The Mysterious Somerton Man: The Tamam Shud Case
Somerton Park Beach is a picturesque retreat snuggled up against the coast in South Australia. It sits just 13km from a lovely community called Adelaide. It’s a wonderful place to call home and raise a family and the same could be said about it in 1948. Nice homes in close proximity to the beach and a safe community that you could feel safe leaving your doors unlocked in. Children played and splashed in the ocean while elderly couples took walks hand in hand on the beach. It was a couple taking such a walk on the 30th of November in 1948 that made a very surprising discovery without even realizing it.
John Bain Lyons, a local jeweler, was out for a walk on the beach with his wife when they saw a well-dressed man on the ground at around 7pm. He was dressed in a nice suit and new shoes polished to a mirror shine, rather odd beach attire to say the least. He was leaning up against a sea wall, legs outstretched and crossed. He reached his arm up towards the sky then, he just let it fall to the ground. Thinking this man to be drunk as it was normal for drunks to pass out there on occasion, the couple kept walking. John figured that this man reaching his arm up was making a drunken attempt at smoking a cigarette. They thought little of the random man that appeared to be passing out after a good time as they continued their walk.
About a half an hour later another couple passed the man by on a walk up the beach. They also noticed his legs outstretched and crossed, his arm laying outstretched on the ground, and the mosquitoes buzzing around his face. The boyfriend commented that “he must be dead to the world not to notice them.” He had no idea how right he was when he walked on with his girlfriend that evening. The following morning, December 1st, John Bain Lyons was walking back up to shore from his morning swim when he noticed people gathered around the sea wall.
Curious, John walked up to see what all the commotion was about. When he approached he noticed the same man from the evening before still laying in the same position. He wasn’t drunk or just merely asleep, he was dead. A half smoked cigarette laid on his shirt collar, unlit. There were no signs of violence on his body and his pockets turned up no leads to the man’s identity. The contents of his pockets were laid out on a table and examined. There was nothing helpful. Just an unused train ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach, a used bus ticket from Adelaide to Glenelg, an aluminum comb, a plastic comb, a pack of Juicy Fruit, a pack of matches, and a pack of Army Club cigarettes containing seven cigarettes of a more expensive brand, Kensitas.
He carried no wallet, ID, or any other identifying markers. The tags from his clothes had even been clipped so not to identify where they had come from. The only thing that stood out was a seam in the man’s pants pocket that had been mended with orange thread of a strange kind. It only took a day for the police to look into their best leads with no further clues. By that time a full autopsy had been preformed on the Somerton Man’s body to find abnormalities present. The first noticable thing about him was that he had rather large ears that anyone would note when seeing him. It was something that would have been hereditary, which will come up later.
The autopsy told them little. They couldn’t even identify the man. If anything it yeilded more questions than answers. The coroner noted that his pupils were smaller than normal. He also mentioned a small amount of spittal that ran down the side of his mouth as he lay there. He said that this was unusal and that he probably wasn’t able to swallow it. His spleen was also enlarged three times it’s normal size and hardened while his liver was distended with congested blood.
An examination of his stomach contents found that his final meal had been a pasty. A pasty is a British baked pastry, but it doesn’t contain chocolate or cream filling. Pasties are turnovers with beef skirt, vegetables, and even cheese if that’s what you want. There was also blood found in his stomach, hinting at poisoning, but no further indicators were found. They tested his blood and organs to no avail. There wasn’t the slightest trace of any poison in his system. The medical examiner was stunned. All signs pointed towards a poisoning.
There was another strange characterisitic about the body. The calf muscles were high and well-pronounced while his toes were wedge-shaped. To the medical examiner it appeared as though this man was well accustomed to wearing high heels or pointed shoes. Either that or he had been a ballerina. It was suggested at the inquest that a rare poison could’ve been used that decomposes immidately after death, either digitalis or strophanthin. These poisons are so leathal and dangerous that the professor speaking wouldn’t even say their names aloud in the courtroom. He instead wrote them on a piece of paper and passed it to the judge.
With no means of identifying the mysterious Somerton Man so far the police were running out of options. They took fingerprints and pictures to circulate to no avail. They brought people in from all over Adelaide to look at the body, but no one recognized him. Many people just thought that they recognized him from pictures in the papers, but once they saw him in person were unable to identify him. Loved ones of missing persons came into the mourge in droves only to leave disappointed with still no answers to where their husbands, fathers, or sons were. The police were also continuously disappointed at the lack of results.
