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.

The Enduring Mystery of Pennsylvania's Twin Tunnels and the 'Suitcase Jane Doe'

iStock
iStock

On a warm July day in 1995, a fisherman cast his line into the waters of Brandywine Creek, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, and settled in for what he probably hoped would be a relaxing few hours. But it wasn't long before he realized something was off—a foul stench was saturating the air. The fisherman traced the odor to a green garbage bag half-submerged in a muddy area near the creek. When he cut it open, he made the worst possible kind of discovery.

Inside the bag was a maroon suitcase, and inside the suitcase was the top half of a dead woman. The body was naked except for a bloodstained bra, and bruised near the right eye and on the back. Packed around the lifeless corpse were the remnants of the life the dead woman might once have lived: a denim blouse, a headband, a quilt, and bloody sheets.

The fisherman quickly summoned the police, who soon began delving into what has become one of Pennsylvania's most frustrating cold cases.

THE TWIN TUNNELS

It was not lost on anyone—not the police officers who soon arrived, nor the fisherman who found the body—that the creek was in the shadow of the Twin Tunnels. Just the mention of these tunnels can make the blood of Chester County locals run cold. Built to accommodate the railroad tracks running above, they're in a lonely but picturesque area just a few miles east of central Downingtown, in a spot frequented by drunk teenagers and urban explorers looking for a good scare. Two of the graffitied, gray-brick tunnels have been abandoned for decades, while one carries minimal traffic. Part of the reason the abandoned tunnels are so eerie is that they bend, so that when you enter at one end the exit isn't visible; it's all just claustrophobic darkness.

The other reason the tunnels have such a dark reputation are the legends. For years, stories about the Twin Tunnels have circulated among locals. One says that a distraught young woman hanged herself in one of the tunnels while holding her baby—she died when the rope snapped her neck, and her infant plummeted to its death on the hard surface below. Some claim to have seen the mother's body swinging in the darkness, or heard her child's cries echoing throughout the underpass. Another piece of local folklore insists that a man shrouded in darkness roams the tunnels aimlessly. The phantom is said to be related either to a father who beat his son to death and hid his battered body in the tunnels, or an Irish railroad worker who died in an accident when the tunnels were under construction.

The discovery of the murdered woman in the suitcase seemed to throw the mythology of the tunnels into stark relief, especially because she seemed to be such a mystery. A forensic investigation established the basics: She had been dead for between three and seven days, was between 17 and 40 years old, white or Hispanic, about 5 feet 3 inches tall, and roughly 130 pounds. There was no sign of sexual assault. Her legs appeared to have been severed after she was killed, and her death seemed to have taken place in a different location from the creek. But she had no tattoos or visible scars, and there was no identification (such as a driver’s license) with the body. Her fingerprints did not match any found in databases around the country. The summer heat and water of the creek had accelerated her decomposition, making her features difficult to identify. There were no leads to go on.

Seven months after the fisherman's disturbing discovery, another piece of the puzzle emerged. In January 1996, a jogger stumbled upon the victim’s severed legs nearly 50 miles away from Brandywine Creek. Like the head and torso, they had been wrapped in garbage bags, and there was also another trash bag nearby containing women’s and girls' clothing. Medical examiners weren’t able to match the legs and torso with DNA evidence due to the decomposition, but the severed right leg bone fit perfectly into the hip of the torso. Investigators were convinced the legs belonged to the woman the press would begin calling Suitcase Jane Doe.

AN ENDLESS JOURNEY

Law enforcement professionals who have worked on the case say it's among the most frustrating of their careers. "These are cases that bother us because we can't even begin to investigate why they're dead until we figure out who they are," police corporal Patrick Quigley, one of the original investigators, told the Daily Local News of Chester County in 2011. Part of the problem, Quigley said, is that "Adults have a right to disappear ... people walk away all of the time without it being suspicious."

And in some cases, people may not have close family or friends who would report them missing. America’s Most Wanted producer David Braxton told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “[Jane Doe cases] slip through the cracks because you don't have that advocate, that family member to keep the case alive ... and it is hard from a storytelling and crime-solving standpoint because you have few clues."

That doesn't mean the police haven't tried. In 1997, they commissioned Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor from Philadelphia, to create a clay reconstruction of the murdered woman's face. Bender had been sculpting busts of criminals and victims since 1976; his most famous creation is a sculpture of John List, who murdered his family in 1971 and was captured in 1989 after his story—and Bender’s likeness of him—aired on America’s Most Wanted. By commissioning an image of Suitcase Jane Doe, police hoped to spark the public’s interest yet again.

While the police received calls from all over the world after a photograph of Bender’s Suitcase Jane Doe bust ran in several publications, none of the information led anywhere promising.

Over the past 23 years, police have appealed to the public repeatedly for information. The case was even featured twice on America’s Most Wanted. Investigators say that all tips have been followed up on, but they haven’t produced any solid leads. Around 2000, there was a glimmer of hope when the victim's dental records seemed to be a possible match for a missing woman from Virginia, but the physical descriptions of the two women didn't add up.

