The Mysterious Death of the Somerton Man

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On Tuesday, November 30, 1948, John Lyons and his wife were walking along Somerton Beach in South Australia when they noticed a man, fully dressed in a suit, drunkenly (it seemed) attempting to smoke a cigarette. The next morning, Lyons went for a swim and saw the man was still there—but he wasn’t moving. Sometime in the night, the man had died. His half-smoked cigarette still lay on the collar of his shirt.

As disturbing as the situation was, it wasn't entirely outside the realm of normalcy—until the body was taken to a local hospital.

First of all, the man carried no means of identification. There was no wallet, no ID badge, no money. Even the labels had been cut from his clothing. His pockets contained a used bus ticket, an unused train ticket, Juicy Fruit gum, an Army Club cigarette packet containing Kensitas brand cigarettes, matches, and combs. When he was examined, a doctor determined that the man had died of heart failure sometime after 2 a.m., but did not believe the heart failure was due to natural causes. The mystery man, he concluded, had been poisoned, with a fast-acting and fast-disappearing toxin—a fact which rendered the substance untraceable. A professor later deduced that there were only two poisons in the world that met both of those descriptions.

For more than a month, police made no progress on identifying the man or his killer. Then, on January 12, detectives discovered the man’s suitcase in storage at the Adelaide train station. Its contents were just as mundane as the contents of the man’s pockets: A spool of orange thread that matched the stitching in his pocket, three pieces of clothing with name labels that said “Keane” or “Kean,” a table knife, and a stencil kit typically used to write on cargo containers. None of these clues yielded any breaks in the case, and “Keane” did not appear to be the man’s actual name—either the clothing was purchased second-hand or intentionally included a fake name.

In April 1949, a University of Adelaide professor was brought in to examine the body one more time. He found something that everyone else had managed to miss: A tiny pocket in the man’s pants that contained a strip of paper bearing the words “Tamám Shud.” The paper, it turned out, had been torn from a Persian book of poetry called the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The words “Tamám Shud” were written near the book’s conclusion; they meant “It is ended.” (It was once transcribed incorrectly as “Taman Shud,” which is how the case is often referred to now.)

After months of searching—with the help of citizens—police were able to find the copy of the book the phrase had been torn from and, thanks to a phone number scribbled on the back cover, quickly tracked down its owner. Nurse Jessica Thomson (who, for many years was referred to only as “Jestyn” for anonymity purposes), explained that she had given a copy of the book to a man she had known during the war—but the man she had gifted it to certainly wasn’t their dead man on the beach. Her guy, Alfred Boxall, was alive and well. Police verified this fact, and even found that Boxall still had the copy Thomson had given him. When Thomson was shown a cast of the dead man’s face, however, she seemed startled and nearly fainted—but maintained that she didn’t recognize him.

In addition to the phone number, the impressions of a scrambled series of letters were detected on the back cover of the book. Though it appears to be a cipher of some sort, it has never been solved—not even by military experts.

If Thomson had answers, she took them to the grave with her when she died in 2007. Thomson's daughter Kate says her mother once admitted that she knew exactly who the man was, but wasn't able to give away his identity, calling it a matter for powers much higher than local police. Of all of the theories floating around about Thomson, Kate subscribes to the one that says her mother may have been a Soviet spy. “She had a very strong dark side,” she told Australia’s 60 Minutes, and recalled a time that her mother mentioned knowing how to speak Russian. When pressed about how she learned the language, Thomson's answer was, essentially, "That's for me to know."

Thomson’s family suspects that their mother was having an affair with the Somerton Man—and that Robin Thomson, Jessica’s son, is possibly the result of that affair. Professor Derek Abbott from the University of Adelaide has been researching the case for years, and says that Robin, now deceased, shares a couple of genetic rarities with the Somerton Man, one dental and one regarding ear shape, that could indicate they’re related. Some Thomson family members, along with Professor Abbott, have applied to have the body exhumed to conduct DNA testing, but Attorney General John Rau has repeatedly denied the request, saying that there needs to be “public interest reasons that go well beyond public curiosity or broad scientific interest.”

