true crime

The Somerton Man is at the centre of one of the world's most baffling mysteries.

It was the last evening of spring, 1948, when John Lyons and his wife decided to go for a stroll along Somerton beach in South Australia.

The sun was warm but not uncomfortably so, and the breeze rolled off the ocean as the two talked about things they’d later forget.

It wasn’t long before something caught their eye – mosquitoes circling a man who seemed strangely unperturbed.

They buzzed and bit, and the couple thought it odd that he seemed so unbothered by the insects.

It was John that detoured towards him, noticing that while his body lay flat against the sand, his head was propped up awkwardly against the seawall.

The man, he noticed, didn’t seem homeless, or like he had been the subject of a violent attack. He was a well-dressed and relatively good looking man who appeared middle-aged.

As John approached, thinking he might check for a heartbeat, the man raised his right arm. He was okay, he seemed to indicate.

Perhaps he’d drunk too much, the passersby assumed. And off they went to enjoy an otherwise uneventful evening.

The couple would later realise they were some of the last people to see that man alive. A man, who more than 70 years later, no one even knows the name of.

Where the Somerton Man's body was found. Image supplied.
Where the Somerton Man's body was found. Image supplied.

He would come to be known simply as the Somerton Man, and has since become the subject of one of the most baffling mysteries in human history.

No wallet, no clothes tags and a suitcase

The lone man on the beach had no wallet or identification and all the tags on his clothes had been clipped off.

Inside the pocket of his light brown trousers was a packet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, a packet of cigarettes, a handkerchief, an American metal comb, a packet of matches, a railway ticket to Henley Beach and a bus ticket to North Glenelg.

It was the link to the railway that led detectives to an abandoned suitcase, belonging to the Somerton Man.

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The contents of the suitcase, however, were even more perplexing.

There were clothes - all in the Somerton Man's size - with the name T. Keane or T. Kean written inside. It lead them nowhere. A particular type of thread was also found inside, that was not produced in Australia, and was also found in the pocket of the man on the beach.

How did he die?

The cause of death was near impossible to determine.

Clean-shaven and with polished shoes, the man had no bullet or stab wounds, and no blood was found at the scene.

The pathologist, John Matthew Dwyer, noticed that the Somerton Man's pupils were smaller than usual which could point to certain drugs like barbiturates - though this theory was not conclusive. He also had blood in his stomach which suggested to Dwyer some "irritant poison".

Blood and urine samples showed up nothing. Ultimately, the coroner found that the Somerton Man had died of heart failure.

He theorised that there were some poisons that could kill a man without leaving any discernible trace. Had he ended his own life, police wondered? Or was he murdered?

Listen to this week's episode of True Crime Conversations on the Somerton Man. 

A note with two words

During the autopsy, a note was found buried deep within the Somerton Man's frontier pocket. Police had initially missed it.

The note appeared to have been torn from somewhere, and had printed on it the words: Tamám Shud.

The phrase was identified as Persian and could be loosely translated to mean "it is ended". It was also discovered that the phrase had been torn from a rare edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a 12th-century book of Persian poetry.

Next, police wanted to find that book.

The connection to a book of poetry

It was several months before they located the copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam from which the note had been torn.

A gentleman wandered into the police station one day holding the edition he'd found on the floor of his car. The final page had been partly torn out.

He recalled visiting Somerton in December the previous year with his brother-in-law. When he returned to his car, the windows rolled partly down due to the heat, he noticed a discarded book. Assuming it belonged to his brother-in-law, he never concerned himself too much with where it came from.

Police theorised that the book had been tossed there by the Somerton Man as he made his way down to the beach.

The Somerton Man. Image provided.
The Somerton Man. Image provided.
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But new clues began to present themselves. There appeared to be a code in the book - a bizarre assortment of letters - as well as two phone numbers.

The first phone number led nowhere. The second, however, belonged to a nurse.

Her name was Joe.

Did a married nurse know the Somerton Man?

When police came knocking on Joe's front door, they discovered she was living with a partner and her young son.

She vehemently denied knowing who the Somerton Man was and couldn't explain how her phone number ended up in the back of his book.

Interestingly, however, she did know The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam very well. It was some of her favourite poetry.

Prior to burying the Somerton Man, police made the decision to make a cast of his face and body in the hopes he would one day be formally identified. Unconvinced that Joe was telling the truth, they asked that she visit the cast to ensure he wasn't someone she knew.

When Joe saw the cast, witnesses say she nearly fainted. Her disposition changed dramatically, but still, she denied knowing the man before her.

There was nothing more police could do.

The spy theory

Discovered in the context of post-war Australia, as tensions between the West and the Soviets were rising, a theory quickly emerged that the Somerton Man was a Russian spy.

It would explain the lack of identification, and also the possessions that made it clear he was well travelled. It might also explain the indecipherable code buried in the back of his book.

Two sites close to the discovery of his body were known to be of interest to international spies, the Radium Hill uranium mine and the Woomera Test Range, a military research facility.

The Joe theory

ABC journalist and host of Radio National podcast The Somerton Man Mystery, Fiona Ellis-Jones, theorises that the key to the case lies with Joe.

On this week's episode of Mamamia's crime podcast True Crime Conversations, Ellis-Jones says she believes Joe did know the Somerton Man, and according to a wealth of evidence explored in the podcast, the son belonging to Joe, also belonged to the Somerton Man.

Was this a love story gone horribly wrong?

Or two spies who could never reveal their true identities?

We might be closer to finding out than we ever thought possible.
Listen to this week's episode of True Crime Conversations with Fiona Ellis-Jones.
Fiona Ellis-Jones is the host of The Somerton Man Mystery with Radio National. The Somerton Man will also be explored on this week's episode of Australian Story, airing on Monday October 14, at 8pm. 
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