The Body on the Beach
Glenelg is the oldest European settlement on the Australian mainland and has been a popular leisure destination for much of its history. A suburb of Adelaide, there are hotels, restaurants and, its primary attraction, a beautiful golden beach. An amusement park was even built on the foreshore in 1930, all be it closing just a few years later. Despite its popularity for recreation, it remains a tiny place, with only 3,349 residents as of 2016. Like resort areas in many other countries, the population has a large percentage of senior citizens. In short, Glenelg is not the kind of suburb in which you might expect to find one of the most enduring mysteries in the annals of crime. One that might very well encompass international espionage, missile testing ranges and strange poisons.
However, it was on December 1, 1948, that police were called to the discovery of a body at Somerton Beach, Glenelg. A man had been found lying in the sand opposite the Crippled Children’s Home, he had his head against the seawall, his legs extended and his feet crossed. Were it not for the cigarette that lay on his coat and the dribble from his mouth, he could have almost appeared to be asleep. With Australia being located in the Southern Hemisphere, it was the first day of summer.
The previous evening, John Bain Lyons, a jeweller, had been taking a leisurely stroll down the beach alongside his wife. Around 7pm they had noticed a smartly dressed man laying against the seawall, he seemed groggy, extending his arm upward before it fell back to the ground. They assumed he was drunk. Another couple noticed the man just half an hour later after the street lights had come on, also noting his smart attire for a man on the beach. By now, he was motionless, mosquitos surrounding his face. One of the witnesses said they had seen a man looking down at the body from the top of steps leading to the beach. The following morning, John Bain Lyons was taking his daily swim when he noticed a commotion. The man who he had passed off as a drunk was precisely where he had seen him the night before, he was quite dead.
First on the scene were Constable Moss and Detective Strangway. Upon searching his pockets, the police found an aluminium comb, a half-used packet of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, a quarter full box of Bryant & May matches and an Army Club cigarette packet that contained seven cigarettes but not of the Army Club brand, they were instead Kensitas. The different cigarettes in a separate package might be suggestive he had acquired them from someone sharing their own. While it was standard at the time of rationing to put cheap cigarettes in a more expensive packet, the Kensitas were the more expensive brand. There was little to go on otherwise, with nothing identifying the corpse such as a wallet or ID. He carried no cash. However, two clues to his destination or origin were found, an unused rail ticket to Henley Beach from Adelaide, and a bus ticket that may or may not have been used.
Three hours later, around 9:30am, the body arrived at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and Dr John Barkley Bennett declared death was likely to have occurred no earlier than 2am that morning. He believed it was heart failure brought about through poisoning. The mystery man had been smartly attired in a white shirt with brown trousers, socks and shoes. His tie was red, white and blue and he wore a brown knitted pullover underneath a grey and brown double-breasted jacket that was fashionable and of an American style. He had no hat, irregular for the time. Undressing the body, it was discovered that all of the labels in his clothing had been neatly cut out. One of the pockets of his trousers had been repaired with an unusual orange thread.
The deceased was stated to be of a “Britisher” appearance and aged around 40. He was 5 foot 11 in height, had grey eyes and fair to ginger hair, slightly greying. He was broad-shouldered and had a narrow waist, he showed no signs of being involved in physical labour. His feet and legs came in for particular note, with the shape of his toes and high calf muscles being consistent with somebody who was a dancer, possibly ballet. The possibility that the mystery man had ridden horses was also mentioned. The renowned John Burton Cleland was the investigating pathologist. Cleland had worked as a microbiologist for several years before he was appointed as a full Professor of Pathology at the University of Adelaide. He worked on the case with John Dwyer, who performed the autopsy.
“The heart was of normal size, and normal in every way …small vessels not commonly observed in the brain were easily discernible with congestion. There was congestion of the pharynx, and the gullet was covered with whitening of superficial layers of the mucosa with a patch of ulceration in the middle of it. The stomach was deeply congested… There was congestion in the second half of the duodenum. 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 3 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.”
John Burton Cleland, Autopsy Report
The pupils of the corpse were smaller than the norm and described as “unusual”. Meanwhile, spittle had dribbled from his mouth, and the dead man had likely been unable to swallow it. In the stomach, Dwyer found the remains of a pasty, the deceased’s last meal three to four hours before his death. The stomach contained blood, and it was taken as another sign of poisoning. However, toxicology ran by an expert chemist showed no signs of any poison, Dwyer saying later that he had been “astounded” that nothing had been found. The pasty was not believed to be the source of the suspected poison. Many have speculated in the years since that it may have been the cigarettes, but that is conjecture.
An inquest under the auspices of coroner Thomas Erskine Cleland was convened a few days later, being adjourned until June 17, 1949. The body was embalmed on December 10 as police continued to draw a blank on their efforts to identify the mystery man, having sent copies of his fingerprints throughout the country. Internationally, neither Scotland Yard nor the FBI could bring light to the origin of fingerprints either.
After silence on the case for weeks, Australian police finally had a breakthrough on January 14, 1949, following the discovery of a brown suitcase at Adelaide railway station. The luggage had had its label removed. It had been checked in on November 30 of the previous year, the day before the death and discovery of the man on Somerton Beach. The case contained an array of items which, besides outdoor clothing, went as follows: “a red checked dressing gown, pair of red slippers, pyjamas, shaving gear, an electrician’s screwdriver, a stencilling brush, and a table knife which had been cut down into a short and sharp instrument.” The stencilling brush was of the type used by third officers on merchant ships, and while no letters or correspondence were found, police also uncovered pencils and stationary.
Key to linking the case to the dead man, however, was the discovery of a card that contained the same kind of thread used to repair the dead man’s trousers, Barbour brand orange waxed thread. The twine was not available for sale in Australia and pointed to the man not being Australian or having been recently abroad. Like the attire he’d worn when he died, the name tags in every garment had been removed, with just one curiously remaining — “T. Keane” and “Kean” on a singlet. There were also three dry cleaning tabs in with the suitcase. Police speculated that, if trying to hide his identity, the man had left the name tag as a red herring, it not being his name. Equally, however, the possibility existed that the clothing had been secondhand and he had simply removed the tags. A little after the Second World War, rationing was still in effect, and quality clothing was hard to come by. That said, the clothes were believed to be expensive and were the current fashion.
Train records revealed that the man was likely to have arrived overnight on November 30 from either Melbourne, Sydney or Port Augusta and both bathed and shaved at the City Baths. Following his refreshments, he returned to the station and bought a ticket for the 10:50am train to Henley Beach. He either missed this train or changed his mind as that ticket was found on his body. He checked in his suitcase and got on the bus to Glenelg. It seems possible that either the man didn’t know his original destination and mistakenly brought the ticket to Henley Beach, or that his plans changed suddenly forcing him to abandon his original itinerary and make for Somerton Beach.
What must have enthused investigators soon turned sour however as the promising leads fizzled out. There was no “T. Keane” missing in any English speaking country, and the dry cleaning tags went nowhere. A coat found in the suitcase was believed to be manufactured in the US and had not been imported, but thats all they had. Interestingly, a “Tom Keane” was expelled as a member of the ruling Labor Party in 1945 for having alleged communist sympathies. He was said to have “done valuable work as secretary of the Newport branch of the [Australian Labor Party]”.
