The Somerton Beach Mystery: A Sidebar

Mysteries are governed by the law that no coincidence, however tenuous, is insignificant and the Somerton Beach Mystery, a hardy perennial if ever there were one, is no exception. In the post-war era that particular mystery captured the headlines, and the imaginations, of the population, bringing coincidence and happenstance into the spotlight, no matter how tenuous the connection might have been.

This is the story of one of those coincidences. It is no more than a sidebar to the main mystery and, in terms of contributing towards an explanation to the Somerton Mystery, manifestly a dead end. But it arose out of the same background: the tremendous upheaval among people’s emotional lives during World War II, an upheaval whose effect lingered on for years.

These were the years of ‘wartime aphrodisia’, when peacetime sexual restraint was cast aside, affairs flourished and relationships died. People raced to the altar and then on to the divorce court: 1942 was the year of Peak Marriage in Australia (three times the current rate) and 1946 was the year of Peak Divorce – until the legal reforms of the Whitlam Era. The war triggered the biggest jolt to gender relations in Australia prior to the advent of Second Wave feminism.

On 1 December 1948 the body of a man, never identified, was found on Adelaide’s Somerton Beach. He had been poisoned and the reasons ascribed for his murder, suicide, or whatever it was, include espionage, crime and jealousy. Among his clothing was hidden a piece of paper, torn from the last page of a copy of the 19th century English poem The Rubaiyatof Omar Khayyam and bearing the words ‘tamán shud’. These words, meaning ‘ended’ or ‘finished’, form the conclusion to The Rubaiyat, and the poem has become central to the mystery.

By a bizarre coincidence, the actual copy of The Rubaiyat from which the piece of paper had been torn turned up eight months later. The book contained the telephone number of an attractive 28 year old woman named Jessica Harkness, who lived just up the road from where the body had been found. Confronted with a plaster cast of the face of the Somerton Man, a visibly agitated Harkness denied knowing him. Then, unprompted, she told police that she had given a copy of The Rubaiyat to a soldier named Alf Boxall in Sydney in 1945. The police suspected that Boxall might be the Somerton Man, but he turned up alive and well in Sydney, flourishing his own copy of The Rubaiyat.

In August 1945 Boxall and Harkness had met for a drink at the Marine Hotel at Clifton Gardens in Mosman. Harkness was single and working as a nurse at the Royal North Shore Hospital in St Leonards. Boxall was 15 years older than her, married, and a lieutenant in the army. Over drinks in the Marine Hotel, she gave him the copy of The Rubaiyat, which she had inscribed with the following lines from the poem:

Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore—but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My thread-bare Penitence a-pieces tore

… lines which have been interpreted by author Kerry Greenwood as ‘an invitation to begin or continue an affair’. But there’s no evidence Harkness and Boxall ever met again after that day, and that was the end of that.


Later, when the army of amateur mystery solvers began to pore over these intriguing and salacious details, they noticed a strange coincidence. Two months before the Harkness-Boxall tryst in the Marine Hotel, the body of a man had been found just a couple of hundred metres away in Mosman’s Ashton Park. An open copy of The Rubaiyat was found next to the body, with the following passage marked.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust unto dust, and under dust, to lie
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and sans end.

Coincidence? It’s helpful here to pull back and consider the poem.

The Rubaiyat was published in 1859 by the English litterateur Edward Fitzgerald, who presented his poem as a translation from the work of the medieval Iranian mathematician Omar Khayyam. It expounded a free-thinking hedonism, clothed in a flowing Orientalist garb, which went right against the grain of Victorian morality – and its counter-cultural appeal proved irresistible. Eighty years after it appeared, The Rubaiyat still chimed exactly with the urges of wartime aphrodisia.

Fitzgerald’s poem was so influential that mystery solvers leapt to the conclusion that the bodies in Ashton Park and Somerton Beach were linked; that there was a gang of fiendish, Rubaiyat-reading murderers who were going around poisoning people and then dumping their bodies in public places. A more straightforward explanation is that the influence of The Rubaiyat was so pervasive that many different people were using it to justify many different things, including having affairs and committing suicide.

