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The Somerton Man’s suitcase and its forgotten fingerprints

Fingerprints. How the police love them. Fingerprints have solved more cases than can be counted, they are invaluable, they short-cut investigations and hasten convictions, they prove the self-claimed innocent as guilty, they strike defence lawyers dumb and please prosecutors and overworked magistrates.


Fingerprints = Guilty = Case Closed.

The Somerton Man had his prints taken a couple of days after he was found and a few weeks later they were forwarded to all the English speaking countries: Scotland Yard, The RCMP (Canada), the FBI, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, then the mammoth task of sending copies to every police station in Australia. That’s fingerprints for you. They solve cases, save time, save money, save frustration, save reputations, save the innocent and solve mysteries. So what’s not to love about them?

Because somebody didn’t love the Somerton Man’s prints in the way they should have been.

DS Leane showed up at the Adelaide Railway Station on January 14th to have a look at an unclaimed suitcase thought to belong to the Somerton Man in that it had been lodged the same day as one of the tickets found in his pocket. It had been sitting in the luggage racks for six weeks and according to some sources was unlocked even though almost new. File that under questionable.

The suitcase held a cornucopia of identifiable items fingerprint wise but DS Leane preferred to adopt a different approach in his efforts to identify who owned it and instead took a few bits and pieces back to the station to be photographed and distributed to the press.

A tie that showed a name. T. Keane.

Three items that showed a trade. The Tools.

And an item that showed the type of cotton thread he used to sew on his loose buttons. The Barbour Thread.

This motley collection, according to Detective Sergeant Leane, was all SAPOL needed to identify the Somerton Man as the owner of the suitcase and nobody raised a whisper. Not the press, his fellow officers, his superiors or the generally well-informed public.

Nobody got onto a rooftop and shouted “WHATABOUT FINGERPRINTS?”

That’s the point where the case lost its investigative purpose, especially when you look at the highly experienced personnel involved: Detectives Gollan, Brown, Canney, Strangeways, Leane, PC Sutherland and lastly, Mr James Durham – fingerprinter par excellence.

Not a whisper from any of them, not a whisper from Gerry Feltus either. If ever there was a case for Mum’s The Word this was it.

There is only one reason for not fingerprinting any of the hard-surface items found in the suitcase and that’s because they wouldn’t have found any belonging to the Somerton Man, and that to coin a Boxall aphorism, would have upset the applecart.

The applecart nearly everybody is still pushing.


You know it makes sense.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. The Sly Dog #

    I don’t know if I like this in any way that helps me with the things that bug me about the very bipolar investigation. I mean, if SM dies of a gun shot wound to the head and a pistol was found near the body… finger print it, see if he shot himself. If he was found with a dagger to the heart, fingerprint it, see if he stabbed himself. Fingerprint the kind of items involved in some kind of foul play linked to his death… suitcase or items within didn’t kill him. If the suitcase was a plant, the contents are kind of so random it’s hard to understand why someone would scrape together those contents… and then lodge it before noon on the 30th / before SM had even died. Now that would be one big conspiracy!

    March 22, 2022
  2. Well, I did my best to engage Pelling, Sanders and Milongal but needless to say, got the result I expected. Pelling has nothing to contribute, Sanders maintains his position of snide impertinence and Milongal wants me to do his research for him. Meanwhile, Gordon Cramer, aka Colonel Blimp stepped in, as usual, to claim prior knowledge and a far loftier view of things than we, the low end chatterers have attained. That bloke’s arrogance is breathtaking given he’s spent years chasing a micro phantom through a microscope. That’s when he’s making sure I’m not out there with a rifle gunning for him. You have to admit, the standard of debate out there is a little on the poor side.

    The irony is that none of them have an appreciation for the bleeding obvious. The fingerprinting wasn’t done because it would not have been in the best interests of the party who advised Leane to include the thread card in the photo a little prematurely (strange why none of the above want to talk about that) and who was the same chap who managed to slip a box of matches into the evidence – the box of matches Moss didn’t find because it wasn’t there – who placed the TS slip into our man’s fob pocket – the slip Moss didn’t find because it too wasn’t there – who created the book found in the Hillman Minx furphy, who found it impossible to photograph the Freeman Rubaiyat because nobody can prove it ever existed, similarly with torn page and the phone number … in other words, we were handed a large crock of shite from day 1, and a surprisingly large number of contributors are still quaffing from it. Though not me …

    March 24, 2022
  3. The Sly Dog #

    Yep, yep, yep… classic cover up! But why, oh WHY take the extra-ordinary measures to embalm the body and freeze it for six months and make a highly detailed plaster bust for perpetuity?? Plus a burial in a spot with a deeper water table to provide the best chance for exhumation of the corpse for ID purposes well into the future…The best cover up surely would have included a quick trip to the cemetery incinerator!

    March 24, 2022
  4. I’ve always thought that Prof Cleland was a little on the weird side, for instance he was planning a trip to NG before his heath gave out, wanting to collect their recipes for cooking human flesh. Apparently he wanted TSM’s cleaned skull for a desk paperweight and was very annoyed when told he couldn’t have it … which puts him in the frame as the promoter of making a bust.

    March 24, 2022
  5. The Sly Dog #

    Looking at this case through the lens with the SM in focus as sharp as we can, I do acknowledge that we just aren’t seeing what else the SA Police, including DS Leane, had on their plates at the time. I am not saying they didn’t cock up the investigation, but a well-presented unidentified dead man with no obvious signs of foul-play turns up: chances are that eventually someone would contact authorities looking for their missing husband / partner / father / son at some point…

    Why no fingerprints lifted from the suitcase or items within?? I reckon we would be hard pressed to find another unidentified body turning up in Australia in the late forties / early fifties that was fingerprinted and then matched to latent prints lifted off some item that used to belong to them just to be sure that the item(s) was theirs. If there are cases out their in the public domain, I would be interested to read them. Despite all of that I am still bugged by the fact he was embalmed – a mortuary experiment suggested by Cleland? and the consignment of a plaster bust. Didn’t Cleland want casts of SM’s hands?? A plaster cast of a large soft hand, now that would make a great paper weight!

    March 24, 2022
  6. Well, yeah, but Leane didn’t dismiss the notion that TSM had been murdered TS slip aside, and that should have propelled him to use Durham as his fingerprint man. Adelaide was no Naked City in 1949, no gangs, no mafia, almost, no freaked-out meth users or serial killers. I’m thinking they had more break and enters, assaults and car thieves on their books. This event probably held their interest for longer than we think, it’s held ours so why not them?

    March 24, 2022
    • The Sly Dog #

      After all the death through WW2 maybe a life, one dead unidentified man, was considered cheap. Austerity meant cut backs. Maybe photographs were expensive to take and develop (therefore minimal taken) and latent finger printing reserved for the most heinous crimes. If he was truely missed someone will come to the SA police or another states police seeking him out.
      But embalming must have been expensive, so too the services / time of Paul Lawson!!

      March 24, 2022
      • Cops like solving cases, it’s why they do the job. The better you get at it the higher you go, no different from any other profession. Too many TV cops has us thinking they’re all fat, lazy and crooked. My view anyway and the only serious cops I’ve ever had to deal with was Sydney’s Licensing Squad, and they were all bloody villains.

        March 24, 2022

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