Tamám Shud Case: The Mystery of the Somerton Man

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I first learned about the Tamám Shud Case, aka The Mystery of the Somerton Man, years ago. I researched it and found it to be a confusing mess. There has been so much that's happened, and there are so many theories on it. Occasionally, I revisit it and discover new developments. The following is my own high-level case briefing.

For anyone familiar with the case who may read this, let me know if you spot anything wrong, and I will happily update this to reflect corrections.

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1 December 1948

Somerton Park, Australia
7:00 AM

A man's body was found on the beach. Police are called.

Australian police. File originally uploaded on English Wikipedia in November 30, 2008 by Bletchley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
X marks the spot the man's body was found.

Arriving on the scene, the police find the man resting upright against a sea wall, with a partially-smoked, unlit cigarette lying on his shoulder. The mystery man appeared to be of British descent, was well-dressed, wore dry clothes, and showed no signs of injury or assault. In his pockets: an unused second-class rail ticket, a bus ticket, two hair combs, a half-eaten pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, a pack of cigarettes, a box of matches. The lining of one of his trouser's pockets has been repaired with an unusual, orange waxed thread.

No identification, no wallet. No witnesses.

Who was this man? Why was he there?

The official coroner's report found the following:

  • 40-45 years of age, grey eyes, clean-shaven
  • 5 ft 11 in tall (180 centimeters)
  • Well-built, broad-shouldered
  • Gingery, mousy colored hair, greying around the temples
  • Hands and nails showed no signs of him performing manual labor
  • Big and little toes met in a wedge shape as if he'd been in the habit of wearing high-heeled, pointed shoes
  • Unusually high calf muscles

The original report I pulled this from can be online here. (Warning: it is a 102 page long PDF, and it can take a while to load, sometimes minutes.)

An autopsy was performed, and tests failed to find any foreign substance in the man's body. However, the pathologist had this to say, "I am quite convinced the death could not have been natural ... the poison I suggested was a barbiturate or a soluble hypnotic."

No cause of death was established.

Every piece of clothing he wore had the labels methodically removed. The stripes of his tie sloped in the popular American fashion, the opposite direction of most found in the UK and Australia.

You may have read reports that the Somerton Man had a rare dental condition: missing both lateral incisors (which meant his canine teeth were directly next to his top central teeth)—but, a dentist on Reddit weighed in when I posted this there and pointed out that this is actually extremely common. I've noted this in other places down below as well, where it originally mentioned the condition as rare. Also, an astute Redditor noted that the doctor's description at the inquest only said both lateral incisors were missing, and nothing about this being congenital.

Police followed their usual trails, but nothing turned up. After finding no leads, the local police distributed descriptions, fingerprints, and photographs to English-speaking countries worldwide.

No one knew him.

Buckle-up because we haven't hit the weird yet.

14 January 1949

Adelaide Railway Station, Australia

Detectives discover a brown suitcase with railway employees confirming that it was deposited in a locker the day before the mystery man's body was found on the beach in Somerton Park.

Image of the suitcase and personal effects belonging to The Somerton Man, found at Adelaide railway station. From left to right are detectives Dave Bartlett, Lionel Leane, and Len Brown.
Image of the suitcase and personal effects belonging to The Somerton Man, found at Adelaide railway station. From left to right are detectives Dave Bartlett, Lionel Leane, and Len Brown.

Briefcase contents: tie, laundry bag, undershirt, coat, dressing gown, slippers, four pairs of underpants, pajamas, shaving items, electrician's screwdriver, a table knife cut down and turned into a sharp instrument (possibly a weapon), scissors with sharpened points, a bit of zinc, a stenciling brush used on cargo ships, and a pair of trousers with sand in the cuffs.

Also in the briefcase: an unusual type of orange waxed thread—a match for the thread used to repair the lining of a pocket in the trousers he was wearing when they found him dead on the beach.

Almost all identification marks and labels have been removed from the suitcase and clothes. Police find a tie with "T. Keane," a laundry bag with "Keane," and an undershirt with "Kean." They also found three dry-cleaning marks (1171/7, 4393/7, 3053/7), which turned up nothing after a nationwide search.

The coat found in the suitcase had indications from the gusset and featherstitching that it was manufactured in the United States.

There were no witnesses when the man was in the train station.

Suitcase in hand, investigators were unable to turn up any leads.

