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.

Campsite Killer: The Unsolved Mystery of the Lake Bodom Murders

Brett Taylor/iStock via Getty Images
Brett Taylor/iStock via Getty Images

The worst night of Nils Wilhelm Gustafsson’s life is one he doesn’t even remember. On June 4, 1960, Gustafsson, then 18, headed for a campground in Espoo, Finland, to spend time with his friends. The group included Seppo Antero Boisman; Boisman’s girlfriend, Anja Tuulikki Maki; and Gustafsson’s girlfriend, Maila Irmeli Bjorklund. The teenagers pitched a single tent on the shore of Lake Bodom and commenced a night of socializing and drinking. At some point in the evening, they retired to the tent.

The next morning, two boys hiking through the campgrounds on a bird-watching expedition noticed the tent from a distance. They weren’t close enough to see many details, but it was clear the tent had been torn and slashed. Nearby, a man with blond hair appeared to be walking away from the campsite.

The boys continued on, apparently thinking little of it. Later that morning, a local passed by the tent and was close enough to observe a shocking sight. Outside the tent lay Gustafsson and Bjorklund, bloodied and battered (by some accounts, Bjorklund was partly hidden inside the tent's fabric). Authorities found Boisman and Maki inside, their bodies displaying knife gashes and injuries consistent with being bludgeoned. Bjorklund, Boisman, and Maki were dead. Only Gustafsson had survived whatever assault had taken place. When police asked him what had happened, he could say only that a shadowy figure dressed in black with bright red eyes appeared and viciously attacked the group.

Months and years would pass, with police unable to garner any additional detail from the lone survivor of the horrific event. It was a case so sensational it became common knowledge among residents of Finland. Everyone knew of the Lake Bodom killings and how authorities were unable to locate the perpetrator. Children were cautioned not to be out after dark in case the killer was still lurking.

That all changed in March 2004. After nearly a half-century, DNA evidence prompted prosecuting attorneys to haul in a suspect they claimed had motive to commit the murders. The case had the backing of forensic science unavailable to investigators in 1960.

Their suspect was Nils Gustafsson.

 

Investigators hadn't suspected Gustafsson at the time of the murders. When Finnish police arrived at the crime scene, he was in bad shape, with a broken jaw, bruises, and a concussion. He couldn't remember anything other than his account of a supernatural figure, which seemed borne out of a state of shock.

Police tried to piece together what had transpired based on physical evidence. On June 4, the group had arrived at the campsite near Lake Bodom, a popular spot for camping and fishing located about 14 miles from Helsinki, on motorcycles. The bikes were still there when the authorities arrived, but the keys were missing. Gustafsson’s shoes were also thought to be lost, until investigators turned them up roughly a half-mile from the campsite. No murder weapon was found on the scene.

The most curious observation was how the killer had launched the assault. The teens had seemingly been knifed and clubbed while they were still inside the tent, with the killer slashing through the shelter in order to stab them. Gustafsson had been found on top of the tent. According to some version of events, so had Bjorklund, meaning she either crawled out of the tent or her body must have been moved between the time of the attack and when police arrived.

Finnish investigators examine the Lake Bodom crime scene in Espoo, Finland in June 1960
Finnish investigators examine the Lake Bodom crime scene in Espoo, Finland in June 1960.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The scene would have been mystifying under most circumstances. But investigators made their own jobs harder by failing to secure the area completely, and inviting search parties to look for clues. Their assistance meant the crime scene was disturbed, making evaluations for footprints or other evidence difficult.

With a paucity of physical evidence, the likelihood of finding a resolution did not seem promising. No arrests were made, and only a handful of suspects emerged in the years that followed. One person of interest was Karl Valdemar Gyllström, who ran a kiosk business on the campgrounds and was reputed to be an extremely irate man who often took issue with campers, presumably due to noise issues. Gyllström was said to have cut tent stakes out of spite and even threw rocks at visitors if he was in an especially foul mood. In the campfire lore that surrounded the crime, some believed Gyllström had simply snapped and brutally assaulted the Gustafsson party.

The surface of a lake is pictured
mukk/iStock via Getty Images

The theory gained momentum when Gyllström died by suicide in 1969. Supposedly, before dying he drunkenly confessed to the murders. As damning as that seemed, police declared Gyllström could not have committed the crime. According to his wife, he'd been in bed with her on the night of the attack (though some argue that it was a coerced alibi). The confession was purportedly false, though it’s not clear what may have prompted Gyllström to take responsibility for the killings.

Police had other leads, too. There was Pauli Luoma, who was said to be in the vicinity of the campsite, but his alibi for that night—being in another town—was confirmed. Pentti Soinenen was a crook who confessed to the murders while being held in jail on other charges. Little else linked him to the crime, however, and police considered it nothing more than jailhouse bragging.

Another suspect, the unfortunately named Hans Assmann, had more of a reason to seem suspicious. A physician named Jorma Palo insisted that at some point after the murders, Assmann had come into Helsinki Surgical Hospital with dirt under his fingernails and blood on his clothes. English-language accounts of the crime don’t specify why he was seeking treatment. But when police looked into it, they found Assmann had a credible alibi.

No one, it seemed, could be placed at the scene. No one other than the man who had managed to come out alive.

