On an early December morning, a man was found dead and so began the mystery of The Somerton Man. Named after the beach on which he was found the man’s true identity to this day remains unknown. Also known as Tamam Shud, due to a clue that revealed itself during the investigation, here is the story of the bizarre case.
The Discovery Of The Somerton Man
On the evening of November 30, 1948, at around 7 pm John Bain Lyons and his wife were taking a stroll along Somerton Beach. As the pair passed a spot opposite the former Crippled Children’s Home they noticed a man slumped against the seawall appearing to be smoking a cigarette and looking as if he may have been a little drunk. Not thinking there was anything out of the ordinary in the man’s behaviour the Lyons’ continued there walk before heading home.
Shortly after, at around 7:30 pm another couple were sat on a bench and spotted what was presumably the same man. The couple stayed on the bench for around half an hour, during which time they noticed that the man slumped against the seawall had not moved at any point. The male of the couple found this odd, especially as several bugs and insects had landed on the man garnering no reaction. Despite his own suspicion that something was amiss, he took the advice of his girlfriend to leave him be and the young couple made their way home without checking on the man.
Almost 12 hours later, at around 6:30 am, John Bain Lyons was once more on Somerton Beach having a morning swim. As he did so, he noticed a small group had started to gather near the seawall. Taking a closer look John Lyons realized they were looking at the same man he had seen in the same spot the previous evening only now he was dead. Lyons rushed off to contact the authorities.
A Complete Mystery
The police arrived on the scene, confirming the man’s death, before taking his body to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. The victim was 5 foot 11 and found to be in excellent physical shape before whatever had caused his death. They estimated the deceased to be in his early to mid-forties and of European origin but no scars or identifying marks such as tattoos were located on the victim.
There were no signs of violence having taken place neither on the body nor at the scene. However, no other cause could be determined by the autopsy carried out on December 4. They concluded the man had died at around 2 am on December 1. The man’s heart had stopped but the reason for this was unclear. Blood found in the stomach suggested poisoning was a possibility but no traces of any known poison were found.
Upon checking the deceased man’s clothing they found the man carried no form of identification upon his person. There was, however, a train ticket to Henley Beach, which hadn’t yet been used and a bus ticket to Glenelg which had been used.
A packet of cigarettes was also found in his pocket, though the cigarettes inside (Kensitas) were of a different brand to the packaging (Army Club). Other than these items, matches and sixpence nothing else was discovered apart from the half-smoked cigarette found on the man’s jacket at the scene of his death.
The man’s clothing was described as stylish and included brown slacks, a white shirt, a red and blue tie, a pullover, and a double-breasted jacket. Upon inspection of the man’s clothing, it was noticed that all the labels had been removed. So far nothing had been found to help to identify the “Somerton Man”, as he had become known due to where his body was found.
Fingerprints belonging to the Somerton Man, along with a photo of the deceased were sent to not only Australian police forces but also those in New Zealand, Britain and America. All to no avail. Dental records in Australia also led law enforcement no nearer to identifying the individual.
It wasn’t until January that police would get a new lead in the case. At Adelaide Railway Station police discovered an unclaimed suitcase which had been left at the depot’s baggage room on November 30.
The case contained several items of clothing all in a style similar to the one’s the Somerton Man was wearing at the time of his death. Likewise, most of the labels on the clothing, and on the case itself, had been removed just like the dead man found on the beach.
Other items found in the case included a brush, a knife and stencilling scissors, none of which were particularly helpful in identifying the dead man. However, three items of clothing did provide hope as they contained laundry marks baring the name T. Keane. Alas, it was to be another dead end as no one bearing the name T. Keane had been reporting missing despite a worldwide check.
Order Of Events
Police ascertained the Somerton Man had arrived in Adelaide on the morning of November 30. Uncertain of his previous whereabouts police could only determine that he arrived at Adelaide on an overnight train from one of Sydney, Melbourne or Port Augusta.
Next, they inferred he purchased a train ticket for the 10:50 to Henley Beach. For reasons unknown, however, he failed to get on. The man instead left his case at the luggage depot before boarding the 11:15 bus to Glenelg. The reason for the trip to Glenelg was another mystery which would never be solved nor could they determine at what time he arrived back in Adelaide.
Despite constructing an outline of what the man did in the hours before his death police were still no nearer identifying the Somerton Man or revealing what caused his death.
