John Lyons and his wife were strolling along Somerton Beach in South Australia when they noticed a man lying slouched against the seawall at an uncomfortable angle.
His body was flat, his head was propped up awkwardly on the concrete wall. Lyons was worried, only because the mosquitoes were out in force and the man didn't seem to be reacting to them at all. He went over to check he was breathing, but as he approached the man raised his right arm. Lyons and his wife walked on.
The next morning was the first day of summer 1948. Lyons went for a morning swim at the same beach and, as he towelled off, he noticed the same man, lying in the exact same position he'd seen him the night before.
The man was dead. An unsmoked cigarette rested on his chest, his hair was immaculate, and his double-breasted jacket was pressed and in perfect condition. The man didn't seem homeless or like he'd been drinking; rather he was well-presented and overdressed for what was a warm evening prior. Who he was and why he was on the beach has remained a mystery for 70 years, despite decades of thorough investigation and a number of tantalising leads. Today, the identity of the Somerton Man remains unknown — although we are getting closer to an answer.
At 6.30am that summer morning, the police discovered a number of unusual items on his person. A half-eaten packet of Juicy Fruit was uninteresting, but an aluminium comb, a product unavailable in Australia, suggested he had been in America recently. His clothing was also of an American brand, as police later discovered.
An Army Club cigarette packet in his pocket contained a number of cigarettes of another brands. This in itself wasn't unusual: at the time it was fashionable to carry the case of an expensive brand of cigarettes, while refilling it with a cheaper brand. Police noted, however, that the Somerton Man did the opposite of this, filling the cheap packet with expensive cigarettes. This struck them as oddly deliberate, as if he was trying to play himself off as being of a lower class. An unused rail ticket from Adelaide to nearby Henley Beach, and a bus ticket from the city led police to the train station, where they discovered a suitcase that was assumed to belong to him.
The case contained a number of items, including clothing that had all the tags and identification cut out of them. Three shirts had the name "Keane" written in: police believed these were either overlooked by whoever cut out the names, or left intact as a red herring. Either way, they quickly ascertained Keane was not the man's name, as no missing persons with that name were reported.
He carried no wallet, his shoes were unusually clean considering he had been walking on a beach, and his hands and nails "showed no signs of manual labour".
His autopsy revealed a number of abnormalities that suggested he had been poisoned. The findings read in part: "There was blood mixed with the food in the stomach. Both kidneys were congested, and the liver contained a great excess of blood in its vessels … The spleen was strikingly large … about three times normal size … there was destruction of the centre of the liver lobules revealed under the microscope … acute gastritis haemorrhage, extensive congestion of the liver and spleen, and the congestion to the brain."
Despite these findings, no poison was found in the man's body, and the usual reactions to such a thing — vomiting and convulsions — were not evident. If he was poisoned, it was a fast-acting type, undetectable to medical science at the time.
Exhaustive international investigations turned up nothing. His fingerprints were not on any databases, and a widely circulated photograph uncovered no leads. Whoever this man was, nobody came forward to identify him.
That June, coroner Thomas Cleland was re-examining the man's clothing while preparing his report when he found a small rolled up piece of paper in a hidden fob watch pocket. He unrolled the paper, which read "Tamam Shud", Farsi for "it is ended" or "finished". The ominous message seemed infused with meaning, given the man's fate. Was this a calling card from a murderer or a morose suicide note?
The jagged paper was soon discovered to have been ripped from the final page of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, specifically a 1941 edition. The book was a translation of verses by an 11th century Persian poet, and popular in the Western world during the 1940s. Police launched a nationwide appeal for information on the book with the missing page and, surprisingly, a man came forward claiming he found the book on the back seat of his vehicle, which was parked at Somerton Beach around the time of the man's death. He often left the windows of his car open and thought little of it until he read about the search in the paper.
The book itself revealed a starting clue on the back page: an encrypted message, five lines long, each with nonsensical strings of letters. The second line is struck out, adding to the mystery. Code-crackers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Scotland Yard were tasked with decoding the message, but this came to nothing.