While traditional police work was drawing a blank, the scientific end of the investigation was making some interesting new developments, as revealed at the inquest into the Somerton Man’s death in June. Pathologist John Burton Cleland had reexamined the body and made some fresh notes, suggesting that there could be evidence the body had been moved to the beach. There was no indication of vomiting or convulsions as would be expected with poisoning, and the state of the man’s shoes suggest he had not been walking for long, despite having allegedly been in Glenelg for most of the day. None of the witness statements provided could positively identify the person they saw as the deceased, whose identity remained unknown.
Cedric Stanton Hicks, Professor of physiology and pharmacology at the University of Adelaide, told the court that he believed the poison used against the man was one of two that he privately named to the court. He added that he could not make a “frank conclusion” without the presence of vomiting, but a massive dose was implied, it “decomposed very early after death,” and it was not administered at the Somerton man’s own hand. The details of the potential murder weapon were not released as they were easily obtainable by average citizens. The poisons were later identified as digitalis and ouabain.
Ouabain, also known as g-strophanthin, had been famously utilised in East Africa as an arrow poison, used against animals and humans alike. While its exotic nature may make it sound unlikely, the drug had been utilised to also treat heart failure, with positive results also noted for angina pectoris and myocardial infarction. Symptoms of overdose include rapid twitching of the neck and chest musculature, respiratory distress, increased and irregular heartbeat, rise in blood pressure, convulsions, wheezing, clicking, and gasping rattling. Death comes from cardiac arrest.
Digitalis, or foxglove, meanwhile, is a useful plant in medicine, with the drugs extracted known as Digitalin. They are primarily used to treat heart conditions, increasing cardiac contractility and controlling the heart rate as an antiarrhythmic agent. It is often prescribed to those suffering from congestive heart failure. Overdose of digitalis can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, jaundice, drooling, abnormal heart rate, cardiac arrhythmias, weakness, collapse, dilated pupils, tremors, seizures, and death. The early symptoms would have included hallucinations and delirium. While fatalities are uncommon, the entire plant is toxic and, if administered in a high enough dose, was not unheard of.
Real-life poisonings from the drug have a long and inglorious history, with researchers studying the remains of the 14th-century Italian warlord Cangrande I della Scala finding he had been killed by a massive dose of digitalis. More recently, in 1989, Abram van Zyl of the South African CCB death-squad planned to assassinate UDF regional secretary and anti-apartheid activist Abdullah Mohamed Omar using digoxin, a digitalis glycoside drug.
In December of 2003, nurse Charles Cullen was arrested in New Jersey and is suspected of having murdered hundreds of his patients, usually though overdoses of digoxin. While he pled guilty to only six killings, experts believe the real number may be as high as 400, making Cullen the most prolific serial killer in history.
The poison also features regularly in fiction, with digitalis being the poison used against James Bond by the villainous Le Chiffre in the 2006 adaptation of Casino Royale.
Perhaps most significant was the death of Harry Dexter White in the United States. White had been a senior US Treasury department official and had worked closely with Henry Morgenthau, Jr., then-Secretary of the Treasury. In 1939, defecting Soviet agent, Whittaker Chambers gave a list of names to authorities that included a “Mr White”. In 1945, another defector would name White fully, with Elizabeth Bentley telling secret service that the official was passing documents to Soviet spies Nathan Gregory Silvermaster and Ludwig Ullmann.
On August 3, 1948, Chambers testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities that he had been active with White in a communist underground up to 1938 and White had spied for the USSR throughout the Second World War. Harry Dexter White died of a heart attack following a suspected overdose of digoxin on August 16, 1948, just over three months before the man on Somerton Beach. While he had existing heart troubles and natural causes cannot be ruled out, some suspected suicide and others believed White may have been assassinated.
Privately, authorities had doubts that the Somerton case would ever be solved. However, what might have been forgotten as just another unsolved murder long ago was about to become one of the most enduring mysteries in the world.
Once more searching the clothes of the dead man, investigators uncovered a small pocket, believed to be for a fob watch, that had been sewn inside one of the main pockets of the Somerton Man’s trousers. Inside they found a tiny scrap of paper torn from a book. It said two words, “Tamám Shud”.
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Meaning “ended” or “finished”, the piece of paper with the phrase “Tamám Shud” had been taken from the final page of a copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. What the scrap was doing in the dead man’s pocket has never been explained, yet, to it is possible that it may have formed a message to another reader of the Rubáiyát who would have recognised the meaning.
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is an 1859 translation, or more accurately a re-representation, of the work of Omar Khayyam, a Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet. The translation by Edward FitzGerald had a small initial print-run and seemed destined to obscurity. However, after finding its way to DG Rossetti and AC Swinbume two years later, the book was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The following editions became popular in liberal intellectual circles, and the publication of a fifth edition as part of The Letters and Literary Remains of Edward FitzGerald saw its popularity become mainstream across the English speaking world.
The book consists of 110 quatrains selected by Fitzgerald from Omar Khayyám’s work and rearranged thematically, the reimagining retaining the Middle Eastern AABA rhyming tradition that is unusual in Western poetry.
The Rubáiyát centres on a simple man and spans a single day in his life, from dawn to dusk. It is contemplative in the morning, speaking on the inability to change destiny, nor even comprehend it. There are, however, pleasures and solace to be found in the material distractions of life, primarily food, sex and wine. In humorous sections, animated clay jugs ponder their own existence before quietly anticipating being filled with wine.
The author broods throughout the day, and we see doubt, fears and regrets in his life. He is angry at God’s indifference, seeing humanity as pawns in a chess game with the Almighty as a viewer looking on. In the evening, the narrator speaks of fading youth and his death as day turns into night.
The use of time in the book is a metaphor, with day turning into night representing the length of life and the message being that the reader must enjoy existence while they have the time as it is all too fleeting, no longer than a single day in the grand scheme of existence.
Questioning Victorian morality and coming at a perfect time for self-reflection following a century of great upheaval and change, the book fits perfectly into end of century doubts surrounding religion and morality. Six years after FitzGerald’s death, the book was a sensation and “Omar Khayyam clubs” were formed for its study, the novelist George Gissing being a member.
“[R]egarded as an English poem, FitzGerald’s Omar is wonderful. Tennyson spoke of it with the highest admiration, & Swinburne places FitzGerald high among poets.”
Most of these clubs in Britain and America have left no historical trace. That is except for the London branch which is still active and has had members as illustrious as Thomas Hardy, Arthur Rackham, GK Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley and WB Yeats. The American branch was founded in Boston in 1900 “on the basis of good fellowship as well as Oriental learning, with good fellowship as the predominant feature”. The American club was markedly different from its British counterpart, approaching the book as a scientific study and producing its own translations of Omar Khayyám’s work. It folded in 1930.
