The Mystery of Tamam Shud

When it comes to murder, most cases aren’t hard to figure out. The husband did it. The wife did it. The vengeful ex did it. The crime falls into a well-established pattern, and the motives are easy to spot.

But then there are times when murder makes no sense. They don’t fall into a template, and it seems as if the killer murdered a person for no reason. Or the killing is just plain bizarre. Nowadays, with the technology professionals have at their disposal, they can typically find something to go on. Thanks to DNA technology, most things don’t baffle the police anymore.

The same can’t be said in Adelaide, South Australia, in December of 1948. The only thing that has changed over the years is that what started as a simple discovery of a body on the beach the first day of southern summer has become more mysterious. While the case is theoretically still active, it is so opaque that they still haven’t figured out who the victim is, have no idea how he died, and can’t even be positive as to whether or not he died by murder or suicide.

The only thing that can be said for certain is that the clues found in the Somerton Beach mystery add up to one of the world’s most perplexing cold cases. In fact, it just might be one of the most mysterious.

Let’s take a trip back to 1948 and see what happened. One warm Tuesday evening, on November 30, 1948, at 7 pm, jeweler John Bain Lyons and his wife went for a walk on Somerton Beach. This is a seaside resort on a few miles south of Adelaide. As they were walking toward Glenelg, they saw a neatly dressed man lying on the sand; his head was rested against the sea wall. He was about 20 yards from the couple; his legs stretched out with his feet crossed. As they watched, the man raised his right arm up, and then it dropped back to the ground. Lyons figured he may have been drunk and was trying to smoke a cigarette.

Thirty minutes later, another couple comes walking through and sees the same man lying in the same position. They were above the man, unlike the others who saw his face on, and the woman notices that he was immaculately dressed in a suit, new shoes that are polished to a mirror shine, which is a pretty odd look for the beach. He was motionless, and his left arm was splaying out on the sand. The couple figured he was asleep, his face surrounded by mosquitoes. The main jokingly said, “He must be dead to the world not to notice them.”

It wasn’t until the following morning that it became obvious that the man was not so much dead to the world as actually dead. John Lyons came back from his morning swim to find people gathered at the seawall where he had noticed the “drunk” the other evening. He walked over and saw a figure slumped in the same position, head resting on the seawall, feet crossed. But the body was cold. There were no noticeable marks of violence. A half-smoked cigarette was lying on his collar as if it had fallen out of his mouth.

Three hours later, the body was at Royal Adelaide Hospital. There, Dr. John Barkley Bennett placed the time of death to no earlier than 2 am, said the likely cause of death was heart failure and added that he suspected poisoning. Spread across the table was the contents of the man’s pockets: tickets from Adelaide to the beach, some matches, a pack of chewing gum, two combs, and a pack of Army Club cigarettes containing seven cigarettes that were of a different brand, the more expensive brand called Kensitas. He had no wallet, cash, or ID. There were no tags in the clothing. All labels had been neatly cut out. One trouser pocket had been repaired with an unusual variety of orange thread.

Once they had performed a full autopsy, the police had already worked through their best leads as to who the man was, and the results of the postmortem did not provide them much more. I revealed that the corpse’s pupils were smaller than normal and unusual, a dribble of spit had run down the man’s mouth as he lay, and that “he was probably unable to swallow it.” Meanwhile, his spleen “was strikingly large and firm, about three times normal size,” and the liver was distended with congested blood.

His stomach held is last meal, a pasty, which for non-Australians like me, a pasty is simply like a meat pie or empanada. His stomach also held more blood. That suggested poisoning, though there was no proof that the poison had been placed in the food. There’s a good chance that his odd behavior on the beach, being slumped over in a suit, raising and dropping his arm, seemed less like drunkenness and more like a lethal dose of something with slow effects. But multiple tests on the organs and blood failed to show the faintest trace of poison. In fact, they couldn’t find any cause of death.

