In 1948, the body of a man was found on Somerton beach, Adelaide, Australia. All identification marks had been removed from his clothing and to this day the man’s identification and cause of death are unknown. The mystery goes even deeper, however, when a small scrap of paper is found in a pocket of the man’s clothing, with the printed line: Tamam Shud.
Wikipedia – Has a fair bit of information.
Primary sources compiled by Prof. Derek Abbott – Derek Abbott is deeply invested in the case and has compiled a ton of primary resources as well as additional research into the case. Delving deep you can find the attempts at breaking the code, which he has set for his students as a task in the past and they come up with some interesting observations.
Amazon – The Unknown Man – Good and well written book on the case. I’m not sure if there are others, but this title was consistently recommended when I begun researching the Somerton man.
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In 1948, a man of around 45 years of age was found dead on Somerton Beach, on the outskirts of Adelaide, Australia. Sitting up as if staring out to sea, he was a man that, until this day has no name and no cause of death. In 2013, new layers of intrigue were added, spurring renewed interest in the case, but the story of the Somerton man still remains a mystery. In this episode, we detail the case of what’s often called simply, Taman Shud. This is dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
On the morning of Tuesday 30th November, a man arrived, presumably by train, in Adelaide train station. He bought a ticket to Henley beach station, one of only three tickets sold for that particular train that morning. At around 11 am, he checked a brown suitcase into the cloakroom and instead of taking the train he had a ticket for, he decided to catch a bus from opposite the station to St Leonards, in Somerton.
At 7:15 pm, John B. Lyons and his wife, Helen Lyons were walking by the beach and saw a man, lying against the seawall, his feet crossed. He raised his arm, before letting it fall limply.
At 7:30 pm, Gordon Strapps and Olive Neill taking an evening walk along the beach stop on a bench. Just below them, propped up against the sea wall, they notice a man, apparently asleep. They joke that he could be dead. The sun was setting and mosquitoes were in the air, and yet he showed no sign of movement for the thirty minutes they were there, however, the pair concede that it is more likely that he is a drunk and decide not to investigate any further.
At around 5:30 am, Neil Day and Horrie Patching, two jockeys taking an early morning walk with their horse along the Beach noticed a man sitting down, propped up against the sea wall wearing an overcoat. They thought it strange that he was wearing an overcoat on such a nice morning, however, walked on by. At 6 am, as they returned and passed the man, they decided to stop and check if he was okay, far from okay, however, they found that the man was dead. Jack Lyons and Arthur Lee arrived on the beach from an early morning swim and saw the jockeys standing by the body and went to check on the commotion. Unsure of what they should do, Jack Lyons told the jockeys to leave it to them, and they contacted the police. Jack Lyons observed that the body was wearing dry clothes, with his mouth and eyes closed. There was no disturbance of sand and no debris or personal items around the body. His expression was as if he was sleeping, with normal clothing, light stubble, and his feet crossed. At 6:45 am, Constable John Moss arrived on the scene. He observed that the body was cold, damp and stiff. He had an unsmoked cigarette behind his ear, his left arm down by his side, right arm, palm upwards slightly out from his side and he had a smoked cigarette butt between his cheek and his lapel, presumably fallen from his mouth.
Upon inspecting the pockets of the body, he found a bus ticket, the unused train ticket to Henley Beach, two combs, one made of plastic and one from aluminium. He also found a packet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, a box of matches and a pack of cigarettes containing cigarettes of a more expensive brand than the brand on the box. At 9:40 am an ambulance arrived, took the body to the hospital and he was pronounced dead by Dr John Barley Bennet, with his time of death estimated by the state of his rigor mortis as being around 2am, earlier that morning. The Pathologist was cited as stating that the man was of “Britisher” appearance and thought to be aged about 40–45. He was in “top physical condition”, 180 centimetres tall, with hazel eyes, fair to ginger-coloured hair, slightly grey around the temples, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. He was dressed in a white shirt, red and blue tie, brown trousers, socks and shoes, a brown knitted pullover and fashionable grey and brown double-breasted jacket. All labels on his clothes had been removed, and he had no wallet. Upon further police investigation, it was found that his teeth did not match the dental records of any known living person in any databases, nor his fingerprints, which were circulated internationally, but received no positive identifications. This may all seem very strange and indeed at the time, the police found it to be unprecedented, but the mystery of the Somerton man was just beginning.
