, could have belonged to SM, was found by an Adelaide woman amongst her late father’s possession. HC Reynolds has never been traced.
Professor Derek Abbott and Rachel Egan on Somerton Beach
Dr Derek Abbott and Rachel Egan

The leading authority on the case today is Professor Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide, who has conducted an exhaustive forensic analysis of the case and whose campaign has finally resulted in the exhumation of Somerton Man’s body. He believes that SM came to Adelaide to see Jessica Thomson, and that her son Robin was SM’s son. Both died before he could reach them, so, in an attempt to obtain DNA to prove his theory, he made contact with Robin’s daughter, Rachel Egan. The two fell in love almost instantly and are now happily married with three children. This romantic twist to the story would seem to confirm the theory that the whole Somerton Man mystery revolves around a tragic love story.

Professor Abbott has yet to publish on the case, so while there is plenty of material online about Somerton Man, there are only two published books available on the subject. The first, The Unknown Man (2010), was written by former police detective Gerald Feltus. Unfortunately, his book is out of print and virtually unobtainable, so, as much as I would like to, I haven’t been able to read it. Instead, I’ve had to make do with Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man Mystery (2012) by Kerry Greenwood. While Ms Greenwood makes a few useful points, all in all, as I state in my Goodreads review of the book, I found it less than satisfactory.

Ms Greenwood will have nothing to do with any sentimental notions of a love affair between Jessica Thomson and Somerton Man. She maintains any resemblance between Robin Thomson and SM was because he was related to Robin’s mother. She has resolved that SM was about to embark on smuggling weapons to the fledgling nation of Israel and had just popped down to Somerton to see his long-lost cousin Jessica. However, she wasn’t home, so he strolled down to the beach where he was discovered by either secret agents or his criminal cronies and accidentally poisoned when they gave him a truth serum.

Even apart from the improbability of secret agents just happening on SM on the beach, this story is entirely fanciful and defies the few facts we have. If Jessica had been SM’s cousin, why was she so adamant in denying that she knew him? Even if she hadn’t seen him, if his presence was so innocent, why couldn’t she tell the police that he might be her cousin who had telephoned to say he was coming but never turned up?

(On another note, when Mrs Thomson made it so obvious that she recognised SM’s death mask, why didn’t the police press their advantage? Once again, the police’s undue regard for social respectability and public decency hindered their investigation as it would in the case of the Bogle/Chandler mystery. If they had been a bit more forceful, they could have cleared up much of the mystery then and there. Perhaps if they had known that ‘Mrs Thomson’ was actually ‘living in sin’ rather than being a respectable married woman, they might have been less delicate with her, as their NSW counterparts would be with Geoffrey Chandler’s lover, Pam Logan.)

The most widely held theory about Somerton Man’s death is that he was murdered. The original autopsy of the body found that while SM was physically fit, his internal organs were in a bad way. While the pathologist suspected poison, he could find no trace of any toxic substance, and no evidence that SM had vomited or convulsed before he died as should have been the case had he taken poison. The only possible solution to the mystery the coroner could suggest was that SM had died elsewhere and his body moved. However, I think it impossible that his murderer would risk being seen while dumping the body in as public a place as a popular beach on a warm summer’s evening.

Alternatively, SM may have been administered a fatal dose of an undetectable drug or poison nearby which only took effect after he arrived on the beach. This would suggest only one likely suspect, Jessica Thomson, who, as a former nurse, and suspected Communist spy, might have had access to such a murder weapon. However, while, as Professor Abbott suspects, she may have had reason to ‘unidentify’ SM, this does not does not necessarily mean she would have gone as far as murder. Again, there was no proof of poison, and, for reasons given below, I would discount any likelihood of espionage.

Another theory is that SM committed suicide and what was left of the poison he swallowed was taken by whoever stole his book and wallet. I also find this improbable. Not being a local, where would SM have obtained the poison without being noticed? If he had it with him, would he really have embarked on a voyage across the Pacific, or even from Sydney or Melbourne to Adelaide, armed with poison just in case his mission went wrong? And if the impulse to commit suicide was spontaneous, wouldn’t it have been much more likely that there on the beach he would have chosen to walk into the ocean? Suicide would only be a viable theory if SM were involved in some kind of espionage, but, again, I believe this is highly unlikely.