The popularity of these clubs was referred to as the fin de siècle (end of century) cult of the Rubaiyat. The “cult” was one that transcended learning and class, with fans of Khayyám ranging from liberal intellectuals to politicians, businessmen, soldiers, children and average citizens on the street. Khayyám’s image and work were utilised in other books, music, film, his name became attached to “tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, fountain pens, coffee, chocolate, perfume, toilet soap, pottery, postcards and crossword puzzles”.
Omar Khayyám had become as mainstream as any Western poet, yet, as quickly as it had risen, the “cult” faded away, losing popularity throughout the 1920s.
The themes of reflection, regret and existential fears found favour with many troubled souls and the presence of the book only leant itself to theories surrounding suicide. After all, the deceased had died as day passed into night, staring out to sea.
Earth could not answer; nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord Forlorn;
Nor rolling Heaven, with all his Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Verse 33)
Just three years before, a 34-year-old Singaporean named George Marshall had been found dead in Sydney with a copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám open on his chest.
Born Joseph Saul Haim Marshall (Hebrew name: Yosef Chaim Saul ben Yisroel), “George” likely did indeed commit suicide, having tried twice before and been formerly in a mental care facility. He had emigrated to Australia following the fall of Singapore and worked as a “price investigator” for the Prices Commission. His true ambitions lay in being a writer, despite the poor public reception to a collection of poetry in 1931. Following his death, the body was not found for some time and remained unidentified until his former landlord came forward. A tin of barbituric acid powder was in his hand, and the Rubáiyát was marked at a quatrain containing the phrase “dust into dust, and under dust to lie”.
The death was considered suicide by poisoning and 13 days after it had been held, Gwenneth Dorothy Graham, who had testified, was found dead. She was face down in her bathtub and had her wrists cut. On the stand, she confirmed she had previously been the girlfriend of Marshall. The press had revelled in the tale of a failed Jewish writer and his suggested sexual liaisons with Graham before his mysterious suicide. At the time, Graham had been living with a Berlin-born soldier by the name of Hellmut Hendon and Marshall had attempted to break them up, describing Hendon as “evil and ruthless”.
While we might suspect this could have come through anti-German sentiment, this isn’t likely as Hellmut was also Jewish, being born Heinz Hellmut Hönig in Berlin. His father was Dr Moses Martin Hoenig of Poland who was killed by the Nazis at a concentration camp in 1942. Hellmut had managed to escape in 1937, coming to Australia as a refugee. He enlisted in Paddington, New South Wales in 1942 and was discharged in October of 1945. He was not a good soldier, remaining a private throughout the war and noted for regularly going AWOL. His interests seemed far closer to intellectual persuits than military service is likely to have allowed.
Despite describing Marshall as “extremely temperamental” and “domineering”, Graham had apparently agreed that he was right about Hendon. After returning home, she asked to be alone and, after shutting the bathroom door, cut her wrists. Hendon was the only other person in the flat when Graham killed herself. Some accounts say that Hendon had asked her to leave his apartment, likely for her association with Marshall.
After the war, Hendon seems to have continued with anti-fascism and anti-racism. Writing in 1946, having relocated to Elizabeth Bay, he would condemn the racism and xenophobia in Australian society, reacting to protests that had been made against a scholarship being given to Manfred Clynes.
“Does this country really want immigrants? That is, do Australians as
a whole intend to accept newcomers, who show by taking out naturalisation papers that they want to become Australians? If the country doesn’t want migrants, it may as well say so openly to avoid disappointing the thousands who are ready to leave Europe for a country of new opportunities and equality.”
Hellmuth H. Hendon
Clynes, a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, was a polymath and a genius, being a scientist, inventor, musician and much more. Hendon’s defence of Clynes perhaps shows that he had always been far more than his rank of private showed.
The version of the book from which the Somerton Man’s scrap came was found to be a 1941 edition of the Rubáiyát. It had been published by Whitcombe and Tombs in Christchurch, New Zealand. Police obtained the book after a newspaper appeal with the “city businessman” who handed it over only being known by the pseudonym “Ronald Francis”. The pseudonym was attached by the police themselves to protect witnesses. How the book was found is a matter of contention, with newspaper reports suggesting it was found in the man’s car at Glenelg two weeks before the murder around the time of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) air pageant. However, other retellings say it was actually found not long before or after the unknown man’s death. If the former version of events is correct, it means the deceased had been to Glenelg before.
A further account in the Australian press suggested two copies of the Rubáiyát had in fact been found, both being found by businessmen, both in their own cars. While this might just be confusion on the part of a journalist, it’s interesting that the report expressly states that the books are different editions and one was found before the death and one after.
Upon investigating the book, the police found curious writing in the back. It consists of five lines with one crossed out. As the fourth line is very similar, it appears that an error was made. The inscription is clearly code. All attempts at deciphering the text have failed with it being too short to ascertain any satisfactory conclusion.
Also in the back of the book was found a telephone number which was quickly traced to a nurse by the name of Jessica Ellen “Jo” Thomson, formerly Jessie Harkness. There have been reports that a second number was found for a local bank. Jo lived in Glenelg just over 1,000 feet from where the body was found. There have been claims in the years since that she even worked at the Home for Crippled Children in front of which the Somerton Man was found. At last, a new lead presented itself.
The Crippled Children’s Home, also known as Bickford House, was the former home of the Bickford Family who leant their name to one of Australia’s oldest and well-recognised brands, producing drinks.
As of February 1948, there were 35 patients at the home ranging between the ages of 1 and 14. Most of those under care were suffering from polio, an outbreak spreading throughout South Australia that year.
Interestingly, the chairman of the home was Arthur Ernest William Short, known by his initials AEW Short. He was a prominent businessman and philanthropist, noted for his work with sick children and charity fundraising. He was elected Lord Mayor of Adelaide on July 2, 1949, and promptly dropped dead from peritonitis after being taken ill suddenly. He died on July 19, 1949.
This fact might not be worth mentioning were it not that one year prior on July 15, 1948, the Mayor of Glenelg, William Allen, had been killed in a car crash when his car overturned following a blown-out tyre caused by a nail.
There were no suspicious circumstances raised in either case.
While it might sound coincidental that two mayors died a year apart with the Somerton Man in-between, all linked to Glenelg, often the human mind is inclined toward instant suspicion and toward believing conspiracy, rather than accepting that sometimes coincidences do indeed happen.
However, coincidence has its limits.
Jo Thomson was evasive. From the minute the police first visited her Glenelg home right until interviews as late as 2002, investigators always had the sense that she knew far more about the Somerton Man than she let on.
Initially, she denied any knowledge of the man or why he would possibly have had her number, only reporting that a strange man had tried to visit her in late 1948, asking questions of a neighbour. However, when shown a plaster cast of the deceased, she was said to have appeared disturbed, with Detective Sergeant Leane stating that she was “completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint”.
On the subject of the Rubáiyát, she offered a little more, saying that during the Second World War, she had worked at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney and had owned a copy of the book. She had given it to an army lieutenant by the name of Alfred Boxall who was with the Royal Australian Engineers. After the war, she moved to Melbourne and married before she received a letter from Boxall, telling him she was married. While the strange man who had tried to visit her had asked for a nurse, she couldn’t be sure it was him. However, later research revealed that Jo Thomson had, in fact, not married her husband until 1950, after the Somerton Beach affair.