And, even though he had been found with his head propped up against the seawall, there was extensive lividity at the back of the head. This means that the dead man’s body had spent some time after death with his head laying flat. Since the body was found with a half-smoked cigarette in the mouth, and the fact of the lividity, suggests that the corpse had been posed by somebody.

There were other peculiarities about the body as well. His calves were high and very well developed. While he was in his late 40s, he had the legs of an athlete. But his toes were oddly wedge-shaped. There was an expert that stated:

“I have not seen the tendency of cal muscle so pronounced as in this case… His feet were rather striking, suggesting – this is my own assumption – that he had been in the habit of wearing high-heeled and pointed shoes.”

Another expert hazarded a guess and suggested that the man had been a ballet dancer.

Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks, an eminent professor, stated that the only practical solution was that a very rare poison had been used. It had “decomposed very early after death,” and left no trace. These poisons were so dangerous and deadly that Hicks refused to state their names out loud in court. Instead, he wrote them down. They were digitalis and strophanthin. Hicks suspected it was strophanthin. It is a rare glycoside that comes from the seeds of certain African plants. Historically, it was used by the Somali tribe to poison their arrows.

For those interested, I took the time to look up these poisons to find out where they come from. Digitalis is actually used to help treat heart problems. Of course, they are controlled doses and large amounts, I’m sure can kill you. Digitalis is also the scientific name for the foxglove plant, which is poison to anything or body that consumes it. Strophanthin also affects the heart, but it seems to be harder to come by since it is only found in certain African trees.

More baffled, the police continued on. A full set of fingerprints were taken and sent all throughout Australia, and then to the rest of the English-speaking world. Nobody could identify them. People all over the Adelaide area were escorted to the mortuary to try and identify the corpse. Some thought they knew him from the photos in the paper; others were distraught relatives of missing persons. Nobody recognized him.

By January 11, the police had investigated and dismissed nearly every lead they had. The investigation was widened to try to find any abandoned personal possessions, possibly luggage, that may suggest that the dead man had come from somewhere else. This meant that they had to check-in at every hotel, dry cleaner, railway station, and lost property offices for miles around. As time-consuming as it may have been, it did produce results. On the 12th, detectives sent to the central railway station in Adelaide found a brown suitcase that had been deposited in the cloakroom on November 30.

The staff was unable to remember anything about the man, and the contents weren’t all that helpful. It contained a reel of orange thread that matched the thread used to fix the man’s pants, but painstaking care had been taken to remove practically every trace of the owner’s identity. There were no markings or stickers, and the label had been torn off of one side. The tags had been removed from all but three articles of clothing. Those bore the name Kean or T. Keane, but they were still impossible to trace. The police concluded that somebody “had purposely left them on, knowing that the dead man’s name was not Kean.”

Everything else was equally inscrutable. They found a stencil kit that was used by the Third Officer on merchant ships who had to stencil the cargo. There was a table knife with the haft cut down, and a coat stitched using a feather stitch that was unknown in Australia. A tailor was able to identify the stitchwork as American, suggesting that the coat, and possibly the wearer, had traveled during the war years. But searches of the immigration and shipping records across the country provided no leads.

The brought in yet another expert, John Cleland, an emeritus professor of pathology at the University of Adelaide. He re-examined the corpse and its possessions. In April, four months after the body had been found, Cleland found one more piece of evidence, which proved to be the most baffling. Cleland found a small pocket sewn into the waistband of the man’s trousers. Other examiners had not caught this, and there are many accounts of this case that call this the “secret pocket,” but it was intended to hold a fob watch. Inside, tightly rolled, was a small piece of paper that contained only two words. It was typeset it an elaborate printed script and red “Tamam Shud.”

Frank Kennedy, the police reporter for the Adelaide Advertiser, recognized it as Persian and contacted the police to suggest they get a book of poetry called the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. This 12th-century piece had become popular in Australia during the war in a translation by Edward FitzGerald. There were several editions of the book, but the police were unable to find a copy that matched this font, but they did know that Tamam shud had come from Khayyam’s romantic reflections on mortality and life. They were used as the last words in most English translations because the phrase meant “It is ended.”

