The notion that Jorge Luis Borges’ “Labyrinths” – a collection of idiosyncratic short stories, essays, and even parables by the much-acclaimed Argentinian writer, wrangled into English with no little hair-pulling – somehow parallels Voynich research is one that has been floated and repeated for decades.

But is it true now, here in the Fake News world of 2017? Is Borges a harbinger of what we see, or are we all post-Borges?

Describing The Indescribable

What Borges does in his short stories is to gleefully plunder history, not for mere colour (as so many writers now do) but to subvert it and channel it into a secret paradoxical alt.history, which typically forms the conceptual spine of each story’s skeleton.

The twisted steps backwards he takes to go forward again are equal parts erudite and imaginary. These all lead to a creative pyre whose flames are fed by philosophy, religion, esotericism, literature, self-referentiality, dreams, chess, labyrinths, and the numberless ways to cheat (or at least sidestep) the infinities of time, space, and mathematics.

Yet despite the range of references, the setting is predominantly a high-register, sexless, atheistic domain, ruled by stern, darkly logical planets. As a reader, you often feel as though the author is trying to conjure up a paradoxical exit visa from one dark oppressive reality into another.

Borges’ Three Tells

It’s not hard to tell his writing apart from just about anybody else’s.

His first writing trademark is embellished and over-decorated footnotes and references to books and articles which may or may not exist, embedding (if not actually entangling) his narratives in an imaginary textual web. This corresponds to the “falsifying and magnifying” tendency he derides himself (at a remove) for.

His second trademark is inserting himself into his stories, often as an unreliable narrator (not such a modern conceit as some may think).

His third trademark is that his stories almost always reveal themselves to be less than the sum of their parts – the denouement is often little more than a peek behind Oz’s curtain, collapsing the conceit preceding it.

Is Borges Worth Reading?

This is a tough question. Many of the things that are good about his writing would also likely make him completely unreadable to many modern readers. If you are impatient and/or prefer things to be grounded in the concrete, Borges’ concept-heavy counter-factuals are almost certainly not for you.

Yet the bigger problem, I think, is one of style, because Borges writes with a kind of refined, over-polished lightness that somehow never quite becomes levity. I don’t believe that the reading difficulties are translation artefacts: they’d be just as difficult in Hawaiian or Esperanto.

Is Borges a fellow-traveller to Voynich researchers? He certainly sets his readers cerebral challenges, ones which wear cloaks of obscurity, esotericism, and a tight knowingness, yet which he then reveals to be simpler than they at first seemed: and in some ways this is the (idealized) research trajectory.

But in the end, I think the answer is no: his mystification and erudition aren’t his means to knowledge, they are merely the scaffolding he uses to support the canvas behind his all-too-briefly-erected stages. Borges offers only an anagram of research, not research itself: the teasing paranoia of conspiracy, rather than causality.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Borges: but, like fried grasshoppers dipped in Marmite, I can quite see he’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. :-/

In July 1949, Australia’s greatest code-breaker Captain Eric Nave was enjoying his 160 days of accumulated holidays before starting a new job with (the newly formed) ASIO on 15th December 1949. I suspect he was at his house in Adelaide Melbourne at the time, but asked over by his father in Adelaide, where he had lived until early on in the war.

Hence I strongly believe that the “local naval decoder” referred to in reference #4 below was Eric Nave. I would be delighted if anybody has suggestions as to how this could be tested or pursued further in the archives.

(1) The Adelaide Advertiser, 26th July 1949, p.3

Yesterday the police interviewed two suburban telephone subscribers whose numbers corresponded with those on the back of the book, but they knew nothing of the matter.

(2) Adelaide News, 26th July 1949, p.1

Phone number found on cover of book

[…]The woman whose telephone number appears in pencil on the cover of the book told police that when she was nursing at North Shore hospital in Sydney about three and a half years ago, she gave a similar copy to a lieutenant who served in the Water Transport section of the Army.

Later, she said, the lieutenant wrote to her mother’s home in Melbourne. She replied to his letter, telling him she was married.
Subsequently, the woman told police, she and her husband settled in Adelaide. Last year a man called at the house of a neighbor, inquiring for a nurse he once knew.

This afternoon the woman is being shown the plaster cast of the Somerton victim, which is now in a storeroom at Adelaide Museum.

Acting on the possibility that the “Rubalyat” in their possession did belong to the lieutenant, police set out to decipher a number of block letters pencilled on the back of the book.

Although the lettering was faint, police managed to read it by using ultra-violet light. In the belief that the lettering might be a code, a copy has been sent to decoding experts at Army Headquarters, Melbourne.