Police suspected that the dead man was Boxall. Smitten and treasuring the Rubáiyát they had shared, it could very well be a suicide following a rejection of his advances. While the theory might have been sound, there was only one problem. Alf Boxall was alive and well and living in Sydney.
Alfred had been discharged from the army in April of 1948 and when police came investigating, he revealed he still had his copy of the Rubáiyát, it wasn’t missing the final line and had been a 1924 Sydney edition in any case. The theories surrounding Boxall wouldn’t die, and with the cutout name tags, secret code and failure to identify the body, suggestions began to be made that Boxall had been involved in intelligence work.
Investigators noted the RAAF show on the day the Rubáiyát was allegedly found, not to mention the close proximity of Radium Hill uranium mine and the Woomera Test Range which was being constructed at the time, having been declared a prohibited site in 1947. The range was a joint UK-Australia initiative, with Britain needing open space to test missile systems. Australia provided the testing facilities, personnel, and most of the funding, while the UK provided scientific equipment, personnel and the budget for the weapons. Missile testing at the site commenced in 1949.
In a 1978 interview with Stuart Littlemore, Boxall seemingly confirmed that he had been working in intelligence during the war.
“Stuart Littlemore: Mr Boxall, you had been working, hadn’t you, in an intelligence unit, before you met this young woman [Jessica Harkness]. Did you talk to her about that at all?”
Alf Boxall: “No”
Boxall would go on to say that there is no way Jo Thomson could have known of his war work unless somebody else had told her. He didn’t deny that there was an espionage connection to the death on Somerton Beach, evasively saying that it was merely a “melodramatic thesis”.
Ghosts of the Past
Alf Boxall’s War
Alf Boxall, from the Hammersmith area of West London, Britain, had been born in 1906 and was married to a woman by the name of Isobella Dulcie “Susie” Smith, the nuptials taking place in 1937. He joined the Australian Army on January 12, 1942 and served with the North Australian Observation Unit (NAOU), the reconnaissance outfit perhaps better known as the “Nackeroos”. In June of 1943, Boxall was transferred to 4 Australian Water Transport Company based at Clifton Gardens in Sydney, the unit being formed that same month. At the time the Nackeroos were being wound down as the threat from Japan decreased. Despite this, he would stay with the NAOU until September.
It was in August of 1945, around the close of the war, that he received the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám from Jo Thomson over drinks at the Clifton Gardens Hotel, a popular hunt for servicemen. The hotel overlooked his base of operations. He was sent back for military service the next month.
In 1945, Jo Thomson lived in St. Leonard’s, Sydney, not too far from the Clifton Gardens and equally not far from Ashton Park where George Marshall had been found that same year, the copy of the Rubáiyát on his chest. In fact, Ashton Park was just a stone’s throw from the hotel. The similarities in the case and closeness of the pair to the location is interesting.
Boxall was involved in secret operations in the Timor Sea. His commander was David Herbert and he served alongside David’s brother Xavier in the same unit and alleged operation. They would be an unlikely trio. David Herbert was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and Xavier was a trained pharmacist, serving in that role for the Nackeroos. However, whereas David was suited to military life, Xavier certainly was not, being described as an “egomaniac” with a tendency toward “betraying friendships and picking fights”.
Xavier was a noted author, having published his debut novel Capricornia in 1938, an indictment of Australia’s treatment of indigenous communities in the Northern territories. Interestingly, the Nackeroos had been founded under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Bill Stanner, a prominent anthropologist who was renowned for his work with those Indigenous communities.
Xavier Herbert also held some very confused views. The group in which Xavier was said to socialise had German, Italian and Japanese sympathies, despite his work with the Nackeroos and the fact he was married to a Jewish woman, the British Sadie Norden. It has been said that Herbert “flaunted his affairs and treated her like dirt”.
“When Sadie became terminally ill, Herbert treated her as a nuisance, and when she died he wasted no time casting about for a worshipful younger woman as servant/slave.”
His book, Capricornia, might sound like a call for racial tolerance, but rather there is context missing. Many in the far-right movement believed a misguided standpoint that the aborigines and Europeans shared common Indo-Aryan origin. These beliefs were manifested in the Abo Call newspaper published by the fascist PR Stephensen, co-founder of the Australia First Movement, a party described as anti-semitic, anti-British and nationalist. The first issue featured an extract from Capricornia and they published the first edition.
The far-right grouping with which Xavier was friends held meetings at the Shalimar Cafe in the basement of The Publicist book shop. The Shalimar Cafe was on the corner of Park Street and Elizabeth Street where another relevant club, Pakie’s, was located. The Publicist, meanwhile, was the far-right newspaper of Australia First along the lines of Der Stürmer. This grouping became known as The Yabber Club and included Stephensen’s business partner William Miles, Valentine Crowley, Cecil Walter Salier, Edward Cory de la Roche Masey and Benjamin Hooper. Guests at the cafe included Xavier Herbert, Elenor Dark and Miles Franklin. The Communist Party’s Bartlett Adamson even spoke on one occasion.
During this period during the war, the Yabber Club and Shalimar Cafe were under watch by intelligence agents across over 200 meetings, with George Caiger, Alan Clement Panton and Kenneth Easton Cook being three agents named in sources as keeping an eye on them. This intelligence resulted in the internment of 20 of the core members in March of 1942, including PR Stephensen.
David Bird’s book Nazi Dreamtime: Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany explains that there was bad blood, as you might expect, between the pro-communist and pro-fascist groupings in intellectual life, with many having once been friends and comrades before some turned to fascism in the 1930s. Xavier Herbert had been angered by the Fellowship of Australian Writers, led by Bartlett Adamson, when they told him to cut down a 30-minute speech he’d prepared at a 1939 function for British author HG Wells. Before his internment, PR Stephensen described the fellowship as “dupes and stooges of Moscow” after Adamson ensured that anyone involved with Australia First was alienated. In turn, Adamson publically questioned Stephensen’s “excuse” for still being alive during an altercation in the street.
Indeed, Xavier Herbert serving with the Nackeroos is curious at first glance. Herbert hated the British, holding a particular loathing for Winston Churchill, and his enthusiasm for war was none existent. Despite associating with nationalists, he held white Australians in little higher regard. In many respects, he was a misanthrope.
Herbert did, however, have close relations with the Japanese to the extent that he was the only non-Japanese member of the Darwin Japanese Society. Such was his devotion, the president recommended him to the Japanese consul in 1938 for the strength of his pro-Japanese feeling. However, this is not entirely contradictory with his service. The Nackeroos were a volunteer unit, and he allegedly wanted the role for self-serving reasons. Barbara Winter’s book The Australia First Movement reports that Herbert told fellow far-right sympathiser Valentine Crowley that he wished to watch up close how the Japanese treated the aborigines when they landed. If it was any better, he’d be joining the Japanese. Indeed, given the Nackeroos’ stated goal was to watch for any landings of the Japanese on the Australian coast, Herbert’s involvement is outright alarming.
