On 1 December 1948 at 6:30 am, the body of an unidentified man was man was discovered on Somerton beach near Glenelg, about 11 kilometres southwest of Adelaide, South Australia.
The man was found lying in the sand, with his head resting against the seawall, with his legs extended and his feet crossed. He dead from unknown causes, and as investigators delved deeper into the corpse’s demise they came up with more questions than answers, leaving an unsolved case involving poetry and Cold War codes that remains a mystery until today.
After the body was discovered, authorities began searching the man for any clue to his identity, however, they found that he was completely devoid of identification.
An unlit cigarette was on the right collar of his coat, and a search of his pockets revealed an unused second-class rail ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach, a bus ticket from the city that could not be proved to have been used, a narrow aluminium American comb, a half-empty packet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, an Army Club cigarette packet containing seven cigarettes of a different brand, and a quarter-full box of Bryant & May matches.
It even appeared that the tags had been removed from his clothing, and the only unusual feature about the body was a torn inner pocket that had been repaired using an orange thread. His dental records matched none in Australia, and the man was essentially a ghost.
The autopsy revealed that there was excess blood in a number of his organs, which, with no other evident cause of death, led researchers to speculate that the unknown man had been poisoned. While no traces of a toxic agent were found in the man’s system, the crime techs theorized that it could have been a quick-dissolving agent such as digitalis, and It was also noted that the man’s calves and feet were muscular and pointed, like those of a ballet dancer.
Soon some people came forward to report seeing the man lying on the beach the night before, and one woman even said she saw him raise his arm slightly. However, someone commented that it was odd he was not reacting to the mosquitoes, each witness assumed the man was drunk, and with no more to go on, the case seemed to have simply filed.
With so few evidences, the authorities performed a wide sweep of baggage holding sites in the area to see if anything had been abandoned or forgotten. On 14 January 1949, staff at the Adelaide railway station discovered a brown suitcase with its label removed. It was then linked to the body by a spool of the same distinctive orange thread that had fixed his pocket. In addition to the thread, the briefcase contained some items of clothing and a few strangely sharpened tools: a red felt pair of slippers, four pairs of underpants, pyjamas, shaving items, a pair of trousers, an electrician’s screwdriver, a table knife cut down into a short sharp instrument, a pair of scissors with sharpened points, a small square of zinc thought to have been used as a protective sheath for the knife and scissors and a stencilling brush, as used by third officers on merchant ships for stencilling cargo. The name “T. Keane” was found on a number of the clothing items, but detectives soon ruled out that as the name of the man. In fact, police believed that whoever removed the clothing tags either overlooked these three items or purposely left the “Keane” tags on the clothes, knowing Keane was not the dead man’s name.
Despite being initially promising, the briefcase proved to be nothing but a further source of dead ends. It was June of 1949 when the mysterious body is reexamined by investigators. Upon reexamination, the case’s most disturbing evidence came in the form of a tightly rolled tear out from a book that had been hidden in a small pocket. The small piece of paper simply featured the words “Tamam Shud,” translating roughly from the Persian as “It is Ended”, or “finished”. Moreover, this words are also the final line in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a book of poetry revolving around life and death that was popular among the soldiers of the time, but a rare text in Australia.
So police put out a notice for anyone holding a copy of the book and soon a man came forward saying that he had found a copy of the book sitting in the backseat of his car weeks before the man was found.
In July, fully eight months after the investigation had begun, the search for the right Rubaiyat produced results. On the 23rd July, the Glenelg man walked into the Detective Office in Adelaide with a copy of the book and a strange story. Early the previous December, just after the discovery of the unknown body, he had gone for a drive with his brother-in-law in a car he kept parked a few hundred meters from Somerton Beach. The brother-in-law had found a copy of the Rubaiyat on the floor by the rear seats, and they had silently assumed it belonged to the other. So the book had sat in the glove compartment ever since. Alerted by a newspaper article about the search, the two men had gone back to take a closer look. They found that part of the final page had been torn out, together with Khayyam’s final words, and they went to the police.
Analysis found that the small piece of paper had come from that specific book, which contained yet another incredible clue: police found faint impressions in the pages of the book which seemed to be some sort of code, as well as an unlisted phone number.
Code experts were called in to decipher the enigma, but all claimed that its was unsolvable due to its short length. The phone number however led to a nurse who has denied knowing the man. She also claimed to have once owned a copy of The Rubaiyat but could not confirm if the one found was hers. At the end, the nurse admitted that she had indeed presented a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man she had known during the war. She gave the detectives his name: Alfred Boxall. Confident that they had solved the mystery, within days Police traced his home to Maroubra, New South Wales. However, Boxall turned out to be still alive, and he still had the copy of the Rubaiyat the nurse had given him. It bore the nurse’s inscription, but was completely intact. So, the case went cold again.
To this day the case has yet to be solved, even if two popular theories exist: according to the first, the Tamam Shud Man was a Cold War spy on the run who was poisoned in some sort of intrigue. In fact, amateur code-breakers continue to work on the five mysterious strings of code, but none have yet been able to crack it.
The other popular theory is that the unknown man, overcome with sorrow over the nurse, poisoned himself on that beach leaving behind nothing but a piece of The Rubaiyat as his final words.
The case has been considered, since the early stages of the police investigation, “one of Australia’s most profound mysteries.”
This case (which remains, theoretically at least, an active investigation) is so strange that we still do not know the victim’s identity, what or who killed him, and cannot even be certain whether his death was murder or suicide.
We may never know the real truth behind the Tamam Shud Man’s death, but it’s possible find him, buried in Adelaide’s West Terrace cemetery, with a stone identifying him simply as, “The Unknown Man.”