Adelaide, Australia - On December 1, 1948, the body of a middle-aged white man was discovered lying beneath a lamppost on Somerton Beach by several pedestrians taking an early morning stroll along the shore.
That’s it. You now know nearly as much about him as police have figured out in nearly 65 years of investigation.
Theories abound as to the identity of the man. Due to the beginning of the Cold War and heightened tensions, some believe him to have been a spy, although no government has ever claimed him and there is no real evidence to support the espionage theory.
The undisputed facts of the case are these:
- An autopsy was unable to determine any cause of death. The medical examiner at the time strongly suspected poisoning, due to an enlarged spleen and minor damage to the liver and kidneys, but no foreign substance was detected in the body. As retired Adelaide Police Detective Gerald Feltus put it, the man “died of a sudden, acute onset of damned if I know!” In 1994, Victoria Chief Justice John Harber Phillips declares that “there can be little doubt that” the Somerton Man’s death was caused by digitalis, although the autopsy records had been lost for years and Phillips himself is not a physician.
- A search of his pockets revealed a used bus ticket from the city to St. Leonards in Glenelg, an unused second-class rail ticket from the city to Henley Beach, a narrow aluminium American comb, a half-empty packet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, an Army Club cigarette packet containing Kensitas cigarettes, and a quarter-full box of Bryant & May matches. The bus stop for which the ticket was used was around 1,100 metres (3,600 ft) north of the body’s location.
- He carried no wallet or identification. Fingerprints and dental impressions were compared to those of missing persons first in Australia and then abroad, but to no avail.
- All of the labels in the man’s clothing had been carefully removed.
- Nearly six months later, while preparing for a coroner’s inquest into the death, a small scrap of paper was found in a fold at the bottom of the watch pocket of the man’s pants, bearing the phrase Tamam Shud in a distinctive typeface. After consulting with librarians, it was determined that the words meant “ended” or “finished,” and were found on the last page of the Persian text The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam.
- After a photo of the paper was released to the public, a man came forward with a strange story- he claimed that approximately a week prior to the discovery of the unidentified body on Somerton Beach, an extremely rare first-edition copy of The Rubiyat appeared in the back seat of his unlocked car in Glenelg. When police examined the book, a piece of the final page was missing, the bit containing the words Tamam Shud. Microscopy confirmed that it was indeed the origin of the mysterious pocket scrap.
- Weirder still, the back of that book contained faint pencil markings of five rows of capital letters, with the second line struck out. They read:
- The book disappeared from evidence at some time during the 1950′s, so no additional information can be gained from it.
The investigation was incredibly extensive, and uncovered two main leads:
Over a month later, on January 14th, 1949, a brown suitcase was found at the Adelaide Railway Station. Police determined that it had belonged to the unidentified decedent, who must have dropped it off prior to his fatal stroll.
It contained more articles of clothing with the labels removed, but one particular jacket proved to be of note- the lining was stitched into the jacket by a machine that was only in use in the US at the time.
Since Australia was not importing American clothes in that style in 1948, the jacket proved that the Somerton Man had been in the States recently, or else he had purchased it from someone of the same size who had.
Unfortunately, in 1986 the suitcase and its contents were destroyed as “no longer necessary” to the investigation, so no further information will ever be gained from them.
The Rubiyat and the Nurse:
In addition to the mysterious lines of letters in the back of the book, police found an unlisted phone number. Tracing it led them to a former nurse who lived only 400 meters from where the unidentified man’s body was found.
Upon questioning, she had no idea why the mystery man had been in her neighborhood on the night of his death, but it was revealed that she had indeed once owned a copy of The Rubiyat, and had given it to a Navy lieutenant named Alfred Boxall during World War II.
Thinking they might finally have a name for the dead man, police started searching for Alfred Boxall and found him very much alive. He still had the copy of The Rubiyat that the nurse had given him years before, and police were able to conclude that Boxall is no more than a red herring.
Police returned to the nurse with some more questions, and she asked them to expunge her name from any case records to keep from being associated in the press with the dead man or with Boxall. They agreed, and her name is not released, although the name Jestyn was given as a nickname. In 2002 it is revealed that her name was Teresa Powell. She died in 2007.
So where does all this leave us? Five lines of capital letters that may be a code of some sort, DNA recovered from the body, and pretty much nothing else.
Mathematicians and cryptologists have been puzzling over it for years, but there’s just not enough there to determine a pattern. My husband is a government mathematician and cryptoanalyst, and I have been pestering him for quite some time to crack this one for me, but he hasn’t yet. He cites the same reasons that the University of Adelaide gives: it could be a complex substitution cipher requiring a decryption key, or it could be the meaningless jottings of a disturbed mind, in which case a satisfactory answer is not possible. I think Genius Husband just isn’t trying hard enough.
Since the body was preserved in formaldehyde, DNA from the soft tissue is long gone, but the bones, hair, and teeth likely still contain enough for testing. The biggest problem is that without a known sample to test against, a definitive identification isn’t probable from DNA alone. So we’re back to where we started:
On December 1, 1948, the body of an unidentified man was discovered on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia…Tags: Australia, Crime, Mystery, Somerton Man, Taman Shud, The Rubaiyat, unsolved case spotlight