Pete Bowes has recently finished writing his Tamam Shud-themed novel The Bookmaker From Rabaul, a story carefully braided from the skein of loosely connected threads we like to call ‘historical evidence’. When published (in December 2015), it will feature all the Usual Suspectskis of the Somerton Man world – spies, intelligence, betrayal, death, ciphers, and so on – and, on Pete’s past form, should have a rich cast of angular characters doing some kind of crunchy dialogue thing.

But he doesn’t need me to crank out his book PR bullshit for him, he’s more than capable of doing that himself. 😉


What’s nibbling at my trouser cuffs today is the distinction between literary truth and historical truth: doubtless Pete’s book will aspire to the former with a healthy nod to the latter, and that’s basically OK for novelists.

Yet the practical problem with literary truth is that aspiring to it is simply a terrible way of doing history: and this is something that Pete, for all his justified mania for details and (more recently) timelines, doesn’t really seem to get.

Perhaps the crux of the matter comes down to the difference between ‘more plausible’ and ‘more probable’ (this is known as the Conjunction Fallacy, Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” gives some nice examples). In the case of the Somerton Man, literary truth aspires to narrative plausibility while historical truth aspires to genuinely higher probability.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, as an example a little closer to home (if you live in South Australia, that is), which of the following two claims would you say is more probable:

(a) The Somerton Man was killed by someone he knew
(b) The Somerton Man was killed by a lover he had spurned


Kahneman points out that because (b) implicitly contains (a) [i.e. “a lover he had spurned” is a subset of “someone he knew”], (a) is automatically more mathematically probable than (b). And yet many people would judge that (b) is more probable, largely (I think) because it has a certain ‘ring of truth’ to it. By its cautious language, (a) is a bit ‘colder’, a little less human: people have some kind of innate need for stories to embody human values, and so (a) doesn’t quite cut it.

In my opinion, it is specifically that ‘ring of truth’-ness that literary truth aspires to: and the quality of words and thoughts that sets (b) ahead of (a) boils down to its greater plausibility. But that doesn’t make (b) more true, it just makes it a rounder-sounding story.

Agencies, spies, microwriting, uranium at Mount Painter, poison, misdirection, tradecraft, plausible deniability, even Venona: all of these are real historical things. When taken together, they can indeed be arranged to tell a beguiling, plausible story. However, none of them yet connects with the Somerton Man in a way that an historian can genuinely work with: and because none of these individual details yet offers us anything approaching a genuine, probable history, putting them all together at the same time automatically tells a mathematically less probable story – for the more elements you conjoin into a single narratove, the lower the resulting probability goes. Sorry, but that’s just the way the numbers work: I’m just the messenger, me.

For what it’s worth, I remain quite certain that we will, in due course, find out exactly who the Somerton Man was and what precisely brought him to Somerton Beach on the last day of his life. But I also have no doubt that this will come not from assembling plausible narrative macro-hypotheses, but rather from doing historical research the hard way: forming micro-hypotheses about specific aspects of what happened and then painstakingly testing them against the archives.

Pete Bowes laughs when (for example) I wonder if the Somerton Man (with elevated zinc levels in his hair) might have been somehow connected with the zinc trade between Risdon and Port Adelaide; or when I wonder if the Somerton Man might have been connected with the person who sent Fred Pruszinski from Broken Hill to Somerton Beach carrying a rifle in a suitcase just a few days earlier. But that’s probably because even though Pete and I are walking along the same beach, I suspect we’re travelling in quite opposite directions.

26 thoughts on “Tamam Shuda Cuda Wuda…

  1. Pete on May 15, 2015 at 10:05 pm said:

    Thanks for the plug, Nick, but you and Kahneman missed another conjunction.
    (C) The Somerton Man was killed by someone he didn’t know.

  2. Pete: errrm… it was a comparison, not a list.

    If it had been a list, it would have surely included
    (d) ‘e killed ‘isself;
    (e) ‘e died of somefink;
    (f) ‘e died of nuffink;
    (g) ‘e died accidentally;
    (h) ‘e was killed but by mistake; and
    (i) it was all a great big SAPOL hoax, and they’re all still laughin’ their police ‘ats off about it. 😉

  3. Pete on May 15, 2015 at 10:43 pm said:


  4. Trica on May 16, 2015 at 2:44 am said:

    err – why cockney?