(3a) The Adelaide Advertiser, 27th July 1949, p.1

Army Officer Sought To Help Solve Somerton Body Case

[…]The police have also forwarded to Army Headquarters, Melbourne, a copy of a series of letters printed in pencil on the back of the book. They believe that it is possible that the letters may be some coded message. Police located the woman from a telephone number, also written in pencil on the back the book.[…]

(3b) Adelaide News, 27th July 1949, p.1

Yesterday police traced a telephone number pencilled on the cover to the Adelaide woman who gave a similar copy of the book to the Army lieutenant.

Efforts to decipher several rows of block letters, believed to be a code, on the back of the book are continuing. A Navy “code cracker”, is tackling the task this afternoon.

(4) Adelaide News, 25th August 1949, p.22


Police were told today that Australia’s top cipher experts had failed to crack the code in the back of a copy of Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat’ believed to be connected with the Somerton body mystery.

A naval spokesman said experts in Melbourne had worked on the code for weeks. Melbourne authorities had informed him that the frequency of the occurrence of letters, while inconclusive, corresponded more favorably with the table of frequencies of initial letters of words in English than with any other table.

A reasonable explanation would be that the lines were initial letters of words of a verse of poetry or something like that.

Before a copy of the code was sent to Melbourne, a local naval decoder expressed similar views.

The code, printed in pencil in the back of a copy of the “Rubaiyat” from which the words “Tamam Shud” – meaning “The End” – were torn, was thrown into the back of an unattended car at Glenelg about the time the body of an unknown man was found on Somerton beach on December 1, 1948. In the clothing on the body was a neatly trimmed piece of paper with the words “Tamam Shud.”

(5) Adelaide News, 27th August 1949, p.2

Many try to solve Somerton code

[…]Expert opinion is that the code was made up of initial
letters of words from a verse of poetry or something similar.

The code is:
M R G O A D A B D [sic]

Vic. man’s claim

Melbourne. – A former newspaper seller, Mr. Ernest Jessup, of Caulfield, thinks he may have solved part of the code.
This is how he worked it out:
MRGOADABD [sic] – Mr. Goddard
MTBIMPANETP – Pantryman(?).
MLIABOAIAQC – Mail-boat-AQC (AQC, A class quarters?)
Mr. Jessup believes this hides the name of a ship – his guess is an Indian ship.

Here’s something a little unusual for you all – a feature-length 1971 episode of a Sci-Fi series called “Name of the Game” on YouTube, and set in “A.D. 2017” (also the name of the episode):

Interestingly, the director was a young Stephen Spielberg (it was one of his earliest pieces of work); while its author was American writer Philip Wylie, whose career moved from screenplays to slushy novels to non-fiction to dystopian fiction (and then dotted around between them for several decades).

But more about Wylie (and his connection to a cipher mystery) in a separate post. For now, on with the show! Enjoy! 🙂


You might instead ask: “Was the author of the Voynich Manuscript a nymphomaniac lesbian from Baden Baden obsessed with clysters?”

Or how about: “Was the author of the Voynich Manuscript a medieval psychoactive drugs harvester from (the place now known as) Milton Keynes?”

Or: “Was the author of the Voynich Manuscript a Somalian Humiliatus obsessed with mis-shapen vegetables starting with the letter ‘A’, writing down the results of a six-year-long trek through the Amazon rainforest in a perversely private language?”

The answers to these are, errrm, no, no, and no (respectively).

When the Voynich Manuscript contains so many unexplained points of data (a thousand? Ten thousand?), why on earth should I or anyone else spend more than a minimal amount of time evaluating a Voynich theory that seems to attempt to join together just two of them with what can only be described as the flimsiest of thread?

What – a – waste – of – time – that – would – be.

I’ve just uploaded a draft paper to called Fifteenth Century Cryptography Revisited. This takes a fresh look at the topic (specifically at homophonic ciphers, Simonetta, and Alberti), and takes a view quite different from David Kahn’s (now 50-year-old) interpretation.

Please take a look: I don’t yet know where it will end up (i.e. as a book chapter, a journal article, or whatever), but I thought it would be good to push the current version up, see what people think.

The abstract runs as follows:

Fifteenth Century Cryptography Revisited

In the fifteenth century, the art of secret writing was dramatically transformed. The simple ciphers typical of the preceding century were rapidly replaced by complicated cipher systems built from nulls, nomenclators, homophones and many other tricks.