Professor Abbott, for his part, believes that some of the more bizarre aspects of the case may not be as strange as they appear to be. For instance, he isn’t convinced that the Somerton Man was poisoned. “Pathologists of the time were trained in the Victorian era, and the tendency of the time was to suggest a poison if there was no apparent cause of death,” he said in a Reddit AMA. “Remember, no poison was detected. So we are on thin ground if we suggest it definitely was a poison.” He speculates that alternative causes of death could have been positional asphyxia or the result of an illness—during the autopsy, the doctor found that the man’s spleen was three times as large as it should have been, which could indicate cancer, and bacterial or viral infections, among other things.

Additionally, Abbott thinks the cipher may not really be a cipher, at least not one regarding espionage. “My guess is that the ‘code’ is just a memory aid for four lines that says something romantic,” he wrote in the AMA. “I may be wrong though! It could simply be a list of items, like places he had been to, horse names for betting, or whatever. However, it is odd that it is constructed as a four line verse rather like the Rubaiyat itself. So that's why I put my bet on it being a bad attempt at something poetic or romantic.”

Nor does Abbott believe Jessica Thomson was a Russian spy, despite her daughter’s revelations. “I asked a close friend of Jestyn’s about this, who said, ‘she simply did not have the discipline to learn a language like Russian,’” Abbott wrote. She may have known a few words or phrases, but was almost certainly not fluent.

Despite Abbott's expertise, he too has developed his theories based on the limited information available. Was the Somerton Man a spy? Was he having an affair with Jessica Thomson? Or both? New leads are running thin—but there’s still the possibility that DNA tests will eventually reveal something. Until then, the Somerton Man will remain as mysterious as he was when his body was discovered nearly 70 years ago.

All images in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

How Queen Victoria Almost Learned the Ending to Charles Dickens's Unfinished 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'

Rischgitz/Getty Images
Rischgitz/Getty Images

By 1870, Charles Dickens had reached the height of his fame. The British novelist had concluded his second reading tour of the U.S., where fans stood in line for hours just to be in the same room as the literary superstar. His last three major works—A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel; Great Expectations, a coming-of-age story; and Our Mutual Friend, a social satire—had all been critical and commercial successes. For his next project, he chose a darker genre to explore.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a whodunit set in Cloisterham, England (the fictionalized version of Dickens’s hometown of Rochester). In the tale, Edwin Drood is engaged to be married to Rosa Bud, but his fiancée has attracted romantic attention from two other men in town: his uncle John Jasper and the hot-tempered Neville Landless. Tensions boil over when the three men spend an evening together, and Landless nearly chucks a wine goblet at Drood. Days later, Drood disappears without warning, and though foul play is suspected, the culprit’s identity is unclear.

Before starting the book, Dickens wrote to his friend and biographer John Forster that he had “a very curious and new idea for my new story. Not a communicable idea (or the interest of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though difficult to work." The writer’s vision would never be fully realized, however; Dickens died of a stroke on June 9, 1870, at age 58 after publishing the sixth installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood—which was meant to be serialized in 12 parts.

The author took the ending of his final novel to the grave, and to this day, the full plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood remains mysterious. There was, however, one person he came close to sharing his secret with: Queen Victoria. To the people who knew Dickens, she seemed like the last person he would confide in.

An Unlikely Meeting

Queen Victoria was one of the few people who rivaled Dickens’s fame in mid-19th century Britain. She held the throne from 1837 to 1901, making her the longest-reigning monarch in British history at the time of her death. The queen devoured literature—she also published a book of her own, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, in 1868—and like many of her subjects, she enjoyed the works of Charles Dickens. She described Oliver Twist as “excessively interesting,” and tried many times during her reign to set up a meeting with the author. But for 22 years, Dickens declined.

Dickens wasn’t as enchanted with royalty as some of his peers. To him, Queen Victoria was "merely a provincial devotee,” and he didn’t feel compelled to meet this one fan out of many, even if declining a royal invitation was a great violation of social norms at the time. Despite the insults implied with each rejection, the queen persisted—and in March 1870, she finally succeeded in getting the most famous novelist in England into her palace.

The meeting was a little awkward—they both stood the entire time—but any frank opinions the author had about his host or royalty in general he kept to himself. When Queen Victoria presented him with a copy of Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, he accepted it politely, and did not mention the fact that he had once called it “preposterous” in a letter to a friend, and described those who gave it positive reviews as a “shameful lick-spittle chorus.”