On 3 June 1945 a body was found in Ashton Park, Mosman. It was that of George Saul Marshall, a member of a prominent Baghdadi Jewish family long domiciled in Singapore.

Brilliant and handsome, George Marshall had studied in France, where he published a (badly received) book of poetry. Returning to Singapore, he began to exhibit signs of mental illness. In 1939 he migrated to Perth, where another brother had already settled – most of the family having now moved to Australia. By now George had become disturbed and reclusive, and made suicide threats. Over the next five years he moved between Perth and Sydney, before eventually settling in the latter. On 20 May 1945 he took a lethal overdose of barbiturates, lay down and died in a secluded corner of Ashton Park, with a copy of The Rubaiyat at his side.

And this was the real link, tenuous as it is, between Harkness and Boxall on the one hand, and Marshall on the other: not a murderous conspiracy but the philosophy espoused by the poem. Harkness read The Rubaiyat as encouragement to transcend conventional sexual restraint; Marshall as encouragement to transcend the ultimate convention: life itself.

An inquest into Marshall’s death was held on 14 August, on the very day the world waited for Japan’s response to the Allies’ demand for surrender.

The key witness was Gweneth Dorothy Graham, a 25 year old hairdresser. Graham told how she had first met Marshall four years previously, but had lost contact with him until early in May, when he had called her up out of the blue. Over the next few weeks they met for dinner five times, but had quarrelled frequently. After their last meeting he had sent her a cheque for £200 (about eight months of the average male wage) to set up her own hairdressing salon. She described Marshall as ‘extremely temperamental, emotional, apt to take offence, and domineering’. The hearing was reported briefly in the press: Perth’s Daily News nailed both the local and the philosophical angle with the headline ‘Former Perth Omar Disciple Suicides’.

But the impact of Marshall’s death didn’t end there.

The day after the inquest, 15 August 1945, was celebrated as Victory in the Pacific or VP day. The photograph known as the ‘Dancing Man’ has come to represent Sydney’s VP Day, but there was sadness as well as joy. As well as a lot of coming together – Harkness and Boxall being perhaps a case in point – there was a lot of breaking apart, with wartime relationships being wound up as people picked up the threads of their peacetime lives.

Gweneth Graham lived in 12/4 Roslyn Road, Kings Cross. Eleven days after the inquest into Marshall’s death, she and man named Helmutt Hendon returned to the Roslyn Road flat around 11 pm. According to a press report she said she was going to take a bath and when after a while, when Hendon did not hear any movement from the bathroom, he went in and ‘discovered her body floating face downwards in the bath. Her wrist had been cut, and a safety razor was lying at the bottom of the bath.’

At the inquest into Graham’s death, Hendon told how he had met Graham in January 1944, just before he had been conscripted into the Army. He said that he and Graham had been in an on-and-off relationship for most of 1944, that she had accepted his offer to move into his Roslyn Street flat while he was away in the Army, and that she had stayed there when he moved back in a few months previously. This was at the height of Sydney’s wartime accommodation shortage, and rooms were hard to get.

Hendon said Graham had told him that she had renewed her acquaintance  with Marshall, and that she had been agitated by his suicide: ‘she said that she understood that when a man had nothing to live for he would take his life’. She was also upset because the caretaker at Roslyn Street was demanding she move out because she and Hendon were not married.

In the evening of 25th August the two went to the cinema in Castlereagh Street where the movie ‘On Approval’ was showing: a British romantic comedy about men who can’t show commitment. Then they went home, and after a while Hendon said that, given the caretaker’s attitude, it might be better if she moved out. Then she killed herself.

The unvoiced judgement was that Graham had killed herself because Hendon rejected her and coming on top of Marshall’s example, that seems have been the trigger. But her suicide was part of a wave of emotional upheaval during the war years, the same upheaval which set Jessica Harkness and Alf Boxall off on the path towards the Somerton Beach Mystery.

Nick Hordern is a former senior writer with the Australian Financial Review and the co-author of World War Noir : Sydney’s unpatriotic war (NewSouth Publishing), a history of the Sydney Underworld during World War II, and Sydney Noir : The Golden Years