  5. pete on May 16, 2015 at 9:03 am said:

    It’s an ‘English’ thing Tricia, I’ve had expert advice on this quaint British practice – and for some reason born of the marriage of a gas balloon of intellect and a badly produced dialect, Nick thinks I might understand him better.
    It troubles me that I do.

  6. Tricia/Pete: it’s my blog, so I get to write what I like and how I like. Just be thankful I don’t edit your comments into house style. 🙂

  7. pete on May 16, 2015 at 10:51 am said:

    Nick, would it be fair to say that you are doing the equivalent of examining the entrails of SM’s corpse, in the hope that they might lead to a name and address?

  8. pete: I don’t really think that would be fair. People often assert (somewhat glibly) that “we don’t know anything about the Somerton Man”, but my position is that we actually do know a great deal about him, and a great deal about what was going on in Adelaide and Australia (and indeed elsewhere) at the time. So as I see it, the #1 historical research problem we collectively face is that all these numerous pieces of evidence don’t currently seem to connect together in any useful way: it’s an “evidence soup”, if you like.

    Hence what I’m trying to do is to determine small points of relative certainty that we can use to try to find any kind of internal structure inside that soup. I don’t honestly think we need much extra stuff to achieve this: as the whole “H. C. Reynolds” thing showed, even though there’s a lot of data scattered across the archives, once you get started you can find out a great deal.

  9. Trica on May 16, 2015 at 12:35 pm said:

    Oh I see – people in England hear New Zealand accents as most like their cockney? Or is it Irish, or Australian accents? Whatever. For myself, the New Zealand accent sounds more Scots. I suppose it’s subjective.

  10. pete on May 16, 2015 at 12:39 pm said:

    Nick, I understand that, and I don’t agree we know a ‘great deal’ about the man, rather we know a little about his body.

  11. pete: …oh, and his clothes, and the contents of his pockets and suitcase too. And about many of the things that were absent. 😉

  12. pete on May 17, 2015 at 6:24 am said:

    While we’re chatting about absent things, Nick, do you feel that the (missing) documented sightings by four witnesses and the corresponding police report of a well-dressed man carrying a man along the beach on the night of 30 Nov would be of any helpful significance?

  13. pete: of course, that testimony formed the backbone of Gerry Feltus’ Chapter 14, where Gerry interviewed one of the four people at some length, and even went with the man to Somerton Beach. For me, the question here is more about whether or not there is any more meat on that bone than that which Gerry has already stripped: and I strongly suspect the answer is that there isn’t.

  14. pete on May 17, 2015 at 10:30 am said:

    It confounds me that the paperwork is unavailable, and given the sparse number of witnesses about that night, it beggars good sense that the four were not asked to present themselves at the inquest, them and / or the detective who wrote a formal report based on their sighting.
    Everyone else got a guernsey at the inquest: ticket sellers who had no recollect of the ticket buyer, luggage officers who could not remember who lodged the suitcase, witnesses who never saw a face – I strongly suspect GF has left the door open on this .. or closed, as it were.

  15. pete: according to Feltus’ Chapter 14, one of the four witnesses did not make a statement until 5th December 1959, which was a long time after the inquest.

  16. pete on May 17, 2015 at 10:41 pm said:

    Page 143, chpt 14 – opening para:
    “The following information (A new witness) causes some concern and throws some theories into turmoil. There is no evidence that the information was placed before the corner, but if it had been it may have impacted on the findings.”
    What do you reckon, Nick, my theories or yours?

  17. ellen on May 18, 2015 at 8:59 pm said:

    Looking forward to Pete’s book. I think Somerton Man is so complicated and so fraught with details that having it put into an intelligent, coherent narrative, even if written as a novel, will add to the search for truth.

  18. ellen: unless you’re his publisher, I wouldn’t prejudge the “intelligent, coherent narrative” side of it just yet. 😉

  19. Prediction #1: the Somerton Man was a foreign merchant seaman in Adelaide who had been taken seriously ill at sea, and had been visited in hospital by the Mission to Seamen. He was a Third Officer (hence his stencilling equipment for marking cargo.). He had written letters home overseas (hence the air mail stickers).

    Prediction #2: the Somerton Man was Russian and needed an interpreter to help him get effective treatment. The nurse we know as “Jestyn” (who, we are now told, spoke Russian when she was younger) was asked in by the Mission for Seamen as a Russian-speaking volunteer – what we might nowadays call a ‘patient advocate’.

    Prediction #3: the Somerton Man wrote letters to her in Russian from the hospital and sent them to her home address in Glenelg; and that she wrote back to him. This was a source of great comfort to him.