Homophones – where individual plaintext letters were enciphered by one of a set of different shapes – were, according to David Kahn’s influential interpretation, added specifically to defend against frequency analysis attacks. Kahn interprets this as a sign of the emergence of cryptanalysis, possibly from Arab sources, and also of the growing mathematization and professionalism of cryptology.

However, by closely examining key ciphers and cipher-related texts of this period, this paper instead argues that homophones were instead added as a steganographic defence. That is, the intention was specifically to disguise linguistic weaknesses in Italian and Latin plaintexts that rendered ciphertexts vulnerable to easy decryption.

Building on this analysis, a new account of the history of fifteenth century cryptography is proposed, along with a revised model charting the flow of ideas influencing cryptographic practice during this fascinating period.

Though it runs to eighteen pages, it should be easy to pick up and read. Please let me know if there’s anything that you think needs clarification, or which you think is incorrect etc.

Between 22nd March 2005 and 6th August 2006, someone calling himself/herself “IKLP” (supposedly an acronym for “I Killed Laci Peterson”) posted a large number of comments to the (now-defunct) Internet forum. These comments were mocking, often rhymed (badly), and referred more than a few times to the Zodiac Killer, e.g.

Green River was a bore. Zodiac but a little whore. I am the one to adore. I be the one you should never ignore.

*sigh* So far so nothing. Yet two of these comments appeared to contain codes:

* The IKLP Short Code (10th September 2005)


* The IKLP Long Code (30th October 2005)

Fore if you break the code. Then it is you who will know.


Fore now we will see. If you are as smart as me.

Farmer’s “solution”

In 2008, Christopher Farmer (he of the now-defunct OPORD Analytical forum) posted up what he claimed were the solutions to both of these. In short, Farmer concluded that the IKLP Long Code referred to the solar clock in Cesar Chavez Park (specifically the word “DETERMINATION”), while the IKLP Short Code referred to a specific address:

City Finance and Customer Service
1010 Tenth Street, Third Floor, Suite 2100
Modesto, California, 95354

Unfortunately, Farmer’s Byzantine proofs and long-winded arguments were, as solutions go, no less voluminous than vacuous: for precision, they were right up there with picking random words from the OED or sticking pins into a Borgesian map. Truly, truly horrible.

But the right question to be asking is something far simpler: are these even real codes?

Code or fauxed?

The long string of (basically) wacko-style comments surrounding the codes would give many onlookers good reason to think they came from a person who was somewhat unhinged. But to walk away purely for that reason would be intellectually chicken: we should have the confidence in our cryptanalysis and observation skills to have a look regardless, right? So let’s try…

The short code doesn’t seem to offer much to bite on: it’s just too short. However, I did wonder whether the long code might be (if you remove all the non-digits) a two-digit homophonic cipher:

23 34 34 22 34 54 56 82 40 06 19 05 43 34 06 34 54 33 44 45 99 43

99 83 45 11 94 34 59 95 39 86 55 56 66 94 95 94 54 22 07 86 2

99 32 33 34 88 42 86 59 99 66 69 22 16 64 94 54 95 00 96

34 59 99 64 38 52 34 39 94 50 99 23 49 93 88 49 39 00 45 29 45 42 37 09 00 34 00 93 45 11 95 44 52 19 83 59 95 21 99 54 45 94 39 90 94

99 54 32 95 99 65 99 92 34 49 39 93 39 67 23 95 99 33 49 60 41 68

23 75 93 96 34 67 81 60 72 34 56 43 45 20 05

This has a fairly strong distribution, with 34 and 99 coming in at 9.1% and 7.6% of the total letters respectively (remember that E = ~12.49% and T = ~9.28% in English):

[13] – 34
[11] – 99
[ 7] – 45, 94, 95
[ 6] – 39, 54
[ 4] – 00, 23, 49, 59, 93
[ 3] – 22, 33, 43, 56, 86
[ 2] – 05, 06, 11, 19, 32, 42, 44, 52, 60, 64, 66, 67, 83, 88, 96
[ 1] – 07, 09, 16, 20, 21, 29, 37, 38, 40, 41, 50, 55, 65, 68, 69, 72, 75, 81, 82, 90, 92

All of which might (weakly) argue not for an out-and-out homophonic cipher, but rather for a nomenclatura-type cipher, where some number pairs stand in for common words or (more rarely) syllables; or alternatively a simple cipher that was augmented by adding a load of nulls.

And yet at the same time, it feels to me as though this has only managed to cut close to the core of what’s going on here, but not right to its middle. But even so, it might (possibly) be a start.

What do you think?

