The Somerton Man

On Dec. 1, 1948, a bather discovered a body on the beach near Adelaide, Australia. The man appeared to be European, about 45 years old, well dressed, and in excellent physical condition. Indeed, the coroner could not determine a cause of death. Still more strangely, it seemed the man had carried no money, and all identifying marks had been removed from his clothes. Apparently he had left a suitcase at the Adelaide railway station, but it contained no useful clues. Photos and fingerprints were circulated throughout the English-speaking world, but no one identified him.

And the body bore one last strange clue: In a trouser fob pocket, one of the investigators found a tiny piece of paper bearing the words “Taman Shud.” Those are the final words in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; they mean “The End.” A local doctor came forward with a copy of that book, from which the words had been clipped. He had found it tossed on the front seat of his car the day before the body was found.

But even that clue went nowhere. To this day, no one knows who the man was or how he died. He’s known only as the Somerton man.

Bad News for Counterfeiters

If you’ve tried to photocopy banknotes since about 1996, you may have found that your copier won’t cooperate — many machines will balk if they detect a pattern of symbols like the one on the left. Eight such patterns are marked on the U.S. $20 bill at right.

The authorities have been understandably mum about the details, but the pattern has been discovered on more than 30 world currencies. It’s known as the EURion constellation.

The Gävle Goats

There are good Swedes and bad Swedes. The good ones build a three-ton straw goat every Christmas, and the bad ones try to burn it down. This has happened almost every year since 1966, when the first goat went up in flames on New Year’s Eve. The forces of good have brought in police guards, webcams, soldiers, volunteers, and dogs, but the bad guys have usually won. In 1976 the goat was even run over by a car.

What all this means is a question for sociologists, but it’s become a local industry. In 1988 English bookmakers began laying odds on the goat’s prospects, and now “goat committees” stock up on flame retardant and extra straw. They’re up against a tough foe, though: In 40 years of struggle, only four arsonists have been caught.

“Singular Expedient”

A strange story is that related in a paper on ‘English and Irish Juries,’ in All the Year Round. The president judge in the case, Sir James Dyce, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, astonished at the verdict of acquittal in so plain a case, sought an interview with the foreman, who, having previously obtained a promise of secrecy during his lifetime, confessed that he had killed the man in a struggle in self-defence, and said that he had caused himself to be placed on the jury in order to insure his acquittal.

— Charles Bombaugh, Facts and Fancies for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1905


In 1911, Argentine con man Eduardo de Valfierno found a way to steal the Mona Lisa six times over at no risk to himself.

First he made private deals with six separate buyers to steal and deliver the priceless painting. Then he hired a professional art restorer to make six fakes, and shipped them in advance to the buyers’ locales (to avoid later trouble with customs).

In August he paid a thief to steal the original from the Louvre, and when news of the theft had spread he delivered the six fakes to their recipients, exacting a high price for each. Then he quietly disappeared. The flummoxed thief was soon caught trying to sell the red-hot original, and it was returned to the museum in 1913.

05/27/2020 UPDATE: This is false but extraordinarily widely retailed. The painting was stolen in 1911 by an Italian criminal named Vincenzo Peruggia, but the original was recovered and returned to the Louvre two years later. There is no evidence that Valfierno ever existed, and none of the six supposed copies has ever surfaced. The myth was conceived by a writer named Karl Decker and retailed as fact in a 1932 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, which was still havering equivocally as to its falsity as recently as 2013.

Table for One

Last meals:

  • Ted Bundy: Steak (medium rare), eggs over easy, hash browns, coffee. (He refused it.)
  • John Wayne Gacy: Fried chicken, fried shrimp, french fries, fresh strawberries.
  • Gary Gilmore: Hamburger, eggs, a baked potato, coffee, three shots of whiskey.
  • Timothy McVeigh: Two pints of Ben & Jerry’s mint chocolate-chip ice cream.
  • Adolf Eichmann: Half a bottle of Carmel, a dry red Israeli wine.
  • Bruno Hauptmann: Celery, olives, chicken, french fries, buttered peas, cherries, and a slice of cake.

Victor Feguer, executed in 1963 for shooting a doctor, asked for a single olive.

Sorry, Wrong Fugitive

In December 1974, Australian police arrested a man they believed was Lord Lucan, a British peer who had fled a murder investigation in London.

They were mistaken. It wasn’t Lord Lucan — it was British MP John Stonehouse, who had faked his suicide a month earlier.

Elmer McCurdy

In December 1976, the television program The Six Million Dollar Man was shooting an episode at California’s Long Beach Pike amusement park when a crew member discovered a wax dummy hanging in a funhouse gallows. When he tried to move it, its arm broke off — it wasn’t a dummy, but in fact a mummified human body. Stranger still, its mouth contained a 1924 penny and a ticket from the Museum of Crime in Los Angeles.

After much investigation, it turned out to be the body of Elmer McCurdy, an inept outlaw who had been killed in an Oklahoma gunfight in 1911. When no one claimed his body, an unscrupulous undertaker had embalmed it and charged a nickel to see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up,” and for 60 years thereafter McCurdy’s corpse was traded among wax museums, carnivals, and haunted houses.

Elmer was finally buried, fittingly, in the Boot Hill section of Oklahoma’s Summit View Cemetery under two cubic yards of concrete. Ironically, his last words had been “You’ll never take me alive!”

The Rich Are Different

In March 2004, 35-year-old Alice Regina Pike entered a Wal-Mart in Covington, Ga., gathered $1,671.55 in goods, and paid with a $1,000,000 bill.

The clerk called her manager, and Pike was arrested for forgery. She told the sheriff that her husband had given her the bill, but police found two more of them in her purse.

Sasha Spesivtsev

In 1996, a pipe broke in an apartment building in the Siberian town of Novokuznetsk. The plumber traced the leak to the flat of Sasha Spesivtsev, who lived with his mother and a dog. He knocked, but no one answered, so he broke open the door.

The flat was an abattoir. The walls were covered with blood, and bowls in the kitchen contained pieces of human bodies. In the bathtub was a mutilated, headless body, and in the living room were a human rib cage and a 15-year-old girl, mutilated but still alive. She survived for 17 hours, long enough to tell police what had happened.

Spesivtsev’s mother had lured three girls into the apartment, where he raped and beat them, killed one and forced the other two to cut her to pieces, which the mother then cooked for dinner. The dog killed the second girl.

Spesivtsev was captured trying to rape a woman in another apartment, and he was eventually put to death. His diary records the murders of 19 girls; the Russian authorities suspected him of 12 more but ran out of money to investigate.