After several lame weeks, I spent three full days researching and writing this week’s topic. It’s hella long so no hard feelings if you can’t get through it. At least skip to the end to get some of the links I provide for additional info. I think they’re worth checking out if you’re a fan of the topic.
“A famous, unsolved crime.”
I was originally going to write about one of the super famous unsolved crimes, like the Zodiac Killer or the Black Dahlia, but while researching crimes to write about, I kept coming across one particularly intriguing unsolved mystery that I ended up following down the rabbit hole. I remember hearing about this case on an episode of Mysterious Universe back in February, but didn’t realize just how well-known it was. When you Google “famous unsolved crimes” it often shows up on Top 10 lists. I figured it was the perfect crime to talk about, since it’s not so famous that no one cares to read about it anymore. I consider the unsolved crimes like Jack the Ripper to be like the Angelina Jolie of the genre. This case is more like the Sophie Monk of unsolved mysteries. You know you may have heard about it somewhere in some famous context, but it’s way more popular in Australia, haha.
So the mystery is known as the Tamam Shud case or the Body on Somerton Beach. At around 6:30 a.m. on December 1, 1948, a man was found dead on Somerton Beach in Australia. He was last seen alive by a couple walking along the beach around 7 p.m. the night before. They had spotted him laying on the ground with his head propped against a sea wall with his legs outstretched and feet crossed as he extended his right arm upwards as though attempting to smoke a cigarette. The couple figured he was just another drunk. Shortly thereafter, a different couple also observed him in the same position on the beach, though not moving at all.
When the man was found the next morning, there were no visible marks to indicate a violent death and a half-smoked cigarette was lying on his collar, as though it had fallen out of his mouth. All that was on his person were tickets from Adelaide to the beach, some matches, two combs, a pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gun, and a pack of Army Club cigarettes containing seven cigarettes of another brand called Kensitas. He had no wallet, no cash, and no ID. All of the labels had been cut out of his clothing. One of his trouser pockets had been repaired with “an unusual type” of orange thread.
An autopsy was inconclusive. Although multiple signs pointed to poisoning, tests could not detect any trace of poison in his system. The pathologist concluded: “I am quite convinced the death could not have been natural …the poison I suggested was a barbiturate or a soluble hypnotic.” Dental records did not match him as an Australian citizen. Who was this strange man and who or what could’ve killed him? There were some physical clues: he appeared to be British, in his late 40s, had “the legs of an athlete” with very high and very well developed calf muscles, and oddly wedge-shaped toes. One expert described the lower half of his body as such:
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.
The coroner concluded that a very rare poison must have been used on the mystery man. This rare poison must have been one that “decomposed very early after death,” leaving no trace of its existence. The prime suspected poison was Strophanthin, a rare glycoside derived fro the seeds of certain African plants.
As the days passed, the search to identify the Body on Somerton Beach continued to turn up zip. The man’s fingerprints did not turn up a match for any Australians – or anyone else in the English-speaking world for that matter. Many people visited the morgue in hopes of identifying him, but no one could. On January 12, however, detectives found a brown suitcase that had been check into the cloakroom in the main railway station in Adelaide – back on November 30. Inside the suitcase was a reel of orange thread, some clothing, slippers, shaving items, a stencil kit, a table knife with the haft cut down, and a coat stitched using a feather stitch that was American in origin. The stencil kit was described as the kind “used by the Third Officer on merchant ships responsible for the stenciling of cargo.” The case did not have any identifying markings and the label had been torn off of its side. The tags had been removed from all but three of the clothing items. The remaining tags read “Kean” or “T.Keane,” but authorities were never able to trace that name back to anyone and concluded that the labels were left on purposely since they did not identify the man’s real name.
Four months went by before authorities got their next break in the case, but this one proved more puzzling than ever. In April 1949, John Cleland, an emeritus professor of pathology at the University of Adelaide, was brought in to examine the mystery man’s body and possessions. Cleland found a small, secret pocket sewn into the waistband of the Somerton Man’s trousers. Inside the pocket was a tightly rolled, tiny scrap of paper with the phrase “Tamám Shud” printed on it in an elaborate printed font.
A police reporter for the Adelaide Advertiser recognized the phrase as Persian for “It is ended” and suggested that police obtain a copy of a book of poetry written in the twelfth century called the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. “Tamám Shud” were the last words in most English translations of the book (“The End”). A translation of the book had become popular in Australia during WWII, but none of the editions in the entire country matched the same font as this one did. New theories sprung up that the murder was actually a suicide, but it was never officially ruled either way. Many theories who oppose the suicide theory have pointed out that the man’s behavior prior to his death did not point to those of a man looking to end his life.
It wasn’t until July 23 that the correct edition of the Rubaiyat turned up when a man walked into the Adelaide police station with the very book that the tiny piece of paper had been ripped out of. His story went as such: He and his brother-in-law had gone for a drive in late 1948 in a car that had been parked at Somerton Beach in the weeks before the body was discovered. During that drive, the brother-in-law had found a copy of the Rubaiyat lying on the floor of the car by the rear seats and stuck it in the glove compartment. Each man assumed the book belonged to the other one and that was that. After reading about the search for the book in a newspaper article, they went back to the glove compartment, took a closer look, discovered the final page had been torn out, and brought it to the police. This new copy is believed to be a very rare first edition of Edward FitzGerald’s translation, published in 1859 in New Zealand, though a matching copy has never been found.