I posted up seven homophonic challenge ciphers a few days ago, and now – though it may sound a little counter-intuitive – I’d like to try to help you solve them (bear in mind I don’t know if they can be solved, but the whole point of the challenge is to find out).

Of the seven ciphers, #1 is the longest (and hence probably the easiest). Reformatted for ten columns rather than five (it uses five cycling alphabets ABCDE, ie. “ABCDE ABCDE” over ten columns):

121,213,310,406,516, 108,200,323,416,513,
112,208,308,409,515, 102,216,309,425,509,
114,215,309,417,507, 102,201,323,401,517,
111,200,306,408,500, 113,203,313,407,512,
103,223,313,403,511, 119,213,316,416,511,
102,204,324,418,517, 120,203,324,407,516,
105,209,312,401,504, 117,208,310,408,500,
113,203,301,425,513, 115,201,313,408,515,
115,214,308,406,501, 122,204,322,408,509,
114,209,305,412,504, 117,213,316,402,509,
100,200,310,423,513, 100,214,320,419,509,
114,209,309,419,520, 101,200,320,416,518,
120,211,313,403,509, 103,207,313,421,513,
107,209,305,407,523, 115,224,313,416,508,
102,203,306,416,514, 107,200,310,401,509,

Repeated Quadgram

Commenter Jarlve (whose interesting work on the Zodiac Killer ciphers some here may already know) noted that there is a repeated quadgram here, i.e. the sequence 408 500 113 203 appears twice.

This is entirely true, and also a very sensible starting point: I’ve highlighted this quadgram in the following diagram, along with all other repeated A-alphabet tokens (i.e. 100..125), and also any tokens they touch more than once (i.e. in the B and E alphabets):

Another thing that’s interesting here is that the 102 token (that appears four times and is coloured purple in the above) appears with four different letters before it as well as four different letters after it. In classical cryptology, that’s normally taken as a strong indicator that this is a vowel: and with the high instance count (4 out of 31, i.e. 12.9%), you might reasonably predict that this is E, A, O, or perhaps I (in order of decreasing likelihood).

[Note that I haven’t looked to check what letter this actually is: having created the challenge ciphers, I’ve just left them to one side, and don’t intend to look again at them.]

Similarly, the 114 token (that appears three times and is coloured green) is always preceded by 509, and is followed by 209 on two of the three instances. (Note that the token two after it is 309 in two of the three instances as well.) Again, in classical cryptology, these kind of structured contacts are normally taken as strong indicators that this token enciphers a consonant: and with the high instance count (3 out of 31, i.e. 9.7%), you might reasonably predict that this enciphers T or possibly N, S, or H.

With these two examples in mind, it strikes me that for any given plaintext language (English in the case of these challenge ciphers) you could easily build up probability tables for repetitions of the two tokens before and the two tokens after any given token: and then use those as a basis to predict (for a given ciphertext length) which plaintext letter they imply the letter is likely to be.

Though this may not sound like very much, because you can do this for all five of the alphabets independently, the results kind of rake across the ciphertext, yielding a grid of probabilistic clues that some clever person might well use as a basis for working towards the plaintext in ways that wouldn’t possible with randomly-chosen homophonic ciphers. Just sayin’. 😉

And The Point Is…

It’s entirely true that for homophonic ciphers where each individual cipher is chosen at random, the difficulty of solving a reasonably short cipher with five homophones per letter would be very high. But knowing (as here) that each column is strictly limited to a given sub-alphabet, my point is that many of the tips and tricks of classical cryptology are also available to us, albeit in slightly different forms from normal.

Yet while it’s encouraging for solvers that there is a repeated quadgram here, I don’t currently believe that cipher #1 will be (quite) solvable with pencil and paper, as if it were a Sudoku extra-extra-hard puzzle (though as always, I’d be more than delighted to be proved wrong).

However, my hunch remains that strictly cycling homophonic ciphers may well prove to be surprisingly solvable using deviousness and computer assistance, and I look forward very much to seeing how they fare. 🙂

While thinking about the Scorpion S1 unsolved cipher in the last few days, it struck me that it seemed to be a special kind of homophonic cipher, one where the homophones are used in rigid groups.

That is: whereas the Zodiac Killer’s Z408 cipher cycled (mostly but not always) between sets of homophones by their appearance, it appears that the Scorpion S5 cipher maker instead rigidly cycled between 16 sets of homophones by column. What’s interesting about both cases is that the use pattern gives solvers extra information beyond that which they would have for a homophonic cipher where each homophone instance was chosen completely at random.

