Most murders aren’t that difficult to solve. Usually the husband, or wife, did it. Sometimes it may have been the boyfriend or ex-lover. The crimes fit a pattern, the motives are generally clear.
Of course, there are always a few cases that don’t fit the template. Cases where the killer is a stranger or the reason for the killing is totally unclear. Usually though, the authorities have something to go on. Thanks to forensic advances such as DNA technology, the police are seldom baffled.
They certainly were baffled, though, at Somerton Beach in the December 1948. Here was a story that began simply - with the discovery of a body on the beach on the first day of that southern summer - and has become more mysterious as time progressed.
In fact, this case was so strange that the authorities still don't know the victim’s identity, have no real idea what killed him, and can't even be certain whether his death was murder or suicide. All that can be said is that the clues in the Somerton Beach mystery add up to one of the world’s most perplexing cold cases. It may be the most mysterious of them all.
The Tamam Shud case, also known as the Mystery of the Somerton Man, is an unsolved case of an unidentified man found dead at 6:30am on December 1st 1948, on Somerton beach, Glenelg, just south of Adelaide, South Australia.
The case is named after the Persian phrase tamám shud, meaning "ended" or "finished", printed on a scrap of paper found months later in the fob pocket of the man's trousers. The scrap had been torn from the final page of a copy of The Rubaiyat, authored by 12th-century poet Omar Khayyám.
The case has been considered, since the early stages of the police investigation as,
"one of Australia's most profound mysteries".
How it started
The case of The Somerton Man, aka Tamám Shud, was born at 6.45am on December 1, 1948, when the body of a man was found slumped against a sea wall on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, South Australia.
At 7 o’clock on the previous warm evening of Tuesday, November 30, 1948, jeweler John Bain Lyons and his wife went for a stroll on Somerton Beach, a seaside resort a few miles south of Adelaide. As they walked toward Glenelg, they noticed a smartly dressed man lying on the sand, his head propped against a sea wall. He was lolling about 20 yards from them, legs outstretched, feet crossed. As the couple watched, the man extended his right arm upward, then let it fall back to the ground. Lyons thought he might be making a drunken attempt to smoke a cigarette.
Half an hour later, another couple noticed the same man lying in the same position. Looking on him from above, the woman could see that he was immaculately dressed in a suit, with smart new shoes polished to a mirror shine—odd clothing for the beach. He was motionless, his left arm splayed out on the sand. The couple decided that he was simply asleep, his face surrounded by mosquitoes.
“He must be dead to the world not to notice them,” the boyfriend joked.
It was not until next morning that it became obvious that the man was not so much dead to the world as actually dead. John Lyons returned from a morning swim to find some people clustered at the seawall where he had seen his “drunk” the previous evening. Walking over, he saw a figure slumped in much the same position, head resting on the seawall, feet crossed. Now, though, the body was cold. There were no marks of any sort of violence. A half-smoked cigarette was lying on the man’s collar, as though it had fallen from his mouth.
Despite the warm weather, he was dressed in an expensive suit and tie but the labels were removed from his clothes. A half-smoked cigarette rested on his shirt collar. There were no signs of violence to his body, no signs of a struggle. The sand around him was dry and undisturbed.
The unidentified man carried no ID but his pockets held the following items...
- a used bus ticket from the city,
- an unused second-class rail ticket from the city to nearby Henley Beach,
- a slim aluminium American comb,
- a half-empty packet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum,
- an Army Club cigarette packet containing a different brand of cigarettes called Kensitas, and a
- quarter-full box of Bryant & May matches.
Later, a tiny piece of paper printed with the words “Tamám Shud” — Persian for “it is ended” or “it is finished” — was found rolled up inside his pocket.
The cause of death
The body was taken to the Royal Adelaide hospital. There Dr. John Barkley Bennett put the time of death at no earlier than 2 a.m., noted the likely cause of death as heart failure, and added that he suspected poisoning.
