Last Friday it was a case of not knowing where a man is. This case is not knowing who a man is. It takes place in Australia in 1948. It is known by several names – Somerton Man, Tamam Shud or Taman Shud case. The only thing we know is a man was found dead on Somerton Beach that no one has been able to identify.
It started early December 1st 1948. Two jockeys were exercising race horses by taking them on a morning ride on Somerton Beach. On the way south they noticed a man seemingly sleeping against the sea wall in front of the crippled children’s home and even commented upon him. On the way back they saw him again but he’d not moved despite mosquitoes being bad. One jockey dismounted to check on the man and upon shaking the man’s foot to stir him found he wasn’t sleeping he was dead. The unknown man was as stiff as a board. By this time, it was 6:30 am and early swimmers for exercise were out on the beach. One of the swimmers approached, he and his wife had seen the man the night before in the same place. He took over the scene call the police and letting the jockeys go about their business as they had a schedule to keep. The police responded and thus began an investigation that continues to this day.
The man was found propped up by the wall but slumped to his right with a cigarette dropped on his right collar as if he’d tried to light it but it went out as he slumped there. He was taken to the morgue where a search of the body and autopsy was done.
The autopsy showed he was in great physical shape, having the traditional V shape of a very fit man. His legs were muscular with high calf muscles seen in dancers. His toenails and fingernails were very well-tended. He appeared to be between 40 to 45 years old, a “Britsher”, was five foot eleven, hazel eyes and greying ginger hair cropped close and combed straight back. However, he had signs of acute gastritis hemorrhaging with a congested liver, spleen, and brain. The pathologist listed cause of death uncertain poison suspected. Yet there were no signs of vomiting or convulsions with the body. The toxicology report did not find any poisons but at the coroner’s hearing the pathologist testified there were two poisons that could have done this then disappeared from the system. He did not speak their names in court but wrote them on paper handing them to the judge. One was a rare poison from an African dart frog the other a controlled barbiturate.
The search of the body found no ID on the man. His clothes had all laundry marks and labels removed from them. He had an unused train ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach, a bus ticket to Glenelg (where Somerton Beach is located), an American aluminum comb, juicy-fruit gum packet open, Army Club cigarette pack with Kensita cigarettes (a more expensive brand) placed in it, and a pack of Bryant & May matches. Not much to go to identify the man.
The police released details about the discovery in hopes of identifying the man. Photos were made of him in the morgue one I include here. Many people came to view the body in hopes of offering help but no one knew him. The police started searching bus terminals and train station luggage rooms in hopes of finding a clue. They did as luck would have it find his suitcase at the rail station. It was determined to be his as it was dropped off the day before he was found and contained a spool of distinct orange American thread not available in Australia but was used to mend a pocket in the man’s clothes. Also the clothes in the case fit the man. (I don’t want to think that they tried them on but rather went by measurement).
The case didn’t offer any answers only more puzzles. First was that odd waxed orange thread that linked the two. Next was there was a stenciling brush used by sailors to mark cargo but remember the man’s nails were well-kept and his hands didn’t show manual labor. As on the clothes he wore all tags and laundry marks were removed save three – T. Keane on a tie, Keane on a laundry bag, and Kean on a vest. (Those names were investigated internationally to no result as were the man’s fingerprints.) It was also noted there were extra clothes of all types but socks. Despite having writing materials and envelopes there was no correspondence. The coat in suitcase was determined to have come from the USA as it had machine stitching that could only be done by machines in the USA at that time.
Despite all of this and lines of people filing through, no identification was made. The decision to embalm him and make a plaster cast of his face was made in an attempt to preserve the best evidence they had – his body.
While going through his clothes again a small rolled up piece of paper with the printed words Tamam Shud were found in his watch fob pocket. Tamam Shud is Persian and roughly translated to “The End.” The paper and print were analyzed with many publishers and librarians consulted. It was determined to have come from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. A collection of Persian poems translated into English. A search was on for the exact edition when the coroner’s hearing was held.
Once the hearing was concluded the information given about the Somerton Man was all over the papers. A man came forward to say he found a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam tossed into the backseat of his car that had been parked on Somerton Beach the night the man died. He brought the book into the police station and the tear on the last page matched the Tamam Shud (misprinted in the papers Taman Shud) found in the dead man’s pocket. Further examination determined the paper was a match to that book. In that book were two phone numbers and five lines of odd letters one of which was marked through.
First the phone numbers one was to a bank in Adelaide. The other was to a WWII nurse who became known as Jestyn. She becomes the mystery woman in this story. She is contacted and questioned. She admits that yes she knew the book and had given a copy to an intelligence officer before he went to war. The police thought they’d found their man. However, the man was found alive and well. Not only that but he had his copy of the Rubaiyat inscribed to him by Jestyn and it was a different edition.
Jestyn was taken to see the body before it was interred as embalming can only ward off fate for so long. She became visibly shaken at seeing the body. She appeared about to pass out but swore she did not know the man. From then she left and maintained until her dying day that she did not know the Somerton Man.
Now to the five lines of letters, they appear to be a code. Many have tried to decipher it using the Rubaiyat. Sadly the original book has been lost along with other materials on the case the police had. 68 years is a long time to keep everything in police files. The edition the Somerton man had is rare and another copy has not been found. The attempts to use the Rubaiyat have been done with other editions which might be part of the problem. Still to this day if that message is something its secret is as safe as the identity of the man and his exact cause of death.
One researcher has used the photograph of the man’s ear to attempt to identify him. The ear is unique in that the upper loop is as large as the lower loop. That along with the dental anomaly of having no tooth between his incisor and canines in his upper teeth are unique traits. Both are genetic anomalies that occur in 2% of the population to have both is very rare. Now get this, Jestyn’s dancer son has both traits too. Yes, dancer son… Hmm… Somerton man had legs and feet like a dancer… She almost fainted seeing him. Could it be? The only way to find out is to exhume Somerton man and compare his DNA to that of Jestyn’s granddaughter by her son. The granddaughter has requested this but so far permission has not been granted to exhume Somerton Man.
Just who was he? An American? It seems links to America keep popping up in his things. But being post war where interactions between Allied nations had been high it’s hard to say. Maybe he traded with American troops for thread, a comb and later got a used American jacket.
Was he a spy? Several things point to spy craft – the removed labels in the clothes, the laundry marks left that went nowhere, the hiding of better cigarettes as cheaper ones, the lines of letters that look like a code.
Was he poisoned? The pathologist at the time seemed to think so but how with such rare toxins? Why? Was it murder or suicide? There are chronic conditions that can cause an enlarged spleen, gastro bleeding, liver congestion, and brain congestion. Did he have these and felt badly, stopped on the beach to have a cigarette while he rested but fate caught him? Oh and why did he have no extra socks? The man tended his feet well but didn’t change socks frequently?
I don’t know if exhuming the man and getting his DNA would give us any answers. But I suspect it might give us some more clues. There are genealogist DNA experts that might help us find relatives of a missing man. Then we may have a name but no idea how he got to Somerton beach or why. Much less if he died of a condition, murder by poison, or suicide by poison.
So many question so few answers. Somewhere out there I’d bet there a family that wonder what happened to that ginger haired, fit loved one that could dance… the answer is we don’t know but he’s still waiting to be found in Australia.