Fears had grown following the Japanese advance in the Pacific, and one of the factors involved in their original creation was a belief amongst some that the aborigines would ally with an invading Japanese force. Realising the unit would need the help of the indigenous populations to work effectively in the bush in any case, this all likely played a part in the appointment to command of anthropologist Bill Stanner.
The Nackeroos were not an espionage outfit nor a true commando unit. Instead, they were a light horse-mounted unit with commando flexibility, tasked with providing early warning of Japanese activity from the Northern Territories. Stanner had wanted a unit based around the South African Boer commandos. Those who were members were expected to have top rank medical fitness, bush experience, horsemanship and “initiative, reserve, intelligence”. The truth, however, is that many recruits lacked any bush experience at all with some being unable to even ride a horse.
When second-in-command and later commander Max White was hospitalised, he overheard two regular army officers describing his men as “nothing but an organised bunch of bush rangers!”. He interjected and said,“excuse me, but some people reckon we’re not even organised!”. Such was the boredom of the men that at one point soldiers from A Company stole a truck and drove it over 2000 miles to Brisbane, demanding that military police there send them to see action in New Guinea. They sent them back to the bush.
What experience Alf Boxall had in bushcraft or horse riding is unknown, yet it seems likely his experience with engineering was the reason he was in the unit. Alongside their mounted ability, the Nackeroos also had a fleet of seagoing schooners and motor yachts, enlisting mariners, shipwrights and the mechanics needed to ensure the upkeep of the vessels. The fleet consisted of approximately six boats including Lady Yetive, Lady Ruth, Toorbul, Hurricane and others. Upon arrival in the bush, Boxall was a qualified motor mechanic with the rank of lance corporal. He spent months on board Hurricane and within three he had been promoted to lieutenant, an astonishingly quick elevation in rank, passing that of Herbert. He was noted for his abilities and bravery, being a noted diver and motorbike enthusiast.
With Xavier Herbert being highly in favour of aboriginal rights, it’s easy to think he may have been close to Stanner. However, this isn’t the case and Herbert held Stanner in contempt, resenting being placed under his command. Herbert considered the entire unit to be inadequate in comparison to his own bushcraft, with Frances de Groen‘s Xavier Herbert: A Biography stating that he described the recruits as “a bunch of poofters whose only riding’s been one another in the Sydney Domain and Hyde Park”. However, most have said that Stanner’s understanding and affinity for the indigenous peoples was far greater than that of Herbert whose views were coloured by his pre-war affiliations.
Herbert’s portrayal of the unit was unfair. Seemingly a disruptive and “unruly” influence with known far-right sympathies, it’s easy to wonder who might have been watching would-be traitor Sergeant Xavier Herbert and, indeed, why he was allowed to serve in the unit in the first place given the fact he was known to police.
Like all those involved with Australia First, Herbert had been under watch by Military Police Intelligence for some time, including one report from July 1942 that came two months after he enlisted in the Nackeroos.
Coincidentally, Herbert’s military records show that at the time of joining the service he was living in Musgrave Street not far from where Arthur Newland had committed suicide in 1910. To add yet another level of coincidence, one of the police constables signing the above documentation was “George Marshall”, no known relation.
In later years, possibly when the horrors of the Holocaust became widely known, Xavier Herbert would condemn PR Stephensen and the Australia First Movement in his book Poor Fellow My Country where the “Free Australia Party” located in Sydney is an obvious stand-in for the real-life group. Xavier portrays the movement as a mix of former communists and hardcore fascists who are overtly racist. Perhaps semi-autobiographical, the character of Jeremy is invited to speak and condemns the party as fatally flawed, objecting to their racism and insisting that what the campaign needed was to focus less on bigotry and more on changing the broken political system by actually getting elected.
Xavier Herbert had also been a regular customer at Pakie’s Club on Elizabeth Street where a core of the far-right Australia First Movement defied the image of the club as liberal and bohemian. Many of those in attendance at the club had undoubtedly started attending when they followed the communist ideology of friends there, prior to rifts and fractures. They included Shalimar regulars Eleanor Dark, William “Billy” Miles, Rex Ingamells, Alister Kershaw, Adela Pankhurst Walsh and Miles Franklin.
There has been some speculation that it is Pakie’s Club that links Alf Boxall/Jo Thomson to George Marshall though Xavier Herbert and the Nackeroos. Many have claimed that this is a broken link as there is no evidence that Marshall ever attended Pakie’s. However, this might not be quite true.
Active between 1929 and the 1960s, the club and dance venue was owned by Augusta “Pakie” MacDougall and was a centre of bohemian life in the city. Described as ‘little bit of Paris’, the venue was fashionable and featured colourful modernist decor that had been designed with the assistance of Walter Burley Griffin and Roy de Maistre.
It was a destination for artists, writers and intellectuals, being frequented by radicals and free thinkers, many of them immigrants. Pakie’s held monthly “international nights” featuring differing aspects of the culture and cuisine of a particular country. Just one frequent patron was the artist George Finey, the first president of the Workers’ Art Club (WAC). Another was Jean Devanny who had engaged in an affair with Jack Miles, then general secretary of the Australian Communist Party. Katherine Susannah Prichard, co-founder of the party, was also a regular. So too were other prominent communists and anti-fascists such as Jack Lindsay, Bartlett Adamson, and Mary Gilmore. Coincidently, Adamson had once worked at Whitcombe and Tombs in Christchurch where the Somerton Man’s Rubáiyát had been published and they published his early work.
In 1951, during a seemingly nondescript report into the possible closure of the Sydney ferry service, Bartlett made a notable comment on an apparent suicide. Adding another coincidence into the convoluted mix, Sydney Harbour Ferries Ltd. owned the Clifton Gardens Hotel where Alf Boxall received the Rubáiyát from Jo Thomson. It wouldn’t be the only mention of the Rubáiyát in his work.
“In the second category was the man who boarded a ferry steamer intending to jump overboard but who delayed his intention for several trips because there were women aboard and he did not wish to upset them. He whiled away the journeys reading Omar Khayyam until he found a suitable chance to dive into the deep waters of eternity.”
Bartlett Adamson, 1951
The incident to which Bartlett refers is the September 28, 1910 suicide of Arthur Newland, aged 29. Newland jumped overboard from the ferry near Musgrave Street, Mosman, having filled his pockets with stones and lead. A bundle of letters was handed to police by a witness. Amongst them was a note stating that “I would have committed suicide on the outward journey, but there were too many women and children- aboard. I didn’t wish to frighten them.” There were papers showing he had been following the trade and statistics of foreign countries alongside a copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Inside the book, police found Newland’s poetry on suicide and love written amongst the pages. It appears he was brokenhearted after failing to win back a woman’s affections. How and why Bartlett Adamson knew of such a suicide some forty years previously is unknown.
It would be far from the only tragedy associated with the Rubáiyát, however.
The first death associated with the book would seem to be that of Howard R. Miller, of Keokuk, Iowa in 1902. Miller was the nephew of Rear-Admiral Miller of the United States Navy and studying at Keokuk Medical College. Reports indicate that stress from exams and overwork let to him shooting himself in Lincoln Park, Chicago on March 30, Easter Sunday. In his pocket was a notebook full of quotes from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám under the heading “Writings so full of wisdom as those of Omar I have never met”.
