A comedy mystery podcast in which two friends discuss a weekly mystery.

The Somerton Man

Summer is winding down Zach. The weather is getting cooler and the kids are going back to school. Here in America football season has started and the leaves are starting their yearly transition from green to orange, brown and yellow. I can practically smell the pumpkin spice lattes now tickling my nostrils with its cinnamon aroma. I personally love fall. I like wearing a light jacket and sipping on a warm cider while walking along sidewalks covered in fallen leaves, but we need to hold off for one more week. Rather than dive headlong into fall we need to grasp onto the dying embers of summer because this week we’re going to the beach! Grab your boogy board and put on your mankini it’s nothing but sun and fun today.


Zach, as an aficionado of both old timey swimsuits and international beaches I’m assuming you know exactly where we’re going this week. That’s right we’re going to Somerton beach just outside Adelaide, Australia in 1948. It’s a lovely december morning around 6:30 in the morning and despite cold war tensions the mood is optimistic in Australia. Take a stroll along the beach with me Zach. Oh wow there’s a seagull! Wowie wowie wowzers there’s a….. And look over there it’s a man reclining on the beach. Wait a second. That guy looks a little strange… Wait he’s not reclining at all! He’s dead!


Who is this guy? Let’s take a look. He’s a white man in very nice clothes but none of his clothes have any tags. There’s an unlit cigar behind his ear and a half smoke one resting on his shoulder. Zach you’re a cigar expert. Can you tell me where that one is from? England that’s right and they definitely don’t sell this kind in Australia. Quick let’s check his pockets for identification (and any extra cash). There’s a pack of cigarettes in here, but the cigarettes in the box don’t match the brand on the box. This is a pretty normal thing actually, a lot of people buy a box of expensive cigarettes then refill it with inexpensive ones to seem like their smoking more expensive cigarettes. Wait, this is weird the cigarettes here are more expensive the the ones that originally came in the box. Let’s keep searching. Don’t forget to check his fob pocket! Wait, what’s this? It’s a scrap of paper… It says Taman Shud thank God I speak arabic and just happen to know that means “finished or ended”. Oh man look at this, his shoes are really really clean. This is getting too weird. We better call the police (insert hilarious bit where we call the police here that leads into the autopsy).


When police conduct their autopsy on this man they discover this man is in peak physical condition. He looks like some kind of athlete but probably not a laborer because his hands don’t have any calluses or marks. There’s a partially digested pasty in his stomach, his spleen was 3 times too big, and there was congestion in his brain and stomach that suggest that he may have been poisoned but when his blooded no poison could be found.


Despite his clothing having no tags his jacket appeared to have been made in America. Let’s send his fingerprints and dental records over there for identification. (Wait a couple weeks) Well nothing came up.


Wait, hold on, it appears that a staff member at the Adelaide railway station has discovered a brown suitcase with its label removed. Perhaps this belonged to the man! The case was check into the station cloakroom after 11:00 AM on November 30th. Inside there’s a red checked dressing gown, a size seven red felt pair of slippers, four pairs of underpants, pyjamas, shaving items, a light brown pair of trousers with sand in the cuffs, an electrician’s screwdriver, a table knife cut down into a short sharp instrument, a pair of scissors with sharpened points, a small square of zinc thought to have been used as a protective sheath for the knife and scissors, and a stencilling brush. Also found in the suitcase is a thread card of Barbour brand orange waxed thread of “an unusual type” not available in Australia and was the same type of thread used to repair a pocket of the dead man’s pants. Just like on the man all tags had been removed from the clothing but the police found the name “T. Keane” on a tie, “Keane” on a laundry bag and “Kean” (without the last e) on a singlet along with three dry-cleaning marks. While it may seem strange that these tags were not removed, they are the only tags that couldn’t be taken off without damaging the clothing.


There were no spare socks and no correspondence in the case even thought the police found pencils and unused letterforms. A search of all English-speaking countries concluded there was no T. Keane missing and police weren’t able to track down the dry-cleaning marks.