Yet Dickens also didn’t exactly go out of his way to make Victoria happy. When the queen expressed regret over never making it to one of Dickens’s famous live readings, he told her didn’t do private shows (a statement that wasn’t entirely truthful). Dickens instead offered to share something with her on his terms: the ending of the novel he was currently writing, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

It's possible Queen Victoria didn't realize the full significance of this gesture; Dickens hadn’t shared the full ending of the book with anyone, and as far as historians know, he hadn’t written it down anywhere—an unusual move from the normally meticulous note-taker. Whatever her reasons, the queen said 'no thank you,' and the rest of their conversation consisted of much less historically important matters, such as rising food prices and how hard it was to find good servants in England.

Dickens died less than four months later. Following their meeting, Queen Victoria had described Dickens as "very agreeable, with a pleasant voice and manner." After his death, she wrote in her diary, "He is a very great loss."

The Unsolved Mystery of Edwin Drood

Charles Dickens was known for his cliffhangers, and dying halfway through writing his last novel produced the greatest cliffhanger of his career. Whatever ending he had planned for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it likely wouldn’t have matched the 150 years' worth of mystique that has developed around the story.

Some have claimed they were in on the secret. John Forster, a friend with whom Dickens often shared his work before publishing it, wrote in his biography of the author that Drood ends with the discovery of Edwin’s lime-resistant gold ring. This apparently confirms speculations that John Jasper murdered his nephew and dissolved his remains in lime.

Other scholars and writers have attempted to solve the mystery on their own over the years. In 1914, the Dickens Fellowship held a mock trial for Jasper, with G.K. Chesterton serving as the judge and George Bernard Shaw as the foreman of the jury. (The fictional character was found guilty of manslaughter.) In 2015, the University of Buckingham set up a website called Drood Inquiry, where the public could submit their theories on the book’s conclusion. The ending that pinned Jasper as the murderer was by far the most popular, but the project also attracted some more surprising ideas. According to one submission, Edwin Drood was killed by the sweet mother of the local reverend.

All of this speculation might have never have happened if Queen Victoria had agreed to hear the ending Dickens offered to share with her. Instead, she lived out the remainder of her life just as in the dark about what the writer intended as the rest of us—even if she was lucky enough to once share in his company.

Killing Fields: The Town That Got Away With Murder

iStock.com/river34
iStock.com/river34

The townspeople who had gathered near the D&G Tavern in the small farming community of Skidmore, Missouri, that July morning could feel the shift in the atmosphere. The fear that once hung over the town's 440 residents had been replaced by something else. Anger—a deep, long-simmering anger—was part of it, but so was a sense of obligation. Men stood near vehicles that held rifles and shotguns inside. Bank employees and grocery clerks watched from nearby windows. Dust hovering over the sparsely developed main road through town helped lend that moment in 1981 the tension of a Wild West showdown.

The tavern door opened, and out stepped Ken Rex McElroy, 47, a bulky man with a ragged pair of sideburns and a piercing stare. To someone passing through town, McElroy may have looked like a strong farmhand, a callused good old boy. But to locals, McElroy was a vengeful bully, a thief, and an attempted murderer who eluded any and all attempts to put him behind bars. He terrorized the rural town of Skidmore (which had no police force of its own), taking point-blank aim at those who crossed him, and was routinely charged with three to four crimes a year.

McElroy was not ignorant of the town's hostility. He simply didn't care. That morning, he was out on bond, once again free to walk Skidmore's streets. As he moved from the tavern and opened the driver's side door to his Chevy Silverado, he said nothing to the 30-odd residents who stood nearby or watched from a gas station just up the hill. His wife, Trena, climbed into the passenger’s seat.

Trena looked around, then behind them. She was the first to see the rifle as one of the gathered men hoisted it to shoulder-level. She heard the rear window of the Silverado shatter, and saw her husband slump over the steering wheel.

In seconds, Ken McElroy would be dead, and the people of Skidmore—who had seen everything—would claim to have seen nothing at all.

 

If anyone could drive a normally peaceful community to cover up a murder, it was Ken McElroy. As one of over a dozen children raised under modest financial means in and around Kansas and the Ozarks, McElroy appeared to consider a proper education frivolous at best. According to In Broad Daylight, a comprehensive account of the Skidmore saga by author Harry N. MacLean, McElroy dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Having never learned to read or write, he set about a life of labor, eventually winding up in Nodaway County, Missouri.