REASON TO BELIEVE

As disheartening as the case has been, for the authorities working on it, there will always be a reason to hope for a resolution. Cold cases are sometimes solved decades later: In September 2018, a Jane Doe found in Tennessee in 1985 was identified as Tina Marie McKenney Farmer, a woman who had been missing from Indiana since 1984. The break in the case happened after investigators stumbled across a blog post about Farmer, contacted her family, and ran DNA and fingerprint tests. (While her identity was established, the question of who killed Farmer and why remains a mystery.)

There's also always the possibility that forensic genealogy—which has solved crimes thanks to DNA entered into genealogical databases, as happened with the Golden State Killer—may one day provide a break in the case. (In April 2018, the body of a young woman found in an Ohio ditch in 1981, known as "Buckskin Girl" for her distinctive fringed jacket, was identified in four hours thanks to genetic testing.) It all depends on whether the right kind of sleuth decides to tackle the mystery.

For now, the murdered woman's fingerprints, DNA, and dental records have been added to national and international databases, and there's always a chance investigators will get a hit matching another crime scene or criminal.

In the meantime, a lot of questions remain unanswered in Chester County. Who was the woman who was dismembered and discarded along a lonely creek bed? Why did her killer, or killers, dump her body near the Twin Tunnels? Were they taking advantage of the disturbing reputation of the place, thinking no one would investigate a half-submerged suitcase?

Regardless of the intentions, the crime's many mysteries have only added to the area's chilling associations—a legacy that will likely linger even if Suitcase Jane Doe can one day be identified.

Revisiting the Mystery of the Great New England Sea Serpent of 1817

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Sailing into Massachusetts’s Gloucester Harbor in August 1817, the skipper of a coasting vessel looked across choppy seas and saw something mind-boggling bobbing in the water.

It was approximately 60 feet long with a body composed of humps, each the size of a keg. It was black, shiny, and leathery. It wiggled like a caterpillar. It had a giant head—a serpent's head—with a pair of dark eyes “as large as pewter plates."

The ship's captain couldn't believe his eyes. When he got into town, he spoke with the utmost seriousness as he told other sailors about what he had seen. The news was met with derision and laughter ... until others started seeing the same thing.

"His head appeared to be about the size of a crown of a hat," claimed James Mansfield, one of the men who witnessed the beast. "The shape of his head I cannot describe, and I saw no ears, horns, or other appendages."

"I should judge him between 80 and 90 feet in length," Solomon Allen III, another witness, claimed. “His head formed something like the head of a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the head of a horse."

Sewall Toppan, a schooner master, summarized the growing mood in Gloucester: "I have been to sea many years, and never saw any fish that had the least resemblance to this animal."

That’s what made the case so unusual, writer Ben Shattuck argued in Salon. “What made these sightings different from the long history of sea monster sightings was that they came from Gloucester fishermen—those who had inherited the oldest fishing port in America, those who knew mostly every fish species off Cape Ann and when each migrated through. More, this ‘serpent’ was in their harbor, right under their noses—something equivalent to a Sasquatch walking across the parking lot of a hunting expo."

As Shattuck explained, local newspapers gobbled up the gossip coming out of Gloucester Harbor. The Boston Weekly Messenger trumpeted the creature’s arrival with the headline “Monstrous Serpent.” The harbor's ferries soon overflowed with tourists, many of whom claimed to see the creature. David Humphreys, a former aide-de-camp for George Washington, said the serpent “was seen by 200, at one time, sporting the whole afternoon, under Wind Mill Point.” According to American Heritage, the creature was seen as far away as Long Island Sound off the coast of Connecticut.

Soon, a large cash reward was offered to anybody who could capture the animal. Fishermen and whalers across New England flocked to Gloucester Harbor to catch it, setting out nets and baiting shark hooks. Locals busily searched the Massachusetts seashore for giant serpent eggs. In Boston, a large shed was presumptively constructed to house the creature's carcass. The serpent, however, proved to be invincible. According to the Essex Register: "Two muskets were fired at it, and appeared to hit it on the head, but without effect. It immediately disappeared, and in a short time was seen a little below, but in the dark we lost sight of him."

The New England Linnaean Society of Boston impatiently waited for a specimen to arrive. In the meantime, they collected first-hand accounts and published a long-winded paper detailing the sightings called Report of a Committee of the Linnaean Society of New England Relative to a Large Marine Animal Supposed to be a Serpent, Seen near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in August 1817.

Finally, one day, a pitchfork-wielding farmer in Cape Ann stabbed a 4-foot long snake he saw swimming near the shore and brought it to the Linnaean Society. The distinguished group dissected the specimen and decreed that it was the monster’s offspring. They introduced an entirely new genus, Scoliophis (meaning "humped snake" in Latin), and gave the creature a scientific name: Scoliophis atlanticus.

For biologists, it was a short-lived victory. Not long after, a French naturalist showed that the junior specimen was nothing more than a diseased black snake that was common to area. (Overall, European scientists were amused by the news coming out of America, calling the creature—with a wink and a nod—the "Great American Sea Serpent.")

That, of course, still failed to explain the sightings of a much larger creature roving Gloucester’s waters. Certainly, there was something out there—and it returned in 1818 and 1819. But, eventually, Boston's newspapers tired of writing about the strange seaside visitor. According to American Heritage, one exhausted editor told readers, “The existence of this fabulous animal is now proven beyond all chance of doubt.”

With that the story was put to bed, and the creature's identity has remained a mystery ever since.

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