The K Files, Entry #5: Tamám Shud and the Somerton Man
At 6:30am on December 1st, 1948, police in Adelaide, South Australia began to receive reports of a deceased male lying on Somerton Beach near Glenelg. The man was simply dressed and sitting in a relaxed pose, resting against the seawall, void of all identification. Upon medical examination of the body, the man was found to be in extremely good health, with no signs of external trauma. Cause of death could not be definitively determined. Shortly after the discovery of the body, in the fob pocket of the man’s trousers was discovered a small scrap of paper with the printing “Tamám Shud”. Following public pleas, years of scrupulous investigation, and decades’ long string of approximately 251 “positive” identifications which turned out to be false, the case of the man on Somerton Beach remains to this day to be hailed as the greatest unsolved mystery in the history of Australia. This is the story of Tamám Shud and the Somerton Man.
Discovery and Investigation
Following up on reports, authorities found the man lying on Somerton Beach, 7 miles southwest of Adelaide, South Australia, across from a Crippled Children’s home. His head was propped against the seawall, with his legs extended and his feet crossed. An unlit cigarette lay across his right collar. He was dressed simply in a white shirt, a red, white, and blue tie, brown trousers, a brown knit pull over, and a gray and brown double-breasted jacket of American design. The labels had been removed from all clothing. Noted as missing from this seemingly typical garb was a hat, which was a common and almost expected men’s accessory at the time, and a wallet or any identification. The contents of his pockets included an unused second-class rail ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach, an aluminum comb of American make, a half empty packet of Juicy Fruit gum, an Army Club cigarette pack containing 7 different brands of cigarettes, and a partially full box of Bryant and May matches. Authorities attempted to locate eyewitnesses to determine what had happened. One couple came forward reporting that they had seen the man on the beach on November 30, the day prior to his discovery. They stated that he was seen lying in the same position as he was found, and that they had witnessed him extend his arm out in front of him before dropping it limply to the ground. Another couple reported having seen him approximately an hour later, but that he was still, and that they assumed him to be asleep.
Pathologist John Cleland performed the initial medical examination of the body. In his reports, he described the man as being 5’ 11” and clean shaven, with gray eyes and fair hair. He was approximately 40-45 years old and appeared to be of British decent. He was reported to be in outstanding physical condition, with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and defined calves, as would be evident in someone who commonly wears boots or performs ballet. His hands and nails were clean and well-manicured, showing that manual labor was not commonplace in this man’s life. The autopsy results ultimately concluded that the man had not died of natural causes, and suspicions turned to poisoning, possibly by barbiturate or hypnotic. This could not be proven, however, as no alarming substances were detected in the blood work. Attempts were made to identify the man through the use of dental records, but authorities were met with disappointment when the results did not match any of those of known persons.
On January 14th, 1949, a brown suitcase was discovered at the Adelaide railway station believing to have belonged to the man, checked in to the station at 11am on November 30th. Among the contents were pajamas, slippers, brown trousers with sand in the cuffs, various other clothing, an electricians screwdriver, a pair of scissors sharpened at the points, a table knife which had been cut down into a short, sharp instrument, a square of zinc believed to be used as a sheath for the knife and scissors, and a stenciling brush, the kind often used by officers on merchant ships to document cargo. Most tellingly, as a connection to the man, was a card of orange waxed Barbour brand thread. The thread was of British make, not available in Australia, and was matched to thread used to repair a pocket lining on the trousers found on the deceased man. All labels had been removed from this clothing, as well, with the exception of a name found on a tie and a dry-cleaning bag – that of a T. Keane. Though authorities had doubts regarding the connection of the name to the man – it was assumed that the name had been left behind because someone perhaps knew that it was not the man’s name – a search was performed to locate any records on a missing T. Keane across all English-speaking countries. No results were found. With multiple dead ends, no confirmed identifications, and an undetermined cause of death, the investigation went on hiatus until June of 1949.
Coroner Thomas Cleland along with Pathologist John Cleland once again took up their analysis of the case. Reanalyzing the details of their original findings, they made some additional observations. For one, the shoes that the man was wearing at the time of his discovery appeared to have been sparkling clean and recently polished, in direct contradiction to what might have been found had he been freely walking around the seaside area. In addition, following their theory of poisoning as a cause of death, the two investigators found it odd that there was no sign of vomiting on the corpse – a direct bodily reaction to poisoning. This led them to believe that had not in fact died on the beach, but had rather been placed there by someone after having been cleaned up, possibly to avoid immediate detection.
