The Taman Shud Case, also known as the Mystery of the Somerton Man, is an unsolved case of an unidentified man found dead at 6:30 a.m., 1 December 1948, on Somerton beach in Adelaide, South Australia. It is named for a phrase, tamam shud, meaning “ended” or “finished”, on a scrap of the final page of The Rubaiyat, found in the hidden pocket of the man’s trousers.
Considered “one of Australia’s most profound mysteries” at the time, the case has been the subject of intense speculation over the years regarding the identity of the victim, the events leading up to his death, and the cause of death. Public interest in the case remains significant because of a number of factors: the death occurring at a time of heightened tensions during the Cold War, what appeared to be a secret code on a scrap of paper found in his pocket, the use of an undetectable poison, his lack of identification, and the possibility of unrequited love.
While the case has received the most scrutiny in Australia, it also gained international coverage, as the police widely distributed materials in an effort to identify the body, and consulted with other governments in tracking down leads.
The body was discovered at 6:30 a.m. on 1 December 1948 on Somerton beach in Adelaide, South Australia and the police were called. When they arrived, the body was lying on the sand with its head resting on the seawall, and with its feet crossed and pointing directly to the sea. The police noted no disturbance to the body and observed that the man’s left arm was in a straight position and the right arm was bent double. An unlit cigarette was behind his ear and a half-smoked cigarette was on the right collar of his coat held in position by his cheek. A search of his pockets revealed a used bus ticket from the city to St. Leonards in Glenelg, an unused second-class rail ticket from the city to Henley Beach, a narrow aluminium American comb, a half-empty packet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, an Army Club cigarette packet containing Kensitas cigarettes, and a quarter-full box of Bryant & May matches. The bus stop for which the ticket was used was around 1,100 metres (3,600 ft) north of the body’s location.
Witnesses who came forward said that on the evening of 30 November, they had seen an individual resembling the dead man lying on his back in the same spot and position near the Crippled Children’s Home where the corpse was later found. A couple who saw him around 7 p.m. noted that they saw him extend his right arm to its fullest extent and then drop it limply. Another couple who saw him from 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., during which time the street lights had come on, recounted that they did not see him move during the half an hour in which he was in view, although they did have the impression that his position had changed. Although they commented between themselves that he must be dead because he was not reacting to the mosquitoes, they had thought it more likely that he was drunk or asleep, and thus did not investigate further. Witnesses said the body was in the same position when the police viewed it.
According to the pathologist, Sir John Burton Cleland, emeritus professor at the University of Adelaide, the man was of “Britisher” appearance and thought to be aged about 40–45; he was in top physical condition. He was 180 centimetres (5 ft 11 in) tall, with hazel eyes, fair to ginger-coloured hair, slightly grey around the temples, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, hands and nails that showed no signs of manual labour, big and little toes that met in a wedge shape, like those of a dancer or someone who wore boots with pointed toes; and pronounced high calf muscles like those of a ballet dancer. These can be dominant genetic traits, and they are also a characteristic of many middle and long-distance runners. He was dressed in “quality clothing:” consisting of a white shirt, red and blue tie, brown trousers, socks and shoes and, although it had been a hot day and very warm night, a brown knitted pullover and fashionable European grey and brown double-breasted coat. All labels on his clothes were missing, and he had no hat (unusual for 1948, and especially so for someone wearing a suit) or wallet. Clean-shaven and with no distinguishing marks, the man carried no identification, which led police to believe he had committed suicide. His teeth did not match the dental records of any known person in Australia.
A new twist in the case occurred on 14 January 1949, when staff at Adelaide Railway Station discovered a brown suitcase with its label removed, which had been checked into the station cloakroom after 11:00 a.m. on 30 November 1948. In the case were a red checked dressing gown, a size seven, red felt pair of slippers; four pairs of underpants, pyjamas, shaving items, a light brown pair of trousers with sand in the cuffs, an electrician’s screwdriver, a table knife cut down into a short sharp instrument, a pair of scissors with sharpened points, and a stencilling brush, as used by third officers on merchant ships for stencilling cargo.
Also in the suitcase was a thread card of Barbour brand orange waxed thread of “an unusual type” not available in Australia—it was the same as that used to repair the lining in a pocket of the trousers the dead man was wearing. All identification marks on the clothes had been removed but police found the name “T. Keane” on a tie, “Keane” on a laundry bag and “Kean” (without the last e) on a singlet, along with three dry-cleaning marks; 1171/7, 4393/7 and 3053/7. Police believed that whoever removed the clothing tags purposefully left the Keane tags on the clothes, knowing Keane was not the dead man’s name. It has since been noted that the “Kean” tags were the only ones that could not have been removed without damaging the clothing.