 

For decades, the Lake Bodom mystery sat unsolved. Meanwhile, DNA testing was growing into a viable way to re-examine both current and cold cases, first being used in the 1980s. But Finland, with just a single forensics lab serving the entire country, had little bandwidth to turn its attention to old investigations. The Lake Bodom murders weren't revisited until 2004, when a fresh look at Gustafsson's shoes became the focal point of a new round of accusations.

Themis, goddess of justice, against a background of red law books
djedzura/iStock via Getty Images

Forensic scientists at the country's National Bureau of Investigation crime lab tested the shoes and found blood from the victims. Remarkably, the shoes were missing any blood from Gustafsson himself. How he could have been attacked along with the others, yet only have their DNA on his shoes, was puzzling. The explanation, authorities believed, was that he had committed the attacks himself, then discarded his shoes before somehow assaulting himself to make it look like he had been maimed by a third party.

Investigators theorized that Gustafsson could have been compelled to murder the three because of some jealousy. Indeed, someone who was staying at a nearby campsite the evening of the murders testified in court that she saw Gustafsson and Boisman in a heated argument, with Gustafsson appearing to be heavily inebriated. Perhaps, investigators thought, Bjorklund had rejected his advances. Or maybe Gustafsson believed Boisman was making a pass at her. That would explain why Bjorklund had seemingly been stabbed and hit with more frequency than the others. The police hypothesized Gustafsson had been exiled from the tent, possibly after a fistfight with Boisman left him with a fractured jaw. He then returned in a rage, the theory went, swinging a knife through the tent until his friends were dead.

The district prosecutor in Espoo had enough faith in the story to bring charges against Gustafsson, with the potential for life in prison if he was convicted. In protesting his innocence, his lawyer, Riitta Leppiniemi, argued that Gustafsson’s blood had been inside the tent and that being pummeled at the hands of Boisman to the point of a broken jaw would have left him in no condition to violently murder three people. Leppiniemi also criticized the eyewitness testimony of the camper, who had stayed silent about the fight she had purportedly witnessed for 45 years for no discernible reason, and couldn’t remember certain key details.

During the 2005 trial, a police officer named Markku Tuominen claimed Gustafsson was candid after his arrest, and said, “What’s done is done,” predicting he’d get 15 years for the crime. But Gustafsson rejected that and stuck largely to the same story he’d been telling for decades. He couldn’t remember anything other than going fishing with Boisman and that there was no argument.

Lake Bodom in the winter is pictured
Felipe Tofani, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The court ultimately found that there was insufficient evidence to convict Gustafsson, citing that too much time had passed to compile an accurate picture of the event. Gustafsson was freed.

With nearly 60 years having passed since the events of June 1960, no answers appear to be forthcoming. The crime is still part of Finnish folklore. It inspired one heavy metal band to dub themselves Children of Bodom; the band even released a beer made of water from the lake. Some in Finland have tried to turn Gustafsson’s claim that he didn’t remember anything into an inadvertent confession. If he couldn’t remember what happened, how did he know he didn’t do it? But such logic is not for the purview of courtrooms.

Another question is why Gustafsson's shoes were left so far from the campsite. If he took them off to sleep, why not place them near the tent? And who was the blond man the boys saw walking away from what they later learned was the scene of the crime? (Assmann was blond; it's not entirely clear what hair color Gustafsson had at the time of the attacks.) And if Gustafsson had somehow worked up the nerve to stab himself in a staged attack, why wasn’t there a blood trail leading to wherever the knife was deposited or hidden?

The only clarity around the murders is that someone was successful in killing three people at the shore of Lake Bodom. Whether it was a man, woman, group, or something with glowing red eyes, they appear to have gotten away with it.

The Reason Why Objects in a Car’s Side-View Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

aydinozcanbaz/iStock via Getty Images
aydinozcanbaz/iStock via Getty Images

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” It's a warning you see in basically every car, but why can't passenger-side mirrors display objects accurately? Well, it's actually a careful design choice made with safety in mind.

The way we see things is dependent on how light reflects off objects around us. An object's color, texture, shape, and other characteristics influence the direction and intensity of light that bounces off them. If the objects are reflected off an intermediate object, like a mirror, our perception of the original object may be distorted.

The shape of the mirror also makes a difference in our perception. In the U.S., passenger-side mirrors are convex (curved slightly outward), whereas driver-side mirrors are flat. A convex mirror placed on the passenger side reduces the driver's blind spots on that side of the vehicle by presenting a wider field of view, but it also makes other cars appear farther away due to a slight distortion caused by the shape. The flatter mirror on the driver’s side produces a more accurate depiction of what’s behind the car with a more narrow field of view, since light bounces off in the same direction that it hits the mirror and doesn't distort the reflection of the object.

When the two mirrors' reflections are combined in the driver's point of view, drivers have the ability to both see wider areas on the passenger side while keeping their eyes (mainly) on the road. The flat-convex combo has been the U.S. standard for years, though the U.S. Department of Transportation is looking into the safety benefits of two convex mirrors, which European cars usually sport.

For now, always remember to check your mirrors frequently, and look over your shoulder before you change lanes. (Don't forget your turn signal!)

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