The Somerton Man is Australia’s most famous John Doe. It’s suspected that he may have been a Russian spy, operating when international tensions were high and the Cold War was just starting to heat up. If he was, it’s possible that Australia’s counterintelligence services discovered his identity and had him offed.
The Somerton Man’s body was discovered at 6.30am on 1st December 1948 on Somerton Park beach, just south of Adelaide, Australia. He was found lying in the sand, his head resting against the seawall, fully clothed with his legs extended and feet crossed. He had a bunch of things on him: a comb, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, bus and rail tickets, cigarettes and matches. But no sign of a wallet or identification. And, weirdly, all the labels on his clothes had been removed.
The autopsy revealed that the time of death was around 2am that morning and that it was probably (but not definitely) poison that killed him. No one knows for sure the cause of death, or whether it was suicide or murder.
An uncrackable code
Interestingly, something else was found on the Somerton Man’s body, albeit some months later. There was a scrap of paper tucked inside the fob pocket of his trousers with the Persian phrase tamám shud, meaning “ended” or “finished”, printed on it. The paper had been torn from a copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a book of poetry.
Following a public appeal by police, the copy of the book from which the paper had been torn was located. On its inside back cover, detectives found indentations from handwriting. The writing was of two phone numbers, one still unidentified, and an encrypted message, with the second line struck out.
The book with the code was apparently found in an unlocked car not far from Somerton Beach, although this isn’t 100% clear.
To this day, no one’s been able to crack the code. Where’s Robert Langdon when you need him?
The trail leading to Jessica Thomson
The phone number that was identified belonged to Jessica Thomson, who lived 400 metres from where the body was found. Police showed Jessica the Somerton Man’s face and, according to them, she was taken aback and looked like she was about to faint. And yet, she insisted she had no idea who the Somerton Man was.
Police believed that Jessica Thomson was hiding something. According to Jessica’s daughter, Kate, she was. Jessica admitted to her that she’d lied to the police and did know who the Somerton Man was. But she kept schtum until her death in 2007, taking her secrets with her to the grave.
After decades of research, Professor Derek Abbott came to the conclusion that Jessica Thomson’s son, Robin, was in fact fathered by the Somerton Man, only to be passed off as the son of the man Jessica married later. Abbott actually ended up marrying the woman he believes is the Somerton Man’s granddaughter, Rachel. Weird. She likes to joke that Abbott only married her for her DNA. Cute.
Although DNA evidence is still forthcoming (the latest news is that in October 2019, permission was given for the Somerton Man’s body to be exhumed for testing), there is a very real possibility that Abbott is correct. The Somerton Man had a rare teeth-related genetic disorder that only affects 2% of the population, plus an even rarer anatomical feature relating to his ears. Robin Thomson had both of these abnormalities.
A Soviet spy
There’s been persistent speculation that the Somerton Man was a spy due to the circumstances of his death, the historical context surrounding it, and the uncrackable code.
At the time, Soviet spies were interested in at least two sites relatively close to Adelaide: the Radium Hill uranium mine and the Woomera Test Range.
In particular, there’s the fact that following the end of World War II, the Venona project, a US counterintelligence programme, discovered that sensitive British and Australian government data was being transmitted through Soviet diplomatic channels. MI5 dispatched officers to Australia to help with investigations and the leak was traced to a spy ring operating out of the Soviet Embassy in Australia’s capital, Canberra. This culminated in the founding of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation a year after the Somerton Man’s death, to crack down on Soviet espionage in Australia. Was the Somerton Man a casualty of this crackdown? The timing is certainly curious.
And then there’s the mysterious Jessica Thomson. Kate Thomson said that her mother had a “dark side, a very strong dark side”. She believes her mother and the Somerton Man were BOTH Soviet spies. She noted that Jessica Thomson taught English to migrants, was interested in communism and could speak Russian. She also said that Jessica wouldn’t disclose to her daughter where she had learned to speak Russian, or why.
I have a feeling Jessica Thomson knew how and why the Somerton Man died. If Rachel Egan, Derek Abbott’s wife, really is the granddaughter of the Somerton Man, it would confirm that Jessica Thomson was lying. There aren’t many reasons why she would so vehemently protect his identity, unless she knew he was a spy, being one herself.
Of course, if Jessica Thomson and the Somerton Man were spies together, why wouldn’t Australian counterintelligence have gone after her as well?
Maybe because Australian counterintelligence aren’t the culprits here at all. Perhaps the real killer is Jessica Thomson herself. Kate Thomson certainly seems to think so, telling 60 Minutes that she believes her mother may have had a hand in his murder. Did Jessica need to maintain her cover after his was busted?
Hopefully it won’t be long till we find out if the DNA matches. If it doesn’t, we’re back at square one. If it does, then we’re a giant leap closer to solving one of Australia’s biggest riddles.
Next month: why people believe in conspiracy theories