On December 1, 1948, the dead body of a man was found leaning against the seawall of Somerton Beach in Southern Australia. It was the dawn of the Cold War. Nearby, the British were testing rockets at a secret weapons base, and the United States intercepted messages confirming the existence of an extensive network of Soviet spies operating out of the country. The unsolved murder of the Somerton Man is a famous tale of secrets, spies and coded messages. Just like a James Bond movie, it even includes a mysterious woman and a love triangle gone wrong.
While walking along the beach with his friend, John Bain Lyons notices that the man sitting against the seawall hasn’t budged since he saw him the night before. Curious, he pushes through a group of people and kneels down to examine the man. John is shocked to find that he’s dead.
In a flashback, the Somerton Man arrives at the Adelaide Train Station on the morning of November 30th, 1948 after an overnight train ride. He buys a ticket for the 10:50 train to Henley Beach and tells the ticket master that he’s visiting a friend. Instead of boarding the train, the Somerton Man stops by the cloakroom to check in his suitcase. Afterwards, he walks across the street to buy a bus ticket to Glenelg.
Later that day, an unknown man, most likely the Somerton Man, knocks on the door of a quiet suburban home on Mosely Street, owned by a woman known only by her police-given pseudonym Jestyn. The house is just five minutes away from where the man’s body will be found the very next day. No one answers the door and the Somerton Man learns from a neighbor that she has been out all morning. He walks away towards the beach.
At 7:00PM, John Bain Lyons and his wife notice the Somerton Man. Still alive, the man clumsily lifts his right arm. His movements and positioning lead the couple to think he is drunk, and they pass on. By the time George Strapps and his girlfriend Olive Neill stroll by, he has stopped moving, but they attribute his stillness to a drunken stupor.
The next morning, at 6:45, Constable John Moss inspects the body, finding train tickets, matches, cigarettes, an American aluminum comb and a half-finished pack of Juicy Fruit gum. There is no wallet or ID. A partially smoked cigarette rests on his lapel and his clothing had its labels cut out. Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show host Wenndy thinks the Somerton Man might have been an American spy.
While performing an autopsy on the unidentified man, Dr. Dwyer sees the stomach is congested with blood, a sign of poisoning, but the tests he runs all come back negative for common poisons. Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks, a consultant on the case, suspects a rare poison such as digitalis or strophanthin killed the Somerton Man. Rare and obscure to most, spies of the Soviet Union actively used these poisons to eliminate enemies and critics of their country. If the Somerton Man was a double agent or an American spy, Soviet operatives would have ample motive to kill him.
Detectives find the suitcase left at the train station cloakroom, but all hopes of revealing the Somerton Man’s identity are dashed when they discover his luggage had been tampered with. With the exception of three items labeled “T. KEANE” or “KEAN,” the killer removed all the labels from the Somerton Man’s clothing and all other self-identifying possessions.
The name sends detectives Leane and Brown on a wild goose chase. They discuss the likelihood that the killer planted the name to throw them off the trail. Fresh out of leads and new ideas, the coroner on the case asks John Cleland, a Professor of Pathology at the University of Adelaide, to reexamine the body to see if he can find something others missed.
John Cleland finds a tiny scrap of paper hidden inside the fob pocket of the Somerton Man’s trousers. On it are printed two words: “Taman Shud.” The phrase is Persian, a contraction of “Tamain Shudan,” and translates to “It is ended” or “The End.”
A reporter named Frank Kennedy calls Detective Brown to tell him about The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a popular book of eleventh century poems loosely translated and arranged by Edward Fitzgerald, whose last two words are “Tamam Shud.” Detectives Leane and Brown start a country-wide search for the copy of the book “Tamam Shud” had been cut from.
On July 23rd, a man delivers the book to the police and, to protect his identity, they give him the pseudonym Ronald Francis. Ronald tells Detective Leane that he and his brother-in-law found the book laying on the backseat of his unlocked car near Somerton Beach on November 30th.
Detective Leane examines the book with a magnifying glass and finds a strange series of capital letters handwritten on the back cover. When looking at the code under ultraviolet light, a sequence of letters divided into five lines is revealed. Detectives Leane and Brown send the code to the army and naval intelligence, but when neither can break the code, it’s released to the public in hopes a civilian can solve it.
In addition to a secret code, Detective Leane also finds a phone number. He dials the number and Jestyn answers. She’s suspicious at first but then agrees to meet with him. When asked, Jestyn tells him that she had a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that she gave to a friend named Alfred Boxall.
Upon request, she visits the office of Paul Francis Lawson to identify the Somerton Man by the plaster mold he made of him before his body was buried. Paul pulls back the cover and Jestyn gasps. Staring at her feet, she tells Paul that she is unsure whether the bust resembles Alfred Boxall and swears he was the only man she ever gave a copy of the book to. The police find the real Alfred Boxall very much alive the next day.
Alfred Boxall’s copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has “Jestyn” signed on the front with a verse from the collection. Jestyn appears to have had relationships with both Alfred and the Somerton Man. Interviews with Alfred Boxall and Jestyn’s daughter in later years reveals that both were spies. Was espionage their connection to the Somerton Man? Or a love triangle?
For more on this case, stay tuned for next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories.