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 Time Abraham Lincoln Stopped a Murder Trial in its Tracks

Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847
Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer, circa 1847

One day at the end of May, 1841, William Trailor hopped into a one-horse buggy and began the long journey to Springfield, Illinois, where he planned to reunite with his brothers Henry and Archibald. Joining him was his friend and housemate, a handyman named Archibald Fisher.

In Springfield, the men decided to go for a walk after lunch. But as the afternoon wore on, the brothers somehow lost sight of Fisher. When they returned to Archibald's Springfield home for supper, Fisher wasn't there. The brothers looked briefly for Fischer, but may have assumed he was still out enjoying himself.

But when Fisher failed to show up the next morning, the brothers began to feel uneasy. They spent the day in a fruitless search for the missing man. The same was true of the following day. William eventually left Springfield without him.

According to the local postmaster, rumors circulated that Fisher had died and left William with a large sum of money. True or not, the local postmaster knew about William's trip to Springfield and alerted the postmaster in that city of a possible crime. News of the missing man (and William’s supposed financial windfall) quickly spread.

Within days, all of the Trailor brothers would be arrested—charged with the disappearance and murder of Archibald Fisher.

 

Nobody could find the body. “Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed,” wrote Abraham Lincoln, then a young defense lawyer in Springfield. “All the fresh, or tolerably fresh, graves at the grave-yard were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred.”

As locals searched for Fisher’s corpse, both Springfield’s mayor and the Illinois state attorney general ruthlessly interrogated Henry Trailor. For three days, Henry maintained his innocence. But he also began to show signs of cracking. “The prosecutors reminded him that the evidence against him and his two brothers was overwhelming, that they would certainly be hanged,” William H. Townsend wrote in the American Bar Association Journal in 1933, “and that the only chance to save his own life was to become a witness for the State.”

With that bait, Henry confessed: He claimed that his brothers, Archibald and William, had clubbed Fisher to death and had taken all of his money. Henry insisted that he had taken no part in the murder. Rather, he had simply helped his brothers dump the body in the woods.

News of Henry’s confession ignited the public's curiosity, prompting hundreds of people to rush to the forest where Fisher’s body was reportedly hidden. “The story related by Henry Trailor aroused the most intense public indignation, and the murder became almost the sole topic of conversation,” Townsend wrote. “Business was practically suspended as searching parties and amateur detectives scoured the woods and by-ways.”

There, in a dense thicket, investigators found buggy tracks and signs that something large had been dragged through the grass. A nearby pond was partially drained and a dam destroyed, despite protests from the dam's owner. Yet the body continued to elude investigators. The public became antsy.

“It was generally conceded that only a speedy trial and swift punishment could allay the clamor of the populace for the blood of the prisoners and avert the disgrace of a lynching,” Townsend wrote. By June 18, the murder trial had already begun—and a conviction seemed assured.

The courtroom, muggy from the summer humidity, was packed with spectators. Called to the stand, Henry Trailor repeated his confession, claiming that he had helped dispose of Fisher's body. Additional evidence was provided by a local woman who had seen two of the Trailor boys walk into the woods with Fisher—only to see them return alone. Furthermore, investigators claimed they had found human hair in the area near the buggy tracks. The tracks themselves, they noted, had led suspiciously to the pond, as if somebody had tried to dump something.

When the prosecutor rested his case, it seemed like there was no hope for the Trailor brothers.

But the defense had a secret weapon—a 32-year-old lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The future president calmly stood up and called his one and only witness to the stand.

 

Dr. Robert Gilmore was a widely respected physician in those parts of Illinois. Sitting in the sauna-like courtroom, the doctor patiently explained that he knew Archibald Fisher well—the man had twice lived in his home. Years ago, Gilmore explained, Fisher had suffered a serious head injury from a gun-related accident and had never fully recovered his wits. The poor man was prone to spells of amnesia, blackouts, and derangement. It was very possible that Fisher had just wandered off.

Dr. Gilmore then calmly told the court that he had proof to back up his theory, and proceeded to drop a bombshell: Archibald Fisher was alive and staying in his home.

The courtroom murmured in shock.

Dr. Gilmore continued. Fisher had suffered from a terrible bout of memory loss and had no recollection of his time in Springfield. In fact, Fisher had wandered all the way to Peoria before regaining his senses. The only reason the man had failed to show up to the courtroom today was because his health prevented it.

Lincoln scanned the crowd with glee. “When the doctor’s story was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances and hear the remarks of those who had been actively engaged in the search for the dead body,” he would later write in a letter, “some looked quizzical, some melancholy, and some furiously angry.”

At first, many were skeptical of the doctor’s claims, but officials were quick to confirm that Fisher was indeed alive. He’d eventually show up to court, later explaining how, indeed, he had no memory of ever visiting Springfield.

To the prosecution's great embarrassment, much of the evidence was proven bunk: It was soon discovered that the controversial path in the forest was, in fact, created by children who had been building a rope swing; meanwhile, the hairs in the woods belonged to a cow. It also became awfully clear that Henry Trailor had been coerced into making a false confession—when the officers had threatened Henry's life, Henry told them what they wanted to hear instead.

All of the charges would be dropped and the men's lives spared. “We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed,” Lincoln would write after the trial.

In fact, the case enchanted Lincoln so much that he tried to immortalize the events in a short story written in the style of the true-crime genre. The future president, of course, was justifiably proud of the outcome: It wasn't every day that a single surprise witness helps solve a mystery and saves two people from the hangman's noose.

 

To read Lincoln's own account, check out this excerpt at Smithsonian.

12 Doomed Facts About the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
'Twas the witch of November come stealin'
-Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976) 

On November 10, 1975, two ships made their way in tandem across the stormy waters of Lake Superior. One was the Arthur M. Anderson, led by Captain Jesse Cooper. The other, captained by Ernest McSorley, was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ship was last seen on radar around 7:15 p.m. All 29 men on board were lost with it, and today, more than four decades after the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history, the cause is still a mystery.

Here's what we do know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, and what happened to it that fateful day:

1. IT WAS THE LARGEST SHIP ON THE GREAT LAKES.

The large cargo vessels that roamed the five Great Lakes were known as lakers, and the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was, at the time, the biggest ever built. It was constructed as a “maximum sized” bulk carrier and spanned 729 feet—the first laker to reach that length—sat 39 feet high with a width of 75 feet, and weighed more than 13,000 tons without cargo. It was christened on June 8, 1958, and made its first voyage on September 24 the same year. 

2. THE SHIP WAS OWNED BY AN INSURANCE COMPANY.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan, was contracted to build the ship in 1957 by Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, which had invested heavily in the iron and minerals industries. With the commissioning of the Fitzgerald, Northwestern Mutual became the first American insurance company to build its own ship—at a cost of $8.4 million, the most expensive price tag for a freighter at the time, according to Michael Schumacher’s The Mighty Fitz.

3. IT WAS NAMED AFTER THE HEAD OF THE COMPANY.

The chairman of Northwestern Mutual had a long history with the Great Lakes shipping industry. Edmund Fitzgerald’s grandfather captained a ship on the lakes, his father owned a shipyard, and they both had ships named after them. After construction of the Fitzgerald was complete, Northwestern Mutual placed its charter with the Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Company, based in Cleveland. 

4. THE SHIP'S MAIN JOB WAS HAULING IRON ORE. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most lakers traversing the Great Lakes and the connecting waterways carry massive amounts of raw materials such as rock, salt, and grain. The Edmund Fitzgerald generally loaded taconite, low-grade iron ore, from mines on the shores of Minnesota and transported the pellets to steel mills near Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

5. "THE FITZ" WAS WELL-KNOWN EVEN BEFORE IT SANK.

Its impressive size made the ship popular with boat-watchers, and over the years it garnered many nicknames, including “The Queen of the Great Lakes,” “The Toledo Express,” and the unfortunate “Titanic of the Great Lakes.” Crowds would watch as the massive freighter moved through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The “Soo” Locks, which connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron, allowed the Fitz to reach ports on the lower Great Lakes.

6. THE SHIP RAN INTO A DEADLY STORM ON LAKE SUPERIOR.

November is a brutal month on the Great Lakes. Frequent storms and hurricane-force winds can batter even the toughest-built freighters. On November 9, the Fitz was loaded with 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock in Superior, Wisconsin. It left at 2:30 p.m. A second ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, sailed 10-15 miles behind the Fitzgerald as a precaution, and the two ships remained in radio contact until just after 7 p.m. on November 10.

Gale warnings had been issued by the National Weather Service the previous day, and by the morning of the 10th, the advisories had been upgraded to an official storm warning. 

As swells reached 35 feet and winds raged at nearly 100 mph, the ship contacted Coast Guard officials in Sault Ste. Marie and said they were taking on water. Later, a blizzard obscured the Fitz on the Anderson’s radar, but Captain Ernest McSorley, who was on his final voyage before retirement, assured a crew member on the Anderson at 7:10 p.m. that, “We are holding our own.” It was the last anyone heard from McSorley or the Fitzgerald.

7. NO DISTRESS SIGNAL WAS SENT.

After that, there was nothing on the radar. No radio contact. The ship was approximately 15 miles north of Whitefish Point when it seemingly vanished. Captain Cooper, on the Anderson, was in contact with the Coast Guard and made it to Whitefish Point sometime after 8 p.m. with no sign or word from the Fitzgerald. Later, the Anderson made its way back into the storm to search for the ship, but found only a pair of lifeboats and debris. 

8. ALL 29 CREW MEMBERS DIED. 

Along with the captain, the other crew members of the Fitzgerald included porters, oilers, engineers, maintenance workers, cooks, watchmen, deck hands, and wheelsmen. Most crew members were from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota.

9. THERE IS STILL NO DEFINITIVE EXPLANATION FOR THE SINKING.

The treacherous weather conditions are an obvious factor, but experts differ on what they think specifically caused the accident. Following the wreck, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board agreed that the tragedy was likely due to faulty cargo hatches, which led to flooding. Predictably, there are still those who harbor other theories, including unsecured hatches, maintenance troubles, massive waves, structural issues, and yes, even aliens. Author and Great Lakes historian Frederick Stonehouse posited that the ship likely hit a shoal and took on too much water before plunging into Lake Superior.

10. THE TRAGEDY WAS IMMORTALIZED BY A CANADIAN FOLK SINGER.

Gordon Lightfoot, who had released 10 albums from 1966 to 1975, was inspired to write the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading an article about the tragedy in Newsweek. He included the song on his 1976 album Summertime Dream, and the nearly six-minute single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that year and became Lightfoot’s second-most successful hit.

11. FAMILY MEMBERS REQUESTED A SYMBOLIC MEMORIAL FROM THE SHIP.

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard deployed planes and cutters with magnetic anomaly detectors, sidescan sonar, and sonar survey to find the wreckage. In May, a Navy underwater recovery vehicle was sent to the site, and on May 20, 1976, the ship was spotted 535 below the surface of the lake.

In the decades since, only a handful of people have been able to see the wreck, which lies in two pieces. A pair of divers made their way down in 1995, the same year a crew—with help from the Canadian Navy, the National Geographic Society, Sony, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians—retrieved the ship's bell at the behest of the families of those who were lost. The Canadian government has since prohibited access to the site. 

In eerie archival tapes below, you can hear Anderson skipper Jesse Cooper correspond with the Coast Guard, and see video of the wreck.

12. THERE'S AN ANNUAL REMEMBRANCE DAY.

The annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial ceremony takes place on November 10th at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The recovered and restored bell will toll 29 times for each member of the Fitzgerald's crew, and a 30th for the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great Lakes.

For more on the story and the ship, visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online

This article originally appeared in 2015.

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