Perhaps there’s already a special name for this: but (for now) what I’m calling them is “constrained homophonic ciphers“, insofar as they are homophonic ciphers but where an additional use pattern constrains the specific way that the homophones are chosen.

The question I immediately wanted to know the answer to was this: can we solve these? And what better way to find this out than by issuing a challenge!

Seven Challenge Ciphers

The seven challenge ciphers are downloadable as a single zip file here, or as seven individual CSV files here:
* #1
* #2
* #3
* #4
* #5
* #6
* #7

How The Ciphers Were Made

Unlike normal challenge ciphers, what I’m giving you here (in line with Kerkhoffs’ Principle) is complete disclosure of the cipher system and even the plaintext language.

The cipher system used here is a homophonic cipher with exactly five possible homophones for each plaintext letter BUT where the homophones are strictly selected according to the column number in which they appear in the ciphertext. Each separate CSV uses its own individual key.

The plaintext language is English: they are straightforward sentences taken from a variety of books, and without any sadistic linguistic tricks (i.e. no “SEPIA AARDVARK” or similar to confuse the issue).

The enciphered files are simple CSV (comma-separated values) text files, arranged in rows of five letters at a time, but encoded as decimal numbers. For example, the first (and the longest) challenge cipher (“test1.csv”) begins as follows:


Here, “121,213,310,406,516,” enciphers plaintext letters #1..#5, “108,200,323,416,513,” enciphers plaintext letters #6..#10, and so forth. The first column is numbered in the range 100..125 (i.e. these belong to the 1st homophonic alphabet), the second column 200..225 (i.e. these belong to the 2nd homophonic alphabet), and so forth.

The start of the message and the end of the message are exactly as you would expect: there is no padding at either end, no embedded key information, just pure ciphertext.

The Rules

Treating this as a massively parallel book search using cloud databases (a) will be treated as cheating, and (b) will spoil it for other people, so please don’t do that. This challenge is purely about finding the limits of cryptanalysis, not about grandstanding with Big Data.

Hence you’ll need to also tell me (broadly) what you did in order to rise to the challenge, so that I can be sure you haven’t solved it through secondary or underhand means.

The Prize

If nobody solves any of the challenge ciphers by the end of 2017, my wallet stays shut.

However, the person (or indeed group) who has the most success decrypting any of these seven challenge ciphers by 31st December 2017 will be the “2017 Cipher Mysteries Cipher Champion“, and will also receive a shockingly generous £10 prize (sent anywhere in the world where PayPal can send money) to spend as they wish.

In the case of multiple entrants solving the same difficulty cipher independently, I’ll award the prize to the first to contact me. In all cases, please leave a comment below.

In all situations, my decision is final, absolute, arbitrary and there is no opportunity for appeal. Just so you know.

PS: any individual (or indeed covert agency) wishing to donate more money to increase the prize fund (i.e. to make a little more cryptanalytic sport of this), please feel free to email me.

Hints and Tips

I suspect that the multiplicity (i.e. the number of different symbols used divided by the length of the ciphertext) will prove to be too high and the ciphertext lengths too short for conventional homophonic decryption programmes, so I expect prospective solvers won’t be able to look to these for any great help.

Similarly, I don’t believe that numerical brute force and/or parallel processing will be sufficient here: all the same, these challenges (if solvable) will probably prove to be things that anyone anywhere can tackle (e.g. through hill-climbing and cleverly exploiting the constraints), not just the NSA, GCHQ or similar with their supercomputers.

For what it’s worth, my best guess right now is that #1 (the longest of the seven ciphertexts) will prove to be solvable… though only just. Even so, I’d be delighted to be proved wrong for any of the others.

Incidentally, I chose the length of the very shortest challenge cipher to broadly match the length of the Scorpion S1 cipher: so even in the (perhaps unlikely) case where all seven of my challenge ciphers get solved, there’ll still be an eighth challenge to direct your clever efforts at. 😉

I’ve blogged a few times about trying to crack the Scorpion Ciphers (a series of apparently homophonic ciphers sent to American crime TV host John Walsh). Most of my effort has been spent on the Scorpion S5 cipher, which (despite having 12 columns) appears to be rigidly cycling between 16 cipher alphabets.