Police check incoming train records and believe the man arrived at the station by overnight train from either Melbourne, Sydney or Port Augusta. They think he may have showered and shaved the the city baths before returning to the train station to purchase a ticket for the 10:50 a.m. train to Henley Beach, which, for whatever reason, he missed or chose not to catch. He immediately check his suitcase at the station cloak room before leaving the station and catching a city bus to Glenelg.


There’s not really any more evidence. I guess this is a cold case. (A hilarious quirky character walks up) “Do you remember that piece of paper that said ‘Taman Shud’? We’ve managed to figure out that it came from a rare edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam a collection of persian poems.” The police conducted a countrywide search for this book and we’re lucky enough to find someone with this book. Someone (who was never publically identified) came forward and reported finding a copy of this book in the back seat of his car around the same time and place that the body was found. When police inspected the book they found the piece of paper had been torn out of the book. On the inside back cover of the book, detectives identified indentations from handwriting. These included a telephone number, an unidentified number, and a text that resembled a coded message. The code has never been decrypted but has been confirmed to be some kind of code. It’s only 4 lines and isn’t long enough to be efficiently cracked and is probably a one time pad which is effectively impossible to break.


The phone number was an unlisted number that belonged to a nurse and single mother (perhaps now married woman) named Jessica Ellen Thompson who lived less than a kilometer from where the body was found. When police when to question Jessica she told them the book had once belonged to her but three years ago she had given it to a lieutenant named Alfred Boxall at the Clifton Gardens hotel in Sydney because the two were in love. Keep in mind this was during WWII so the couple was quickly separated. Eventually Jessica moved out of Sydney and got married. She hadn’t heard from him since except when she received a letter a few years later and Jessica replied telling him she was married. Another important event happened shortly before the body was found. An unidentified man came to the door of Jessica’s neighbor and asked about her. This would suggest perhaps Alfie was the unidentified body but the neighbor was never able to positively identify the body. It’s worth noting that the ticket the unidentified man bought was for the station closest to Jessica’s house.


When the police showed a picture of the man to Jessica she claimed to have no idea who he was, but, according to the detectives who interviewed her, she appeared visibly shaken as if she was about to faint. Jessica was given another chance to identify the body when investigators showed her a plastic cast of the man’s head. Again she claimed to not know the man, but, according to investigator Jessica looked at the once then looked away and would not look at it again. Despite not being able to prove it I think we have a pretty good theory here Zach. We know Alfred Boxall had this book in his possession, the body had a scrap of paper from the same very rare book with Jessica’s phone number imprinted on it, a mysterious stranger had come looking for her around the time the man died, everything seems to point to this being the body of Alfred Boxall.


This makes sense. Alfred had been a soldier in world war two he could be involved in some kind of espionage that would explain the code and it’s possible he took his own life for whatever reason. This case seemed to be solved until July of 1049 was found alive and well in Sydney, Australia. Even stranger Alfred still had his copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and the last page was still in tact. Despite their suspicions no concrete link could be established between Jessica and the unknown man and eventually the case went cold.


In January 1949, two people identified the body as 63 year old former wood cutter Robert Walsh. A third person also viewed the body, initially could not identify it, but an hour later contacted the police to claim it was Walsh saying his hair color had changed which threw him off. Walsh had gone to buy sheep in Queensland but failed to return at Christmas as he originally had planned. The man in the photos certainly doesn’t appear to be 63 years old and while his body was consistent with the physique of a woodcutter, his hands indicated he had not cut wood for at least 18 months. While this initially seemed promising, one of the people who had positively identified him retracted their statement after noticing the absence of a particular scar on the body.


By early February 1949 there had been eight different positive identification of the body, including two men who thought the body was a friend of theirs, and other who thought it was a missing station worker, a worker on a steamship, or a Swedish man.