It became apparent to McElroy fairly early on that an honest living would fail to provide the material possessions and leisurely lifestyle he desired. So he began stealing. Mostly, it was the livestock in and around Skidmore, a small town roughly 90 minutes north of Kansas City. In the dead of night, he'd pull up next to farmers' hog pens and make off with animals he could sell at auction or to third parties who knew better than to ask too many questions. He also leased his own land and trafficked in hunting dogs, which he had a talent for training. Through means legitimate and illicit, he was usually flush with cash—money that would come in handy when he inevitably lost his temper.

A shotgun barrel is pictured
iStock.com/stsvirkun

McElroy was rarely without a firearm of some kind, either on his person or mounted in his vehicles. Possessing a weapon was not unusual in Missouri, but brandishing it was. McElroy had no reservations about stuffing a shotgun in someone's face or belly to make a point. When a farmer named Romaine Henry had an encounter with McElroy on Henry's land in July 1976, McElroy shot him in the stomach. Henry survived and expected some measure of justice. But in court, McElroy produced witnesses who swore he was home at the time the shooting took place. A jury subsequently found McElroy not guilty.

Sliding out of trouble was a McElroy specialty. In addition to allies—often his hunting-dog cohorts—who would guarantee he was some place other than the scene of a crime, he had the money to hire Richard McFadin, a skilled defense attorney, to represent him. McFadin would use every legal maneuver at his disposal to get hearings postponed or delayed on the premise that the longer it took to go to trial, the colder the case against McElroy would get. Suddenly, defendants who had been assaulted or witnesses who had seen McElroy's impropriety would spot a pick-up truck parked outside their house or hear a shotgun going off in the middle of the night. Sometimes McElroy would confront them face-to-face and explain in a measured tone that he'd kill anyone opposing him in court.

Perhaps they could have held out for a month or two. Faced with extended periods of McElroy's harassment, many of them recanted their statements. Time and again, McElroy would simply walk away from serious charges with nothing more than a dent in his wallet.

 

As McElroy aged, his behavior grew more audacious, and the town of Skidmore grew more apprehensive. After two marriages, he wed Trena McCloud, whom he had met when she was just 14 years old. She accused him of raping her but—like many of McElroy's victims—later withdrew her statement. When McElroy was all but confirmed to have burned her parents' house down in a fit of rage, Trena blamed it on "faulty wiring." She became his accomplice, accompanying McElroy on several of his nocturnal visits to people he had targeted for harassment. As McElroy ranted, she would stand nearby, a firearm in her hands.

In 1980, Trena entered a grocery store in Skidmore with one of Ken's daughters from a previous marriage, Tonia. Before long, an argument ensued between Trena and shopkeepers Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois, over whether Tonia had taken candy without intending to pay for it. For McElroy, the misunderstanding turned into an accusation that his daughter was a thief. He began to haunt the Bowenkamps at their store and at home, parking outside for hours at a time. Knowing McElroy's reputation, the couple feared it wouldn't be long before his harassment turned violent.

One evening in July 1980, McElroy approached Bo Bowenkamp near the loading area of the grocery store. After a brief verbal exchange, McElroy raised a shotgun and fired. Bowenkamp flinched as the buckshot tore through his neck. The 70-year-old was lucky to survive.

A cornfield is seen under a full moon
iStock.com/crisserbug

McElroy peeled off in his truck. A highway patrol corporal named Richard Stratton was alerted to the incident and gave chase. Having had run-ins with McElroy before, he knew the man would attempt to get out of the county via an alternative route going through neighboring Fillmore. He found and arrested McElroy, but not before considering he might just get shot. McElroy had previously threatened that he was capable of gunning down police, and at that point there was no reason to doubt him.

 

In what was becoming a routine occurrence, McElroy enlisted McFadin to represent him in the resulting criminal case. McFadin asked for and received a change of venue—this time to Harrison County—and prepared a defense that portrayed Bowenkamp as the aggressor. The store owner, McElroy claimed, had approached him menacingly with a knife. McElroy had no choice but to defend himself.

In the interim, McElroy stuck to his usual strategy of intimidating victims, driving by the Bowenkamp household and making harassing calls. This time, his words fell on deaf ears. The Bowenkamps never lost their nerve, and McElroy was convicted of second-degree assault. He received a two-year jail sentence.

Anyone in Skidmore rejoicing at the news McElroy had finally been cornered by the law found their relief short-lived. A judge allowed McElroy out on a $40,000 bond pending an appeal of the conviction.

