On December 1 1948, the corpse of a middle-aged man was found at Somerton beach near the city of Adelaide. No identification was found on the body, leading police to suspect suicide, although this didn’t explain why the labels on the man’s clothes had been removed. He became known as the Somerton Man.
Despite media coverage, at first no-one came forward to claim the body. There were no matches with fingerprints or dental records and international circulation of the man’s image turned up nothing. In the following years, of the more than 250 identifications made, none could be confirmed.
An autopsy found blood in the stomach and an enlarged spleen indicating poisoning as the most likely cause of death but none was detected in the body. At this stage, the case was unusual but would have been quickly forgotten if not for the bizarre turn of events that emerged.
In mid 1949, a small piece of paper was found inside a fob pocket in the victim’s trousers. Printed on the paper were the words Taman shud, a Persian phrase meaning ‘finished.’ The scrap of paper was identified as being from the Rubaiyat, a collection of poems from the eleventh century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam.
A national effort was made to find the copy of the book from which it came. After appealing to the public, a doctor came forward with a rare copy of the Rubaiyat with the bottom corner of the last page removed. It matched with the scrap found on the dead man. The book had mysteriously appeared on the back seat of the doctor’s car on the night of November 30, 1948 – the night of the Somerton Man’s death and in a suburb adjacent to Somerton.
In the back of the book were five hand-written lines of letters and a phone number. The letters may or may not be a code. Sixty years of study has failed to decipher their meaning. The phone number belonged to a nurse living 800 metres from Somerton beach. She claimed to know nothing of the murder but did admit once owning a copy of the Rubaiyat when she lived in Sydney. She had given it to army lieutenant Alfred Boxall in 1945 but had had no contact with him for some time.
Perhaps this was the solution. Boxall, stricken with grief at being rejected by the nurse, had tracked her to Adelaide, discarded the book and committed suicide. Unfortunately, Boxall was alive and well, living and Sydney and still had his copy of the book.
Like all good bizarre unsolved crimes, speculation has since flourished and drawn in a vast array of aspects including Eastern bloc spies and the atomic testing site at Woomera. The Somerton Man had both a rare ear structure and a rare genetic dental disorder called anodontia, both of which are claimed to have been present in the nurse’s son.
The case may also be the genesis of the belief that Adelaide is the site of an unusual number of strange and gruesome murders including the disappearance of the Beaumont children from Glenelg beach (near Somerton) in 1966, the Truro murders in the late 1970s, the torture, murder and mutilation of five young men in the 70s and 80s by an organised group named the Family, and the bodies in the barrels case.
Adelaide is also the town where one of the world’s most powerful media moguls established his empire and as has become abundantly clear in recent times, Rupert Murdoch has few qualms about sensationalising a tragedy.