Identifications, Burial And The Bust
In the months that followed the embalmed remains of the mystery man were viewed by hundreds. Several claimed to know the identity of the deceased but each name given was eventually ruled out.
On June 14, 1949, the Somerton Man’s true identity was still a mystery as he was laid to rest at West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide. His headstone read:
THE UNKNOWN MAN
WHO WAS FOUND AT
A bust of the mysterious victim was made before the burial in the hope of helping to eventually give the man a name.
Three days later, on June 17, 1949, an inquest into the mystery of the Somerton Man case began. During the inquest the pathologist Sir John Burton Cleland shared his theory that the Somerton Man wasn’t the same individual seen by witnesses on the evening of November 30.
He believed that may have merely been a coincidence and the real victim had actually been placed against the seawall much later that night, explaining the lack of any evidence of poisoning at the scene such as vomit or signs of the man suffering convulsions. Indeed the witnesses themselves could not guarantee it was the same male they had seen, however, the positioning of his body and the way he was dressed did make them almost certain.
Also during the inquest, Professor Cedric Stanton Hicks suggested the victim had been poisoned by either digitalis or ouabain (this wasn’t named publicly at the time as it was readily available and accessible from any chemist without questioning the reason for its use).
Both drugs could prove fatal even after only a small dose and both would be nigh on impossible to trace in the victim’s system even if it had been suspected. Again a lack of vomit at the scene was the only reason the professor had any doubts.
Though Sir John Burton Cleland and Professor Cedric Stanton Hicks were adamant the Somerton Man had died of poisoning both admitted they couldn’t determine how it had been administered. Both were certain it was a deliberate act but whether it was self-administered or by a third-party they couldn’t say with authority.
The inquest failed to end with the identification of the Somerton Man but it did throw up a new interesting line of investigation. As Sir John Burton Cleland re-examined the victims clothing he discovered a piece of paper which had originally been missed. Found inside a pocket of the man’s trousers the small rolled-up scrap of paper simply read:
A translation of the word Tamam Shud was revealed as meaning “The End”, “Finished”, or a phrase to similar effect. Police discovered it came from the final page of a translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám first published in 1859 by Edward Fitzgerald. Investigators swiftly made a public appeal for anyone who may have a copy of the book with the final page missing or torn.
Within days their appeal was a success. An unnamed Glenelg resident entered the police station and reported a copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám had been left in the back seat of his unlocked car by an unknown person. The timing varies of when it was left but most accounts state this happened on the day of or a couple of days after the discovery of the Somerton Man’s body on the beach.
The book was indeed missing the “Tamam Shud” phrase from its last page. Further testing of the scrap of paper found on the Somerton Man to that missing from the copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám also showed a match.
The Mystery Code
On inspecting the copy of the book further, the inside of the back cover proved interesting. Investigators discovered what appeared to be five lines of an encrypted message faintly etched in pencil.
The second line appeared to be crossed out and it’s similarities to the fourth line led many to believe it had been inserted in the wrong place and thus should be ignored. Either way, detectives had no luck deciphering the coded message. To this day despite the attempts of thousands of experts and specialists the code has never been cracked.
The encrypted message wasn’t the only information garnered from the book. Investigators discovered a few phone numbers written inside it (the exact amount varies in different accounts but there was a minimum of two, one of which was known to be a bank). Police traced one of the numbers back to a woman. By most accounts, she was a nurse though it seems that she may not have been in employment in 1948/49. At the time of the Somerton Man’s death, however, she certainly lived in Glenelg.
Despite living in the location the Somerton Man had visited the day of his death and near where the book had been left in a residents car the nurse denied knowing who the mystery deceased man was or having anything to do with his death. She did, however, admit to having owned a copy of the Rubáiyát which she claimed she gave to a soldier during World War 2 whilst she was in Sydney.
The woman at the heart of this new part of the mystery successfully applied for her name to be kept hidden, claiming it would lead to problems in her personal life and cause something of a scandal. The wish was granted, a decision which many believe was a mistake and massively hindered what was an important lead in identifying Tamam Shud/Somerton Man. It would be years until her true identity would be revealed as Jessica Thomson nee Harkness.
Alf Boxall – Somerton Man?