McElroy remained a looming presence in town, and the sentence did nothing to curb his behavior. At the D&G Tavern, he brandished a rifle with a bayonet attached to it, vowing to finish the job on Bowenkamp. Such a display was a clear violation of his bond, and eyewitnesses found the courage to testify against him in the hopes he would finally be locked up. But a crafty McFadin got the hearing delayed again. On the morning of July 10, 1981, when McElroy should have been answering to charges of wielding a firearm, he was in the tavern.

To the people of Skidmore, McElroy's continued presence was inexplicable. Time and again, the law had failed to protect them from a violent, abusive man who had stolen from them, raped them, terrorized them in their homes, and fired guns in the hopes of killing them. There was no predicting what kind of pain he could inflict before he was sent to jail. And that assumed he'd wind up there at all.

A windshield with a bullet hole is pictured
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A town meeting was convened at the American Legion Hall up the road from the tavern. Many of the same people who once cowered from McElroy now discussed the best way to protect their town from another rampage. Someone voiced the idea of trailing McElroy in a pack to prevent him from acting out—a kind of roving neighborhood watch. Others simply couldn't believe McElroy had once again sidestepped punishment for his actions.

The meeting dispersed, and the residents walked toward the tavern. Many walked inside and surrounded McElroy, a silent statement that there was solidarity among the townspeople.

McElroy said nothing. He exited the building and climbed into his Silverado. His wife, Trena, would later tell investigators she saw a man behind them raise a rifle before the shooting began. A shot shattered the car window and ripped through McElroy, leaving glass everywhere. Then one of the men opened the passenger-side door and ushered Trena out of the line of fire.

She was led into the nearby bank. The shooting continued for 20 seconds or so and then stopped. The only remaining noise was the Silverado’s rumbling engine.

A few residents walked up to the truck to peer inside. But when the ambulance arrived, it was obvious no one had tried to help.

 

From the time she was brought in for questioning, Trena was unwavering in her assertion that she knew who the killer was. She identified a man People magazine later named as Del Clement as the one who had held up the rifle and shot McElroy. Clement had motive—he was part-owner of the tavern where McElroy idled, driving away customers, and was also victimized by his livestock heists—and was known to have a quick temper.

Trena told Nodaway County's prosecuting attorney, David Baird, that it was Clement. She told FBI investigators and three separate grand juries. But she was the only one talking. Local law enforcement and federal officials tried every approach possible to gather information from residents. They tried playing nice. Then they played a heavy hand, demanding to know what had happened. They insisted no one would be getting away with murder—certainly not in broad daylight and in front of dozens of witnesses. FBI vehicles crawled through town, stopping in front of houses. Agents sat in kitchens, hoping to pry even the tiniest bit of detail from locals.

A close-up of a man's eye is pictured
iStock.com/Yuji_Karaki

Nothing worked. Skidmore's population had little else to say other than that they heard shooting and hit the ground to avoid being struck by a bullet. They didn't see who started it, if there had been one shooter or several, or if anyone was fleeing the scene. One witness mentioned seeing Clement and a passenger speeding down a road after the shooting but later recanted.

None of it was enough for Baird to bring a case. Trena's testimony would wither without anyone to corroborate it. After a year, the FBI announced they would be closing their investigation.

The town was deluged by reporters intoxicated by the idea of frontier justice. They composed headlines like "Town Bully is Dead" and "Woman Says Husband Killed by Vigilante." They knocked on doors and sat down in the tavern. But they couldn't loosen the tongues of the locals.

Highway patrolman Stratton, who knew of McElroy's sinister reputation first-hand—McElroy once terrorized his wife outside of their home with a shotgun—seemed resigned to the town's silence. "They did what they did because we didn't do our job," he said in 2010. "Then they went home and kept their mouths shut and kept them closed all these years. There wasn't much David Baird could do about that."

No one was ever charged with the murder of Ken McElroy. Clement, the man Trena named as the shooter, died in 2009. Baird moved to private practice. Trena managed to get a $17,000 settlement in a wrongful-death civil suit against the county sheriff, Skidmore's mayor, and Clement, and nothing more.

Skidmore's population continues to dwindle. And as its residents age, it grows even less likely that anyone will come forward with information that could solve the case.

McFadin summarized his feelings in a 2010 New York Times interview. "The town," he said, "got away with murder."

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