The Somerton Man stands as one of the more mysterious and incredible cases that has ever been recorded. It generated worldwide public interest during its prime years, but still stands as an item of speculation today.
On December 1, 1948, an unidentified man was found on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia. The man was found lying against the seawall with his legs crossed and pointing at the sea. He was in his 40’s and in excellent physical condition. An unlit cigarette was behind his ear and a half-smoked one was on the right collar of his shirt and held in place between his face and shoulder. His pockets contained an unused second class rail ticket from the city to Henley Beach, a used bus ticket, a comb, a half-empty pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, an Army Cigarette pack of Kensitas cigarettes, and a quarter full box of matches. The bus stop for the used ticket was around 1,100 meters from where the body was found.
This case was initially thought to have been simply been a suicide by Australian authorities. But an autopsy showed that the death could not have been natural. The coroner believed that a poison was used, but it was found that the only food in the man’s stomach, a pasty, was not the source of the poison. He was not able to conclusively find the cause of death, nor any additional information on the man’s identity. His photo and fingerprints were circulated around the globe, but this yielded no results.
For the next several years, authorities worked to identify the man, which resulted in several instances of false identification. They came no closer to associating this man with someone missing anywhere in the globe.
A break came in the case in 1949, when staff at the Adelaide Railroad Station found a brown suitcase that had been checked in the day before the body had been found. In the case was clothing, a sharpened knife, and scissors with sharpened tips. Also in the case was a thread card of Barbour waxed thread, which was unusual to find in Australia. It matched with thread found to repair the dead man’s pants. All identification tags had been removed from all clothing, with the exception of the word ‘Keane’ written on a tie and laundry bag, and ‘Kean’ (no ‘e’) written on a singlet. A search of all English speaking countries resulted in no missing persons with the name Keane or Kean.
A check of train records found the man arriving from Melbourne, Sydney, or Port Augusta. They believe he then bought a rail ticket to Henley Beach and, after traveling, tried to find a place for a shower and shave. But the railways public baths had been closed that day. This would mean the man would had to go to the adjacent city baths, which would have added 30 minutes to his time. This would have led to him missing the train and purchasing a bus ticket for his trip, explaining the unused train ticket and the used bus ticket found in his pockets.
Six months later in June of 1949, a coroner’s inquest discovered a small rolled up piece of paper in the man’s fob pocket with the words Tamam Shad. This phrase was found to mean “finished” or “ended”. After some research, it was found on the last page of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which was a very popular book around that time. This particular scrap had a blank reverse side, which was not found in the normal printed version. This find was announced, and the search was on to find a potential match. This led a man to reveal that he had found a very rare version of the The Rubaiyat in the backseat of his unlocked car in Glenelg about a week before the incident. This book was in fact missing the phrase “Tamam Shad”, and microscopic testing positively identified the scrap as a match.
The book was inspected, and it was found that the back of the book contained faint pencil markings of 5 lines of letters with the second line struck out. The struck out line is considered a close match to line number 4, which indicates a mistake was made and that the lines were possibly code. However, code experts could make no sense of the markings.
The back of the book also contained a phone number. It was found that this number belonged to a nurse that lived close to the beach where the body was found. This nurse was questioned, and stated that she had once owned a copy of The Rubaiyat, but had given it to an army lieutenant named Alfred Boxall during the war. After the war, she had moved to Melbourne and was married. According to reports, she had received a letter from Boxall, but she informed him that she was now married. She added that in 1948, an unknown man had showed up at her neighbor’s house asking about her. Police believed that she might have had some information on their unidentified person, so they had her come to the station to try to identify a bust of the dead man. She denied knowing him, but the detective who showed her the bust stated that upon seeing it, she reacted strongly, appearing as though she was about to faint. He also said that after looking, she looked away and would not look again.
This lead police to believe the dead man was Boxall, but lo and behold, they found him alive and with his copy of The Rubaiyat with the full “Tamam Shad ” page intact. There was also a verse that the nurse had written out in the front page, which the media identified as having been signed by Jestyn. Although she had requested her real name not be shared, it was believed that perhaps Jestyn was a pet name that she had used with Boxall. Jestyn continued to deny any knowledge of the dead man, even when interviewed in 2002. However, the interviewer, retired detective Gerald Feltus, claimed her to be evasive regarding his questions. Feltus, who had handled the cold case, felt strongly that Jestyn knew the dead man.
The top theories include the possibility that the man was a spy and worked with Jestyn during the war. Spies commonly dealt with codes and used different objects to decipher these codes, which is where The Rubaiyat comes in. Because it was a popular book at the time, it would go unnoticed when being carried around. It could then be used by spies to decode messages by matching the incoming codes with sections in the book. In this scenario, he was killed after being discovered as a spy, possibly through poisoning. The cigarettes were inspected as a delivery system, but the cigarettes that were found on his person contained no traces of poison. Another top theory is simply a love affair gone wrong, and the man went to the beach, ingested poison, and died facing the ocean with the “Tamam Shad” quote tucked into his pocket. But again, no poison could be found in his body.
The body was buried after the inquest, and years after the death, flowers began appearing on the grave, but it was never found who was leaving them. The man was never identified and the case remains open. Key evidence was destroyed or lost over the years, such as witness statements and the suitcase. While code breakers continue to work on the letters found in The Rubaiyat, the Tamam Shad man remains just as much of a mystery as ever.