With all other leads exhausted at this point, they turned to hotels, drycleaners, train stations, and lost property offices for miles around the beach. They hoped to find some lost luggage or left behind property of some kind that may identify him. On December 12th they found a brown suitcase that had been abandoned in a cloakroom at a main railway station in Adelaide on November 30th. A search of this suitcase proved fruitless. The items in there were as strange and random as the items found in his pocket. A dressing gown and cord, laundry bag with the name Keane on it, a pair of scissors in a sheath, a cut down table knife in a sheath, a stencil brush, two singlets, two pair of underwear, a pair of pants with a 6d coin in the pocket, a sports coat, a coat shirt, a pair of pajamas, a yellow coat shirt, a singlet with the name Keane on it, a singlet with the name torn out, a shirt with no tag, six handkerchiefs, a piece of light board, eight large envelopes, one small envelope, two coat hangers, a razor strap, a lighter, a razor, a shaving brush, a screwdriver, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a glass dish, a soap dish with a hairpin in it, three safety pins, a front and back collar stud, a brown button, a teaspoon, a broken pair of scissors, a card of orange thread, a tin of tan boot polish, two airmail stickers, a scarf, a towel, and a unknown number of pencils, most of which were of the Royal Sovereign brand.
Yeah that was a whole lot to tell you absolutely nothing about him. They matched the thread found in the case to the Somerton Man’s repaired pants pocket. Aside from that there was nothing but a few items of clothing with the name Kean or T. Keane written on the tags. No one that matched with those names could be found anywhere. The suitcase had no tags or stickers on it either. Just one place where a sticker had been removed.
The only clues in the man’s pockets and suitcase as to where he came from was his feather stitched coat and his Juicy Fruit gum. Feather stitching is American in origin and was totally unknown in Australia at the time. Juicy Fruit gum is also American and can’t be bought in Australia. These are things he had to have brought over with him from The States.
The staff working at the railway station didn’t remember a thing about the man. Workers were questioned only to find that the Somerton Man had made no impression on anyone. It would seem as though he simply came in, left the suitcase, and walked out without hardly being noticed. Much like D.B. Cooper on flight #305, no one would recall a thing about a seemingly normal man just passing through.
Yet another expert was called in to look at the body. With so many experts, coroners, and medical examiners checking his body and his clothes out, no one had managed to find what this next man would. There was a hidden pocket sewn into the waistband of the dead man’s pants. Inside the small, concealed pocket was a little piece of paper torn from a book with odd but beautiful script printed on it. It read as a simple phrase that police would need to get a translation for. Tamam Shud, or it is ended.
A police reporter from the Adelaide Advertiser recognized the Persian phrase from a book he had read. He suggested the police obtain a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. This book of poetry had been written in the 12th century and regained popularity, this time in Australia when it was translated by Edward Fitzgerald. In wartime Australia this book was loved and read by many. Though this book was quite popular and could be found in just about every library or book store, there was one problem. No one had a copy in the fancy, elaborate print matching the scrap of paper in the man’s pocket.
Once they learned the meaning of the Persian phrase Tamam Shud they figured that the man’s death must have been a suicide. In fact, they never actually changed the missing persons enquaries into a murder investigation. Nevertheless, they had a dead man starting to decompose in their mourge and they were no closer to indentifying him than when they started. They made arrangements to bury him and in the meantime they embalmed him and made a cast of his head and upper torso. They did this because the body was one of the few pieces of physical evidence they had. Afterward he was buried and sealed in concrete in a specifically selected plot in case exhuamation became necessary in the future. An unknown person was delivering flowers to his plot as late as 1978. No one could find out who was leaving these flowers or why.
It was eight months after the investigation began that a man walked into the Adelaide Detective Office. He presented a book and an odd story to tell. The book was the missing copy of the Rubaiyat police had been trying to locate. The man said that he had been driving with his brother-in-law when he noticed him flipping through the pages of this book. He assumed the book belonged to his brother-in-law and thought nothing of it as they drove. Later, the brother-in-law, having found the copy in the floorboard near the back seats, put it in the glovebox. He had quietly assumed the book belonged to the car’s owner and it had not been thought of again until it had appeared in the papers.
It was after seeing the papers that the men concluded the book actually belonged to neither of them. The car’s owner had no idea how it got into the back floorboard of his car. An interesting fact, though, he lived in the Somerton Beach area and parked his car just a few hundred yards away from the beach. He and his brother-in-law checked the book in the glove compartment, it had a page torn out along with the final words, Tamam Shud.
Police were thrilled with this lead. It actually seemed as though this one were going to go somewhere. First, they found a phone number scribbled in pencil on the back cover. The number belonged to a woman known to the public only as Jestyn for a long time. Her real name was in fact Jessica Thomson. She had been a nurse during the second World War and was working locally as a nurse at the time police located her. She lived only meters from where the man’s body was found on Moseley Street.
