Around 7 pm on the evening of November 30, 1948, a man and his wife took a walk along Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia, and noticed a man slumped against the seawall about sixty feet away. As they watched, he lifted his right arm–rather weakly–and let it fall to his side again. The two didn’t think much of this, and kept walking.
About half an hour later, another couple noticed the man. This time he didn’t move; in fact, insects were visibly flying around him. The couple figured he was just drunk, and moved on.
The next morning–around six-thirty–a group of people on horseback noticed the man, still in the same position. This time, someone called the police (actually, the person who called was John Lyons, the man who’d seen that weak wave at seven the night before; he’d gone back to the beach early, saw the crowd on horseback, and realized they were looking at the same man, in the same position).
The man was dead. He has never been identified. Nor has a cause of death ever been positively established–the autopsy assumed some sort of poison was probable, but no toxicology tests found any poison (and of course, many poisons were not able to be identified in 1948).
He carried no wallet, and the labels in his clothing had been removed. His fingerprints were taken, but no matches were found. Police distributed pictures of him to all the major newspapers and contacted relatives of all the missing persons they knew of in hopes of identifying him, but no one came forward.
None of his other physical characteristics helped, either. He had a few small scars, mostly on his inner left wrist and inner left elbow. He had attached earlobes, a very rare physical trait (incidentally, Hugh Dancy from Hannibal has this same trait, and I had to force myself to stop looking at it during the first few episodes because that, combined with the way they’d styled his hair, made him look really Hobbit-y to me. I digress, and spoil the mysterious mood). This earlobe attachment is a trait found in only one or two percent of the population, just like the way the upper cavity of his ears was larger than the lower one. His feet were uncalloused and his toes had grown close together in a way that made his feet seem almost pointy; combined with his high, tight calf muscles, this led some to believe he was a dancer.
The items in his pockets yielded nothing that led to an identification, either. At the time of his death he was carrying an unused train ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach, a bus ticket from Adelaide to Glenelg, a half-full pack of Juicy Fruit gum, a quarter-full box of Bryant & May matches, one or two combs (I’ve seen it listed as both one and two), and an Army Club cigarette pack which held seven cigarettes of another, more expensive brand called Kensitas. When he was found, a half-smoked cigarette sat on his right shoulder, possibly dropped when he made that last wave at pedestrians on the beach.
About six weeks after he was discovered, a suitcase was discovered in a train station locker. Circumstances indicated strongly that the suitcase belonged to the Somerton Man (it had been deposited at the train station at 11 am on November 30 and never claimed, among other things) and authorities were very hopeful, but this too yielded nothing of real use; a few items in the suitcase were labeled either “T. Keane” or “Kean,” but no missing persons named “Kean/e” were reported, and it’s believed that Somerton Man, knowing his own name was not Kean/e, thus didn’t bother to remove labels that couldn’t be traced back to him.
The contents of the suitcase were perplexing in other ways, too. Some items were American, others Australian. He had airmail cards, which indicated he’d been sending–or planned to send–mail overseas. He carried stenciling equipment, but his clean, well-manicured hands indicated he didn’t do that kind of work for a living. He had a soapdish with a hairpin in it. He had a small screwdriver, and a cut-down table knife.
None of that helped identify him.
Then, in April 1949, an expert was brought in to re-examine the body. The expert, John Cleland from Adelaide University, found a previously-unnoticed small pocket in the man’s trousers, which contained a tiny, tightly rolled piece of paper. On that paper was printed, in elaborate script the words, TAMAM SHUD. Cleland immediately recognized this phrase from THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM; translated, the phrase means “Finished,” or “The End.”
However, no one could find an edition of the RUBAIYAT which contained those words in that script. Remember, this was at a time where copyright laws were not as well-enforced, and it wasn’t unusual for a publisher to simply put out its own edition of a work without permission, or for people to have their own copies bound, or any combination thereof. The edition which contained those words in that script was not found…
…until July of 1949, when a man from Glenelg came forward with a copy of the RUBAIYAT and an interesting tale. He’d found the book, he said, tossed into his car at Somerton Beach the year before. Someone had torn the words “TAMAM SHUD” out of that copy, and the tear exactly matched the paper in the Somerton Man’s pocket.
The book yielded a couple more clues, too: two phone numbers on the back cover, and indentations that, when examined under ultraviolet light and traced, appeared to make up some kind of code:
…which really didn’t help them at all. Neither did discovering that although the book’s copyright page claimed it had been published by a New Zealand company called Whitcombe & Tombs, Whitcombe & Tombs claimed they’d never published an edition that matched the one that had belonged to Somerton Man.
They tried calling the phone numbers, one of which belonged to a woman called “Jestyn,” who had worked or was about to work as a nurse. Jestyn–who died in 2007, and whose real name is now known to have been Jessica Harkness Thomson–said she had once given a copy of the RUBAIYAT to a man named Alf Boxall, but not that copy. That was proven when Mr. Boxall was found alive and well, and still in possession of his intect copy signed by Jestyn.
jestyn claimed not to know anything about Somerton Man, but it’s widely believed that she did know who he was; her reaction on seeing the bust taken of his face was apparently rather obvious. And her eldest son (also now deceased) had the same unusually shaped ears as Somerton Man. But just because a genetic trait is rare doesn’t mean people are automatically related, and just because a man had a woman’s phone number doesn’t mean she knows him, etc. etc. All Jestyn could tell the investigators is that around the time Somerton Man was found, her neighbors had told her some man showed up looking for her at her house, but she didn’t see him and didn’t know who he was. (Jestyn, by the way, lived only blocks from where Somerton Man was found.)
No one has ever cracked the code written in the book.
Somerton Man was finally buried in June 1949, unidentified.
You guys, this KILLS ME. Who was he?!? How did he die? Was he a spy, as some people theorize? What was his relationship with Jestyn? Why did she look like she totally knew who he was but deny it? What was he doing there? Was he there, as some theorize, to see her, and the boy who might have been his son? Did he commit suicide, and TAMAM SHUD was all he needed as a note–but why was it hidden, then?
I’m going to talk more about unsolved mysteries and such later–this is getting long–but here’s the reason I’m specifically bringing up this case.
Professor Derek Abbot, who did this fascinating AMA about the Somerton Man and is considered the world’s authority on the case, and who runs these very informative Wiki pages, has started a petition to get the Adelaide authorities to exhume Somerton Man for DNA testing.
Please sign it. There are apparently some poor people in this world *coughtotallynotmecough* who literally stay awake at night wondering about this case (and others like it) and wishing like hell that there was some sort of closure because we seriously want to tear out our hair from curiosity.
And we’ll talk more about mysteries and the lure of them and the unbearable frustration of the unsolved later.
ETA: Just to be clear, the above is by no means an exhaustive list of the facts and curiosities in the Somerton Man case (also sometimes referred to as the “Tamam Shud” or “Taman Shud” case). There’s tons more curious and interesting info to be found if you follow the links or Google it or whatever.