Don’t you dare giggle Zach. A seaman by the name of Tommy Reade from the SS Cycle, which was in port at the time of the man’s death, was thought to be the dead man, but after some of his shipmates viewed the body at the morgue, they stated it was definitely not him. By November of 1953 police announced they had received the 251st solution to the identity of the body from the public but the only clue of any value was the clothing the man wore.


There have been several more recent developments. In 2011 an Adelaide woman contacted authorities about an identification card she had found in her father’s possessions. The card was issued to an H. C. Reynolds during World War I as a form of identification for foreign soldiers fighting with the Americans. The card said H. C. Reynolds was 18, British and contained a photograph of a man who looked very similar to the missing man. Experts found that there were similarities in the nose, lips, and eyes but most convincingly their ears were described as a “very good” match and a unique identifier was found, a mole on the cheek that was the same shape and in the same position in both photographs. When searches were conducted by the US National Archives, the UK National Archives and the Australian War Memorial Research Centre no record of an H. C. Reynolds could be found.


Jessica Ellen Thompson died in 2007 and in November of 2013 her relatives gave interviews to Australia’s 60 Minutes. Jessica’s daughter Kate said that her mother said she had lied to the police and did in fact know the identity of the Somerton Man and that his identity was also “known to a level higher than the police force”. Jessica’s daughter suggested that her mother and the Somerton Man were in fact spies. She claimed her mother taught English to migrants, was a communist sympathiser, and could speak Russian but would not tell her daughter where or why she had learned it.


Do you remember that Jessica Ellen Thompson had a son? His name was Robin Thompson and even though he died in 2009 his widow and daughter were interviewed for the same 60 Minutes piece. In the piece they suggested that Robin was in fact the son of the Somerton Man. This provided a way to prove his identity through DNA testing. However, when the man’s body was exhumed any usable DNA evidence had been destroyed during the embalming process. In addition the suitcase found at the train station was destroyed 1986 and the man’s copy of The Rubaiyat was lost sometime in the 1950s.


Two more details that are of interest. There are actually two very similar cases.


In June of 1956- three years before the death of the Somerton Man- a 34 year old Singaporean man named George Marshall was found dead in Ashton Park in Sydney. He had an open copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on his chest. His death is believed to be a suicide by poisoning and occurred two months before Jessica gave Alf Boxall the inscribed copy of the Rubaiyat. An inquest was held for Joseph Marshall on August 15th where Gwenneth Dorothy Graham testified. Her body was found dead 13 days later face down, naked, in a bath, with her wrists slit.


On June 6th 1949 the body a two-year-old Clive Mangnoson was found in a sack in the sand hills near Largs Bay only a few miles from Somerton. Lying next to him was his unconscious father, Keith Waldemar Mangnoson. The body was found by a local who claimed they had seen the location in a dream. The father was taken to a hospital in a very weak condition, suffering from exposure. After a medical examination he was transferred to a mental hospital.


The two of them had been missing for four days and police believed the boy had been dead for twenty four hours when his body was found. The coroner could not determine the cause of the boy’s death but it was not believed to be of natural causes. Following the incident the boy’s mother reported having been threatened by a masked man, who, while driving a battered cream car, almost ran her down outside her home. She state that, “the car stopped and a man with a khaki handkerchief over his face told her to ‘keep away from the police or else.’” Mrs. Mangnoson believed that it was related to her husband’s attempt to identify the Somerton Man. He claimed the man was in fact a former coworker named Carl Thompsen. Authorities also claim to have received threatening phone calls telling them not to “stick their nose into the Mangnoson affair”. Police believed the calls to be a hoax along with the man with the handkerchief. After being interview by the police Mrs. Mangnoson collapsed and required medical treatment.


What do you think Zach? Who was the Somerton Man? Was he a spy who was actually murdered by his fellow spy Jessica Ellen Thompson? Was he a former woodcutter in his 60s? Was he even murdered?