The sands of South Australia’s Somerton Beach hold the answers to a tale that has intrigued investigators for over seventy years.
On the 1st of December 1948, the body of an elegantly-attired man was found slumped against the sea wall at Somerton Beach in South Australia. This was the beginning of the Somerton man mystery, a chilling riddle which has stymied Australia’s best detectives and enthralled amateur sleuths.
The case’s most haunting element was a scrap of paper, surreptitiously hidden in a concealed pocket of the man’s clothing, bearing the Persian words ‘Tamam Shud’, translating to ‘ended’ or ‘finished’. An apt summary of the life of the mystery man, yet it opened a Pandora’s box of further enigmas.
A suitcase believed to be his was found at a local railway station, adding layers to the already thickening plot. As speculation swirled, theories about the man’s identity ranged from him being a cold war spy to a jilted lover.
Such Australia mystery man cases are few and far between, which is why the Somerton Man mystery has garnered so much attention, but who was he, why was he there, and how did he get there?
What was the significance of the scrap of paper with Tamam Shud printed on it? The suitcase, and the coded numbers and messages? Did he die of natural causes or was something more sinister at play?
Here is the story of the astonishing Tamám Shud case.
Adelaide’s Mystery Man
In the early evening of November 30, 1948, a couple walking on Somerton Beach noticed a man lying on his back by the sea wall. They said they saw him raise his right arm and then limply drop it. Believing he was probably drunk, the couple walked on.
The following morning, another walker discovered the man’s dead body. There was an unlit cigarette on his collar, a bus ticket which may or may not have been used and an unused train ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach in his pocket, an American-made comb, a packet of chewing gum and a box of cigarettes which, oddly, contained cigarettes from another brand.
As far as the pathologist was concerned, the Somerton Beach body was a man somewhere between forty and forty-five, around five feet eleven tall and in excellent physical condition. He was clean-shaven and unusually for the late 1940s he was without a hat. He carried no identification and his dental records remained unmatched.
At the autopsy, it was believed the pathologist said ‘I am quite convinced the death could not have been natural.’
Where did he Come From? Where did he Go?
The ticket to Adelaide in his pocket suggests the Australian mystery man travelled to the city, and given the proximity of the railway station to where his body was found, it’s believed he came to Glenelg from Adelaide train station.
An unused rail ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach was also found with his belongings, suggesting he intended to travel further but never got the chance. Another bus ticket indicated he travelled to Glenelg from the city, which could mean he deposited his suitcase at the train station, then travelled to and from Glenelg.
It’s clear that the man at the centre of the Tamam Shud case was on the move, likely coming to Adelaide from another location and then moving around locally. However, without more definitive evidence or records, his exact journey and purpose for his travels remain speculative.
Poetry in his Pocket
A few days – some reports suggest up to two weeks – after the body was found, an inquest into his death was conducted. It was around that time that a small, rolled up piece of paper was found in a concealed pocket with the printed words Tamam Shud.
Tamam Shud is a Persian word meaning ‘ended’ or ‘finished’ and this was recognised as the final words of a collection of Persian poetry called The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The piece of paper – the reason why the story has become known as the Tamam Shud case – was torn from a book which the majority of accounts suggest was found in an unlocked car around two kilometres from the beach in Glenelg. The modern translation of the twelfth century book, whose themes include living life to its fullest and having no regrets, also contained a phone number and faint indentations of a series of letters which has become known as the Somerton Man code. This was what the police found –
W (or M) RGOABABD
Despite the best efforts of expert cryptanalysts and amateur codebreakers alike, the Somerton Man code has never been deciphered. The best guess is that it’s either an encrypted message, a form of shorthand, or the first letters of a paragraph of English text. It could also be a meaningless red herring.
The Phone Number
The phone number was that of a local nurse named Jessica Ellen Thomson, in some accounts referred to as Jo or Jestyn. She claimed she didn’t know the dead man, she didn’t know why her phone number would be in the book, nor why he would be a mile or so from her house the night he died. She was shown a plaster cast of the man’s face and despite repeating that she didn’t know him, and being evasive during questioning, according to a policeman who was present, she was ‘completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint.’