The soldier’s name given by Jessica Thomson was Alf Boxall. Finally, detectives had a possible name for the Somerton Man (who the press had now started calling Tamam Shud after the piece of paper found on his body).
Their hopes were dashed, however, when they found Alf Boxall still very much alive.
The mystery deepened only further once they spoke with Alf Boxall. On asking Boxall what had happened to his copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám he revealed much to their surprise that he still had it.
On inspecting the book they found the last page, containing the Tamam Shud phrase, perfectly intact. To confirm it was the same book they found the front page had been signed “Jestyn” (a nickname used by Jessica Thomson) and a message written by the nurse who had given it to him.
The Receptionist Tale
In the months that followed further failed attempts to identify the mystery victim were made. New leads were also followed up with no success.
A receptionist who worked at the Strathmore Hotel named Ina Harvey described a man who had stayed at the hotel near the time of the Somerton Man’s disappearance. The hotel was opposite the Adelaide railway station from which he had purchased the train ticket and his case was located.
What made the man of particular interest was Ina’s claim that a hypodermic needle was discovered in the room vacated by the man when a maid later cleaned it.
The lead was followed up but went nowhere. The needle in question had also long been discarded according to the witness.
At around the same time as Ina Harvey’s statement, locals reported that a mysterious person had begun leaving flowers at the grave of the Somerton Man. This led investigators to keep a watch over the cemetery where he had been buried.
On one such watch, a woman was apprehended whilst she was leaving the graveyard. Whatever answers she gave to police they were confident she wasn’t the person responsible for laying flowers at the dead man’s grave. The mystery mourner was never found.
As the years passed by further attempts to identify the Somerton Man proved unsuccessful. Evidence from the case also was either lost or simply destroyed.
The copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám from which the Tamam Shud note was torn was lost in the 1950s. In 1986 the decision was made to destroy the suitcase found at Adelaide train station and believed to belong to the victim as it was deemed to be of no further use. Both the autopsy reports, one from 1948 and one from 1949 are also both missing.
Was Somerton Man A Spy?
In 2013 Kate Thomson, the daughter of Jessica Thomson, gave an interview on 60 Minutes claiming her mother had lied to detectives during the investigation. Kate claimed her mother had confessed this to her and, along with several high ranking individuals (presumably in government), her mother Jessica knew the Somerton Man’s true identity.
Jessica Thomson, who died in 2007, several years prior to the interview, was also believed to be a former spy by her daughter. It is her belief this is also how she came to know the man who would become known as Tamam Shud/Somerton Man.
Her mother never admitted such a thing to Kate. However, her daughter claimed Jessica had an interest in communism and spoke fluent Russian. Whenever the topic of conversation arrived at how or when her mother learnt the language Kate said her mother would never reveal her story.
The theory that the unnamed man was a spy of some kind was nothing new. Spies had knowingly operated in areas close to Adelaide at the time the Somerton Man died. Alf Boxall, the man Jessica gave the book to, also happened to work in intelligence. Although certainly an interesting hypothesis, there is little in the way of hard evidence to prove espionage had anything to do with the case.
Did Somerton Man Have A Child?
Both the widow and daughter of Kate Thomson’s brother Robin also appeared on the show. They stated their belief that the Somerton Man was actually Robin’s father. Robin, who was eighteen months old at the time of the mysterious man’s death, had a rare abnormality of his ears. The deceased man also appeared to have the same affliction.
As of writing the true identity of the Somerton Man a.k.a Tamam Shud remains a mystery but all hope isn’t yet lost. In October of 2019, the Attorney-General of South Australia Vickie Chapman gave permission to Professor Derek Abbott to exhume the Somerton Man with the caveat that it be privately funded.
Abbott has been trying to solve the mystery for over a decade and is the husband of Robin Thomson’s daughter and possibly the Somerton Man’s granddaughter Rachel Egan, who he met whilst examining the case.
If the Somerton Man does indeed turn out to be Rachel Egan’s grandfather it won’t help to reveal his identity on its own. However, if any DNA extracted is added to a DNA database it is possible we may get a match. This could finally give us an answer as to who the mysterious individual found dead on that early December morning in 1948 was after over seventy years.
How and why exactly he died will, however, remain a mystery. Whether or not he took his own life with some self-administered poison, he died of an unknown natural cause or something more sinister was behind his death will likely remain unsolved forever.