Another seaman,Tom Read from the SS Cycle, in port at the time, was thought to be the dead man but after some of his shipmates viewed the body at the morgue, they stated categorically that the corpse was not that of Tom Read. A search concluded that there was no T. Keane missing in any English-speaking country and a nation-wide circulation of the dry-cleaning marks also proved fruitless. In fact, all that could be garnered from the suitcase was that since a coat in the suitcase had a front gusset and featherstitching, it could have been made only in the United States, as this was the only country that possessed the machinery for that stitch. Although mass-produced, the body work is done when the owner is fitted before it is completed. The coat had not been imported, indicating the man had been in the United States or bought the coat from someone of similar size who had been.
Police checked incoming train records and believed the man had arrived by overnight train from either Melbourne, Sydney or Port Augusta. They believed he then showered and shaved at the adjacent City Baths before returning to the train station to purchase a ticket for the 10:50 a.m. train to Henley Beach, which, for whatever reason, he missed or did not catch. After returning from the city baths, he checked in his suitcase at the station cloak room before catching a bus to Glenelg. Derek Abbott, who studied the case, believes that the man may have purchased the train ticket before showering. The railway station’s own public facilities were closed that day and discovering this and then having to walk to the adjacent city baths to shower would have added up to 30 minutes to the time he would have expected to take, which could explain why he missed the Henley Beach train and took the next available bus.
A coroner’s inquest into the death, conducted by coroner Thomas Erskine Cleland, commenced a few days after the body was found but was adjourned until 17 June 1949. The investigating pathologist Sir John Burton Cleland re-examined the body and made a number of discoveries. Cleland noted that the man’s shoes were remarkably clean and appeared to have been recently polished, rather than being in the state expected of the shoes of a man who had apparently been wandering around Glenelg all day. He added that this evidence fitted in with the theory that the body may have been brought to Somerton beach after the man’s death, accounting for the lack of evidence of vomiting and convulsions, the two main effects of poison.
Thomas Cleland speculated that as none of the witnesses could positively identify the man they saw the previous night as being the same person discovered the next morning, there remained the possibility the man had died elsewhere and had been dumped. He stressed that this was purely speculation as all the witnesses believed it was “definitely the same person” as the body was in the same place and lying in the same distinctive position. He also found there was no evidence as to who the deceased was.
Cedric Stanton Hicks, Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Adelaide testified that of a group of drugs, variants of a drug in that group he called number 1 and in particular number 2 were extremely toxic in a relatively small oral dose that would be extremely difficult if not impossible to identify even if it had been suspected in the first instance. He gave the coroner a piece of paper with the names of the two drugs which was entered as Exhibit C.18. The names were not released to the public until the 1980s as at the time they were “quite easily procurable by the ordinary individual” from a chemist without the need to give a reason for the purchase. (The drugs were later publically identified as digitalis and ouabain.) He noted the only “fact” not found in relation to the body was evidence of vomiting. He then stated its absence was not unknown but that he could not make a “frank conclusion” without it. Hicks stated that if death had occurred seven hours after the man was last seen to move, it would imply a massive dose that could still have been undetectable. It was noted that the movement seen by witnesses at 7 p.m. could have been the last convulsion preceding death.
Early in the inquiry, Cleland stated “I would be prepared to find that he died from poison, that the poison was probably a glucoside and that it was not accidentally administered; but I cannot say whether it was administered by the deceased himself or by some other person.” Despite these findings, he could not determine the cause of death of the Somerton Man.
The lack of success in determining the identity and cause of death of the Somerton Man had led authorities to call it an “unparalleled mystery” and believe that the cause of death may never be known.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Around the same time as the Inquest, a tiny piece of rolled-up paper with the words “Tamam Shud” printed on it was found deep in a fob pocket sewn within the dead man’s trouser pocket. Public library officials called in to translate the text identified it as a phrase meaning “ended” or “finished” found on the last page of the The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The theme of these poems is that one should live life to the full and have no regrets when it ended. The paper’s verso side was blank; police conducted an Australia-wide search to find a copy of the book that had a similarly blank verso but were unsuccessful. A photograph of the scrap of paper was sent to interstate police and released to the public, leading a man to reveal he had found a very rare first edition copy of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat, published in 1859 by Whitcombe and Tombs in New Zealand, in the back seat of his unlocked car that had been parked in Jetty Road Glenelg about a week or two before the body was found. He had known nothing of the book’s connection to the case until he saw an article in the previous day’s newspaper. This man’s identity and profession were withheld by the police, as he wished to remain anonymous.
The poem’s subject led police to theorise that the man had committed suicide by poison, although there was no other evidence to back the theory. The book was missing the words “Tamam Shud” on the last page, which had a blank reverse, and microscopic tests indicated that the piece of paper was from the page torn from the book. “Tamam Shud” (meaning “the end”) comprises the last line of text in the book.
In the back of the book were faint pencil markings of five lines of capital letters with the second line struck out. The strike out is now considered significant with its similarity to the fourth line possibly indicating a mistake and thus, possible proof the letters are code:
n the book it is unclear if the first two lines begin with an “M” or “W”, but they are widely believed to be the letter W, owing to the distinctive difference when compared to the stricken letter M. There appears to be a deleted or underlined line of text that reads “MLIAOI”. Although the last character in this line of text looks like an “L”, it is fairly clear on closer inspection of the image that this is formed from an ‘I’ and the extension of the line used to delete or underline that line of text. Also, the other “Ls” have a curve to the bottom part of the character. There is also an “X” above the last ‘O’ in the code, and it is not known if this is significant to the code or not. Initially, the letters were thought to be words in a foreign language before it was realised it was a code. Code experts were called in at the time to decipher the lines but were unsuccessful. When the code was analysed by the Australian Department of Defence in 1978, they made the following statements about the code:
1.There are insufficient symbols to provide a pattern.