The next to die was Ernest Fearnhead Watson, a chauffeur who shot himself in the chest on the banks of the Macquarie River, New South Wales, in early January of 1911. Watson was a native of London and had only been in the state for four months. In a letter to a friend, he quoted Omar Khayyám, adding “i cannot go on”.
On October 3, 1921, a woman claiming to be “Josephine Wilson” was found dead in Faraday Street, Carlton, Melbourne. The 24-year-old woman was described as “handsome” and having recently come from Sydney, though this was later corrected to being Adelaide. The coroner could find no cause of death and amongst her belongings was the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Her real name was Eva Coster, and she had run away to join a theatrical company called The Tango Tea Company. Investigators believed she died of chloral hydrate poisoning, a sleeping draught.
Internationally, in 1927, the murder of Hamilton W. Mannon shocked Hollywood’s golden age. The young studio executive was shot dead by his girlfriend Betty Gottlieb after he refused to continue their relationship. Gottlieb then killed herself. Once again, there was a mystery to an identity as Gottlieb’s friends said they knew nothing of her and that her name may have really been Betty Montague. Investigating her belongings, the police found she had underlined a passage from Omar Khayyám: “And fear not lest Existence closing your Account, and mine, should know the like no more”.
In 1931, a tobacconist by the name of Edward Ernest Watts shot at his wife before turning the gun on himself in Campsie, New South Wales. Letters sent to friends suggested Watts had suffered a mental break, depressed at his life in Campsie and fatalistically talking of gipsy prophecies. The messages quoted the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Later that same year, on November 28, 1931, the decapitated body of a man was found on the railway line at Ballarat East. The man, Thomas Davis Cosstick, had committed suicide by placing his head and neck on the rails and waiting for a train. In a letter posted before his death, he quoted from the Rubáiyát.
In 1937, the suicide of Beatrice Nelson Wilson was, as first, feared to be murder. Originally from Bangor in Maine, Bea, as she was known, was described as an “attractive Manila matron” and had been killed at her apartment in the University Club building, Manila. She had worked as ticker operator at the Manila Stock Exchange and had been shot once the chest. Her husband, John Porter Wilson, was employed as a secretary to JG Eisenberg, technical expert of the exchange. Police investigating found a copy of the Rubáiyát with underlined passages indicating her depression, including “life itself is but a lie”. Under the “Tamam Shud” that closes the book, Wilson wrote: “Better still — smash one!” and added another afterthought: “Yesterday’s tomorrows are but today.” Given the link to the Manila Stock Exchange, it was a secret service matter, and they investigated “other possibilities” in the case.
On February 23, 1951, the body of a man was found at Adelaide Railway Station who police described as “mangled”, having seemingly laid across the railway tracks. Believed to be Colgan James Bell of New Lambton, New South Wales, he had checked into a hotel in the city two days prior. A search of his room revealed another copy of the Rubáiyát. Reports into the case said that the book had become known to police as “the suicide’s handbook.”
In May 1953, another woman would be found dead following a suicide, with the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám once again involved. Joan Louise Ogilvie, 58, of Westminster, London, was found dead in her bed following an overdose of secobarbital sodium, sold under the brand name Seconal. She had been unwell and worried for some time before her death. Ogilvie had underlined verses 32 and 34 of the book.
There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed—and then no more of THEE and ME.Then to this earthen Bowl did I adjourn
My Lip the secret Well of Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur'd—"While you live,
Drink!—for once dead you never shall return."The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Verses 32 and 34)
Rewinding back to June 22, 1946, and an extensive tribute to George Marshall was published in Smith’s Weekly, a tabloid newspaper that was aimed towards service members. The details are so exact in their points of recanting the behaviour and motivations behind Marshall’s suicide that it is obviously the work of someone who knew him personally. The piece was attributed to “the man in the mask”, a non de plume that was utilised by several writers at Smith’s Weekly. One of those writers was Bartlett Adamson.
“There he wandered round the shore of Taylor Bay, found a secluded spot among bush and rocks, about thirty feet from the edge of the water, made himself comfortable, placed the paper under him, drank some of the water, and took the narcotic which, he hoped, would complete the Khayyam stanza: ‘Dust unto dust and under dust to lie Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and sans end.’ Lying down he opened the book at those lines, which he regarded as one of the most perfect stanzas ever written, and which he had marked with a pencil. Drowsiness came upon him. The book, still open at the marked passages, fell from his relaxing grip and lay on his chest.”
“The Man in the Mask”, 1946
The club is just the kind of location where the Rubáiyát would have thrived, the atmosphere perhaps even being something akin to a modern “fin de siècle cult of the Rubaiyat”. Indeed, a man by the name of Hugh Gillespie gave a talk at Pakie’s Club on “The Life, Times. and Character of Omar Khayyam” in 1939.
It is likely that Marshall, an aspiring writer and poet, would have attended. The club was visited by all manner of noted writers and anyone wishing to be part of the scene would have been well advised to show their face and make contacts. Despite this, only Hellmut Hendon is in the guestbooks, though they weren’t used on every occasion. Given his father’s extermination by the Nazis, the terrors of the Holocaust and his 1946 comments, it’s likely Hellmut would have associated with anti-fascists at the club, as would Marshall.
Given the intelligence operation at the Shalimar Cafe against the Yabber Club, it seems likely that communists at Pakie’s would have been under similar watch.
“There was, however, lively debate about ‘everything’ as regulars lounged about listening to records such as Beethoven, Bach and Vivaldi. In Pakies Club ‘there were all types — there were Trotskyites, anarchists, people only interested in the music, people interested in painting, and people who were just interested in other people.”
Dr Shirley Daborn, Penrith Regional Gallery
Pakie MacDougall had clear socialist leanings, with her son Robin being born at the home of British Labour leader Ramsey MacDonald. Her former husband, Duncan Macdougall, had received some level of criticism when his 1924 staging of Ernst Toller’s Masses and Man ended with the audience singing The Red Flag. Interestingly, Pakie MacDougall had been killed exactly two weeks before Marshall, being hit by an army truck as she crossed the road. Pakie died on May 7, 1945, Marshall‘s formal date of death is May 21.
There is a link between Jo Thomson, Alf Boxall and Xavier Herbert, with Herbert having served in the Nackeroos with Boxall and, by Boxall’s claim, having been part of a secret mission in the Timor Sea. If Bartlett Adamson had indeed written the tribute to Marshall, which seems likely, then the link to George Marshall is also made, everything running right through Pakie’s Club. However, while Boxall's career is both lively and interesting, it is a far cry from both the world of James Bond and the literary and political circles of Xavier Herbert, despite their shared service.
In 1949, Jo Thomson requested that police stop keeping her contact details, and it would harm her reputation and “marriage” to be linked to Alf Boxall and such a sensational murder in any way. They obliged, causing an unintentional obstruction for investigators into the case in years to come.
The relationship between Boxall and Thomson was never adequately explained, with Thomson insisting that they were mere acquaintances. Yet, if they were only acquaintances, this fails to explain why she would have been embarrassed or threatened with being linked to him publicly, nor why he would have written a letter to her with her replying that she was married.
Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore—but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My thread-bare Penitence a-pieces tore.The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Verse 94)
Equally, the inscription inside the Rubáiyát she gave to the already married Alf (above) seems far more familiar than “acquaintances”. The Rubáiyát had also fallen into an “Arabian passion” stereotype. It was considered a romantic book for its themes of living life in the moment and enjoying life’s pleasures. She herself was said to view the book as being love poetry. These themes undoubtedly found favour during the war when many men had fleeting returns home before being sent back into action, possibly facing death. However, Boxall would have been 39 at the time, and Jo would have been 24, quite an age gap.
However, the obstacles in the case wouldn’t be limited to people refusing to engage with the police.
Keith Waldemar Mangnoson was firmly in the belief that the dead man was Carl Thompsen, a man whom he’d worked with before the war in Renmark, South Australia, and he was determined to prove it. On June 2, 1949, Mangnoson and his son vanished only to be found four days later on Largs Bay sandhills, 12 miles up the coast from Somerton Beach. Clive, the son, was found dead in a sack, while Keith Mangnoson was barely clinging to life. Police found an empty tablet bottle and other sacks nearby, and while the police suspected foul play, they could not determine the boy’s cause of death.
Following treatment for exposure, he was sent to a mental care facility and was diagnosed as suffering from “war neurosis”, what today we would term combat stress reaction (CSR). It can sometimes precurse post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Following these events, the mother of Clive, Roma Mangnoson, was threatened by a masked man who nearly ran her down outside her home, demanding that she stay away from the police. A similar man was also seen lurking near her home. Further, phone calls were made to AH Curtis, the acting mayor of Port Adelaide, and JM Gower, secretary of the Largs North Progress Association. Both warned that the individuals and Roma Mangnoson would suffer accidents if the death of Clive continued to be investigated.
“The car stopped, and a man with a khaki handkerchief over his face told me to “keep away from the police — or else… My husband thought that he had worked with the man at Renmark. When he came home after seeing the body at the morgue, he was so upset that he could hardly eat his tea.”
Roma Mangnoson, The Advertiser, June 22, 1949
Despite the alarming nature of the incidents, police believed the affair was the work of a “prankster” who targeted bereaved families.
Cold Case Warmed Up
The Somerton Man was buried at Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery in 1949. While information would trickle through in coming years, the investigation was actively at an end, with all leads exhausted. Ina Harvey, a receptionist at the Strathmore Hotel opposite Adelaide railway station, would report that a strange man had stayed in Room 21 around the time of the death. He checked out on November 30, 1948, and was apparently in possession of an unusual looking needle that he carried in a small black case.
On June 21, 1950, Allan Roy Walters, the new proprietor of the John Bull Hotel, was handed a suitcase by a former employee. The employee had seemingly kept the luggage in his bedroom for several years after a customer left it behind in 1945. The case contained writing materials, letter and ration cards with details on the documents identifying it as belonging to “J. Carlin. Abinga, via Marree, Central Australian Railways”. On a notepad in the suitcase was some writing and the name “Omar Khayyam.” After the case was handed over to police, a man came forward to say that the Somerton Man could not possibly be J. Carlin as he knew him and the clue was abandoned.
As of 1953, the police had received 251 identifications of the man. There were claims he was a trapeze artist in a circus, a ballet dancer, a barman or a bosun. In 1959, an inmate of New Zealand’s Whanganui Prison reported that they knew who the dead man was. The same year, a witness said that he had been in the company of three others on the night before the body was found, seeing a well-dressed man carrying another on his shoulders along Somerton Beach.
None of these claims led anywhere.
It wouldn’t be until the 21st century, and 50 years after his death that progress truly began to be made on the Somerton case, with a University of Adelaide team led by Professor Derek Abbott beginning their own investigation in 2009.
Abbott’s team worked on the code in the book and concluded that it was most likely utilising a one-time pad (OTP) encryption technique with the Rubáiyát as the encryption key. OTP cryptography requires a pre-shared key that is the same size as, or longer than, the message being sent. The code, at four lines (with an additional fifth being a mistake), matched the four-line quatrain format of the Rubáiyát. To make progress, however, the team required the exact copy of the book that had seemingly been used. It was lost in the 1960s and investigators were unable to find another copy of that edition.
OTP encryption was used extensively by the Soviet Union and, alongside Britain and America, Australia was intercepting Soviet communications that used the technique as part of the Venona project. The project was part of a US counterintelligence program that had begun during the Second World War. The information cracked by the project included data that led to the exposure of the Cambridge Five and the espionage that had surrounded the Manhattan Project.
Australia worked on the project at a secret facility in the outback that was unknown to the USSR until 1950, with the Australian security services, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), being founded the year previous in 1949, not long after the death of the Somerton Man. The ruling Labor Party had been historically hostile to the concept of creating such a service. Still, it was persuaded otherwise by evidence from Project Verona that the KGB was operating on Australian soil.
Online researchers from the intelligence community believe they have identified the Somerton Man as Pavel Ivanovich Fedosimov, the former deputy vice-consul in New York and an alleged KGB station chief, a high prize. Fedosimov had been recalled to Russia in July of 1948 and was never heard from again. The agent had been the handler for atomic spies in the United States until the Verona Project began to dismantle the network and, given the alleged tracking station close-by and the Woomera base, had more than enough reason to be in the locality.
In December, just a day before the first sighting of the Somerton Man at the beach, two Russians went missing from a United Nations economic conference held just outside Sydney while their aircraft refuelled in Darwin, North Australia. However, while it would have been technically possible to make the distance, it would have been difficult and both of the missing delegates, Sherbakov (not his real name) and Tatiana Bogatyreva, were later traced.
While the autopsy file for the case was found to be missing, a study of existing photos of the mystery proved enlightening. Maciej Henneberg, professor of anatomy at the University of Adelaide, noted that the victim had particularly unusual ears, the upper ear hollow being larger than the lower ear hollow. Equally, studies of dental casts showed he had Hypodontia, the developmental absence of one or more teeth, excluding the third molars. Separately, these conditions were present in around 1–2% of the population.
In June of 2010, Abbott analysed a photo of Jo Thomson’s eldest son Robin. He had both conditions. The chance of it being a coincidence is somewhere between one in 10,000,000 and one in 20,000,000. Robin, who died in 2009, was already 16 months old at the time of the Somerton Man’s death in 1948, with Jo Thomson not marrying her husband until 1950. Some years after the Somerton Man’s death, Jo took her son to ballet lessons and he became a professional dancer.
One possible identification of the man came in 2011 when an Adelaide woman approached Henneberg with an identification card found in her father’s possessions. The ID was issued to a foreign seaman in the United States by the name of HC Reynolds, Reynolds being British. Henneberg found similarities in the nose, lips and eyes. The ears were an excellent match and a mole on the cheek was the exact same size and shape with the positioning being perfect.
“Together with the similarity of the ear characteristics, this mole, in a forensic case, would allow me to make a rare statement positively identifying the Somerton man.”