A final possibility is that SM died through misadventure. However fantastical Ms Greenwood’s own theories about SM’s death might be, her book does offer one important insight into the cause of SM’s death. On reviewing the autopsy report, the pathologist she consulted stated that natural causes could not be ruled out. SM may have had an underlying heart or blood condition or have picked up a rare infection. Some heart conditions can occur without symptoms, but a fainting fit or seizure could be triggered by physical activity or emotional excitement. Another possibility is that, given that his slumped position could have restricted his breathing, he might have died of positional asphyxia.

Text of the Somerton Man 'code'
Somerton Man ‘code’

The aspect of the mystery which has given rise to the wildest speculation is the so-called ‘code’ written in the back of SM’s copy of the Rubaiyat on a page later torn out. While the meaning of the four lines of seemingly random block letters has never been decoded, the text’s very existence has led to lurid theories about Cold War intrigue, secret agents and Communist spies. This idea was supported by Jessica Thomson’s daughter who thought her mother might have been a Communist spy because she spoke Russian and taught English to immigrants. (Really? If teaching English to immigrants makes you a Communist spy, ASIO must have thick files on myself and all my colleagues.) However, I believe the ‘code’ is a total red herring and all the time and effort spent on attempting to decode it completely wasted.

The Rubaiyat is a book of quatrains, poems of four lines of ten syllables. The ‘code’ contains four lines of between nine and thirteen letters. I believe it is much more likely that the letters are just a mnemonic, a shorthand way for SM to note down a not very precise quatrain he was composing himself.

Another point which has given weight to the espionage theory is that all the labels and name tags were removed from SM’s clothes. (Except for the underwear, but the name on them, T. Keane, proved to be another dead end, so has little to contribute to the solution of the mystery.)  As Ms Greenwood points out, while the removal of name tags could be accounted for by the clothes having been purchased second-hand due to post-war shortages, this would not apply to the removal of labels. SM would only have done this to eliminate any clues to his identity. However, there are many reasons why a man would want to obscure his origins besides being a spy or a smuggler, reasons that would be much more common, though less sensational.

 

The Saga of Somerton Man

 

So, what is the solution to the mystery of Somerton Man? When it comes to proposing solutions to mysteries, my approach is ‘the simpler, the better’. So, here is my version of his story which, I believe, takes into account all the pertinent facts.

***

Somerton Man is an American professional dancer, on Broadway or in Hollywood, who, by 1941, has found himself in an impossible personal situation – perhaps in a bad marriage or as the target of criminal elements. To escape it, he enlists in the US Navy when his country enters World War II in 1942. As the war is coming to a close, his ship takes him to Sydney where he meets and falls in love with Jessica Harkness.

Jessica Harkness is originally from Melbourne, but has come to Sydney to escape the restrictions of her suburban life. While working as a nurse, Jessica comes into contact with the Bohemian Sydney Push and through them the Communist Party. With aspirations to go to Moscow and see for herself their socialist utopia, she begins learning Russian. She also embraces the notions of free love and living for the moment. She finds in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam the perfect expression of these sentiments, and when her short-lived affairs are over, she gives her departing lover a copy of the book as a way of saying: it was wonderful while it lasted, but now it’s over. One of those lovers was Alf Boxall. Another is SM.

SM returns to America with his ship, but unwilling to return to his previous life, in the post-war confusion, engineers a way to disappear that would not lead his friends and family to report him missing. To ensure his real identity is never discovered, he removes all identifying labels from his clothes and luggage. Using a fake ID he has acquired under the name of HC Reynolds, he then signs up on a cargo ship, where, with his naval experience, he is quickly promoted to Cargo Master. Either on this ship, or during his time in the navy, SM contracts an infection which leaves him with an underlying, but as yet undetected, heart condition.

Meanwhile, Jessica finds herself pregnant to SM. While, as a nurse, she could obtain an abortion, albeit illegally, her conservative upbringing re-asserts itself and she can’t go through with it. Instead, she returns to Melbourne where her family takes her in, though reluctantly. Fortunately, she meets Prosper Thomson who falls in love with her and offers to marry her. However, he can’t marry her before the baby is born because he is already married, though going through a divorce. When Jessica gives birth to a son she names Robin, Prosper recognises him as his own son.