By the time a full autopsy was carried out a day later, the police had already exhausted their best leads as to the dead man’s identity, and the results of the postmortem did little to enlighten them. It revealed that the corpse’s pupils were “smaller” than normal and “unusual,” that a dribble of spittle had run down the side of the man’s mouth as he lay, and that “he was probably unable to swallow it.” His spleen, meanwhile, “was strikingly large and firm, about three times normal size,” and the liver was distended with congested blood.
In the man’s stomach, a pathologist found the remains of his last meal — a pastie — and a further quantity of blood. That too suggested poisoning, though there was nothing to show that the poison had been in the food. Now the dead man’s peculiar behavior on the beach—slumping in a suit, raising and dropping his right arm—seemed less like drunkenness than it did a lethal dose of something taking slow effect. But repeated tests on both blood and organs by an expert chemist failed to reveal the faintest trace of a poison. “I was astounded that he found nothing,” Dwyer admitted at the inquest. In fact, no cause of death was found.
The body displayed other peculiarities. The dead man’s calf muscles were high and very well developed; although in his late 40s, he had the legs of an athlete. His toes, meanwhile, were oddly wedge-shaped. One expert who gave evidence at the inquest noted...
"I have not seen the tendency of calf muscle so pronounced as in this case…. His feet were rather striking, suggesting—this is my own assumption—that he had been in the habit of wearing high-heeled and pointed shoes."
Perhaps, another expert witness hazarded, the dead man had been a ballet dancer?
In 1994 John Harber Phillips, Chief Justice of Victoria and Chairman of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, reviewed the case to determine the cause of death and concluded that...
"There seems little doubt it was digitalis."
Phillips supported his conclusion by pointing out that the organs were engorged, consistent with digitalis, the lack of evidence of natural disease and...
"the absence of anything seen macroscopically which could account for the death".
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam
Intriguingly, the slip of paper found in one of the Somerton Man's pockets with the printed words “Tamám Shud,” meaning “ended” or “finished” in Persian. It was torn from a page of a rare book of poetry - The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam.
Since no one reported the Somerton Man missing and no one was able to identify the corpse, the police asked the public to check their copies of Omar Khayyam for a torn page. From this a most surprising break occurred — a local man handed in the correct book - evidenced by the torn page. He reported that he found the book on the back seat of his car, which at the time, had been parked only a few streets away from where the body was found.
The man presented police with a 1941 edition of Edward FitzGerald's (1859) translation of the Rubaiyat, published by Whitcombe and Tombs in Christchurch, New Zealand. Detective Sgt Lionel Leane, who led the initial investigation, often protected the privacy of witnesses in public statements by using pseudonyms; Leane referred to the man who found the book by the pseudonym "Ronald Francis" and he has never been officially identified. At the time, "Francis" had not considered that the book might be connected to the case until he had seen an article in the previous day's newspaper.
There is some uncertainty about the circumstances under which the book was found. One newspaper article refers to the book being found about a week or two before the body was found. Former South Australian Police detective Gerry Feltus (who dealt with the matter as a cold case), reports that the book was found..
"just after that man was found on the beach at Somerton".
The timing is significant as the Somerton Man is presumed, based on a suitcase which had arrived in Adelaide (more on that later) the day before he was found on the beach. If the book was found one or two weeks before, it suggests that the man had visited previously or had been in Adelaide for a longer period. Most accounts state that the book was found in an unlocked car parked in Jetty Road, Glenelg – either in the rear floor well, or on the back seat.
On the inside back cover of the book, detectives identified indentations from handwriting. These included a telephone number, an unidentified number, and a text that resembled an encrypted message. According to statements by police, the book was found in the rear footwell of a car, at about the same time that the body of the unidentified man had been found.
The mysterious code
The book found in the stranger's car yielded another clue, perhaps the most perplexing of the case; a coded message visible only under an ultraviolet light that remains uncracked to this day. The discovery made sensational headlines and led to speculation that the man was a Soviet spy — a belief still widely held.