Now here’s where the story starts to get really interesting. On the back cover, there was a telephone number penciled in as well as a faint impression of some other letters written underneath it that you could only see using a magnifying glass. The phone number was for a young former nurse living near Somerton Beach. Although the nurse’s true identity has never been revealed by Australian authorities, she became known by followers of the case as “Jestyn.” Jestyn reluctantly admitted to the police that she had indeed gift a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man she had known during the war, a man she knew as Alfred Boxall. Finally, a name! The police traced the name back to a home in Maroubra, New South Wales…only to find out that Alfred Boxall was still alive and still holding onto his copy of the Rubaiyat that Jestyn had given him, original inscription and all. Upon furthering questioning, Jestyn told them that in late 1948, a man had come to her home, asking her neighbors about her. Jestyn went to her death denying any knowledge of the Somerton Man’s identity, but many investigators believe she’s lying. When shown a cast made of the man’s face before he was buried, the nurse seemed “completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint.” Yet she continued to deny knowing him, requesting her privacy be kept in tact to the public, as she was now married and did not want the embarrassment of her name being associated with Boxall or the mystery man.
Back at square one, the investigators once again turned to the copy of the Rubaiyat, now examining the faint markings on the back cover under ultraviolet light. To their surprise, a code appeared. It was five lines of jumbled letters, with the first three separated from the last two by a pair of straight lines with an “x” written over them and the second line crossed out. This code has yielded some of the biggest mysteries surrounding just who this mysterious man was.
Australian police sent the code to the Naval Intelligence and even allowed the press to publish it. All attempts at cracking it – both amateur and professional – failed. Finally, the Australian Department of Defense concluded that the code was unsolvable. The South Australian coroner published the final results of his investigation in 1958, conceding that he was “unable to say who the deceased was…how he died or what the case of death was.”
As with sensational cases like this, its garnered a worldwide following throughout the years, with amateur crime solvers, experts, and retired law enforcement officials all trying to crack the case themselves. The target of many of these theories come from loose ends in the investigation, Jestyn being a big one. Did she indeed know who this man was? Was he the one who visited her neighbors? Did she know him from WWII as she did Boxall? There are theories out there that believe that Jestyn’s real name (commonly believed to be Jessie Ellen Harkness) could possibly be a key to cracking the code. Could it be? One researcher discovered that she had a son and when he did a detailed analysis of photos of the Somerton Man and the son, he discovered some intriguing genetic similarities – genetic traits that only 1-2% of the general population share.
There is also one piece of evidence that was never followed up on that modern-day enthusiasts have uncovered. In 1959, a man who had been on Somerton Beach on the evening of November 30, 1948 gave a statement to the police that he “saw a man carrying another on his shoulder, near the water’s edge. He could not describe the man.” At the time, the man assumed that it was just someone carrying their drunken friend. This seemingly innocent testimony has, naturally, triggered conspiracy theories. Since no one had seen the face of the man lying on the sand on the evening of November 30, is it possible that there were actually two different men? Was the first man really just a drunk trying to smoke a cigarette who got up and stumbled home during the night? The estimated time of death for the Somerton Man was no earlier than 2 a.m. on December 1. Could the man found that morning have been placed there by the strange man carrying him?
Then there are the theories about the man’s profession. Due to the extremely rare nature of the suspected poison, theories have sprung up that the mystery man was a spy. I love this theory. The evidence pointing towards it is circumstantial but intriguing. Alfred Boxall had met Jestyn while he worked in intelligence during WWII, at the time of the Somerton Man’s death, there was a top secret British rocket testing facility a few hundred miles from Adelaide, and it was start of the Cold War. As for how he was poisoned, a favored guess is the man’s cigarette’s were poisoned, which would explain why he had a more expensive brand of cigarettes held within the Army Club pack. Did someone switch his cigarettes without him knowing? When? Adding further speculation to the spy theory (and I think this is a waaaay long shot) was another Rubaiyat-related death in Australia. In June 1945, George Marshall was found dead with a seventh edition copy of the book with his body. His death is believed to be suicide by poison. None of this is anything more than a coincidence – except for one little thing. There were only five editions of this particular version of the Rubaiyat ever published, not seven. That makes this copy just as strange as the Somerton Man’s copy, which has thus far been impossible to match. Special spy editions, anyone? And what, if anything, does the code mean?!
And finally, to bring this to a close before I send you off into the Land of the Interwebs to either follow up on this or forget about it, there is one more thing worth noting. A few years after the Somerton Man was buried, flowers began appearing at his grave site. They would appear at odd intervals, but no one could ever figure out who left them there or why.
Man I love this story. If you want to read more, all of these websites are pretty intriguing and go WAY more in-depth than I just did. Check them out: