Who was the Somerton Man

Is an unknown dead person identified after more than 70 years?

New clues about the mysterious body of Somerton Beach

In 1948, a body was found in Australia that has not yet been identified. The cause of death is unclear and a murder cannot be ruled out. A puzzling sequence of letters - an encrypted text? - play an important role, but so far nobody has been able to decipher it. After all, there is now a hot lead to death.

It was summer in Adelaide (Australia) when on November 30, 1948 an unknown man settled on Somerton Beach. Several witnesses noticed him wearing his suit, which was not suitable for the warm season of the year. His body was found the next morning. The Somerton man, as he is known today, was around 40 to 45 years old at the time of his death - a well-groomed appearance with a well-toned body. His high quality clothing suggested that he was wealthy. He did not have any identification papers or any other meaningful personal belongings with him. All labels were removed from his clothing.

The police failed to identify the Somerton man. Amazingly, nobody seemed to miss the unknown dead. The cause of death is also a mystery to this day. The circumstances of death speak for a poison, even if none could be detected with the methods available at the time. The Somerton man may have killed himself - but murder or natural death also seem possible.

Six weeks after the Somerton man's death, a suitcase was found in the luggage storage in Adelaide train station, which apparently belonged to the stranger. But the content brought hardly any new information - only a coat, which was probably made in the USA, provided a new lead. In addition, the police now knew that the stranger was at the Adelaide train station. He'd probably come on an overnight train, brought his suitcase to the left-luggage office, and ended up taking the bus to Somerton Beach - whatever he wanted there.

Only a few months after the stranger's death was another clue found in his pocket: a carefully folded piece of paper with the words "Taman Shud" on it. It was torn from the book "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" by Edward Fitzgerald. In fact, a witness came forward who had found the appropriate copy of the book near the dead man. A telephone number was handwritten on it. This belonged to a woman who lived near Somerton Beach - she is usually referred to in the literature as a "nurse" because she did this job. The police questioned this important witness, but apparently did not learn anything decisive. The nurse's identity and testimony were never made public.

The police found another lead on the inside of the back cover: a series of letters written in pencil with no discernible meaning. It could be an encrypted message. It probably read as follows (some letters are ambiguous):



Did the dead man want the message to be found? Did it contain a suicide note, albeit a very short one? Should it even give a clue to the possible murderer? Or was it just a few unimportant notes that a bystander couldn't understand? Numerous decryption experts and many amateur cryptologists examined the lines, which are now known as the "Taman Shud cipher", but no one has been able to present a credible solution to this day.

The two Australian students Andrew Turnbull and Denley Bihari delivered the most interesting result so far in 2009. By comparing the letter frequencies with those of different languages, they came to the conclusion that the Taman Shud cipher may consist of the first letters of English words - perhaps the author of each word in a sentence had noted the first letter. The two students got no further.

There is also no shortage of research into the other facets of the Somerton-Mann riddle. The Australian ex-police officer Gerry Feltus showed the greatest commitment and thus developed into the world's leading expert for the Somerton man. Feltus even wrote a book about the case summarizing the most important facts ("The Unknown Man"). One theory, for example, is that the unknown dead man was a spy from the Eastern Bloc. This would explain that the stranger didn't seem to have been missed by anyone. Secret services are also familiar with poisons and have deadly substances in their repertoire that cannot be easily detected.

The Somerton man could also have been an immigrant. Or was it a tourist who wanted to die unrecognized far away from home? But wouldn't it have been noticed at some point in the last 60 years that a disappeared person who was wealthy and undoubtedly had a certain circle of acquaintances was identical to the Somerton man?

Even more than 60 years after the Somerton man's death, there is still news on this enigmatic case. At the end of 2011, the Briton Nick Pelling, a specialist in historical encryption puzzles, presented a new theory. The Somerton man, Pelling hypothesized, was a former seafarer and came to Adelaide to see the nurse there - she was his late lover. While the stranger was in the nurse's apartment, he died unexpectedly of natural causes (such as an allergic reaction). The nurse, whose husband knew nothing about the visit, wanted nothing to do with the matter and therefore took the body to the later location. Pelling believes that the Somerton man was wealthy is wrong - in his opinion the fine suit came from a used clothes collection, which explains the lack of labels. According to Pelling, the Taman Shud cipher consists of the first letters of a self-written love poem, which the Somerton man noted as a reminder.

Pelling's explanation undoubtedly has a lot to offer. In particular, it is pleasantly unspectacular. This is not exactly a matter of course, because unsolved encryptions, of which there are not a few, are a magical attraction for conspiracy theorists. The famous Voynich manuscript - an encrypted book from the Middle Ages - has already been "solved" at least twenty times and associated with extraterrestrials, among other things. The also well-known Beale ciphers (The Hunters of the Encrypted Treasure), which are supposed to reveal the location of a treasure, have already called whole host of fortune-tellers on the scene. But even Pelling's otherwise credible theory cannot really explain why the unknown dead person was not missing. Even a former seafarer must have had friends and acquaintances who could not have escaped the media hype surrounding the corpse.

In November 2011 there was new news. An Adelaide woman contacted Somerton Mann expert Gerry Feltus and told him about a WWI ID card she found in her father's estate. The passport photo showed a certain resemblance to the Somerton man. Feltus brought in the anthropologist Maciej Henneberg, who made a comparison using forensic methods. This resulted in numerous matches, for example in the shape of the ears and in the case of a birthmark in the same place. If Henneberg's information is correct, then there is a high probability that the ID belonged to the Somerton man. However, an official publication of the research results is still lacking.

The badge holder's name was H.C. Reynolds. The paper issued on February 28, 1918 identifies him as an eighteen-year-old British man; the exact date of birth is not given. If Reynolds was the Somerton man, he would have been 47 or 48 years old at the time of his death - about five years older than commonly assumed. Nick Pelling, who blogs at Ciphermysteries.com, followed the lead with the support of his readers. He came across a seaman named H. Charles Reynolds, who was from Tasmania and worked as a steward on several New Zealand ships. Is he the one you're looking for? The little information available on H. Charles Reynolds suggests an Australian rather than a British, but that is not yet counter-evidence.

Pelling and his blog readers are currently working in full swing to find out more about H. Charles Reynolds. With the help of archives, genealogy websites and similar sources, they hope to find what they are looking for. However, it is still completely unclear what H. Charles Reynolds did after 1918 and whether his later life could end on the beach in Adelaide in 1948. Somerton man expert Gerry Feltus says he has not yet participated in the search - he is not yet convinced that the ID card holder is actually identical to the Somerton man. His comment: "I don't see any resemblance."

Klaus Schmeh is a computer scientist and specialist in historical encryption technology. In his current book "Not to crack" (Carl Hanser Verlag, 2012) the case of the Somerton man is also considered.

(Klaus Schmeh)

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