If you missed part one, catch up here.
It’s December 1948, the dawn of the Cold War and the Atomic Age; a mysterious body has just turned up on the shore of Somerton Beach, near Adelaide, Australia. With meager evidence and only a handful of cryptic clues, investigators are stumped as to the man’s identity or where he came from. All they know for sure is that he was poisoned and it was most likely murder.
By February of 1949, more than a dozen people came forward offering possible identifications, all of them being debunked. Over the decades that followed, the names would keep coming, though never bringing investigators any closer to a positive I.D. In 2011, an Adelaide woman came forward with an intriguing piece of evidence that she found among her father’s possessions. It was the seaman’s identification card of one H.C. Reynolds that bore a remarkable likeness to the Somerton Man. The card was issued in the United States on February 28, 1918, and listed the man’s nationality as British. Photographic comparisons were certainly encouraging, though ultimately inconclusive. Unfortunately, searches in the National Archives and other resources could find no further record of the man and the case is still officially open.
The majority of theories surrounding the identity of the Somerton Man involve espionage. Considering the evidence, it’s easy to see why. Two sites in particular, the Radium Hill uranium mine and the Woomera Test Range, both in close proximity to Adelaide, would be enticing intelligence targets. At the time, Soviet spies were known to be active in the area; a problem so significant for Australia that it led to founding of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization in 1949. Then, of course, there are the peculiar circumstances in which the Somerton Man was discovered, his strange cypher, and the bizarre connection to the Rubáiyát.
It bears mentioning that the Somerton Man was not the only unsolved poisoning involving the Rubáiyát. In June of 1945, a 34-year-old Singapore man, George Marshall, was found dead in Ashton Park, Mosman. On his chest was an open copy of the Rubáiyát. His brother, David Marshall, was the first Chief Minister of Singapore. At the time, his death was thought to be suicide by poisoning.
It’s hard to ignore the connection between the corpse on the beach and Jessica Thompson. Why would her unlisted phone number be written in the dead man’s copy of the Rubáiyát? When asked if she recognized a photograph of him, it was reported that she was noticeably disturbed, though denied any knowledge of him. Then there is her association with Alf Boxall and their shared connection of the Rubáiyát. At the time of their relationship, Boxall was a lieutenant, serving in the North Australian Observer Unit (NAOU), a military intelligence unit, while Thomson was a nurse at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. Boxall claimed no knowledge of the Somerton Man and by all accounts had no contact with Jessica Thompson (née Harkness) after 1945. Numerous theories have evolved out of this triangle, suggesting that Thompson, Boxhall, and the Somerton Man were all spies.
It’s certainly not a stretch to assume the Somerton Man was a spy and Boxall readily admits he worked in intelligence; but what about Thompson? The case for her being a spy is circumstantial but intriguing. In 2013, Kate Thompson, Jessica’s daughter, claimed in an interview that her mother lied to the police and almost certainly knew the Somerton Man’s identity. She went on to claim that her mother was interested in Communism and spoke fluent Russian, though she would never confess to where and why she had learned the language.
The most puzzling evidence in the case is the four or five lines of code scrawled in the dead man’s copy of the Rubáiyát. Over the years, countless attempts by the world’s leading cryptologists have failed to break the cypher. Popular analysis suggests that the second line of the text, which is crossed out, is an error in encryption, therefore, to be ignored. The remaining four lines are thought to be from the Rubáiyát as they closely follow the poems quatrain format. However, the message’s short length, lack of a key, and unknown source material (assuming it is a one-time replacement-style cypher) make it all but impossible to decipher.
Recently, former U.K. detective, Gordon Cramer, claims to have discovered at least part of the mystery of the coded message. According to Cramer, investigators have been looking at the code all wrong the entire time and the message was practically in plain sight. Hidden within the letters of text is a series of characters written in micro-lettering. Much of the micro-writing is still unintelligible due to resolution issues working from the photographs, though he believes he has identified text that refers to the de Haviland Venom, a post-war British jet, and another section that seems to reference a Bulgarian Airlines commercial flight from Sofia to London. Even more incredibly, the same style of micro-writing was found within the inscription Jessica Thompson made to Alf Boxall in her copy of the Rubáiyát! It should be noted that, until the original texts are subjected to proper analysis, these claims remain unproven, as fascinating as they might be.
Another prevalent theory, with some support from the surviving family members of Jessica Thompson, is that she and the Somerton Man were lovers. Further, it is suggested that Robin Thompson, son of Jessica and Prosper, was actually the biological son of the dead man. Robin was about 16 months old at the time of the incident. Robin Thompson passed in 2009, though he has surviving children whose DNA could be compared to that of the Somerton Man, and conceivably shed some light on this 70-year-old mystery.
To that end, in April of 2021, the grave of the Somerton Man was exhumed and viable DNA has been extracted for testing. The results of the test are still forthcoming, but we could be on the cusp of revealing the long-buried secrets of the Tamam Shud case.