However, it struck me a few days ago that this might also give us a way in to the Scorpion S1 cipher. This is because all the repeats there seem to be at a column distance of 0, 1, 4, 5, and 6, with the overwhelming majority of repeats at column distances 0 and 5. (The only exception is the “backwards L” glyph, which appears in two pairs, one pair at column distance 0 apart other, and the other at column distance 5 apart)

The Slippy S1 Five-Alphabet Hypothesis

Putting the 16-alphabet-cycle from S5 together with the mostly-0-or-5-column-distance observation from S1 yields my “Slippy S1 Five-Alphabet Hypothesis”: that Scorpion S1 was constructed from a cycle of 5 cipher alphabets, where the encipherer always reset to alphabet #1 at the beginning of a line, and usually (but not always) stepped to the next alphabet along with each new column.

So whereas a rigid 5-alphabet cycle (i.e. with no slips) would have a fixed alphabet “ownership” of 1234512345 for each ten-glyph line, I suspect that we can make a “slippy” guess for S1’s cycle ownership, to try to reconstruct where the encipherer slipped from one cycle into the next. My best current set of guesses for S1 is therefore:


(Note that I suspect that the “backwards L” shape appears on two alphabets, i.e. once in alphabet #2 and once in alphabet #4, but that this is the only exception to the rule.)

What this means is that each of the five alphabets has only 26 glyphs in them (one for each letter of the alphabet): and so we can tell that if two shapes are numbered as being in the same alphabet, they are very probably two different letters.

Can We Solve This?

53 of S1’s 10 x 7 = 70 glyphs are unique, yielding a high multiplicity of 75.7%. By way of comparison, it would seem that normal (unstructured) homophonic ciphers are only solvable when their multiplicity is around the 20%-25% mark.

However, the question here is whether being able to group the letters into five unique alphabets (even probabilistically) reduces the number of combinations enough to make this genuinely solvable. As normal, pencil-and-paper solvers can make some pretty good guesses, e.g. the “S Λ” pair on lines #3 and #6 probably enciphers “TH”, while any repeated letter stands a good chance of being a normal high-frequency letter such as ETAOINS etc: but computers would do this much better.

My instinct is that this should be a good candidate for hill-climbing: and that the one-glyph-per-letter-per-alphabet constraint will prove reasonably effective. But effective enough? We’ll have to wait and see…

Incidentally, a good sanity check for this Scorpion S1 hypothesis would be to run some “forward simulations” (which is the kind of thing Dave Oranchak has done so much of with the Zodiac Killer Ciphers). By which I mean: if we feed a variety of 70-letter English texts into my best guess set of slippy cycles (i.e. “ITWASTHEBESTOFTIMESI” fed into 1234512235 / 1234512344 would become: “I1 T2 W3 A4 S5 T1 H2 E2 B3 E5 S1 T2 O3 F4 T5 I1 M2 E3 S4 I4”), I predict that the final average multiplicity of the texts will be close to 75%. But I might be wrong!

Apart from the case of the Somerton Man, has any other police investigation ever revolved around a book left in a complete stranger’s car? Personally, I’d be surprised: this seems to be a unique feature of the whole Somerton Man narrative.

But what, then, of the obvious alternate explanation, i.e. that the Rubaiyat was in the car already? For all the persuasive bulk the dominant explanation has gained from being parroted so heavily for nearly seven decades, I think it’s time to examine this (I think major) alternative and explore its logical consequences…

Gerry Feltus’s Account

To the best of my knowledge, Gerry Feltus is the only person who has actually talked with the (still anonymous) man who handed the Rubaiyat in. So let us first look at Feltus’ account (“The Unknown Man”, p.105) of what happened at the time of the Somerton Man’s first inquest when the police search for the Rubaiyat was mentioned in the press:

Francis [note: this was Feltus’ codename for the man] immediately recalled that his brother-in-law had left a copy of that book in the glove box of his little Hillman Minx [note: not the car’s actual make] which he normally parked in Jetty Road. He could not recall him collecting it, and so it was probably there. He went to the car and looked in the glove box – yes, the book was still there. To his amazement a section had been torn out of the rear page, in the position described by past newspaper reports.

“Ronald Francis” then telephoned his brother-in-law:

Do you recall late last year when we all went for a drive in my car, just after that man was found dead on the beach at Somerton? You were sitting in the back with your wife and we all got out of the car, the book you were reading, you put in the glove box of my car, and you left it there.

To which the brother-in-law replied:

No it wasn’t mine. When I got in the back seat, the book was on the floor; I fanned through some pages and thought it was yours, so when I got out of the car I put it in the glove box for you.

A while back, I pressed Gerry Feltus for more specific details on this: though he wouldn’t say what make of car the “Hillman Minx” actually was, he said that the man told him that the book turned up “a day or two after the body was found on the beach, and during daylight hours“. Gerry added that “Francis” was now very elderly and suffering from severe memory loss. Even so, he said that “I have spoken to Francis, his family and others and I am more than satisfied with what he has told me“.

