Why The Somerton Man Endures As One Of Australia's Most Fascinating Cold Cases

Why the Somerton Man Endures As One of Australia's Most Fascinating Cold Cases

He's one of the most famous figures in Australian history ... only because police can't figure out who he was or what happened to him. On 1 December 1948, a man's body was found propped up against a stone wall at Somerton beach. He had no identification whatsoever. Really, truly, no identification whatsoever: The tags on the man's clothes, all made and obtained in America, were missing. A half-smoked cigarette rested on his right shirt collar.

Police pillaged his pockets and came up with a laundry list of odd items: an unused second-class rail ticket to Henley Beach, a used bus ticket from the nearby city of Adelaide, an aluminium American-made comb, a half-empty packet of Juicy Fruit gum, cigarettes and matches. After digging a bit deeper, they found a hidden compartment in his pants with a scrap of paper torn from the last page of a rare book of Persian poetry, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

The only words written there: Tamam Shud. "It is finished."

Armed with this one important clue, the police started searching for the book that had originally held the page. A man came forward days later saying he had found the valuable, first-edition tome on the backseat of his car one morning after leaving the window open. The car had been parked near Somerton beach.

Inside the book, they found a handwritten cipher, pencilled in all caps. One of the lines was crossed out. There was also an unlisted phone number.

Why the Somerton Man Endures As One of Australia's Most Fascinating Cold Cases

After experts couldn't crack the code (they said it wasn't long enough to establish a pattern in the letters), the police found the owner of the mysterious phone number.

Her name was Jessica Thomson, and she worked as a nurse in Somerton. Her house was a stone's throw from where the dead man was found. Thomson claimed she had never seen the man before, although witnesses later stated they had seen him knocking on Thomson's door the day before he was found. When she didn't answer, he left and walked down to the beach. Although police questioned Thomson further, she never gave them any useful information, and they crossed her out as a suspect.

An autopsy revealed the man had been extremely healthy and strong, and the coroner ruled a case of foul play. Although police suspected he was poisoned, tests came back inconclusive. If he really died from poisoning, it was a substance that wasn't known in the country.

All the clues -- indecipherable code, exotic poison, American-made personal effects -- pointed toward the Somerton Man being a Soviet spy. Police suspected Thomson might be a spy as well, but they had no evidence to charge her.

After Thomson died, her daughter Kate came forward saying her mother knew more than she told police. Kate had long suspected her Russian-speaking mother to be a former Soviet spy, who not only knew the Somerton Man, but had had an affair with him. In fact, she thought her half-brother, Robin, was probably the man's son.

Government officials have since refused requests to exhume the body and test it for DNA evidence. So even if Kate's theories are correct, Jessica Thomson and the Somerton Man's secrets are staying with them in their graves.

Sources: 60 Minutes, The Advertiser

Images via Wikimedia Commons

This post by the Lineup Staff originally appeared on The Lineup. It has been republished with permission.

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    Russian spies are the most hardcore spies.

    Of course, in Russia, Russia spies you!

    There was a band called Taman Shud based in NSW, I wonder if they were part of this conspiracy?!? http://www.theoriginaltamamshud.com

      Yeah I remember that band name, I think I must have had a few old tapes of theirs in a box of tapes I picked up at a garage sale.

    Interestingly, i first read about this on Cracked.

    SAPOL have been asking the state government for years permission to exhume his body to do modern forensics on him but are repeatedly denied and the police lost the book while it was in the evidence lock-up and no copies can be found so modern code breakers can't have a go.

    If anyone is in Adelaide... the man is buried in the West Terrace cemetary.

      the police lost the book while it was in the evidence lock-up
      I bet the Russians broke in and stole it.

        ASIO was apparantly infiltrated by Russian spies back then so not so far fetched an idea.


          ASIO wasn't formed until 1949, it was the Australian Government that was infiltrated at the highest levels. British Intelligence, MI5, had a big hand in Australian Intelligence from August 1948 as top secret cables from the Venona project had been leaked from Australia. Google Sir Percy Sillitoe Australia.

            Ah... I was out by a few years it seems, thanks for heads up, will check it out.

      Luke, That's not quite correct, Professor Abbott from Adelaide University has been the one campaigning. Professor Abbott actually married Jessica Thomson's granddaughter about 18 months ago.

      It is Professor Derek Abbott who has been campaigning for the exhumation not the Police. Professor Abbott married Jessica Thomson's granddaughter in 2014.

    He had a comb? Can you get DNA off it? Guess not.

      Only hair follicles can give DNA because the hair itself doesn't have any DNA in it. On the other hand, they may be able to recover epithelial cells which can give DNA. This of course assumes that the comb was stored in a situation where it can't be contaminated by other people's DNA or anything that may degrade the DNA.

      Hi David, The comb along with most of the evidence was destroyed 30 years ago. However, the plaster bust of the man which exists, contained hair samples. When examined, mass spectrometry, the sample had unusually high levels of lead which had occurred some 2 weeks prior to the man's death.

    I find this fascinating but have only been studying it for a couple of weeks so may have missed a couple of things . From what I have read from several sources there were two telephone numbers were written on the copy of the rubaiyat that the codes were also written in. One number belonged to jessica thomson but who did the other number belong to and why wasn't it revealed regards Yael

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