In the back of the book were faint indentations representing five lines of text, in capital letters. The second line has been struck out – a fact that is considered significant, due to its similarities to the fourth line and the possibility that it represents an error in encryption.
In the book it is unclear if the first line begins with an "M" or "W", but it is 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 "L" has 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. In 1978, following a request from ABC-TV journalist Stuart Littlemore, Department of Defence cryptographers analysed the handwritten text. The cryptographers reported that it would be impossible to provide "a satisfactory answer": if the text was an encrypted message, its brevity meant that it had "insufficient symbols", from which a clear meaning could be extracted, and the text could be the "meaningless" product of a "disturbed mind"
There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts in the 60+ years since its discovery to crack the letters found at the rear of the book, including efforts by military and naval intelligence, mathematicians, and amateur code crackers. In 2004, retired detective Gerry Feltus suggested in a Sunday Mail article that the final line "ITTMTSAMSTGAB" could stand for the initials of "It's Time To Move To South Australia Moseley Street..." (the former nurse lived in Moseley Street which is the main road through Glenelg). A 2014 analysis by computational linguist John Rehling strongly supports the theory that the letters consist of the initials of some English text, but finds no match for these in a large survey of literature, and concludes that the letters were likely written as a form of shorthand, not as a code, and that the original text can likely never be determined.
By January 11, the South Australia police had investigated and dismissed pretty much every lead they had. The investigation was now widened in an attempt to locate any abandoned personal possessions, perhaps left luggage, that might suggest that the dead man had come from out of state. This meant checking every hotel, dry cleaner, lost property office and railway station for miles around. But it did produce results. On the 12th, detectives sent to the main railway station in Adelaide were shown a brown suitcase that had been deposited in the cloakroom there on November 30.
The staff could remember nothing about the owner, and the case’s contents were not much more revealing. The case did contain a reel of orange thread identical to that used to repair the dead man’s trousers, but painstaking care had been applied to remove practically every trace of the owner’s identity. The case bore no stickers or markings, and a label had been torn off from one side. The tags were missing from all but three items of the clothing inside; these bore the name “Kean” or “T. Keane,” but it proved impossible to trace anyone of that name, and the police concluded–an Adelaide newspaper reported–that someone “had purposely left them on, knowing that the dead man’s name was not ‘Kean’ or ‘Keane.’ ”
The remainder of the contents were equally inscrutable. There was a stencil kit of the sort “used by the Third Officer on merchant ships responsible for the stenciling of cargo”; a table knife with the haft cut down; and a coat stitched using a feather stitch unknown in Australia. A tailor identified the stitchwork as American in origin, suggesting that the coat, and perhaps its wearer, had traveled during the war years. But searches of shipping and immigration records from across the country again produced no likely leads.
The 'Jestyn' connection
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam was inscribed with a message, signed “Jestyn” and pencilled in tiny handwriting in the back was a local phone number. This message and phone number led police to a house located a distance of no more than five minutes walk from where the body was found.
They paid a visit and a young woman answered the door. She denied any knowledge of the man. But something about her demeanour made them suspicious. She seemed evasive under questioning and detectives felt she knew more than she was letting on.
Wishing to remain anonymous, the woman, known as ‘Jestyn’, told detectives that while training as a nurse in Sydney she had given a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to a man named Alfred Boxall. The inside cover of Boxall’s copy had been inscribed by Jestyn and read:
“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 apieces tore.”
At last the police felt confident that they had solved the mystery. Boxall, surely, was the Unknown Man. Within days they traced his home to Maroubra, New South Wales.
The problem was that Boxall turned out to be still alive, and he still had the copy of the Rubaiyat Jestyn had given him. It bore the nurse’s inscription, but was completely intact. The scrap of paper hidden in the dead man’s pocket must have come from somewhere else.
The woman had also told the police that she was married; however, investigations have revealed that she was not married until 1950. She told the police that she was a nurse, although new findings show that she had not completed her final nursing exams due to a pregnancy.
