“But what poison?” The Mystery of the Somerton Man

 

 

One of the most enduring and intriguing mysteries in Australia, possibly even the world, is that of the Somerton Man.

Nearly seventy years after his death, there are still people investigating his identity and how he died – two facts that have so far remained elusive.

I won’t repeat much about the case itself, as it has been very well-documented elsewhere. This post is an overview of the records you can find about the case in State Records’ collection.

What records does State Records hold on the Somerton Man?

Under our transfer requirements and the State Records Act 1997, agencies may transfer their permanent records when they no longer require access to the record for current administrative purposes. The Somerton Man case is still an open case, despite its age, and therefore we do not have police files relating to the case in our custody.

We do however hold a detailed open access record regarding the case, the Coroner’s inquest file, 71/1949, in GRG1/27 (Inquest files – City Coroner and successors). Coroner’s inquest files are restricted for sixty years, under instruction from the Coroner’s Court, so this file is an open record because it is older than sixty years.

There was also a later inquest which is in State Records’ custody, however access to this file is restricted because it is less than sixty years old. Requests for access to this file should be directed to the Coroner’s Court.

What does the open Coroner’s inquest file reveal?

Inquest files are usually quite detailed and include information about the background of the case, as well as post mortem results and statements from witnesses and the police officers involved. The Somerton Man inquest file is no exception.

Most of the statements heard at the inquest were from medical professionals, police officers, and public transport employees. These reveal that on the day  before his body was found, 30 November 1948, the Somerton Man had bought a train ticket but not caught a train, bought a bus ticket and caught a bus from the Railway Station to the beach, his height, his shoe size, what he had eaten that day, and the clothing he owned. There were also a number of witness statements from people who had seen him on the beach on 30 November.

Before the inquest, photographs of the Somerton Man’s body were published in newspapers (these images are still publicly available) and, before the body was buried, a plaster cast was made of his head, neck and shoulders for reference.

The ticket clerk and bus conductor who issued the Somerton Man with his tickets didn’t remember him. Neither had any specific recollections from that day – bear in mind that it was an ordinary workday for them, and they weren’t questioned for some months following the Somerton Man’s death. They didn’t recall noticing the man whose pictures they’d seen in the newspaper or via the plaster cast bust.

The various doctors, scientists, pathologists and professors who gave evidence were unable to ascertain a cause of death, although they agreed it was probably a poison. Mr. R. J. Cowan, Deputy Government Analyst, tested the Somerton Man’s stomach and contents, liver, urine and blood for “common poisons” (Cowan mentioned cyanides, alkaloids, barbituates and carbolic acid during the inquest). No common poison was detectable. Cowan did not know “of poisons which can cause death but decompose in the body so that they are not discernible on analysis.” He stated: “I feel quite satisfied that if death were caused by any common poison, my examination would have revealed its nature. If he did die from poison, I think it would be a very rare poison.” By ‘rare’, he meant rarity in use as a poison, not rarity of existence – as was clarified at the inquest.

Taman Shud

A piece of paper marked ‘Taman Shud’ (or ‘Tamam Shud’, although ‘Taman’ is used in the inquest file) was found in a fob pocket in the Somerton Man’s trousers by Professor John Burton Cleland (not to be mistaken for Thomas Erskine Cleland, who was the Coroner – John and Thomas were distant cousins). It was reported to Detective Raymond Leane, who sent it to Detective Leonard Brown with instructions to make enquiries. Brown received information that ‘Taman Shud’ appeared at the end of the book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (although the inquest file does not say from whom he received this information) and he identified the edition from Beck’s Book Shop in Pulteney Street, Adelaide. He determined that the paper found on the Somerton Man had been ripped from a book, which was not found at the public library, lending library, circulating library or University library. With the assistance of Mr. Whiting at the public library, Mr Brown translated ‘Taman Shud’ with a Persian-English dictionary to mean ‘to end or to finish’.

Several people at the inquest had their own opinions about what ‘Taman Shud’ meant in relation to the case:

Professor Cleland:

‘I have considered the circumstances disclosed in the evidence, and I came to the opinion, taking all the circumstance[s] into account, that death was almost certainly not natural, and in all probability that some poison had been taken, with suicidal intent. I came to that conclusion before I found the piece of paper bearing the words “Taman shud”. Bearing in mind that those words mean something “the end” that supports my opinion considerably; I think the words were put there deliberately and indicated that intention that he was fed up with things’.

Detective Leane:

‘There is no fact that I know of which points towards suicide and abolishes the possibility of murder. I believe he died an unnatural death, but how I cannot say. A physical specimen as he would not just go to the beach and tie [sic – we think he meant ‘die’]. The words “Taman shud” mean the end, or the finish. That could have been placed in his pocket by the person who caused his death, so I cannot attach any special significance to that’.

Detective Brown:

‘[The Rubaiyat] means that we know what this world has in store for us, but we do not know what the other world has in store, and while we are on this earth we should enjoy life to the fullest, and when it is time for us to pass on, pass on without any regrets. It does not seem to have any bearing on the case, or any meaning as to the cause of his death. As far as this death is concerned, there is no context into which the words can fit’.

The inquest was adjourned sine die (‘without means’) because the evidence was too inconclusive to warrant a finding. At the inquest’s conclusion, nobody knew who the Somerton Man was or anything else about him.

What about the copy of The Rubaiyat? The code? The phone number? Jestyn?

Possibly one of the most fascinating aspects of this case is the secret code found inside the copy of The Rubaiyat from which the ‘Taman Shud’ paper had been torn.

The inquest opened on 17 June 1949 and was adjourned on 21 June 1949. The police didn’t receive the book until 22 July 1949, when a man handed it in to the police. He said he had found it in the back of his car on 30 November 1948.

The copy given to police contained a handwritten note believed to be a secret code and a telephone number, later traced to a woman nicknamed ‘Jestyn’. The police interviewed both the man and Jestyn, but they are not mentioned in the Coroner’s files relating to the case.

The Somerton Man case remains one of the State’s most intriguing mysteries, and has fascinated the public for many years. It remains to be seen, whether his true identity will ever be known.

About the Author:

Amy is an archivist in Collection Management Services. If she were to choose a favourite record type, it would be school admission registers, followed closely by Matron’s journals from gaols and prisons.

Add new comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Back to the top