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

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, and combs. And strangely, he wore dress shoes, but no socks. 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.

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Essential Science
What Is Death?
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The only thing you can be certain about in life is death. Or is it? Merriam-Webster defines death as "a permanent cessation of all vital functions." The Oxford English dictionary refines that to "the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue." But determining when someone is dead is surprisingly complicated—the medical definition has changed over the centuries and, in many ways, is still evolving.

DEATH, DEFINED

For most of human history, doctors relied on basic observations to determine whether or not a person had died. (This may be why so many feared being buried alive and went to great lengths to ensure they wouldn't be.) According to Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, "If a person wasn't visibly breathing, if they were cold and bluish in color, for example, they would be considered dead."

As time went on, the markers for death changed. Before the mid-1700s, for example, people were declared dead when their hearts stopped beating—a conclusion drawn from watching traumatic deaths such as decapitations, where the heart seemed to be the last organ to give up. But as our understanding of the human body grew, other organs, like the lungs and brain, were considered metrics of life—or death.

Today, that remains true to some degree; you can still be declared dead when your heart and lungs cease activity. And yet you can also be declared dead if both organs are still working, but your brain is not.

In most countries, being brain dead—meaning the whole brain has stopped working and cannot return to functionality—is the standard for calling death, says neuroscientist James Bernat, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "A doctor has to show that the loss of brain function is irreversible," he tells Mental Floss. In some cases, a person can appear to be brain dead if they have overdosed on certain drugs or have suffered from hypothermia, for example, but the lack of activity is only temporary—these people aren't truly brain dead.

In the U.S., all states follow some form of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which in 1981 defined a dead person as "an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem."

But that's not the end of the story. In two states, New York and New Jersey, families can reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs. This makes it possible for someone to be considered alive in some states and dead in others.

A BLURRED LINE

In the past, if one of a person's three vital systems—circulation, respiration, and brain function—failed, the rest would usually stop within minutes of each other, and there was no coming back from that. But today, thanks to technological advances and medical breakthroughs, that's no longer necessarily the case. CPR can be performed to restart a heartbeat; a person who has suffered cardiac arrest can often be resuscitated within a 20- to 30-minute window (in rare cases, people have been revived after several hours). And since the 1950s, machines have been used to take on the role of many of the body's vital functions. People who stop breathing naturally can be hooked up to ventilators to move air in and out of their lungs, for example.

While remarkable, this life-extending technology has blurred the line between life and death. "A person can now have certain characteristics of being alive and others of being dead," Bernat says.

People with severe, irreversible brain damage fall into this mixed category. Many lie in intensive care units where ventilators breathe for them, but because they have minimal reflexes or movements, they're considered alive, especially by their families. Medical professionals, however, may disagree, leading to painful and complex debates about whether someone is alive.

Take the case of Jahi McMath, whose tonsil surgery in 2013, at age 13, went terribly wrong, leaving her brain dead—or so doctors thought. Her family refused to believe she was dead and moved her from Oakland, California, to New Jersey, where she was provided with feeding tubes in addition to her ventilator. After several months, her mother began recording videos that she said were proof that Jahi could move different parts of her body when asked to. Additional brain scans revealed that although some parts of her brain, like her brain stem, were largely destroyed, the structure of large parts of her cerebrum, which is responsible for consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, was intact. Her heart rate also changed when her mother spoke, leading a neurologist to declare last year, after viewing many of her mother's videos, that she is technically alive—nearly four years after she was pronounced brain dead. By her mother's reckoning, Jahi turned 17 on October 24, 2017.

Organ donation adds another layer of complications. Since an organ needs to be transplanted as quickly as possible to avoid damage, doctors want to declare death as soon as they can after a person has been disconnected from a machine. The protocol is usually to wait for five minutes after a donor's heart and breathing have stopped. However, some believe that's not long enough, since the person could still be resuscitated at that point.

Bernat—whose research interests include brain death and the definition of death, consciousness disorders including coma and vegetative states, and ethical and philosophical issues in neurology—disagrees. "I would argue that breathing and circulation has permanently ceased even if it hasn't irreversibly ceased," he says. "It won't restart by itself."

THE FUTURE OF BRINGING PEOPLE BACK TO LIFE

As resuscitation technology improves, scientists may find new ways to reverse death. One promising approach is therapeutic hypothermia. Sometimes used on heart attack patients who have been revived, the therapy uses cooling devices to lower body temperature, usually for about 24 hours. "It improves a patient's chance of recovering from cardiac arrest and the brain injury [from a lack of oxygen] that can result from it," says Leary, who specializes in research and education relating to cardiac arrest, CPR quality, and therapeutic hypothermia.

One more out-there possibility—which had its heyday in the early 2000s but still has its proponents today—is cryonic freezing, in which dead bodies (and in some cases, just people's heads) are preserved in the hope that they can be brought back once technology advances. Just minutes after death, a cryonaut's body is chilled; a chest compression device called a thumper keeps blood flowing through the body, which is then shot up with anticoagulants to prevent blood clots from forming; and finally, the blood is flushed out and replaced with a kind of antifreeze to halt the cell damage that usually occurs from freezing.

The idea is highly controversial. "It makes a good story for a movie, but it seems crazy to me," Bernat says. "I don't think it's the answer." But even if cryogenics is out, Bernat does believe that certain types of brain damage now thought to be permanent could one day be subject to medical intervention. "There is currently a huge effort in many medical centers to study brain resuscitation," he says.

Genetics provides another potential frontier. Scientists recently found that some genes in mice and fish live on after they die. And even more surprisingly, other genes regulating embryonic development, which switch off when an animal is born, turn on again after death. We don't yet know if the same thing happens in humans.

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History
Doctor Weighs In on What May Have Killed Saladin, the 12th-Century Muslim Military Leader
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Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Saladin, the 12th-century sultan of Egypt and Syria, was one fearless ruler. After unifying much of the Muslim world, he took on the Christian Franks at the Battle of Hattin and won, bringing Jerusalem back under Islamic rule and setting off the Third Crusade.

It wasn’t battle that did him in, though. Dr. Stephen Gluckman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the cause of Saladin's death in 1193 was most likely typhoid, LiveScience reports.

Up until now, the circumstances of Saladin’s passing have largely remained a mystery, as is often the case with people who lived long before modern diagnostic tools were invented. Gluckman was able to reach a diagnosis by analyzing Saladin’s symptoms as they were recorded more than 800 years ago, and shared his medical opinion at this year’s Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland, which taps experts to diagnose a different deceased historical figure each year. In past years, some theorized that Charles Darwin’s cause of death was cyclic vomiting syndrome, and Edgar Allan Poe’s demise was attributed to either rabies or delirium tremens—“a severe form of alcohol withdrawal.”

As for Saladin, he suffered a “mysterious fever and two-week illness,” according to LiveScience. He died at age 55 or 56, despite efforts to revive him with bloodletting techniques and enemas.

Gluckman was able to rule out plague and smallpox because they tend to kill quickly, and tuberculosis and malaria didn’t fit the bill, either. Typhoid, however, was common at that time, and Saladin's symptoms seemed consistent with other cases. Caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, typhoid is spread through contaminated water or food. High fever is the main symptom, but weakness and loss of appetite are also typically observed.

Saladin was buried next to the sword he had carried during the Holy War, but otherwise, his burial rites were “as simple as a pauper’s funeral,” according to author Stanley Lane-Poole in Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The money for his funeral had to be borrowed because he had given away all his riches.

[h/t LiveScience]

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