After the funeral of the Somerton Man had taken place, the police took the woman to see a plaster bust that was molded from the cadaver to see if she could recognize the man. She stared at the floor for the whole interview with her eyes averted from the bust. Despite this, the police astonishingly dropped their best lead and agreed to not release her identity to the press. The media referred to her using the pseudonym “Jestyn,” although investigators knew her true identity.
In 1949, Jessica Thomson requested that police not keep a permanent record of her name or release her details to third parties, as it would be embarrassing and harmful to her reputation to be linked to such a case. The police agreed – a decision that hampered later investigations. In news media, books and other discussions of the case, Thomson was frequently referred to by various pseudonyms, including the nickname "Jestyn" and names such as "Teresa Johnson née Powell".
In 2010 Gerry Feltus, a policeman assigned between 2002 and 2004 (when he retired) to the Somerton Man cold case, carefully laid out the case in a book “The Unknown Man: A suspicious death at Somerton Beach“. In the book Feltus claimed he was given permission by Thomson's family to disclose her names and that of her husband, Prosper Thomson. Nevertheless, the names Feltus used in his book were pseudonyms. Feltus 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. Her real name was considered important as the possibility exists that it may be the decryption key for the purported code.
In 2013, her daughter came forward on a television documentary and Jestyn’s real identity, Jessica “Jo” Thomson (née Jessie Ellen Harkness, b. 1921 - d. 2007), finally became public. She was generally known as Jess Harkness, and then after 1947 as Jo Thomson.
Mrs Thomson, who died in 2007 and was known as Jo for much of her life, always denied knowing the Somerton Man. Yet there are many trains of thought that Mrs Thomson's son Robin is the secret love child of the mysterious man.
The mystery still perplexes and endures today
Was Jestyn the reason the man had travelled to Glenelg on 30 November 1948? What did the letters on the back cover mean? Were they just random or perhaps a secret message meant for the man, Jestyn, or someone else?
There has been intense speculation ever since regarding the identity of the victim, the cause of his death and the events leading up to it. Public interest in the case remains significant for several reasons: the death occurred at a time of heightened international tensions following the beginning of the Cold War; the apparent involvement of a secret code; the possible use of an undetectable poison; and the inability of authorities to identify the dead man.
In addition to intense public interest in Australia during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Tamam Shud case also attracted international attention. South Australian Police consulted their counterparts overseas and distributed information about the dead man internationally, in an effort to identify him. International circulation of a photograph of the man and details of his fingerprints yielded no positive identification. For example, in the United States, the FBI was unable to match the dead man's fingerprint with prints taken from files of domestic criminals. Scotland Yard was also asked to assist with the case, but could not offer any insights.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in its documentary series Inside Story, in 1978 produced a programme on the Tamam Shud case, entitled The Somerton Beach Mystery, where reporter Stuart Littlemore investigated the case, including interviewing Boxall, who could add no new information on the case, and Paul Lawson, who made the plaster cast of the body, and who refused to answer a question about whether anyone had positively identified the body.
Former South Australian Chief Superintendent Len Brown, who worked on the case in the 1940s, stated that he believed that the man was from a country in the Warsaw Pact, which led to the police's inability to confirm the man's identity.
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.
And there, to all intents and purposes, the mystery rested. The Australian police never cracked the code or identified the unknown man. Jestyn passed away without revealing why she had seemed likely to faint when confronted with a likeness of the dead man’s face. And when the South Australia coroner published the final results of his investigation in 1958, his report concluded with the admission...
"I am unable to say who the deceased was… I am unable to say how he died or what was the cause of death"
There are literally thousands of articles written about this perplexing mystery. Facts and theories seem to merge and cloud as the various leads twist and turn into a real-life 'never ending story'. One thing is for sure though, this fascinating and unresolved story will keep sleuths, professional and amateur alike, guessing for years to come.