It is one of the most mysterious open files in criminal history.
It has everything; a murder, a romance, a secret code and a mysterious link to the Cold War world of espionage.
What it doesn’t have is a final chapter.
Just before seven o’clock on 1st December, 1948, an early morning swimmer found a body on Somerton Park beach, just south of Adelaide in South Australia.
When police arrived, they found the dead man propped against the sea wall with a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth. There was nothing to identify him; police concluded it was a suicide.
The dead man was about 50, and in top physical condition. The pathologist at the post-mortem noted that he had pronounced calf muscles, and his big and little toes met in a wedge shape, like those of a ballet dancer.
The man had been wearing heavy and expensive American-style clothes. A bus ticket showed he had taken a tram to the beach the morning he had died. What had he been doing all afternoon dressed for winter on a hot summer’s day?
And why had every identifying label been removed?
He had died from ingesting poison, but tests failed to reveal any foreign substance in the body.
So, was it a suicide – or was it murder?
There was one other clue from the autopsy that intrigued the police. Folded into his watch pocket was the last page of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It bore the words “Tamam Shud”, which means in Persian: “It is finished”.
Two weeks later staff at the Adelaide Railway station discovered a brown suitcase which had been checked into the cloakroom the night before the man died. Police believed it belonged to the dead man.
Inside was some bright coloured pyjamas and red felt slippers, outrageous nightwear for the period. There was also some equipment that identified the man as a cargo master on a freighter. A ballet dancer working on a freighter wearing expensive tailored clothes?
Who was he?
Police looked in public libraries hoping to find the actual book from which the page stub. “Tamam Shud”, had been torn. Astonishingly, eight months later, a certain “Mr Ronald Francis”, took the very book to the police, saying he had discovered it lying in the back of his unlocked car at Glenelg beach the night before the body was found.
“Ronald Francis”, of course, wasn’t his real name. Police never revealed his true identity.
The torn-out page was matched to the book. It was an 1859 first edition. Even more curiously, the book contained a code, five lines of text, in capital letters. The second line has been struck out, perhaps an error in encryption.
The code seemed to follow the quatrain format of the Rubaiyat, which cryptographers believed was a one-time pad encryption algorithm.
Here it is:
The book also contained a telephone number, written in pencil. It led police to 28-year-old Jessica Thomson, who lived just four hundred yards from where the body was discovered. But when interviewed, she said she had no idea who the dead man was or why he would have her phone number.
Yet when they showed her a plaster cast of the Somerton Man’s body the accompanying detective thought she was going to faint.
All she admitted was that she had once owned a copy of the Rubaiyat while working at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney four years before. She had given it to a man called Alfred Boxall.
Ah, at last. So, the dead man was Alf Boxall.
No, it wasn’t. It transpired that Alf was alive and well, still living in Sydney. (Interestingly, he had worked in an intelligence unit during the war.) Alf produced the copy of The Rubaiyat that Jessica had given to him, a 1924 Sydney edition.
Police had reached a dead end.
In the intervening years there has been persistent speculation that the dead man was a spy. Adelaide is a remote city – it is sometimes said its nearest neighbour is the 19th century.
But not far away are the Radium Hill uranium mine and the Woomera Test Range, an Anglo-Australian military research facility. During the Cold War both these sites would have interested the Soviets.
We have learned little else. In 1994, John Harber Phillips, Chairman of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, reviewed the case and concluded that there was little doubt that the poison used was digitalis.
The numerous attempts to crack the code, including efforts by military and naval intelligence, have been fruitless.
But there’s this: in 1945, a 34-year-old Singaporean named George Marshall was found dead in Mosman, Sydney, with an open copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on his chest. His death was believed to be a suicide by poisoning. One of the witnesses who testified at his inquest was found dead 13 days later face down, naked, in a bath with her wrists slit.
Jessica Thompson never spoke about the incident again in her lifetime and took her secret to the grave.
But just last year Kate Thomson, her daughter, gave an interview to the Australian 60 Minutes program. She said her mother had told her that she did know the dead man and that his identity was also “known to a level higher than the police force”.
She also said that her mother could speak fluent Russian although she would not tell her where she had learned it, or why.
It seemed that Thompson left Sydney North Shore Hospital in 1947 because she pregnant. Photographs of her son Robin show that he had hypodontia – he lacked both lateral incisors.
So did the man on the beach. The chance of this being a co-incidence is 20 million to one.
When he was a boy Jessica took young Robin to dance classes. He eventually became … a professional ballet dancer.
Imagine this: a man dies alone, on a beach, just a short walk from his infant son and the mother of his child, miles from home. Was he a spy? Or did he kill himself because of a broken heart?
Unless you or someone else can break the code, we may never know.
Whatever happened – it is finished now. Tamam Shud.
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Love spy stories?
When war comes to England in 1939, Nick Davis is far away in the Balkans, posted to the British Embassy. But Nick Davis is not a diplomat; he is a spy. Far away from the bombs, he is soon at the very heart of the battle for Europe.
Turkey stays out of the war and Istanbul becomes a deadly city of spies.
When he recruits the mistress of a German Abwehr colonel, he doesn’t foresee falling in love with her.
But who is Daniela Simonici? And who is she really spying for?
But it is only when Germany is in full retreat that the real game gets underway – and the stakes for Europe, for the world, could not be higher.
‘My Beautiful Spy’ is a searing story of byzantine intrigue, where two lovers play out the final moves in a deadly game, masterminded in Berlin, Moscow and London.
“This book held my interest from page one until the end. I love the way Colin Falconer can bring the 40s to life. You forget that the people you are so worried about are characters in a book. They become real, and you care what happens to them. This is the magic of Colin Falconer. Don’t miss out on any of his books.” *****