Soon after the birth, Prosper takes up an opportunity to set up in business in Adelaide, so they move there where nobody knows them, and they can safely raise their son and live together as man and wife in anticipation of their future marriage. Nevertheless, despite legitimating Jessica’s baby conceived out of wedlock, Prosper is at heart rigidly conservative morally, socially and politically. As they are not legally married, Jessica’s situation is precarious and she can’t afford to alienate him in any way. If he were to find out about her former politics or lifestyle, it might be fatal to her position.

SM’s cargo ship finally brings him to Sydney, so he decides to go ashore and look Jessica up. As he only expects to be a few days, he packs some clothes in a small suitcase, including items of underwear he accidently switches with his cabin mate, and dons his best suit, including a snazy hat. (He takes his equipment with him in case it is stolen while he is ashore.) In Sydney, he finds some of Jessica’s old friends and is told that she returned to Melbourne pregnant with his child. Overcome by this revelation, SM becomes even more determined to find her and follows her to Melbourne. There, he is given two Adelaide phone numbers where Jessica might be reached which he writes in the back of the only book he has on him, the copy of the Rubaiyat Jessica gave him. He is also given her address in Adelaide on a scrap of paper which he slips between the pages of the book.

Before catching the overnight train to Adelaide, SM tries to telephone Jessica. One of the numbers he wrote down is wrong, but he gets her on the other which is her home phone. However, Jessica is adamant that he must not come to see her. Their relationship is over, ‘Tamam Shud’, just like it says in the book. While disappointed by her response, SM determines to continue his journey. Unable to afford a sleeper, SM sits up all night on the train and spends his time re-reading the Rubaiyat and trying his hand at expressing his own feelings for Jessica in a similar quatrain which he writes in the back of the book. With only a small page to work on, SM writes only the first letter of each syllable, which will be enough to remind him of the words. Upset about what Jessica said to him, he also tears out the book’s final phrase, ‘Tamam Shud’, but sentimentally unable to part with even that scrap, shoves it into his fob pocket.

Arriving in Adelaide on the morning of November 30, SM buys a train ticket to Henley Beach, but before catching the train he needs to shave and freshen up. As the train station’s facilities are closed, he must cross the road to the public baths. This detour delays him so he misses the train but is redirected to the Glenelg bus. After leaving his suitcase in the cloak room and buying himself a pasty for lunch, SM catches the bus to Somerton. When he first arrives, Jessica isn’t in, so he asks her neighbours about her. Told she probably won’t be long, he waits and accosts Jessica when she gets home.

Unwilling to draw the attention of her neighbours, Jessica quickly ushers SM inside. There they have an emotionally fraught confrontation in which Jessica tells him she doesn’t want him disrupting her life and will have nothing more to do with him. So he won’t be able to contact her again, Jessica takes the page with her phone number (on which he has also written his poem) from SM’s book and the slip of paper with her address and destroys them both. Finally, Jessica demands that SM leave her house before Prosper gets home.

Terribly upset over what has just transpired, SM goes down to the beach to calm down and reflect. He sits down on the sand against a stone wall and takes out the few cigarettes he bummed from a shipmate when he ran out of his own. He lights one, but before he can smoke it, exhaustion after a sleepless night and the emotional turmoil of his confrontation with Jessica, triggers his underlying heart condition and he faints. As his body slumps, his breathing, already compromised, is further restricted. Still unconscious, and too exhausted to wake up, SM quietly dies.

As he lies dying, a young man takes advantage of the sleeping stranger and steals his fashionable hat, his wallet and his book. Finding the book is nothing more than boring old poems, he tosses it into the first receptacle he finds, the open window of a parked car. He keeps the wallet and, with it, SM’s fake ID which is discovered among his possessions, after his death many years later, by his daughter.

Jessica can never openly admit that SM was Robin’s father, but she can’t deny it to herself, and when she sees, from an early age, that he has inherited his father’s talent, she takes him to dancing classes and supports him in achieving a career in the ballet – her private homage to the man she once loved.

***

What are my chances, I wonder, of being right? All I can do now is wait and see what will be discovered about Somerton Man from his exhumed body and if the mystery surrounding him will ever be resolved.

 

© Pauline Montagna 2021

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Top