Police photo of the Somerton Man.
The Black Dahlia. Jack the Ripper. The Zodiac Killings. JonBenet Ramsey. The Axeman of New Orleans.
These are some of the most captivating unsolved murder mysteries of all time and they share a common thread: all of the victims are known.
The Tamam Shud, also known as the Somerton Man, case is different. In this instance, the victim is an unknown man with some mysterious items in his possession and no known cause of death.
On November 30th, 1948, a couple went for a walk along Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia, around sunset. During their walk, they found a man lying in the sand, smoking a cigarette. His head was propped up against the seawall near a set of stairs leading to the nearby road and homes.
Somerton Beach. The place where the victim’s body was found is marked with a black X.
On a warm summer day like this, the couple, John Lyons and his wife, believed the man to be a drunk who stumbled down the stairs. They thought nothing much about the man being dressed in a suit with highly polished shoes.
The couple continued on their walk. A half-hour later, they returned to the scene to find the man lying motionless in the same position they’d found him earlier. Mosquitoes buzzed around his face. The couple joked that he was “dead to the world” drunk.
The next morning, John Lyons learned the man wasn’t dead drunk the night before. He was dead. Lyons saw a commotion on the beach where the man laid the night before and went to investigate the scene.
He found the man lying in the same position as yesterday. There was a half-smoked cigarette resting on the dead man’s collar.
Authorities took the dead man to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where time of death was put at 2 am on December 1st, seven hours after John Lyons discovered him on the beach.
The Somerton Man’s Possessions & Autopsy
The Somerton Man’s suitcase and personal effects.
A full autopsy was performed on December 2nd, but no cause of death was established. It was determined that his pupils were smaller than normal and his spleen was three times larger than normal. His liver was filled with congested blood. His calves and feet resembled those of a ballet dancer.
The man’s last meal was a pasty. Multiple tests of blood and organ tissue failed to find any source of the poison originally believed to be the cause of death.
The man’s identity could not be determined from the autopsy.
The items in Somerton Man’s possession were equally notable for what was found as for what wasn’t.
Investigators found two combs, some matches, a pack of chewing gum, and a pack of Army Club brand cigarettes. Seven of the cigarettes had been replaced by a pricier brand called Kensitas. He had tickets from Adelaide to the beach, explaining how he arrived.
There was no cash or coin, no wallet, no form of ID.
The pocket had been repaired with orange thread yet all of the brand labels had been removed from his clothing.
Fingerprints of the Somerton Man were taken and circulated around the world, but no one could identify the man definitively.
The Suitcase and the Scrap of Paper
On January 12th, 1949, South Australia police discovered a suitcase that belonged to the Somerton Man at the Adelaide rail station. It had been in the station’s possession since November 30th.
Once again, the Somerton Man’s possessions led to more questions than answers. Police discovered the orange thread used to darn the pocket. They discovered a stencil kit used to stencil cargo before shipment. There was a table knife with the handle altered. There was a feather stitched jacket determined to be American in origin.
The suitcase bore no stickers or tags. The labels had been removed from all but three pieces of clothing. The labels left read “Kean” and “T. Keane”, but these clues led to Somerton Man’s identity.
A second search of Somerton Man’s possessions in April 1949 by John Cleland led to the most famous clue in the case. John Cleland’s investigation found a scrap of tightly rolled paper inside a small watch fob packet in Somerton Man’s pants. The original investigation had overlooked the fob pocket.
Police photo of the scrap of paper found among the Somerton Man’s belongings.
Cleland opened up the piece of paper and discovered two words: Tamam Shad. In English, “It is ended.” These are the last words of the English version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Khayyam’s rubiayat’s had become popular in Australia during World War II with copies being produced throughout the country.
The police took this clue to mean this was a suicide, rather than a murder. An official murder investigation was never opened. Instead, this was treated as a missing person’s investigation.
