On December 1, 1948, authorities were called to Somerton beach in Adelaide, South Australia. A dead body had been found. Little did police realize the
On December 1, 1948, authorities were called to Somerton beach in Adelaide, South Australia. A dead body had been found. Little did police realize they were about to encounter what is now considered one of Australia’s most profound mysteries, with connections to the ancient world.
They found his cold body on the sand, slumped at the base of a seawall. He was a middle-aged man in top physical condition, smartly dressed in a suit and tie, his sophisticated black shoes polished. Despite the hot weather, he wore a knit pullover and suit-jacket. His corpse revealed no obvious cause of death. Nobody knew who he was, or where he had come from. After collecting the body, police examined his possessions and clothes for a hint of who he was, but the tags and labels had been carefully removed, leaving no trail.
Police photo of the unknown dead man found on Somerton Beach, Adelaide, on the morning of 1 December 1948. ( Public Domain )
The Tamam Shud Enigma
Investigators were perplexed when they found what appeared to be a secret message stuffed in his trouser pocket. The words Tamam Shud were printed on a rolled-up scrap of paper, found deep in the unidentified man’s pocket. Consulting library experts, police found that the mysterious scrap had been torn from the last page of a rare copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Eerily, Tamam Shud is a phrase meaning “the end” or “finished”, and is found at the end of The Rubaiyat.
Was this cryptic note a final message of doom for the unknown man?
Tamam Shud. The scrap of paper, with its distinctive font, found hidden in the dead man’s trousers, torn from the last page of a rare New Zealand edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. ( Public Domain )
Can Police Finally Identify the Unknown Man?
After more than seven decades of waiting and speculation about the identity of the Somerton Man, ABC News reports that, there may be some new insight on the way. The man’s remains will be exhumed by police with hopes that DNA samples can be retrieved and his identity and possible relatives could be revealed.
Currently, the Somerton Man is buried in a cemetery with a grave that simply refers to him as the “unknown man,” but after years of debate, Attorney-General Vickie Chapman has given police the green light to exhume the man’s remains and try to solve part of the Tamam Shud mystery. She said:
“This man could be someone’s father, brother or cousin, and those relatives and friends deserve answers. It means that finally this case, which has been studied, investigated and followed for more than 70 years, will be re-examined, and, hopefully, many of questions surrounding his enigmatic life will be answered.”
The police will work with forensic scientists from Forensic Science SA. Forensic Science SA director Dr. Linzi Wilson-Wilde said that the task of DNA extraction may be difficult because “the remains have been buried for over 70 years and, in addition, the body was embalmed.” The embalming is of particular concern because “The chemicals used in the embalming process can significantly break down any DNA present. It really is an unknown — we don’t know what the state of the remains is going to be, we don’t know the level of degradation,” according to Dr. Wilson-Wilde.
Nonetheless, the police and scientists hope that there will be enough DNA for them to work with that they can compare it with potential relatives. Dr. Wilson-Wilde said, “Really, the aim of this is to do everything we can to find out who this man is and finally give him a name.”
What is The Rubaiyat and Why is it Important to the Tamam Shud Case?
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a collection of poems, translated into English from Persian by Victorian writer Edward Fitzgerald in 1859. The quatrains were originally penned by Omar Khayyám, a Persian poet, astronomer, philosopher and mathematician from the 12th century. Khayyám was one of the major polymaths of the medieval period, and was dubbed the “philosopher of the world”.
The theme of The Rubaiyat is one of Carpe diem , of seizing the day – living to the fullest and dying with no regrets. Smithsonian describes the poems as “romantic reflections on life and mortality.”
When the body was discovered, investigators suspected that the Somerton Man had committed suicide with some sort of poison, but they had no evidence to back up the theory. In fact, they had no evidence to show what had actually caused his death, although they assumed he died from a dose of undetectable poison. The South Australia coroner published his final results admitting he was unable to say who the Somerton Man was, or what had killed him.
As the investigation continued in 1949, a copy of The Rubaiyat was recovered bearing the tear-marks that matched the scrap found on the body. This very rare, first-edition book of ancient poems had been placed in the backseat of an unlocked car which had been parked along a jetty a week or two before the body had been found. The car owner turned the book in to police, but requested to remain anonymous, adding to the mysterious nature of the case.
As the investigation continued in 1949, a copy of ‘ The Rubaiyat’ was recovered bearing the tear-marks that matched the scrap found on the body. ( CC BY SA )
A Secret Code, Yet to be Deciphered
Under close inspection, the rare copy revealed scrawled letters on the back cover, grouped together in no recognizable language. How strange, yet fitting, that a cryptograph would be found within a book of poems by a renowned ancient philosopher and mathematician.
Detectives determined it was a secret code, and due to the tense times of the Cold War, speculated that Somerton Man was a Soviet spy murdered by unknown enemies. No governments or intelligence agencies have ever admitted knowing the man. The Rubaiyat code was made public and many tried to decipher it in vain, but it remains uncracked to this day.
Somerton Man Code. The handwriting showing pencil markings in the back of a book of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The markings are presumed to be some sort of code. ( Public Domain )
Cursed Ancient Writings?
The unknown man was buried without anyone ever learning the truth of his life or death.
The Tamam Shud case remains an unsolved enigma, but The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam seems to maintain a hold over life and death in Southern Australia. Several deaths are seen as possibly related to the Tamam Shud case. Could the ancient writings be cursed?
In June 1949 the body of a two-year-old was found in the sand 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) down the coast from Somerton. The boy’s father was found next to him, unconscious and near death, and was later admitted to a mental hospital. The pair had been missing for days. Like Somerton Man, the boy’s cause of death could not be determined. The man who found them said their location was revealed to him in a dream the previous night.
Three years before the death of Somerton Man, Joseph Marshall was found dead in a park in Sydney with an open copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam laid on his chest. It is believed his death was caused by poison.
Recreating the Somerton Man’s Face
Returning to the present, while the identity of the Somerton Man remains a mystery, his face has been recreated to help researchers get a better idea of what the man may have looked like when he was alive. Professor Derek Abbott, who’s spent many years researching the Somerton Man, commissioned Canadian virtual reality artist Daniel Voshart to recreate the Somerton Man’s appearance.
Professor Abbott, who also believes his wife is a descendant of the Somerton Man, told ABC News that he’s excited by the current events in the Tamam Shud case:
“It’s an enduring mystery here in South Australia. The public want to know who this man was. He also has a family somewhere missing him from their family tree and they have a right to know. There’s so many weird twists and turns in this case — so many unlikely things keep happening.”
By Liz Leafloor
Updated on April 27, 2021.