    Prediction #4: the Somerton Man didn’t arrive in Adelaide from Melbourne, but was already in hospital there. Feeling terribly unwell and alone he decided to discharge himself from hospital and go and visit her in Glenelg. He put his possessions into a suitcase given to him by the Mission To Seamen (along with the dressing gown and slippers, etc) and checked it into the left luggage department of Adelaide railway station.

    Prediction #5: that same morning, he did something simple that accidentally had the effect of making him hard to trace – he shaved off the beard that he had grown in hospital, to try and look as respectable as he could for meeting Jestyn.

    Prediction #6: I believe that it wasn’t poison or a pastie that killed him, but whatever he had been suffering from in the hospital (causing his spleen to enlarge etc).

  20. pete: ah yes, “The simplest explanation of all?” from my post

    If you start from the – not entirely unreasonable – hypothesis that “the Somerton Man was a foreign merchant seaman in Adelaide who had been taken seriously ill at sea” and doggedly follow the practical logic of that through right to the end, that’s almost certainly where you end up. In fact, I did uncover the records of a Russian seaman who had been treated in a certain well-known Sydney hospital, and who subsequently moved to Australia (I’ll post about this another day): so as scenarios go, I think this is something that could very well have happened.

  21. “… Information [from a new witness] causes some concern and throws some theories into turmoil. There is no evidence that the information was placed before the coroner, but if it had been it may have impacted on the findings.” *

  22. Ok, Nick, I’m up for a yarn … see if you can keep me honest.
    Chapter 1 is attached.

  23. bdid1dr on May 28, 2015 at 8:34 pm said:

    Most common cause of spleen enlargement: malaria. When my mother required a blood transfusion, two sailors donated blood. My mother, very soon after the transfusions, had her first attack of malaria. So, maybe just another cause of death for our unidentified man (Tamam-shud…..a …cuda…….?
    (Ta-mama-shuda-cuda, for mymama?

  24. B Deveson on May 29, 2015 at 11:54 am said:

    bdid1dr, the pathologist specifically commented that the spleenic pigment was not malarial. Unfortunately the sod didn’t describe the pigment, and no slides or samples seem to have survived. So, we wonder on, and wander on.

  25. Meredith Tanner on March 30, 2016 at 6:18 pm said:

    While malaria can be a cause of spleen enlargement, guess what else can? Lead poisoning, by way of hemolytic anemia. Hemolytic anemia is commonly seen in acute lead toxicity, such as Somerton Man would have experienced if your theory is correct. In fact, virtually all of the physical effects listed in the autopsy can result from hemolytic anemia:

    “The heart was of normal size, and normal in every way …small vessels not commonly observed in the brain were easily discernible with congestion. There was congestion of the pharynx, and the gullet was covered with whitening of superficial layers of the mucosa with a patch of ulceration in the middle of it. The stomach was deeply congested… There was congestion in the second half of the duodenum. There was blood mixed with the food in the stomach. Both kidneys were congested, and the liver contained a great excess of blood in its vessels. …The spleen was strikingly large … about 3 times normal size … there was destruction of the centre of the liver lobules revealed under the microscope. … acute gastritis hemorrhage, extensive congestion of the liver and spleen, and the congestion to the brain.”

    Worse yet, the enlarged spleen itself can *also* cause hemolytic anemia, creating a feedback loop in which his condition would be worsening continuously without treatment. In 1948 doctors had only learned how to test for the condition three years previous; treatment would most likely have been a splenectomy, but could have included blood transfusions, corticosteroids, and by 1947, pituitary corticotropin (ACTH.) With sufficiently acute lead poisoning, that may not have been enough to cure him, since the lead would still have been lurking in his bones.

    Symptoms would have been pallor, fatigue, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, and cardiac arrhythmia, with severe symptoms including cardiac failure and convulsions, potentially fatal.

    Somerton man would have been a very unhappy camper. He’d definitely have known he was very sick, and would probably have seen a doctor by the time he died, but clearly hadn’t received treatment based on the severe enlargement of his spleen.

    I’m not a doctor, I’m just a layperson with an interest in medicine and a knack for making connections. I’m not sure if any of this is useful to you, but I hope it is — I really think you’re on the right track here, and I’d love to see this mystery finally solved!

  26. Meredith Tanner: that’s definitely a strong possibility, thanks for thinking it through so carefully. The high lead reading may yet prove to be the “smoking gun” in this case… but we will still need some other piece of luck to yield us clues to the man’s identity.

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