Finally: when “Francis” handed the Rubaiyat to the police, he “requested that his identity not be disclosed”, for fear that he would be perpetually hounded by the curious. Even today (2017) it seems that only Gerry Feltus knows his identity for sure: though a list of possible names would include Dr Malcolm Glen Sarre and numerous others.

Newspaper Accounts

All the same, when I was trying to put everything into a timeline a while back, I couldn’t help but notice that Gerry’s account didn’t quite match the details that appeared in the newspapers at the time:

[1] 23rd July 1949, Adelaide News, page 1:

[…] an Adelaide businessman read of the search in “The News” and recalled that in November he had found a copy of the book which had been thrown on the back seat of his car while it was parked in Jetty road, Glenelg.

[2] 25th July 1949, Adelaide Advertiser, page 3:

A new lead to the identity of the Somerton body may have been discovered on Saturday when Det.Sgt. R. L. Leane received from a city business man a torn copy of Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam said to have been found in his car at Glenelg about last November, a week or two before the body was found.
  The last few lines of the poem, including the words “Tamam shud” (meaning “the end”) have been torn out of the book.
  When the body was searched some time ago a scrap of paper bearing the words “Tamam shud” was found in a pocket.
  Scrawled in pencilled block letters on the back of the cover of the book are groups of letters which appear to be foreign words and some numbers.
  These, it is hoped, may be of assistance in tracing the dead man’s identity.
  The business man told Det.Sgt. Leane that he found the copy of the Rubaiyat in the rear of his car while it was parked in Jetty road Glenelg, about the time of the RAAF air pageant in November.
  He said he had known nothing about the much-publicised words “Tamam shud” until he saw a reference to them on Friday.

[3] 26th July 1949, Adelaide News, page 1:

The book had been thrown into the back seat of a motor car in Jetty road, Glenelg, shortly before the victim’s body was found on the beach at Somerton on December 1.
Although the lettering was faint, police managed to read it by using ultra-violet light. In the belief that the lettering might be a code, a copy has been sent to decoding experts at Army Headquarters, Melbourne.

Why Do These Accounts Differ?

The Parafield air pageant mentioned unequivocally in the above newspaper accounts was held on 20th November 1948, ten days or so before the Somerton Man was found dead on Somerton Beach. Yet Gerry Feltus was told by “Ronald Francis” himself that the book turned up “a day or two after the body was found on the beach”. Clearly, these two accounts can’t both be right at the same time.

I of course asked Gerry directly about this last year: by way of reply, he said “Don’t believe everything you read in the media, eg; ‘The business man told Det. Leane…. etc…’.“. Moreover, he suggested that I was beginning “to sound like [Derek] Abbott”, who had “nominated the same things as you”.

This is, of course, polite Feltusese for “with respect, you’re talking out your arse, mate“: but at the same time, all he has to back up this aspect of his account – i.e. that the book turned up after the Somerton Man was found, not ten days before – is “Ronald Francis”‘s word, given half a century after the event.

Hence this is the point where I have to temporarily bid adieu to Gerry Feltus’s account, because something right at the core of it seems to be broken… and when you trace the non-fitting pieces, they all seem to me to lead back to the Rubaiyat and the car.

So… what really happened with the Rubaiyat and the car? Specifically, what would it mean if the Rubaiyat had been in the car all along?

The Rubaiyat Car Theory

If the Rubaiyat was already in the back of the “little Hillman Minx”, it would seem to be the case that:

(*) Ronald Francis had no idea what it was or why it was there
(*) Ronald Francis’ brother-in-law had no idea what it was or why it was there
(*) …and yet the Rubaiyat was connected to that car in some non-random way
(*) …or, rather, it was connected to someone who was connected to the car

Given that one of the phone numbers on its back was that of Prosper McTaggart Thomson – a person who lived a quarter of a mile away from where “Ronald Francis” lived or worked, and who (as the Daphne Page court case from five months earlier demonstrated beyond all doubt) helped people sell cars on the black market by providing fake “pegged-price” documentation – it would seem reasonable at this point to hypothesize that Prosper Thomson may well have been the person who had sold “Ronald Francis” that specific car.

There was also a very good reason why many people might well have been looking to sell their cars in November 1948: the Holden 48-215 – the first properly Australian car – was just then about to be launched. Note that the “little Hillman Minx” could not have been a Holden if it had been driven to the Parafield air pageant, as the very first Holden was not sold until the beginning of December 1948:

If “Ronald Francis” had just bought a car in (say) mid-November 1948, I can quite imagine him proudly taking his wife, his brother-in-law and his wife off to the Parafield air pageant for a nice day out.

