Riddle on the sands

My father was convinced that Somerton Man was an American because of his clothes, which he called “sharp”. He was wearing jockey shorts and a singlet, a white shirt with a narrow tie in red, white and blue, fawn trousers, a brown knitted pullover, a brown double-breasted suit coat, socks and highly polished brown, laced shoes. Snazzy.

Somerton Man was a snappy dresser, but it was a hot evening and he was wearing very heavy clothes for the weather, the ensemble of someone who had come from somewhere cold, or who had nowhere to leave a change of clothes, or no lighter clothes into which he could change. On examination of the clothes, it was found that every identifying label had been removed.

Somerton Man had no money in his pockets. If he’d had any, it had gone with his wallet – if he’d had a wallet. And, to complete our survey of his garments, folded up into a tight little wad in his fob pocket, there was a scrap of paper torn out of a book that bore the words “Tamam Shud”. Of which, more later.

Naked and cold, Somerton Man waited for his attending physician, whose task was to determine how he had died. Meanwhile, the police set about trying to find out who he was. Detective Strangway of Glenelg Station and his associates began by checking all the missing persons reports on hand, but Somerton Man fitted none of them. Then they checked his fingerprints, which were not on record.

So far, so inconclusive. Then, on January 14, in response to a police appeal for unclaimed baggage directed to all lodging houses, hotels and railway stations, a suitcase was found in a locker at Adelaide’s Central Railway Station.

The most exciting discovery in the suitcase was the sewing kit in which was found orange Barbour thread; it was not sold in Australia. Identical thread had been used to repair the pocket of Somerton Man’s coat. Waxed thread is not usually used to mend clothes: it must have been an emergency repair, intended to last only until he could lay hands on a seamstress. It seemed unlikely that the Barbour thread in the suitcase and the Barbour thread in Somerton Man’s coat were not connected, so the suitcase probably belonged to Somerton Man. Also, the clothes were his size and the slippers would fit his feet.

And some of the garments in the suitcase actually had labels with a name on them. There must have been cautious rejoicing among the exasperated police at that point, although they should have known it was too good to be true. The name, written on a singlet, a laundry bag and a tie, was T. Keane. Or possibly T. Kean. The call went out and a local sailor named Tom Reade was said to be missing. Was Somerton Man perhaps Tom Reade?

But when Tom Reade’s shipmates viewed the body, they all said that it was not their Tom Reade. Meanwhile widespread searches through maritime agencies had revealed that no one was missing a T. Keane or Kean.

The clothes were all examined by experts. The police called in a tailor, Hugh Possa of Gawler Place, who explained that the careful construction of the coat, with feather-stitching done by machine, was definitely American, as only the US garment industry used a feather-stitching machine. So the clothes were very high-value schmutter indeed. Such coats, the police were informed, were not imported. They were made up to a certain stage and then could be quickly tailored to the figure, the sort of thing which might be bought by someone who wasn’t staying long in port, but was willing to pay a high price for a beautifully made, hand-finished suit. From which he then removed the label.

Somerton Man also had very snazzy taste in nightwear. His pyjamas and gown were brightly coloured, and his felt slippers were red. Such things were a mark of a free spirit. Men of the time might have considered these garments to be outrageous, even effeminate.


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