Given the man's "top physical condition", as described by the coroner, the secret code, undetectable poisoning, the fact that nobody could identify him and the "Tamam Shud" paper, theories abounded that the Somerton Man was a Russian spy. This was the beginning of the Cold War and paranoia loomed large.
Another clue found in The Rubaiyay of Omar Khayyam was far more fruitful: the indentation of an unlisted phone number, which belonged to a nurse named Jessica Thomson. Could she hold the key?
WHO WAS JESSICA THOMSON?
Thomson was born in 1921 in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, and worked as a nurse at the Royal North Shore Hospital. At the time of the Somerton Man's death, she'd moved to Adelaide and lived in Glenelg, 400 metres from where the body was found.
Police speculated he had arrived in the suburb to visit her and neighbours claimed an unknown man knocked on her door the night before. Thomson, however, denied any knowledge of the Somerton Man. Her denial didn't ring true to detectives, however.
Detective Sergeant Leane showed Thomson a plaster cast made of the man's head and described her reaction as "completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint". Nevertheless, she still denied knowing him.
"Mrs Thomson took one look at that bust and then looked down, and she didn't look up again, for the whole interview," explained Paul Lawson, the technician who made the plaster cast. "Detective Leane was asking her questions … she wouldn't give any information if she did know it."
Years later, she hadn't changed her tune. Former detective Gerry Felton investigated the Somerton Man as a cold case, and interviewed Thomson. He found her "evasive" and later wrote, in a book on the case, that he believed she knew the identity of the man.
Jessica Thomson died in 2007.
Thomson's daughter Kate shared Felton's view, and revealed to 60 Minutes in 2013 that she believed her mother was a Soviet spy, after overhearing her years earlier speaking in hurried, hushed Russian over the phone to someone — a language Kate had no idea her mother could converse in.
"She had a dark side, a very strong dark side," Kate told 60 Minutes.
"She said to me she knew who he was but she wasn't going to let that out of the bag, so to speak. There's always that fear that I've thought that maybe she was responsible for his death.
"She told the police that she didn't know who he was and certainly I know nothing. She did, and she told me that it is a mystery that was only known to a level higher than the police force."
Kate wasn't Jessica Thomson's only child; she'd given birth to a son named Robin, in 1947, the year before the Somerton Man's death. Robin died in 2009, but bore a striking resemblance to the Somerton Man, including genetic traits such as missing incisor teeth.
Robin's father was unknown to the family.
GETTING CLOSER TO AN ANSWER
Adelaide University physicist Derek Abbott is determined to prove that Robin was the Somerton Man's son.
He become obsessed with the case around the turn of the century, and was the first to make the potential genetic link to Robin. He tracked down Robin's daughter Rachel, and spent a few days with her. Although he was there to gather information, the pair quickly fell in love, and within three days, he had proposed. Now, his family life and his obsession had become linked, more so after the pair had children who could be the great-grandkids of the Somerton Man.
He admitted to the ABC this link makes things "perhaps a bit more complicated" but stressed "as a scientist, when I do my work and my scientific research I have to be neutral about things, I have to be dispassionate".
Abbott has twice petitioned to exhume the Somerton Man's body for DNA, requests that were denied both times. He is preparing a third petition, but has discovered something more likely to provide him with that genetic link in a timely fashion: three hairs taken from the plaster cast made of the Somerton Man way back in 1949, and preserved for all these years.
The results won't be available until early next year. The process is complicated given 70 years have passed since the hairs were inadvertently extracted from the Somerton Man's hair. It may help provide a living link to the man, if not identify who he was and why he was on that beach. It's the most promising lead in seven decades.
For now, the body lies at Adelaide's West Terrace Cemetery, under a stone that seems incomplete, given the man's legacy in Australia's history: "Here lies the unknown man who was found at Somerton Beach, Dec 1, 1948."
Hopefully, one day soon, this inscription can be updated, and one of Australia's most lingering mysteries can be put to rest.