Somerton Man to be exhumed
The identity of the “Somerton man” who died in Australia in 1948 and left behind a possibly coded text is a great mystery. Now there could be movement in the matter, because the body is to be exhumed and examined.
If you are interested in the topic of encryption and crime, you should already make a note of June 26, 2021. On that day I will give an online talk with the working title “Ciphers and Crime” together with Elonka Dunin. The organizer is the ICCH Forum. Participation is free, the dial-in link is available (as always) via the ICCH mailing list or upon request from me.
The Somerton Man
Yesterday I designed the (still preliminary) agenda slide for the planned talk (no, “Red Army Faction” is not a typo, you actually write this term without an “r” in English):
As you can see, the Somerton Man will also be a topic in this lecture. This is a still unidentified dead man who was found on the beach of Adelaide (Australia) in 1948. At the lecture in June I will show some Lego models of this case.
The Somerton man probably died of poisoning or allergic shock. Whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by natural causes could never be determined.
The Somerton man had apparently tried to conceal his identity. He carried no identification papers. The tags from his clothing had been removed. Only a few everyday objects were found in his suitcase, which hardly allowed any conclusions about his origin.
In the dead man’s suit, they came across a piece of paper with the inscription “Tamam Shud” torn out of the book “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” by Edward FitzGerald. The corresponding copy of the book was found nearby. The following letters were noted in it (Tamam Shud cryptogram):
The Tamam-Shud cryptogram probably consists of the first letters of English words. These could form a text (a poem?) or a list of terms. More is not known. The cryptogram is not to be the subject today.
A mystery, but not unique
I have blogged about the Somerton man on Cipherbrain many times. In Australia, this case is very well known. There is a book about it (“The Unknown Man” by Gary Feltus), on YouTube you can watch documentaries about it. In my book “Unbreakable” there is a whole chapter dedicated to this case. And, of course, countless theories have been published over the decades, but none of them could be proven.
The Briton Nick Pelling has already published over 150 articles on his Ciphermysteries blog in which the keyword “Somerton” appears. Among other things, Nick has followed numerous leads that could lead to the clarification of the identity of the dead man. However, he has not yet been able to present the solution to the mystery.
Last year, the Australian press reported on photorealistic images that purported to show what the Somerton Man looked like when he was alive. They were created by a Canadian specialist.
To me, the Somerton Man is an intriguing mystery. I don’t understand how a man, whose photo went through the media worldwide for decades, was not recognized by anyone. No matter who this person was or where he lived, someone would have noticed that he had disappeared and that he resembled the man in the photo.
A story with some parallels is that of the Isdal woman who was found dead in Norway in 1970. She, too, was never identified, and she, too, left incomprehensible notes, which, however, could be solved.
There was also a similar case in Ireland in 2009. There, too, the body of a man was found who, despite all efforts, could not be identified. He is called Peter Bergmann in the press (the real name is not known). However, there is no coded text involved here.
For years, there have been repeated calls for the Somerton man buried in Adelaide to be exhumed and for the remaining remains to be examined.
According to Australian press reports, the authorities there have now agreed to an exhumation. So there will be an investigation.
The Tamam-Shud cryptogram will certainly not be solved by the exhumation. As far as I understand it, it will also probably not be possible to clarify the cause of death today.
However, it may be possible to find relatives through the DNA of the deceased. It should also be possible to find out in which region of the world the Somerton man lived. That alone would be very helpful, because many of the theories about his origin could be corroborated or refuted with this information.
Where did the Somerton Man come from?
Let’s look at a few hypotheses about the origin of the mysterious dead man:
- Australia: That the dead man was Australian seems unlikely at first. After all, his photo had already appeared there umpteen times in pretty much every newspaper. It is hard to imagine that he remained unidentified. But who knows? One theory, brought to my attention by blog reader Wolfgang Wilhelm, is that the Somerton man normally lived as a woman, but at this moment was exceptionally traveling as a man.
- Central Europe: After World War II, many Nazi henchmen defected abroad (often via the so-called Rat Line). Perhaps the Somerton man was one of them. His disappearance in the turmoil of the postwar period would probably not have caused a great stir. The photo of the dead man was hardly known in Europe at the time, which perhaps meant that no one noticed that the missing man had reappeared on the other side of the world.
- Eastern Europe: Perhaps the Somerton man was a spy from the Eastern Bloc. This would explain why he was not officially missing anywhere. It would also be conceivable that the dead man was on the run from Stalin and his purges.
- North America: The dead man could also have been a spy from the USA (or Canada). However, I can’t really imagine that the relatives there (who probably didn’t know about the spy activity) never got to see the photo.
- Latin America: In Central and South America, too, there were undoubtedly people at that time who had a reason to flee to Australia and conceal their origins there.
Maybe we will know more in a few weeks. I am very curious to see what the exhumation and the subsequent examination will reveal.
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Further reading: How police tried to catch the BTK killer with a subliminal message