At face value, it could mean that the clue was telling them that the death may have been suicide. This missing person case had never officially be turned into a full-blown murder investigation. But this discovery didn’t help them figure out who the dead man was, and during all of this, the body had started to decompose. They made arrangements for burial, but the police wanted to maintain the few pieces of evidence they had, so the corpse was embalmed, and a cast was taken of the upper torso and head. After that, they buried the body, sealed in concrete in a plot of dry ground specifically picked in case they need to exhume it. As late as 1978, flowers were found at odd times on the grave, but nobody could ascertain who had placed them there, or why.

Eight months after the investigation was started, the search for the right copy of the book produces results. On July 23, a Glenelg man showed up at the Adelaide Detective’s Office with a copy of the book and a weird story. Early in December, just after the man was discovered, he had been driving around with his brother-in-law in a car that he kept parked a few hundred yards from the beach. His brother-in-law had found the book in the floorboard at the rear seats. Each man had assumed it belonged to the other, and he had driven around with the book in his glove compartment since. When he saw the newspaper article about the search, the men had taken a closer look at the book. The discovered that a part of the last page had been ripped out, along with Khayyam’s final words. That’s when they went to the police

Detective Sergeant Lionel Leane studied the book. He immediately found a telephone number written on the back covered. With a magnifying glass, he could make out the faint impression of a few letters written in capitals underneath. They finally had a definite clue.

The number was unlisted, but it belonged to a young nurse who lived close to Somerton Beach. Just like the two Glenelg men who found the book, they have never publicly identified her. The police department in 1949 was more than willing to protect the witnesses who didn’t want to be linked to the case. She has only been known by her nickname, Jestyn. Later on, she would be revealed as Jessica Ellen Thomson. Reluctantly, it seemed, and maybe it was due to the fact that she was living with the man who would become her husband, the nurse did say that she had given a copy of the book to a man she had met during the war. She said his name had been Alfred Boxall.

The police felt confident that they solved the mystery of the man. Boxall had to be the unknown man. In a few days, they had traced his home to Maroubra, New South Wales.

The problem, though, was Boxall was very much alive and still had his copy of the book that Jestyn had given him. It had the nurse’s inscription but wasn’t missing a page. It may have been helpful has the police felt that they could question Jestyn more closely, but it seems that they did not. The gentle questioning that the nurse had received did give them some intriguing bits of information. When they talked to her for a second time, she recalled that around the same time the year before, she wasn’t certain of the day, she had returned home, and her neighbors had said that an unknown man had called and asked for her. And when they showed her the cast of the dead man’s face, Jestyn had been so taken aback by its appearance that she nearly fainted. She recognized the man, yet she denied that she knew him.

The only thing they had left from the book as the faint impression that Sergeant Leane had noticed. After looking at it under UV light, five lines of jumbled letters were discovered, the second of which had been marked through. The first three lines were separate from the last two by a pair of straight lines with an ‘x’ marked over them. It looked as if it was some sort of code.

Breaking the code from a small part of the text is extremely difficult, but the police did what they could. They sent word to Naval Intelligence, they were the finest cipher experts in Australia, and they allowed the message to get published in the press. This created a frenzy of amateur codebreaking, which was pretty much worthless, and then the Navy sent them a message saying that the code was unbreakable.

The message read:

From the manner in which the lines have been represented as being set out in the original, it is evident that the end of each line indicates a break in sense.

There is an insufficient number of letters for definite conclusions to be based on analysis, but the indications together with the acceptance of the above breaks in sense indicate, in so far as can be seen, that the letters do not constitute any kind of simple cipher or code.

The frequency of the occurrence of letters, whilst inconclusive, corresponds more favourably with the table of frequencies of initial letters of words in English than with any other table; accordingly a reasonable explanation would be that the lines are the initial letters of words of a verse of poetry or such like.”