Did she know the man at the centre of the Somerton Man mystery?
In interviews conducted years after the events, people close to Thomson, including her daughter, suggested that she knew more about the Somerton Man than she let on. Thomson’s daughter even claimed that her mother once admitted to knowing the man’s identity but chose to keep it a secret.
The connection between Jessica Thomson and the Tamam Shud case is one of its most compelling aspects, adding layers of intrigue and speculation to an already complex mystery.
In January 1949, some six weeks after the body was found, the Somerton Beach body case took another bizarre turn when an unclaimed brown suitcase was found in the cloakroom of Adelaide railway station. The suitcase was believed to have been left there on November 30, 1948, the night before the Somerton man died. The suitcase contained clothing and personal items but, intriguingly, their labels were removed, mirroring the state of the man’s clothes.
Among the items were thread and needles that matched repairs done on the dead man’s clothes. There were also a number of unusual items, including a pair of trousers with sand in the cuffs, an electrician’s screwdriver, a table knife cut down to what appeared to be something resembling a weapon, sharpened scissors, and a stencilling brush commonly used by third officers on cargo ships to stencil cargo and crates.
In addition, the name ‘T. Keane’ was found on a tie, ‘Keane’ was found on a laundry bag, and ‘Kean’ was found on a vest. Did whoever removed the clothing labels overlook these three items or were they purposely left there to put detectives off the scent?
Who was the Somerton Man?
The identity and circumstances surrounding the mysterious death have remained enigmatic since his discovery. Over the decades, numerous theories have been proposed regarding his identity, the reasons for his presence on Somerton Beach, and the cause of death.
Was he a Spy?
Given the Cold War backdrop, some speculate that the Somerton Man was a spy, possibly involved in intelligence operations. The cryptic code found in the book, the absence of clothing labels, and the undetermined cause of death (potentially an undetectable poison) lend weight to this theory. Australia was seeing increased intelligence activity at the time, further fueling the espionage angle.
Was he a Jilted Lover?
Some theories, particularly driven by the potential connection with Jessica Thomson, suggest a love affair gone wrong. It’s speculated that the Somerton Man could have been involved with Thomson. This theory often leads to further speculation about the reason for the Somerton Beach body showing up where it did, suggesting it may have been suicide due to heartbreak or complications from a clandestine relationship.
Was he a Merchant Seaman?
The discovery of the stencilling brush in the suitcase led to speculation he may have been involved in seafaring or shipping activities. This, however, doesn’t directly explain the Somerton Man mystery or the other peculiarities of the case.
Was he a victim of Organised Crime?
Another theory proposes that the Somerton Man ran afoul of criminal elements and was killed because of it. The secretive nature of his identity, the potential use of an undetectable poison, and the cryptic code could hint at underworld activities.
Was he living a Double Life?
Some suggest he may have been living a double life or had a personal secret, leading to his mysterious end. The deliberate attempts to obscure his identity and the absence of any identification bolster this theory.
Was he Carl ‘Charles’ Webb?
In 2022, Professor Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide and genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick suggested that the man was an electrical engineer born in Melbourne in 1905 by the name of Carl ‘Charles’ Webb. After analysing DNA evidence from hairs in the original plaster cast, as well as suggesting he had a brother-in-law called Thomas Keane, they claim that the Tamam Shud case has been solved, however the Australian authorities are yet to come to any official conclusions.
The Unanswered Questions of Somerton Beach
While many theories abound, the truth remains elusive. Despite significant advancements in technology and periodic revisitations of the case, the identity of the Somerton Man and the precise circumstances of his death remain one of Australia’s greatest officially unsolved mysteries.
For over seven decades, the enigma of the Somerton Man has persisted. The Tamam Shud case, named after the scrap of paper found with the body, is a poignant reminder that even in our age of advanced forensics and technology, some mysteries remain resolutely unsolved. The identity of the man on Somerton Beach, and the tale of his final hours, remains shrouded in uncertainty.