The case took a new turn when a copy of the Rubaiyat was brought to the Adelaide police on July 23rd, 1949. A man brought the book into the station, claiming that it had been in his car. The book had been found in the backseat by the man’s brother-in-law during a drive in December and was placed in the car’s glove compartment.
When the man opened the book, he found the last page missing. Prompted by a newspaper article, he brought the book to the police where Detective Sergeant (D.S.) Lionel Leane took possession of it.
In the back of the book, D.S. Leane found a phone number penciled into the cover. There were some capital letters pressed into the cover as well, but the police had a new lead in the case.
The phone number was unlisted but belonged to a nurse nicknamed Jestyn. Her name was never publicly released by the police. She lived a block away from where Somerton Man’s body was found on the beach.
Jestyn was an unwed mother of a 2-year-old named Robin in 1949, though she was living with her future husband at the time. She admitted to giving a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man named Alfred Boxall during World War II as a gift.
Police initially believed that Boxall would turn out to be the Somerton Man, but he was quite alive when they arrived to speak with him. He presented the police with his copy of the Rubaiyat, completely intact with Jestyn’s inscription to him.
Police brought Jestyn in a year later, in 1950, to question her again. She had no recollection of any phone call with Somerton Man. She was shown photos of the Somerton Man. D.S. Leade’s notes state that she was “completely taken back, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint.”
Despite her reaction to the photos, Jestyn denied that she knew the man.
The exact copy of the Somerton Man’s Rubiayat has never been located.
The most tantalizing clue in this case is the code D.S. Leane discovered in the back of the book in capital letters. The code was released to the public, sparking a flurry of amateur codebreakers. Naval Intelligence in Australia attempted to break the code as well, but without success.
The code was determined to read:
However, the Australian Navy determined in the 1950s that the code is unbreakable due to the limited sample size. They believed the code to be in English and the letters to represent the first letter of a word.
Attempts in the last few years by Derek Abbott, a professor of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide, using computers to decipher the code have been limited by the processing power of a single computer. A single attempt to search for phrases using 5 letters, MLIAB, took over 18 hours to generate a single result.
Professor Abbot has reached out to Google for permission to access their information directly, but Google has refused as of publication.
The Prevailing Theories
There are two prevailing theories regarding the fate of the Somerton Man.
Theory 1: The Somerton Man was the father of Jestyn’s son, Robin. This theory is based on rare genetic similarities between the Somerton Man and Robin, such as the shape of the teeth and the ears. DNA testing has shown that Robin has American relatives.
The theory suggests that Jestyn, unwed at the time, had a child with the Somerton Man. She kept the father a secret when she met her future husband. She then told the Somerton Man that she could no longer allow him to see his child. Devastated, the Somerton Man took his own life using an exotic poison that was undiscovered in the original testing.
Theory 2: The Somerton Man was a spy working for another nation. The code in the book is believed to be a secret message for his spymaster. However, Somerton Man was caught and poisoned by the cigarettes he was smoking.
Since the man was a spy, no nation has come forward to claim him as their agent, even after all this time.
Both theories have their merits, but without more evidence, the identity of the Somerton Man will remain unknown.
Skye Vitiritti is a writer of historical fiction and horror novels. Her latest work, My Eternal Crusade: Jerusalem 1183, comes out on March 1, 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @TheWriterSkye or on her website, www.skyevitiritti.com
Balint, R. (2010) The Somerton Man: An Unsolved History. Retrieved from http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/csrj/article/view/1520
Dash, M. (2011, August 12) The Body on Somerton Beach. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-body-on-somerton-beach-50795611/
Zyga, L. (2015, June 2) After years of forencis investigation, Somerton Man’s identity remains a mystery (Part 1: History and Code). Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2015-06-years-forensic-somerton-identity-mystery.html
Zyga, L. (2015, June 3) After years of forencis investigation, Somerton Man’s identity remains a mystery (Part 2: DNA, isotopes, and autopsy). Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2015-06-years-forensic-somerton-identity-mystery_1.html