Maciej Henneberg, professor of anatomy
In 2013, interviews given to Australia’s 60 Minutes revealed that Jo Thomson had told her daughter that she had lied to police and she knew who the mystery man was, saying that his identity was also “known to a level higher than the police force”. Kate Thomson would go on to suggest that espionage had been involved and her mother may have been a spy for the Soviet Union. She noted that her mother had taught English to Australian migrants, had an interest in communism, and could speak Russian but refused to tell her where she had learned it.
However, it should be noted that many growing up in the era had an interest in communism without being Russian spies, particular before the events of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The Australian Communist Party won 87,958 votes in 1949, with the peak of the party’s success coming in 1955 when they won 161,869 votes. The period was marked by the Red Scare in the West, where increasingly belligerent rhetoric from the likes of Australia’s Robert Menzies led to “reds under the bed” paranoia and accusations against hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians.
By 2018, the University of Adelaide team had recovered DNA that was found in hairs attached to a plaster cast of the corpse’s face. These hairs revealed that the Somerton Man and his mother had belonged to haplogroup H4a1a1a. The DNA is European and possessed by only 1% of that population, centred around the Iberian Peninsula, Britain and Ireland. While the man has little in the way of Spanish or Portuguese appearance, the original autopsy in 1948 stated he was “of Britisher appearance”.
The widow of Robin Thomson, Roma Egan, called for the exhumation of the Somerton Man to test whether he had indeed been her late husband’s father. The call was opposed by Kate Thomson. In October of 2019, South Australian Attorney-General Vickie Chapman approved the petition to have the body exhumed for DNA purposes. No results have yet been made public.
A Final Revelation?
Former detective, Senior Sergeant Gerry Feltus, who wrote a book on the case after retiring, believes that exhuming the body will not bring answers, stating he was told “there wasn’t anything to gain” from the move.
“During that period, so many war criminals changed their name and came to different countries… I toyed with the idea of exhumation many years ago when I was looking into it. But the forensic pathologists told me there wasn’t anything to gain.”
Gerry Feltus, a former police officer
The mention of war criminals is curious, and it might be worth noting that in the late 1940s there was serious concern surrounding Nazis entering the country along the so-called “rat-lines”, the extensive and clandestine network that worked to secure passage for criminals into safe countries. In response, both Jewish groups and other individuals engaged in private pursuits of these criminals, often with extreme risks involved that led them to take on the tactics of the security services. One theory that has been raised in the famous unsolved “Isdal Woman” case is that the victim had been hunting Nazi war criminals.
The Jewish community in Australia started campaigning against the entry of fascists into the country “soon after they started arriving in 1947” though the Displaced Persons immigration scheme. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and state Boards of Deputies worked closely at this time with the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism. Together they compiled dossiers on the entering Nazis and applied pressure on the government over their presence in Australia, often talking directly to the press. Many members of the Jewish Council were communists and the majority of Jewish immigrants into South Australia before 1950 had been British.
Revelations in 1989 revealed that hundreds of Nazis had entered Australia amongst 200,000 refugees taken after the war, with Western security services frequently using ex-Nazis as anti-communist agents. Many of these Nazis attained respectable positions in society.
“Australia was chosen as one of these dumping grounds. Sadly, official files demonstrate unequivocally that Australia turned a blind eye to these murderers once they were here. Our security services knew who they were, but they were turning a blind eye. It was the era of the Cold War. These people were seen as anti-communists and useful foot soldiers in the struggle against the ‘Red menace”
Mark Aarons, Author
In 1999, the Simon Wisenthal Center revealed that the UK and Australian governments had engaged in a secret program to send Nazi scientists to Australia. The report states that at least 127 German scientists and engineers were sent to Australia between 1946 and 1951, including 31 Nazi party members and six members of the elite SS. As you will recall, the nearby UK-Australian missile testing range at Woomera had been designated a restricted site in 1947, with missile testing beginning in 1949. Nazi scientists sent to Australia included at least two who worked at Woomera, including other experts in atomic weapons and rocketry.
Initially, the Australian government had intended on bringing five Nazis to Woomera, a team that was headed by Dr Eugene Saenger. All five had worked on the development of the V2 rocket, with Saenger having been one of the Luftwaffe’s most senior rocket experts. The rest of the team would have included Hans Joachim Hoelzgen and Erich Stegelmann, a former stormtrooper.
While the Somerton Man was uncircumcised and therefore not Jewish, in 2009, it was noted that someone had placed rocks at the foot of the Somerton Man’s grave in the Jewish tradition. George Marshall, the man found dead in Sydney with the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám on his chest, had been Jewish. So had Hellmut Hendon. Researchers attempting to break the Somerton Man’s code have tried the Bible and Torah as keys. In the 2014 interview with Kate Thomson, a menora was visible in the background with space for nine candles that is only used at Hanukah.
On December 15, 1948, just two weeks after the death of the Somerton Man, there was another death. Only 19 minutes away by car at a hotel on Hindley street, a man seemingly committed suicide. The deceased was Tibor Kaldor, 44, a process worker from Victoria. He had been staying at the hotel for four days and had seemingly taken poison. He was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant.
Two of the individuals previously on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s annual list of the most wanted Nazi war criminals were located in Australia, both Hungarian born. Lajos Polgár, originally József Kardos, had been wanted for war crimes committed as a member of the Arrow Cross Party. He came to Australia in 1949. Charles Zentai, meanwhile, had been born Károly Steiner and went to the country in 1950. He stood accused of having murdered Péter Balázs, an 18-year-old Jewish man. Witnesses reported that Balázs had not been wearing his yellow star and was beaten to death by Steiner before being thrown into the Danube. Both escaped justice, Lajos Polgár dying in 2013 and Charles Zentai in 2017.
While there are indications and coincidences abound in the case, there is little real evidence that the Somerton Man was involved in espionage work, nor that Jo Thomson was. In fact, we can’t even say for sure that he was poisoned. Yet, the coincidences stack up. The presence of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, first in Sydney, then with Alf Boxall, and once again at Glenelg, is all suggestive. While the book was once immensely popular, with themes that made it attractive to those searching for answers and possibly suffering depression, its constant recurrence cannot be coincidence alone. Equally, the coded message in the back might mean nothing, yet the likelihood that it is an OTP cypher stands out. Was the book a recurring gift from Thomson to men in her life? Or was it something more sinister, such as an encryption key?
Should the Somerton Man have been involved in such work, the difficulty in identification would no longer be such a mystery. Yet, the thrill of a spy story shouldn’t blind us to the possibility that the answer lays not at the Pentagon or Kremlin, but instead, it exists in Glenelg with a tale of unreturned love gone wrong. With Jo and the deceased possibly having a son, their relationship seems more than that of spy colleagues or a handler and her charge.
With efforts ongoing to finally crack the case, including the exhumation of the body just last year, hopes are high that Australia’s mystery man may at last yet be identified. However, even if a name is put to the face, we may still never know exactly why he had to die alone on Somerton Beach all those years ago.
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Verse 26)
The Curse of Omar Khayyám
All Those Mentioned in This Article
May those at peace rest. May all others find truth.
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