The Autopsy was carried out the next morning. The coroner noted that there was no sign of violence and his heart was healthy. His organs were deeply congested with blood and mixed with the food in his stomach. His spleen was 3 times that of the normal human size, though it was noted that this could possibly be from a pre-existing illness. No sand was found in the man’s nose or mouth, but there was sand found in his hair and he had small abrasions in between his knuckles which extended to the back of the right hand. Although the body had been found with his head propped up against the sea wall, large amounts of lividity (blood pooling) was found at the back of the head, suggesting that his body had spent some considerable time after dying with the head in a quite different position, the lividities concentration towards the back of his head and neck suggesting a spell of time lying on his back. Toxicology tests for poisons or toxins came back negative and no cause of death could be determined. The Coroner commented that he was quite sure that the man had not died a natural death and suspected poisoning of some kind, though the food found in his stomach, that of a pasty estimated to have been eaten at around 11 pm on the night of his death, was not the culprit.
As the police were yet to identify the body and had no leads with which to work, the body was embalmed for preservation on the 10th December. Over the next few weeks, there were many positive identifications of the Somerton man reported in the media, though they were all dismissed after further investigation by police. hard facts go quiet on the Somerton man for a short time, but on the 14th January, workers at Adelaide train station discovered ta brown suitcase checked into the cloakroom on the morning of the man’s death.
The police checked the suitcase out of Adelaide station on the 14th January 1949. It was brown in colour, new and unlocked. Inside they found a dressing gown, pair of slippers, some spare thread, four pairs of underpants; pajamas; shaving items; a light brown pair of trousers,an electrician’s screwdriver; a table knife cut down into a short sharp instrument; a pair of scissors with sharpened points; a small square of zinc which was thought to have been used as a protective sheath for the knife and scissors and a stenciling brush.
Identification marks and tags had been removed from the clothing, however, a tie, laundry bag and singlet were stitched with name “Keane” and “T. Keane”. They also found three dry cleaning marks, though there were no men by the name of T. Keane reported missing in any English speaking country and no identification was made from the dry cleaning marks. The police did find, however, that the type of stitching in the jacket was that of a type only found in America and being as how the jacket was made to measure, there was a very high likelihood that he was an American man or had spent significant time in America.
At the inquest on the 21st June 1949, the result was left inconclusive. Speculation from the coroners of poisoning was noted. In particular, poisons Digitalis and Ouabain were both identified as being possible to kill a human and yet remain untraceable after death. A second doctor at the inquest, however, contradicted this statement. Dr Robert Cowan stated that
“I feel quite satisfied that if the death were caused by any common poison, my examination would have revealed its nature. If he did die from poison, I think it would have been a vary rare poison. … I think that the death is more likely to have been due to natural causes than poisoning.”
An un-natural death was finally presumed, though cause was unknown and there was no identification of the victim. The inquest was adjourned Sine Die, a plaster cast of the dead man’s head and shoulders was made for later attempts at identification and the body was finally buried, with the headstone marking the plot: “Here lies the unknown man who was found at Somerton beach”.
The mystery of the man’s body is buried in the earth, however, the true mystery is just beginning. Prior to the inquest, the coroner wrote to Sir John Cleland, professor of Pathology at the university of Adelaide, asking for assistance. A request he duly complied with. Upon his inspection of the body and the suitcase, Cleland made several key observations that the police had failed to note. Firstly, he found that the spare thread in the suitcase matched that of the clothing sewn into a repair of the lining of one of the pockets of the man’s trousers and that the brand of thread was rare to be found in Australia, tying the two together conclusively. He also noted that the man’s shoes were remarkably shiny and recently polished, commenting that he did not think the man would have walked on the beach much, if at all. Finally, he found one last piece of key evidence in the case. Rolled up and stashed in a small fob pocket in the man’s waistband, was a small scrap of paper, torn from a larger page. There was print on one side that read simply “Tamam Shud”. A Persian phrase meaning “Ended” or “Finished”.
Public Library officials were called in to try to identify the printed text. They successfully identified it as the final phrase on the last page of a book known as The Rubaiyat of Omaar Khaiyan, a book of poems attributed to a Persian poet named Omaar Kaiyan and translated by Edward Fitzgerald. It was a reasonably popular book at the time, however it would soon be found that this particular page had been torn from a very specific, and rare, copy. A photograph of the scrap of paper was released to the press and on 22nd July, 1949, a man went to the police with a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omaar Kaiyan, printed in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1941, that he had found in the foot-well of his car. There is some uncertainty as to the exact date the book was found, however, the man stated that he had left his car parked with the window open and found the book either on the day that the Somerton mans body was found or some weeks prior. Regardless of this precise date, the book he handed to the police had the back page missing, and after microscopic tests, was confirmed to be the same paper, with the tears matching that of the small strip found in the dead mans pocket. On the back page were faint indentations of handwriting along with two telephone numbers, one of a bank and one unlisted, which turned out to belong to a Nurse named Jessica Thomson. Jessica Thomson just so happened to live only 400 metres from where the body of the Somerton man was found.
