The 13th Floor

The Bizarre, Unsolved Mystery of the Somerton Corpse

Somerton is a seaside suburb located in South Australia. It’s an unassuming community located off the St. Vincent Gulf. It’s also the site of what police call “one of Australia’s most profound mysteries”. On December 1, 1948, police were alerted to a dead body on the beach. When they arrived, they found an unidentified male seated on the beach his back and head leaning against a seawall. An unlit cigarette rested on the collar of his coat. In his pockets police found a second-class rail ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach that had not been used. They also found a bus ticket, an American comb, half a pack of gum, and a quarter of a box of Bryant & Bay Matches. He also had seven Kensitas cigarettes (a Scottish brand of cigarette only available in the United Kingdom) inside of a Army Club cigarette pack.

After a cursory investigation, pathologists determined that he was likely British and anywhere between 40 and 45 years-old. He was five-foot-eleven with hazel eyes, fair hair, and was in excellent physical condition. He had broad shoulders and a narrow waist with calf muscles characteristic of a dancer or long distance runner. He was dressed in a white shirt with a red and blue tie and brown trousers, however he had no wallet or hat, quite unusual for the time, and all the labels had been ripped out of his clothing. Investigators would first call it a suicide, until an autopsy revealed so much more.

 

Pathologists found that the body showed obvious signs of poisoning, however no trace of poison could be found. His last meal, a small baked good, showed no trace of poison. Although the pathologist believed that the cause of death was either a barbiturate or sleeping pill, he could find no trace of it and therefore could not determine the cause of death. On December 10, 1948, the Somerton Man’s body was embalmed and buried, but not before a plaster cast was made of his head and shoulders and a bust made from it. After, that the case went cold.

 

Then on January 14, 1949 a staff member at the Adelaide railway station discovered a suitcase with it’s label removed. The suitcase had been checked into the station cloakroom on November 30, 1948, the day before the body was discovered. Inside police found: a dressing gown, size seven slippers, four pairs of underpants, pajamas, a shaving kit, and a light brown pair of pants with sand in the cuffs. They also came across an electrician’s screwdriver, a small knife, a pair of scissors, a small square of zinc, and a stencil brush used on merchant ships to mark cargo, and a spool of orange waxed thread that was unavailable in Australia. This was the same thread used to repair the seams on the clothes the dead man was wearing at the time he was found.

Just like the clothes he was wearing, all the labels had been removed from everything found in his suitcase except for a tie, a laundry bag, and a singlet all with T. Keane written on them in a manner that would have damaged the article if they were removed. The singlet also had three dry-cleaning marks: “1171/7, 4393/7, and 3053/7”. An inquiry for a missing person’s report filed on a T. Keane turned up nothing and neither did a search for the source of the dry-cleaning marks.

The coroner did another investigation of the new found items. He noticed that the man’s shoes were not scuffed like they would have been had the man walked to the beach where he was found. He also discovered that there was no vomit on the clothing, a side effect of poisoning. Both these finds led him to believe that the body was carried to the beach after the man had died. A professor of physiology and pharmacology at the University of Adelaide also noted that there were two drugs that were easily available to the public that would be lethal in small doses and difficult to identify on the remains. Those chemicals were digitalis, a cardiac medicine derived from the foxglove plant, and oabain, an extremely poisonous chemical that in very small doses can be used as a heart medicine. Investigators were convinced that the man had died of poisoning, but they couldn’t tell the type or confidently say that it was administered by someone else.

Then the police made another strange discovery. Sewn into the man’s fob pocket was a small piece of paper which read “Tamam Shud”. Library officials identified the scrap of paper as being from RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM, a book of poems written by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. The police appealed to the public to help them find the book that this scrap of paper was torn from. Not long afterwards a man came forward with a 1941 edition of Edward FitzGerald’s translation from 1859 that the scrap had been torn from. As it was customary for the police to protect the identities of their witnesses, the man who came forward with the book was given the pseudonym Ronald Francis. His real name was never made its way into the public record. Francis did say that he discovered the book on the floor of the backseat of an unlocked car around the same time the body was found. The report did not say whose car it was.

 

On the inside back cover of the book, the police found indentations from someone’s handwriting. The indentations revealed a telephone number and an encrypted message. The encrypted message was unsolvable and believed to be the product of a “disturbed mind”. The phone number on the other hand was an unlisted number belonging to a nurse named Jessica Ellen Thomson who lived just north of where the body was found. Thomson claimed to not know who the dead man was and had never seen him before in her life. However, neighbors reported that a strange man had come to their home enquiring about her a few days prior to the discovery.

When shown the dead man’s bust, Thomson was reportedly taken aback by it. She looked at it once and looked away and would not look at it again. Afterwards she simply responded that she did not know the man. A further investigation into Thomson revealed that, while working at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney during World War II, she owned a copy of RUBAIYAT. Then in 1945, while at the Clifton Gardens Hotel in Sydney, she gave the book to an Army lieutenant by the name of Alf Boxall. Boxall was serving in the Water Transport Section of the Royal Australian Engineers. After the war, Thomson moved to Melbourne where she married and never saw Boxall again. For a brief period police believed the dead man was Boxall until they found Boxall in 1949 working as a maintenance man at the Randwick Bus Depot. They also found the copy of Rubaiyat that Thomson had given him still completely intact.

One theory the police explored was that of a possible espionage connection since it was believed that Boxall was involved in spying during World War II and the Cold War. This investigative route yielded no results most likely due to either the assumption being false or the secretive nature of Boxall’s work.

Over the past decades, many theories have been explored further, but none have been able to break the case open. Even DNA testing has failed to yield helpful results and has in fact added more mystery to the case. A 2016 DNA test revealed that the man had ties to the United States, more specifically Virginia, and scientists found that there was a possible relation to founding father Thomas Jefferson.

Years before the DNA tests were performed, an investigation into genetic traits, revealed certain genetic similarities between the unidentified man and Robin Thomson. Robin, a former Australian Ballet dancer who died in 2009, was the son for Jessica Thomson. Robin would have been one-year-old when the Somerton Man’s body was found. Unfortunately, Robin was cremated leaving investigators no way of testing his DNA.  To this day, the identity of the Somerton Man remains unknown as does the circumstances regarding his death.

 

 

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