2.The symbols could be a complex substitute code or the meaningless response to a disturbed mind.
3.It is not possible to provide a satisfactory answer.
Also found in the back of the book was an unlisted telephone number belonging to a former nurse who lived in Moseley St, Glenelg, around 400 metres (1,300 ft) north of the location where the body was found. The woman said that while she was working at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney during World War II she owned a copy of The Rubaiyat but in 1945, at the Clifton Gardens Hotel in Sydney, had given it to an army lieutenant named Alfred Boxall who was serving in the Water Transport Section of the Australian Army.
According to media reports the woman stated that after the war she had moved to Melbourne and married. Later she had received a letter from Boxall, but had told him she was now married. She added that in late 1948 a mystery man had asked her next door neighbour about her. There is no evidence that Boxall, who did not know the woman’s married name, had any contact with her after 1945. Shown the plaster cast bust of the dead man by Detective sergeant Leane, the woman could not identify it. According to Leane, he described her reaction upon seeing the cast as “completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint.” In his 2002 video interview, Paul Lawson, the technician who made the body cast and was present when Jestyn viewed it, refers to her as ‘Mrs Thomson’ and noted that after looking at the bust she immediately looked away and would not look at it again.
Police believed that Boxall was the dead man until they found Boxall alive with his copy of The Rubaiyat (a 1924 Sydney edition), complete with “Tamam Shud” on the last page. Boxall was now working in the maintenance section at the Randwick Bus Depot (where he had worked before the war) and was unaware of any link between the dead man and himself. In the front of the copy of the Rubaiyat that was given to Boxall, the woman had written out verse 70:
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.
The woman now lived in Glenelg but denied all knowledge of the dead man or why he would choose to visit her suburb on the night of his death. She also asked that as she was now married she would prefer not to have her name recorded to save her from potential embarrassment of being linked to the dead man and Boxall. The police agreed, leaving subsequent investigations without the benefit of the case’s best lead. In a TV programme on the case, in the section where Boxall was interviewed, her name was given in a voice-over as Jestyn, apparently obtained from the signature Jestyn that followed the verse written in the front of the book, but this was covered over when the book was displayed in the programme. This was possibly a “pet” nickname and was the name she used when introduced to Boxall. Retired detective Gerald Feltus, who had handled the cold case, interviewed Jestyn in 2002 and found her to be either “evasive” or “just did not wish to talk about it,” she also stated that her family did not know of her connection with the case and he agreed not to disclose her identity or anything that might reveal it. Feltus believes that Jestyn knew the Somerton man’s identity. Jestyn had told police that she was married, but they did not record Jestyn’s name on the police file, and there is no evidence that police at the time knew that she was in fact not married. Researchers re-investigating the case attempted to track down Jestyn and found she had died in 2007. Her real name was considered important as the possibility exists that it may be the decryption key for the code. In his 2010 book, Feltus claims he was given permission by Jestyn’s husband’s family to disclose the names, however, the names he revealed in his book are believed to be pseudonyms.
Rumours began circulating that Boxall was involved in military intelligence during the War, adding to the speculation that the dead man was a Soviet spy poisoned by unknown enemies. In a 1978 television interview with Boxall, the interviewer states, “Mr Boxall, you had been working, hadn’t you, in an intelligence unit, before you met this young woman [Jestyn]. Did you talk to her about that at all?” In reply he stated “No,” and when asked if she could have known, Boxall replied “not unless somebody else told her.” When the interviewer went on to suggest that there was a spy connection, Boxall replied after a pause, “It’s quite a melodramatic thesis, isn’t it?”
The fact that the man died in Adelaide, the nearest capital city to Woomera, a top-secret missile launching and intelligence gathering site, heightened this speculation. It was also recalled that one possible location from which the man may have travelled to Adelaide was Port Augusta, a town relatively close to Woomera.
Additionally, in April 1947 the United States Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, as part of Operation Venona, discovered that there had been top secret material leaked from Australia’s Department of External Affairs to the Soviet embassy in Canberra. This led to a 1948 U.S. ban on the transfer of all classified information to Australia.
As a response, the Australian government announced that it would establish a national secret security service (which became the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)).
The case is still considered “open” at the South Australian Major Crime Task Force. The South Australian Police Historical Society holds the bust, which contains strands of the man’s hair. Any further attempts to identify the body have been hampered by the embalming formaldehyde having destroyed much of the man’s DNA. Other key evidence no longer exists, such as the brown suitcase, which was destroyed in 1986. In addition, witness statements have disappeared from the police file over the years.