Early on the morning of December 1, 1948, police discovered the dead body of a man lying on the sand of Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia. Pictured above, he was in his early 40s, in good physical condition, dressed in a suit and tie. His pockets contained a comb, a bus ticket (used), a train ticket (unused), a pack of gum, a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. In one of the pockets of his suit was found a scrap of paper with the words “Tamam Shud” written on it. The man had no identification and no one came to claim the body.
It’s not even certain what he died of, though doctors who conducted the initial autopsy strongly suspected some sort of poison. After news of the discovery got into the papers, various people came forward claiming they knew who he was, but none of the “identifications” could be confirmed.
The most interesting clues were those found not on the body, but possibly connected to it. Six weeks after the discovery of the body a suitcase believed to belong to the man was discovered in a locker at the Adelaide Railway Station. The contents of the suitcase only deepened the mystery: clothes, a ball of thread, scissors, and a stenciling brush. The dry cleaning tags on the man’s laundry had a name on them, but it was not believed to be his own name.
Intense scrutiny was focused upon the slip of paper with “Tamam Shud” written on it. “Tamam Shud” are the final words of the classic poetry book The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, and the slip of paper appeared to be torn away from the last page of such a book. Police conducted an extensive search for the book the paper was torn away from and they eventually found it, an 1859 edition of The Rubaiyat which appeared mysteriously in the back seat of a car in November 1948. Examination of this book revealed some strange cryptic writings in pencil on the last page, from which it was proven the slip of paper on the man’s body had been torn. The writings are believed by some to be some sort of code.
The mysterious code connected to the Somerton Man. Is it a spy code?
The discovery of the book led to a number of red herrings and dead ends, including the possible identification of the man as one Alfred Boxall. Only it wasn’t–the real Boxall was found alive and well, and while he did own a copy of The Rubaiyat, it was not the book from which the “Tamam Shud” scrap was torn.
So if he wasn’t Boxall, who was he? How did he die? What is the meaning of the writings on the last page of The Rubaiyat?
We have no idea, but one of the leading theories is that the “Somerton man” was a Soviet spy, that he’d been gathering intelligence from a missile base not far from Adelaide, and that he had been poisoned as part of some counter-intelligence sting. Modern experts who have reexamined the case argue that he may have been killed by an overdose of digitalis, which would have caused effects observed in the original autopsy. But the code in The Rubaiyat has never been deciphered despite numerous attempts to do so.
This is a fascinating case, and one that I can’t do justice to in a brief blog post. Naturally I have no answers, though the spy theory does have a lot to commend it. If you’re interested in reading more about the Somerton man, start with the Wikipedia article here, and click some of the links it cites. You may be pretty amazed by the depth and complexity of the case.