Jessica Thomson was contacted and interviewed by police. She claimed that she did not know the man, nor had any idea as to why he would be in her neighbourhood on the night of his death. Thomson stated that she had once owned a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omaar Kaiyan, but had given it away as a parting gift to a man named Alf Boxall, an army lieutenant serving during world war 2. For a while, the police speculated that Alf may be the identity of the dead man. Alf Boxall, however, was alive and well and presented himself and his copy of the book to police, quickly shutting down any further speculation. The police asked Jessica to see if she recognised the man from the plaster bust taken of the body, prior to its burial. Upon seeing the bust, she was reported to have looked down at the floor, flustered and though she might feint, refusing to look at the bust again. Despite this strange behaviour, she nonetheless held tight to her story that she did not know or recognise the man.
In later years, after her death, interviews of Jessicas relatives, including her daughter Kate Thomson were conducted. Kate told the interviewers that her mother had in fact known the identity of the man in the bust and that she had told her privately that she had lied to the police, and that the man’s identity was known to people “on a level higher than the police”. She also told of her mother’s ability to speak Russian, though she refused to tell her daughter where or why she had learnt the language.
The feint indentation of writing in the back of the copy of the Rubaiyat is yet one more puzzling aspect. On the final page was written 5 lines of text in capital letters. The second line is struck out and at first, glance resembles a possible code. At the time, it was sent to both the Navy and defence departments. Neither were successful at deciphering any meaning, stating that “there are insignificant symbols to provide a pattern” and that “the symbols could be a complete substitute code or the meaningless response to a disturbed mind”. The final conclusion at the time was that “it was not possible to provide a satisfactory answer.”
Modern analysis has been undertaken several times and although still undecipherable, conclusions state that the letters are unlikely to be random, the message is in English and it is likely that the Rubaiyat is a one-time-pad, but not a straight substitution one time pad, leading to it being incredibly complex and needing an exact same copy of the book to decipher it. After 60 years, the original has been destroyed, along with the suitcase and much other evidence, and no second copy of the book has ever been found.
The mystery of the Somerton man is multi-faceted. Starting with the body, the in-conclusions about cause of death are initially problematic. One doctor at the time was convinced of poisoning, whilst another was adamant no poison was possible and this was backed up by the fact that all toxicology results showed no sign of poisons. Items around or on the body are equally confusing. All identification marks, labels and tags were removed from clothing, many of the articles were common in America rather than Australia, the aluminium comb, an item not made in Australia, but common for American soldiers during the war, his jacket with the American style stitching, juicy fruit gum and the thread which tied the man to the suitcase. All point to a man who was not an Australian national, or at the very least, a man who had travelled extensively.
Was his body dumped on the beach or did he die in situe? If he died there on the beach, what of the pooling of blood in the back of his head and neck? And what about his shoes, so clean, that it was reported he was unlikely to have been walking on the beach. And of course, there is the small fact that no record of the man’s name, dental records or fingerprints exist.
After looking at the autopsy photos of the Somerton man, Doctor Maciej Hennenberg noted that the man’s ears had an unusual formation, whereby the top of his ear (the Cymba) was the same size as the bottom (the cavum). This trait is known in only 1-2% of the Caucasian population. Derek Abbot, a professor at Adelaide University, later found that He also had Hypodontia of both his lateral incisors, a rare genetic feature present in only 2% of the population. Derek Abbot obtained a photograph of Jessica Thomsons eldest son, which clearly showed that he had not only Hypodontia but also the same larger Cymba of the ear as the Somerton man. The chance that this is coincidence and that Jessicas eldest son was not the child of the Somerton man is estimated to be between one in 10-20million.
In 2011, a woman contacted Maciej Henneberg with an ID card, issued by the United States to foreign seaman during WW2 that she had found in her father’s possessions. The man on the ID card was named H C Reynolds and the photograph had several matching characteristics with the Somerton man, including a mole and the larger cymba of the ear. Hennenberg stated that “In a forensic case, this would allow him to make the statement positively identifying the Somerton man”. The card was Issued to the man named H C Reynolds in 1918. He was 18 years old and his nationality was “British”. Despite this official form of identification, no records relating to an H C Reynolds have ever been found in British, American nor Australian national archives.
So just who was the Somerton Man and what relationship did he have with Jessica Thomson? It seems highly likely that they had at least a personal relationship, but did they perhaps have a professional relationship too? Investigative work is continuing to this day in the hopes we may one day find out. The most often touted speculation lies on the possibility that he was a spy, possibly with Jessica too. This was, after all, the beginning of the cold war.
The code remains a mystery that may hold many answers as to exactly what his business was in Somerton in December 1948.
As for his death… That will always be likely to remain a mystery. It seems easy to point to poisoning as the likely answer, but if so, who, why and how? was he poisoned on the beach or killed elsewhere and dumped and posed by the seawall? The questions are many and the answers few, making the Somerton man one of the most intriguing cases in our Dark History.
until next time, thanks for watching, please like, subscribe and sleep tight.