Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Somerton Beach Man.



 
At 6:30am on December 1st 1948 Adelaide police were called.  A local resident had found a man sitting on Somerton Beach, leaning back onto the seawall.  His feet were crossed and pointing toward the sea.  An unlit cigarette was tucked behind his ear, and one which was half smoked was tucked into his collar.  He was wearing a modern grey double breasted jacket, crisp white shirt, red and blue tie, brown pants and a brown knitted pullover.  His shoes were clean and shiny.  The strangest part of his appearance was that he was missing a hat, which was unusual for such a well-dressed man.  Also, he was dead.
The X marks the location of the body.
Witnesses had seen the man sitting on the beach the night before, stretching his left arm out and dropping it limply, where it continued to lay.  His right arm was curled up towards his face.
In his pockets were a used bus ticket, a used train ticket, a comb, cigarettes and matches and half a packet of Juicy Fruit.  The bus ticket would have taken him to the bus stop about 1,100 meters up the road. 
No form of identification was found. 
An autopsy was ordered, which found no apparent cause of death.  The coroner ruled that the man had died of probable poisoning, most likely an untraceable barbiturate, although he ruled out the pasty which remained in the man’s stomach as the cause.  The man was described as between 40 and 45, of “Britisher” appearance and in top physical condition.  His dental records could not be matched to anyone in Australia.  His clothes were searched, which revealed that all the clothing labels had been removed.
Police circulated the man’s photo and fingerprints to no avail.  Some people came forward, believing they knew the man’s identity, but upon investigation they were all mistaken. As he could not be identified his body was embalmed, which was the first time in Australia’s history that this was necessary.

On January 14th 1949, staff at the Adelaide Railway Station found an unattended brown suitcase which had been checked into the cloakroom on November 30th.  The suitcase contained clothes, sharpened scissors and a merchant marine stencilling brush.  It also contained a needle and thread.  The thread was an unusual brand and matched a repair made to the pants of the dead beach man.  All the labels of the clothing had been removed bar three which read the name “Keane” or “T Keane”.  Police renewed their search with this information, searching internationally as well, but could find no T. Keane reported missing from any English speaking country.  The only other clue from the suitcase was that it was a style which could only have been made in America due to the type of machine work.
An inquest was held into the man’s death, and during this time, his belongings were searched again.  This time police found a tiny piece of paper rolled up inside the fob pocket in the man’s trousers.  The paper had two words on it – Tamam Shud, which is Persian for “ended” or “finished”, written in a distinctive font.  It was the last two words from a book of Poetry called The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  The book had been extremely popular in Australia, and now police searched for a copy that was missing a section of its last page.  The media joined in the search, and the very next day a man found a copy of the book had been placed in the backseat of his unlocked car in Glenelg, a beach side suburb of Adelaide.  He recognised the book from the newspaper story.  The copy of the book was missing a section which exactly matched the piece of paper in the dead man’s pocket.
In the back of the book were faint pencil markings of five lines of capital letters with the second line struck out. The strike out is now considered significant with its similarity to the fourth line possibly indicating a mistake and thus, possible proof the letters are code:
WRGOABABD
MLIAOI
WTBIMPANETP
MLIABOAIAQC
ITTMTSAMSTGAB
Code experts, including the department of defence, were unable to decipher it.
Also written in the book was an unlisted phone number, which belonged to a former nurse who lived in Glenelg.  She appeared very shaken when shown a photo of the dead man, but denied all knowledge of him, or why he would be so near her home. She seemed so shaken that police were concerned she might faint during questioning. She told them that she had owned a copy of The Rubaiyat when she had worked in Sydney, but had given it to a patient in 1945.  The patient was traced and found to be alive and well.  She asked not to have her name recorded as she was now married and wanted to spare her husband any embarrassment, so was given the pseudonym “Jestyn” in the police report.  This severely hindered follow up investigations.  Years later it was discovered that she was not actually married at the time. 
The lack of information about the dead man, and the mysterious code in the book led to contemporary rumours that he was a spy.  It was the early days of the cold war, and many believed that the man may have been a Russian spy en route to the Woomera US military base in central South Australia.   
A plaster cast was made of the man’s head and shoulders and he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Adelaide.  Years later flowers began appearing on his grave, although police were not able to establish who was leaving them.
After the death of the Jestyn, her daughter and daughter-in-law sold their story to the Australian edition of 60 minutes, claiming that Jestyn was a Russian spy and knew the identity of the dead man.  They claim she told them that the man was “known at a level above the Adelaide police”.  They stated that Jestyn was an admitted communist sympathiser who spoke fluent Russian.  The women even speculated that she may have borne him a child – their deceased brother and husband.  An investigator sought to have the body exhumed, but the Attorney General denied permission, citing a lack of public interest beyond curiosity.
The case is still listed as open in South Australia, but it is unlikely we will ever know the identity of the Somerton Beach man.

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