6 June 1949

Upon reexamining the evidence, a hidden fob pocket was found in the man's trousers. Inside the pocket was a torn scrap of paper.

English: As quoted in the Smithsonian article regarding the two printed words shown: "The scrap of paper discovered in a concealed pocket in the dead man's trousers. 'Tamám shud' is a Persian phrase; it means 'It is ended.' The words had been torn from a rare New Zealand edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." [dating to the 12th century]
Actual photo of the scrap of paper found in 1949.

The text you see "Tamám Shud" is Persian, translated to mean "It is ended." The paper itself was unusual; it appeared to have been torn from a book. After calling in experts (public library officials), detectives found out that the scrap had been torn from a copy of the very last page of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It's a book of poetry by Omar Khayyam from 12th century Persia. He was a polymath, mathematician, astronomer, historian, philosopher—and, of course, poet.

The book was a rarity in Australia at the time, but unfortunately, simply knowing a scrap of paper was removed from a book wasn't much help with tracking down the identity of the mystery man found on Somerton Park beach. The police made a public appeal in hopes that someone, somewhere, knew something that could help.

17 June 1949

Coroner Thomas Erskine Cleland conducted an inquest into the man's death. Upon reexamining the body, he noted that the man's shoes appeared to have been recently polished—and that evidence fit with a theory that the man's body was moved to the beach after he was already dead—stressing, however, that it was pure speculation.

A professor from the University of Adelaide, Cedric Stanton Hicks, testified during the inquest that a group of drugs existed that were highly toxic in small oral doses and that they would be nearly impossible to detect, even if officials went explicitly looking for them. (Digitalis and ouabain, both cardenolide-type cardiac glycosides—the names of the drugs weren't released until the 1980s.)

No cause of death was established.

"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."

— Thomas Erskine Cleland, Coroner

After the inquest, a plaster cast was made of the man's head and shoulders.

22 July 1949

A man contacted the local police and turned in a book—Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Not just any copy of it either—the copy¹ of it—the actual book that the scrap of paper bearing "Tamám Shud" was torn from—the very last page. The book also contained an unlisted telephone number.

¹ The original police reports and newspaper articles written from police statements have some unresolved conflicts here. It may have been the exact same book, or only the same edition of the book. Also, it may have been torn from the book, or cut from the book, and it may have been more than just these two words. More more about this from the great comment by u/saludypaz right here. Note that the very next sentence you're going to read seems to be true based on source material, but also keep in mind what you've just read in this footnote. This case contains some conflicting information that is difficult to sort out, so if anyone out there reading this has new information or edits you can back with source material, please let me know and I'm always happy to update this.

Microscopic testing revealed that the book turned in was an exact match of the paper and tear pattern of the scrap of paper.

Accounts of where the book was found are conflicting, and the identity of the man who turned it is still isn't known. Police referred to him by the pseudonym "Ronald Francis" to protect his identity. In the decades since his identity has never been revealed by police.

The back of the book also had faint indentations of five lines of text that appeared to be some kind of coded message.

A police scan of the handwritten code found in the back of a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, believed to belong to the dead man, found in the back of a car in Glenelg, 1 December 1948.
A police scan of the handwritten code found in the back of a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, believed to belong to the dead man, found in the back of a car in Glenelg, 1 December 1948.

As you might imagine, the police were baffled. Though, the man could have been a spy. The Cold War started only two years before, in 1947. Two sites close to Adelaide may have interested spies: Radium Hill uranium mine and the Woomera Test Range military research facility. But, again, this spy theory was only speculation, and fear of spies was a normal part of the world at that time.

26 July 1949

Police traced the unlisted phone number in the book to a woman living in the area. Turns out, she lived only about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) away from where the body was found on the beach. She denied knowing the man. Police showed the woman a plaster cast of the mystery man, and she nearly fainted, then again denied knowing him, refusing to give the plaster cast a second look. The woman asked the police to kindly keep no record of her name. For some inexplicable reason, they agreed.

At this point, you may be wondering about the woman's name. It was discovered decades later: Jessica Thomson, aka Jestyn, aka Jo, aka Teresa Johnson née Powell, born Jessie Harkness.

How did Jessica's telephone number end up in the book? Jessica claimed she owned a copy of the book and in 1945 gave her copy to a man named Alf Boxall at a hotel in Sydney. There are conflicting reports on whether or not Jessica and Alf Boxall knew one another and to what extent.