The most perplexing clue throughout the entire investigation was a small scrap of paper with the printing “Tamám Shud”, found in the fob pocket of the Somerton man’s trousers shortly after his discovery. The phrase is of Persian origin, meaning “ended” or “finished”, and authorities were able to determine that the printing was from a book entitled Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, written by Edward Fitzgerald. The book was a Persian to English translation of the 12th century works of Omar Khayyám, popularly known as the Astronomer-Poet of Persia, the theme of which was to live life to the fullest until its end. Authorities made a plea to the public in search of the copy of the book from which the scrap had been torn. Shortly following the plea, the 1941 edition of the book was located in the backseat floorboards of an unlocked parked car on Jetty Road near Somerton Beach. Inside of the back cover of the book was found indentations of writing – a local telephone number, an unknown telephone number, and text that appeared to be written in code. Several cryptographers have attempted over the years to decipher the code but to no avail, and some have concluded that the writing may just be the result of a man who is mentally unwell. To this day, investigators are still unsure of what the code may have meant.
The timing of the discovery of the book continues to be in question, as well, and can have some implications on the investigation. Some reports state that the book was discovered and turned in a couple of days after investigators’ plea to the public. However, others claim that the book was turned in up to two weeks prior to the discovery of the body on the beach. These facts have strong implications as to whether the man had in fact arrived in Adelaide just one day prior to his death, as previously believed, or if he had been in town for much longer.
JESSICA “JESTYN” THOMPSON
One of the most promising leads that investigators have been able to follow is the local telephone number found scrawled on the back cover of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám. The number led to local nurse Jessica Thompson, referred to by police as “Jestyn” in reports in order to protect her privacy. When police questioned Thompson regarding her connection to the man, she stated that she did not know him and did not know how he came to have her telephone number. She was also questioned regarding the scrap of paper reading “Tamám Shud”. Thompson reported that she had previously owned a copy of the book from which it came, and had given it as a gift to army lieutenant Alf Boxall at the time of her work in Sydney during WWII. Authorities were able to track down Boxall, and found his edition of the book to be still in his possession with the back page intact.
Though no physical evidence was found to connect Thompson to the dead man, authorities reported that she appeared evasive and uncomfortable at the time of the questioning, and seemed reluctant to discuss the matter. Additionally, a neighbor of Thompson’s reported that an unknown man had come to the house recently looking for Jessica, and had inquired with neighbors about her. This left police with the feeling that Thompson was highly suspect.
The connection of Thompson to the Somerton man grew to be even more suspicious when, in 2009, Professor Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide decided to investigate the case for himself. Working with a fellow professor of anatomy and a dental expert, the team uncovered some genetic anomalies present in the Somerton man. Reviewing the autopsy photos, it was apparent that the Somerton man’s cymba, or upper ear hollow, was larger than his cavum, or lower ear hollow – a feature only found in 1-2% of the Caucasian population. Additionally, the Somerton man had hypodontia, a rare genetic condition affecting the lateral incisors. It was then discovered that Robin Thompson, the son of nurse Jessica Thompson, possessed both of these features. The chances of these similarities being a coincidence is gauged at around 1 in 10,000,000.
In 2013, Kate Thompson, Jessica Thompson’s daughter, discussed the Somerton case with 60 minutes. In her interview, she stated that her mother had told her at the time that she had lied to the police, and that the Somerton man’s identity was known to individuals at a “higher level than the police force”. Kate stated that she believed her mother to have been a spy, citing her interest in Communism and her work in teaching the Russian language. To this day, herself, along with Robin’s widow and daughter, Roma and Rachel Egan, believe the Somerton man to in fact be Robin’s biological father. Petitions have been lodged by the Egan’s to exhume Robin Thompson’s body for comparison DNA. Kate Thompson is opposed to this action, feeling that it would be highly disrespectful to her brother’s memory.
In 1953, Adelaide police logged their 251st identification claim to the Somerton man. However, all these claims have been ultimately debunked. The most promising lead to this man’s identity, and the cause of his untimely death, may lay buried somewhere within the Thompson family history – a web which unfortunately may never be unraveled. Who do you think the Somerton man is, and how did his body end up on the shores of Somerton Beach? Drop a comment below and let me know what you think. And stay tuned for another entry in The K Files.