Codes and a Corpse: The Somerton Beach Man Mystery Persists


Authorities distributed this photo of the Somerton Beach man to try to help identify him, but came up short. Public domain
Authorities distributed this photo of the Somerton Beach man to try to help identify him, but came up short. Public domain

In December 1948, the body of an unknown man was found dead on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia. He has never been identified, and the few clues unearthed leave investigators scratching their heads to this day. Did he commit suicide on the beach, maybe because of a broken heart? Or was he a spy, killed during the course of his work? That's exactly what Stuff You Should Know's Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark wondered when they heard the story. They dig into the details in this episode of Stuff You Should Know: The Baffling Case of the Body on Somerton Beach.

The nearly 70-year mystery has stumped authorities from the beginning. The unknown man was found in a sitting position, slumped over, with a cigarette either in or near his mouth. He wore a nice suit and polished shoes, but no hat. Two couples claim to have seen him as they walked along the beach, and one said he raised his arm and pointed at them. They thought he was probably drunk. Another witness claimed to have seen a man looking down on the body.

Upon inspection, the dead man was found to have strong calves, like those of a dancer or an athlete, and his toes grew together in a way that suggested habitual wearing of high heels, or perhaps point shoes, again suggesting he could have been a dancer. He carried an American comb in his pocket, but no wallet.

His autopsy revealed he had a bleeding stomach and a spleen three times the normal size, though his body showed no cause of natural death. The coroner suspected he'd been poisoned with some kind of undetectable toxin, despite the lack of vomit or evidence of convulsions that accompany a poisoning, though the death certificate listed cause of death as unknown. Maybe the man was killed elsewhere and moved to the beach?

But authorities also didn't have proof the man didn't ingest a toxin himself. So, could it have been a suicide — or was it a homicide?

Police could not identify the body through fingerprint ID, and though they shared his information and picture internationally, no one knew who he was. They widened their search and found a suitcase that was abandoned at main railway station in Adelaide, suggesting he had come from out of town, but there were no identifying markers in its contents, and the case stalled.

Code breakers have tried to decipher this messaging on a scrap of paper found in the Somerton Beach man's watch for decades.
Code breakers have tried to decipher this messaging on a scrap of paper found in the Somerton Beach man's watch for decades.
Public domain

But then, police enlisted the help of a pathology expert to re-examine the dead man's body and possessions, and he found something the initial investigators didn't. A "secret pocket" sewn into the man's pants contained a watch fob, but inside the watch was a tightly rolled up piece of paper. It was a page torn from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a book of 12th-century poetry. On it were two words: "tamam shud," which mean "ended" or "finished."

The book from which the page was torn was tracked down, and close examination yielded further clues — handwriting impressions of a telephone number, another unidentified number and what appeared to be an encrypted message. Could he have been a Cold War spy?

The telephone number was found to be the unlisted number of Jessica Harkness Thomson, an Adelaide resident. When she spoke with police, she said she didn't know the Somerton Beach man, and didn't know why he'd had her phone number. But when they showed her the plaster cast of his face, the investigator thought she acted "surprised, almost to the point of fainting," and that she refused to look at the face again, only repeated that she didn't know him. She did own a copy of the Rubaiyat, and had given it to an old friend named Alf Boxall, a military man who worked in intelligence. Authorities began to believe the Somerton Beach man was Alf Boxall, until they found out he was alive and well. His copy of the book of poetry was intact, and he didn't know the dead man either.

The encrypted message on the tiny piece of paper was never cracked — some code breakers thought that the unknown man had used some sort of shorthand, or that he was simply a disturbed mind. One theory was floated out that Jessica Harkness was also a spy; her daughter said in interviews that she knew Russian, but would never tell her why or when she'd learned. Maybe both the Somerton Beach man and Alf Boxall had worked for her. Perhaps the Rubaiyat was essential to understanding the code, and that's why both men had copies.

A more down-to-earth theory draws on genetic similarities between the Somerton Beach man and Jessica Harkness's oldest son, Robin Thomson. But we can't tell you everything. You'll have to tune in to the podcast to find out what rare genetic disorder Thomson shared with the Somerton Beach man, making it about a one-in-10-million chance that they weren't related. You just can't make this stuff up.