For all intents and purposes, this is where the mystery rested. The Australian police were never able to crack the code or identify the man. Jestyn died in 2005 without explaining why she seemed as if she was going to faint when confronted with the likeness of the dead man’s face. But, in 2013, her daughter, Kate, shared on Australian “6O Minutes” that her mother had told her that she did know more about the Unknown man, but had deliberately not told the police. She also said that her mother was able to speak Russian and that her mother believed the whole case was above “a State Police level.” This unleashed a lot of speculation, but there is not a piece of evidence to back this up. Once the corner published his final result of the investigation in 1958, he admitted this in his report:

“I am unable to say who the deceased was… I am unable to say how he died or what was the cause of death.”

In the past few years, the Tamam Shud case has gotten new attention. Amateur sleuths have investigated the loose ends the police left, solving a couple of the minor mysteries, but creating some new ones in the process. Two persistent investigators, retired Australian policeman Gerry Feltus and Professor Derel Abbott of the University of Adelaide, have made some useful progress. Both have admitted that they have not solved the mystery, but let’s take a look at some of the remaining puzzles and theories.

First, the identity of the main is still unknown. It has been presumed by most that Jestyn knew him, and he could have been the man who called her, but even if it wasn’t, the shocked response of the nurse when confronted with his cast was telling. Could some revealing information be found in looking at what she did during World War II? Was she in the habit of giving men friends copes of the Rubaiyat, and, if she was, may the dead man have been a previous boyfriend, or more, who she didn’t want to confess knowing? Abbott’s research does seem to suggest as much. He traced the identity of Jestyn and found out she had a son. Analysis of photos of the unknown man and Jestyn’s child shows some interesting similarities. Could the dead man have been the father? If so, could he have killed himself when she said he couldn’t see them?

People who don’t agree with this point to the cause of death. How credible is it, they say, that a person could commit suicide by dosing himself with rare poison? Digitalis, and even strophanthin, can be found in pharmacies, but definitely off the shelf. They are both muscle relaxants that can be used to treat heart disease. To these people, the exotic cause of death suggests that the unknown man may have been a spy. Alfred Boxall worked in intelligence during the war, and the unknown man died at the start of the Cold War, and during a time when British rocket testing facilities at Woomera, a few hundred miles from Adelaide, was one of the most secret bases in the world. People have suggested that the poison was administered through the tobacco. Could this explain why his Army Club pack held Kensitas cigarettes?

As far-fetched as this seems, there are two more very odd things about this mystery that points away from anything as mundane as suicide.

The first is the impossibility of locating the duplicate of the Rubaiyat handed into the police in July 1949. An investigation by Gerry Feltus finally tracked down an almost identical version, with the same cover, published by a New Zealand bookstore chain named Whitcombe and Tombs. But its format was squarer.

Top that off with the fact that one of Derek Abbott’s leads and the puzzle gets more peculiar. Abbot found out that at least one other man died in Australia after the war with a copy of these poems close by. This was George Marshall, a Jewish immigrant from Singapore, and his copy of the book was published in London by Methuen – a seventh edition.

What makes this peculiar is that there were never more than five editions of Methuen’s Rubaiyat, which means Marshall’s seventh edition was just as nonexistent as the Unknown Man’s Whitcome and Tombs copy. It could be that the books weren’t actually books, but disguised spy gear of some kind. Possibly code pads?

That brings us to the last mystery. Gerry Feltus went through the police file on this case and found a neglected piece of evidence. It was a statement, given in 1959, by a man who had visited Somerton Beach. On the evening that the Unknown Man died, and walking toward that area of the beach, the witness in the police reported stated, “saw a man carrying another on his shoulder, near the water’s edge. He could not describe the man.”

During that time, this didn’t seem that mysterious. The witness had assumed that he saw somebody carrying a drunk friend. But looking at it in hindsight, it raises questions. After all, none of those who had seen the man lying on the seafront earlier had noticed his face. Could he have possibly not been the Unknown man at all? Might the body found the following morning have been the one seen on the stranger’s shoulder? If so, may this conceivably suggest that this really was a case involving spies and murder?

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