The second clue had to be found under UV lighting, but it would prove the strangest and hardest to figure out. It was a code. Five lines of letters in a jumble, the second line had been crossed out. The first three lines had been seperated from the final two by drawing two straight lines with and X over them. Needless to say, codebreaking is hard. Police turned this over to the experts at Naval Intellegence only to be told the code was unbreakable. To this day it has yet to be figured out.
While waiting for their disappointing results from Naval Intellegence, they found Jessica Thomson at her home. When first asked she denied ever knowing the man or giving anyone a copy of the Rubaiyat. Upon being pressed further, she admitted that she had in fact given a copy of the book to a man named Alfred Boxall during the war. She added that neighbors had informed her of a man knocking on her door while she was out. She had been reluctant to answer as she was married with a small son. The police asked that Jessica at least come to the station and look at the bust made of the man from the beach. She agreed and though she had a very physical and noticeable reaction she still denied ever knowing the man.
Police then looked into the name Alfred Boxall. They found a man of that name within just days in Moroubra, New South Wales. Alfred Boxall was still alive and well, though and still had the copy of the Rubaiyat that Jessica had gifted him. There were no pages missing from the copy, either. It was in tact and held an inscription from Jessica.
There happened to also be one receptionist from a hotel across the street from the railway station his sutcase was found at and his ticket was for. She recalled the man checking in for a night around the time the man had been discovered. Something else the police found especially interesting was the fact that a hypodermic needle had been found when cleaning the man’s room. Since it had been months since the man had stayed there, the needle was long gone, having been tossed out. It was an interesting fact that a man had stayed there and left a needle around that time, but it couldn’t be proven that it was the Somerton Man that had been there.
Then, there was the mystery mourner. No one knew who this person was, but someone started leaving flowers at his grave shortly after the man was buried. Police tried staking out the cemetary and did catch a woman coming out on one occasion. She cooperated with the police and answered their questions evidently to their satisfaction because they let her go. They never did catch the person leaving flowers, but they kept turning up until 1978.
That was where the trail ran cold and never heated back up again. Many have specualted over the years that the man was an American spy. They’ve speculated even further that the woman was a Soviet spy that killed him. What would a female Soviet spy kill a male American spy for, you ask? Well, because she had his baby, of course, and she couldn’t let her husband find that out. Yes, I said those large ears of his were going to come in again later, and here they are.
It would appear that the one and a half year old little boy Jessica had at the time the Somerton Man was discovered looked a lot like him. There were the large ears to start. There was also a genetic dental feature that Jessica’s son would share with the man where two canine teeth sat adjacent from the two middle teeth. This boy also had strongly developed and well-pronounced calf muscles. He actually even kind of looks like the picture of the dead man. His name was Robin Thomson and oddly enough he was a ballet dancer.
Robin danced with the Australian Ballet and the Royal New Zealand Ballet. He died in 2009 and his mother passed just a couple of years before him in 2007. Robin would never learn if the Somerton Man was his father or not and Jessica would denied knowing him till she died. That is, she denied it to everyone but one person. Her daughter, Kate would tell a very interesting story years after the deaths of her mother and brother. In Kate’s story her mother said that she knew exactly who the Somerton Man was, but she wasn’t about to let anyone else know that.
Kate told 60 minutes in 2013 that she believed her mother had been a Soviet spy and had come to terms with it. It’s said that Jessica could speak fluent Russian and was heard doing so on the phone once. Kate has even admitted to a fear she’s held for a long time that her mother might have been involved in some way in the man’s death. She said her mother once told her that what happened to the Somerton Man was known only to a level higher than the police.
It’s widely believed by conspiracy theorists and true crime buffs in love with a romanticized spy story that they were both Soviet spies. Another popular theory is the Somerton Man was an American spy while Jessica was working for the Soviets. Dr. Abbot, the man trying to find an identity for the Somerton Man, doesn’t believe this is so. He believes this was a killing simply out of passion. Jessica’s husband didn’t want this man sniffing around his wife and made sure that he couldn’t do so.
Regardless of the tragdey of a loss of human life and identity, something beautiful could still spring forth. Dr. Abbot first met Kate believing her to be the missing link to the Somerton Man’s lost identity. They met at a fancy restaurant and Kate remembered thinking she’d met a nerd that wanted to look at her teeth and ears. Apparently Dr. Abbot didn’t blow it with this first impression because the two got married and ended up having two children.
The man’s identity has never been uncovered, but there are efforts being made by Dr. and Mrs. Abbot to get the Somerton Man exhumed. It will be a costly undertaking, but the couple believes it will be well worth it if they can finally give this man an identity and a family. They aren’t alone in their efforts to get the grave exhumed, either. There are two others claiming they may possibly be relatives of the Somerton Man and they want definitive answers. It’s been said that if the money can be raised then it will be considered. You never know, we may find out who the Somerton Man is in this lifetime.