If Prosper Thomson’s behaviour in the Daphne Page court case was anything to go by, I can also easily imagine that the person who had sold that car might have wondered if he was being swindled by the middle man. In his summing up, the judge said that “[t]he defendant [Thomson] had not paid the £400 balance, and had never intended to do so“: so who’s to say that Thomson was not above repeating that same trick, perhaps with someone from out of town?

Perhaps, then, the person whose Rubaiyat it was was not Prosper Thomson himself, but the person from whom Prosper Thomson had just bought the car in order to sell it to “Ronald Francis”.

Perhaps it was this person’s distrust of Thomson’s financial attitude had led him to hide the Rubaiyat under the back seat of the car, with the “Tamam Shud” specifically ripped out so that he could prove that it was he who had sold the car to Thomson in the first place.

And so perhaps it was the car’s previous owner who was the Somerton Man, visiting Glenelg to track down the owner of his newly sold car, simply to make sure he hadn’t been ripped off by Prosper Thomson.

The Awkward Silence

I’ve previously written about how social the Somerton Man seemed to have been, and how that jarred with the lack of helpful response the police received. For all its physical size, Australia still had a relatively small population back then.

So perhaps the silence surrounding the Somerton Man cold case will turn out to be nothing more than that of jittery people buying and selling cars not through dealers, people who the Price Commissioners pegged prices had effectively turned into white-collar criminals – for how many professionals were so well-off in post-war Australia that they could afford to be principled about losing £400 or more in the sale of their shiny American car?

Incidentally, it has been reported that on the back of the Rubaiyat were written two phone numbers: one of which was the (now-famous) phone number for the nurse Jo Thomson (which her soon-to-be-husband Prosper Thomson was also using for small ads in the newspapers), while the other was allegedly for a local bank.

These are the two things people selling black market cars need: the number of the middle man who was laundering the transaction, and the number of bank to make sure cheques clear (remember that a dud cheque to pay for a car was ultimately what triggered the Daphne Page court case).

But the other thing such people need is an absence: an absence of discussion about the transaction. And if “Ronald Francis” had only just bought his car on the black market through Prosper Thomson (thanks to Price Commission pegging, only about 10% of car sales back then went through official car dealer channels), he would surely have had a very specific reason not to want the details of his sale explored and made public.

And so I wonder whether this was the real reason why Ronald Francis didn’t want his name revealed: because if the police were to understand the web of dealings that had brought the Somerton Man to Glenelg, that would inevitably make it clear that the two men were the participants in a black market car sale, one which – though widely practised – was still a Price Commission offence with stiff penalties.

Along those same lines, I also wonder whether it was Ronald Francis himself who erased the pencil writing from the Rubaiyat’s back cover, to try to cover at least some of the tracks that might lead police in his direction. Of course, we now know that SAPOL’s photographers were able to use ultra-violet photography to (mostly) reconstruct the letters: but this may well not have been known to him at the time.

Please note that I’m not saying this is the only plausible explanation for everything. However, insofar as it tackles (and indeed resolves) a large number of the trickiest aspects of the case, it’s at least worth considering, right?

A Final Note

To be clear, when I ran this whole Rubaiyat Car suggestion past Gerry Feltus (admittedly in an earlier iteration), he dismissed it out of hand (though without any actual evidence to back up his position):

“I will not go into the possibility that the man purchased his car from Prosper. It is an absolutely rubbish suggestion that has no credibility. Poor old Prosper. He must have been the only ‘black market’ racketeer in Adelaide. From my knowledge of the climate during that relevant period he was a ‘nothing’.”

Well, Gerry was absolutely right insofar as that in 1948 Prosper was a small-time black marketeer, a mere minnow in the Melbourne-dominated black market car pool: but all the same, he was a minnow that lived extremely close by.

I suspect the real problem here is that if the mainstream story is wrong – that is, if Ronald Francis’ car had not long before (like so many others at the time) been bought at a premium on the black market, and if Francis had told white[-collar] lies to try to cover up his part in an illegal transaction once he realized what had happened – then people have been concealing their true involvement with what happened for nearly 70 years, not because of murder but because the price control legislation made criminals of nearly everyone selling their car.

And so it might well be that Gerry Feltus (and indeed just about everyone else) has been viewing the Somerton Man as entirely the wrong kind of mystery: not a police cold case, but a Price Commission cold case. How boringly middle class!