Somerton Man Mystery: Royal Adelaide Hospital Emergency Entrance

Although the body of a deceased man was reported to police on 1 December 1948, many had in fact seen the man lying on Somerton Beach the day before. The position of the body, propped up against the seawall with his legs crossed, had given passers-by the impression that the man was simply asleep. Jeweler John Lyons and his wife had passed by the man the previous evening during their walk, but assumed he was sleeping off the effects of too much alcohol. Lyons told police he was certain that the man had even raised one arm whilst he and his wife were looking. When he again saw the man the following morning, Lyons knew something wasn’t right and, along with others, confirmed the man was in fact dead.

Constable John Moss had the body transferred by police ambulance to the Royal Adelaide Hospital on North Terrace. In front of the hospital’s emergency department, Dr John Barkley Bennett briefly examined the body in the ambulance. Based on the state of rigor mortis, Dr Bennett concluded that the time of death must have occurred no earlier than 2.00am.

From the hospital, the body was then sent to the city mortuary at the West Terrace Cemetery. Dr John Dwyer performed the post-mortem, and noted that the man’s pupils were smaller than expected. He also observed that the man’s stomach contents included a half-digested pasty and that blood had pooled. Dr Dwyer suggested that the pooled blood indicated some kind of irritant poison, but he was unable to conclude what exactly.

At a later Coronial Inquest, Dr Dwyer stated that, “I feel quite certain that death was not natural. I think the immediate cause of death was heart failure, but I am unable to say what factor caused heart failure.” It was also suggested that if it was a poison, it was one unknown to South Australian authorities. Furthermore, Dr Dwyer and subsequent investigators were unable to say whether the man had intentionally taken poison in an apparent suicide, or whether someone had murdered him through poisoning. There didn’t appear to be any signs of a struggle on the man’s body.

At the mortuary, the man’s clothing and other items in his possession were also examined. He was well dressed in:

  • Shirt and tie
  • Sports trousers and jacket
  • Jumper
  • Freshly polished brown shoes
Oddly, all tags or other identifiers normally on clothing appeared to have been removed. In his possession were:
  • Half-smoked cigarette located on the collar of his shirt
  • Second cigarette tucked behind his ear
  • Open pack of cigarettes;
  • Box of matches
  • Two combs
  • Pack of Juicy Fruit gum
  • Unused railway ticket from the city to Henley Beach
  • Used bus ticket from the city to Glenelg

Authorities were puzzled- what had caused this man’s death? Was it suicide or in fact something far more sinister?


Somerton Man Mystery
Professor Derek Abbott from the University of Adelaide discusses the discovery of the body at Somerton Beach in 1948 ~ Source: National Trust of South Australia
View File Record