It’s Folklore Thursday again and time for another of my favourite mysteries. Last week I posted about The Voynich Manuscript and we decided in the comments that it’s probably a book of Vogon poetry. Don’t ever, ever let a Vogon read you poetry. Folklore Thursday: The Voynich Manuscript
Today’s mystery is sadder and, in many ways, even more compelling.
It started in 1948, when a man was found dead on Somerton Beach in Australia. He was unremarkable in appearance and around 45-years-old. He carried no ID and had apparently gone to some lengths to ensure he couldn’t be IDed: all the labels were removed from his clothes and he didn’t have a wallet on him.
What he did have on him was a page torn out of the Rubaiyat – a collection of poetry by the 12th century poet Omar Khayyam. The page contained only two words–the end of the last poem in the book–Tamam Shud, Persian words meaning ‘ended’. [N.B. The misspelling in my title is intentional. While the case was fresh the phrase was reported incorrectly as ‘Taman Shud’ so many times that it’s stuck.]
An autopsy was inconclusive. The Somerton Man’s dental records could not be matched to any known person. The pathologist suggested the cause of death had been poison.
An undetectable poison.
Already bizarre, right?
Then the coded message was found.
The scrap of paper was the police’s only clue, thanks to the Somerton Man’s diligence in making himself anonymous. They shared a photograph of the paper with the media in an attempt to find the copy of the Rubaiyat it was torn from.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre elements of this case is that it was found. Nobody is quite sure who found the book, where, or how. Many of the witnesses involved in the case had their identities kept secret by the authorities. For whatever reason, people did not want to be publicly connected to the unidentified man.
However it happened, the book was turned in to the police. The imprint of writing could be seen on one of its pages, a string of letters apparently representing a code:
Like the Voynich Manuscript, this code has never been cracked. Perhaps it’s also Vogon poetry, but the poor Somerton Man is nowhere near ugly enough to be a Vogon. The pathologist who carried out the autopsy said the Somerton Man looked British, though as this only distinguishing feature was that he was dead I’m not entirely sure how he came to that conclusion. He didn’t have a cup of tea on him.
Also written in the book was a phone number. Finally, the police had a solid lead!
The phone number belonged to a 27-year-old nurse who the police referred to as Jestyn. Just as with the book founder, this was a pseudonym given to protect her real identity.
She lived just a few minutes’ walk away from Somerton Beach. Perhaps the unknown man was on his way to see her when the poison kicked in.
Jestyn claimed not to know the dead man or why he would have her phone number. But when she was shown a bust of him, she appeared so shocked so that the detective interviewing her thought she might faint. She refused to look at the bust again.
Jestyn admitted to owning a copy of the Rubaiyat until she had given it to an army man in 1945. His name was Alf Boxall.
Surely the mystery was solved?
Nope. Alf Boxall was located, alive, the following year. He still had his copy of the Rubaiyat and its last page was still intact, with Tamam Shud printed on it.
Over the next few months, several people came forward to identify the body as various missing persons. On each occasion the missing people were found elsewhere (in some cases, walking into the police station to demonstrate conclusively that they had not been autopsied–if they had, it would have been a bit awkward).
Every lead was a dead end, until the suitcase was found in 1949.
The suitcase had been left at Adelaide train station the night before the Somerton Man’s death. Its label had been removed. Most of the clothes inside had their labels removed, apart from three items which were labelled “T Keane” or “Kean”. The police could find no missing people with those names, and considering the care the Somerton Man had taken to remove labels, it seemed obvious he hadn’t left them on as an oversight: whatever his name was, it wasn’t Keane.
There were now several clues that the man wasn’t Australian (besides him looking British even without a cup of tea). His trousers had been purchased in the US. The thread in his suitcase was unavailable in Australia. But no missing people matching his description could be found in any English speaking country.
With all leads exhausted, the case had to be abandoned.
In the following decades, many items related to the case have mysteriously vanished. The autopsy reports and the copy of the Rubaiyat, for example, which cryptographers say is essential for deciphering the code (it appears to follow the metric of the poems and so be related). Requests to exhume the body for further testing, using modern methods, have been denied.
In 2007, “Jestyn” died and was revealed to be Jessica Thompson. For decades, people had believed her real name might be related to the code and could be used to crack it. So far this has not proved to be the case, but her identity has provided other clues to the mystery.
Jessica’s daughter Kate told investigators her mother had been lying, and did in fact know the identity of the Somerton Man. Unfortunately, she didn’t tell Kate who he was, but she did say his identity was known to people “higher” than the police.
Jessica would also never disclose how or why she had learned Russian, or where her interest in Communism came from.
Were they both spies?
More than that, were they spy lovers? The Somerton Man had a rare ear construction–a genetic feature–where the hollow in the ear that leads to the ear canal is smaller than the top hollow. Less than 2% of white people have such ears.
You know who else has such ears? Jessica Thompson’s son, Robin, who was a year old when the Somerton Man went to that beach less than a kilometer from his mother’s home. I’m no statistician, but people who are have calculated that the odds of this being a coincidence are on being-struck-by-lightning-just-as-you-win-the-lottery level.
Jessica’s daughter, Kate, born several years after the Somerton Man’s death and certainly not his child, does not have such ears.
Robin and the Somerton Man also share a particular genetic tooth construction.
Coincidence? We’ll probably never know.
Even if Robin is the Somerton Man’s son, it brings us no closer to his identity.
Whoever Mr Somerton was, I hope he had a happy life and that he was missed more in death than it appears.