Police believed the dead man they found may just be Alf Boxall.

27 July 1949

Police locate Alf Boxall, alive and well, living in Sydney. He still had the copy of Rubaiyat given to him by Jessica. She had signed the book with "JEstyn" and wrote out a verse from the book.

"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."

verse 70, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The last page of Alf Boxall's copy was fully intact and still had the part that said "Tamám Shud."

When police located him, he was working in the maintenance section of a bus depot, where he'd worked before World War II. During World War II, he served in the Australian Army. When he received the book from Jessica, he was a lieutenant in the Australian Army working in the Water Transport Section of the Royal Australian Engineers.

Note: when the decade closed, so did most of the activity on the case.

The 1950s

There's an encrypted communication method called a "book cipher" or "Ottendorf cipher" historically used in espionage. There are different techniques, but it works because the sender and receiver of encoded messages have access to the same book. For it to work, both parties not only need the exact same book, but they need the same edition—every single letter on every single page needs to be an identical match.

For espionage, if a spy is caught in enemy territory with a conventional codebook—it's immediately apparent that they are encoding messages. If they're caught with an ordinary book, they have plausible deniability. After all, it's just a book.

During the 50s, the book turned over to police—the one with the torn page—was lost.

That's not suspicious at all.

1986

The brown suitcase and its contents were destroyed.

The reason given: "no longer required."

1994

Chief Justice of Victoria, John Harber Phillips, examined the remaining evidence and concluded that poisoning was due to digitalis.

1995

Alf Boxall died. There's a theory that Alf Boxall was involved in the Venona Project—United States counterintelligence program to intercept and decrypt messages from intelligence agencies in the Soviet Union. The Venona Project ran from 1943 until 1980, so if Alf Boxall was involved somehow, he certainly wouldn't have told anyone. He was asked about it, and he neither confirmed nor denied involvement in anything spy-related, saying only, "It's quite a melodramatic thesis, isn't it?"

2007

Jessica Thomson died. Her daughter gives an interview saying that she believes her mother knew the identity of the Somerton Man. Jessica had a son named Robin, that was born in 1947. Robin had the same unusual dental and ear (hereditary links for both have been established, by the way) conditions as the Somerton Man. (Though, as pointed out above, the missing lateral incisors are actually extremely common.)

Jessica did not have these.

Obviously, this has caused speculation over the years that Jessica and the mystery man had a son named Robin. This has not been confirmed.

2009

Robin Thomson died.

2019

The Attorney-General of South Australia approved the exhumation of the Somerton Man for DNA sampling.

2021

The Somerton Man was exhumed for DNA samples.

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Who knows what the future will hold and if this mystery will ever be solved. It's very likely that someone out there knew precisely who this man was, but they've never come forward. Perhaps something will come of that DNA.

This case has been going on for the better part of a century, and there have been entire books written about it. So, I didn't cover all the details. Below is a brief and incomplete list of other oddities you'll uncover if you dive into the rabbit hole yourself.

Related

  • June 1945, Joseph "George" Marshall was found dead in Mosman (Sydney, New South Wales) with an open copy of Rubaiyat on his chest. Cause of death: suicide by poisoning. A witness in the case, Gwenneth Dorothy Graham, testified at the inquest and turned up thirteen days later dead in her bathtub—cause of death: suicide by slit wrists. You can read about George Marshall in an old newspaper article right here.
  • June 1949, a two-year-old boy (Clive Mangnoson) is found dead in a sack near Somerton Park beach, his unconscious father (Keith Waldemar Mangnoson) next to him. The mother and wife (Roma Mangnoson) later claimed she was threatened by a masked man, and she believed it was related to her husband trying to uncover the identity of the Somerton Man.
  • November 1970, an unidentified woman's body was found in Bergen, Norway. The subsequent case found some eerie similarities to the Somerton Man, including identifying marks and labels removed from belongings, suitcases later found at a nearby railway station, and signs of poison. As of 2019, the case is still developing. Read more about the Isdal Woman here on BBC.

Coincidentally, a fellow Redditor named honeybertram posted an interesting theory on the case as I was finishing up writing this. Check it out.

If you have time and a the detective mindset, the University of Adelaide has posted all of the original case files online right here.

The Dark Histories Podcast has an episode on this, here.

Astonishing Legends Podcast has a four part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.