top of page

The Somerton Man Mystery - Tamam Shud

Few mysteries have been as enduring as the Tamam Shud case. The Somerton Man refers to a body that was found on Somerton beach, Australia, in 1948. While a corpse on a beach isn't inherently mysterious, the problem arose in the attempted identification of the body. Not a soul came forward to claim him, and he had nothing on his person that could lead to identification. Now, after 73 years, scientists claim to have solved one of Australia's most enduring mysteries using DNA.

One Final Cigarette as The Tide of Life Fades

Early on December 1st, 1948, two jockeys were taking their horses out for a stroll along Somerton beach south of Adelaide. When they pulled abreast of what was then known as the Crippled Children's Home, they found a man lying with his head propped up against the seawall. The man was fairly well-dressed in a brown suit with polished leather shoes on. His legs were extended with crossed feet. There was an unlit cigarette resting on his lapel.

The jockeys, in typical horse-person fashion, were impatient and didn't want to hang around to call the police, so they got another person to do it for them. While you may find this suspicious, and rightly so, as horses were involved, they likely had rented the horses and needed to return them. Or, were the horses eager to get away from the scene of their crime?

Horse-guilt aside, the police showed up and found that rigor mortis had already set in. They assumed that the man had died in his sleep after a drunken bender which ended with a trip to the beach to watch the sea. Police took the man in for an autopsy, or postmortem questioning as we like to call it.

Luckily for the Adelaide police, they had a famous pathologist hanging around. Sir John Burton Cleland found the man to be "Britisher" in appearance and in great shape for a 40-45 year old, lack of life aside. The physical fitness of the Somerton Man really stuck out to him. Here's a quote from Sir Cleland:

180 centimetres (5 ft 11 in) tall, with grey eyes, fair to ginger-coloured hair, slightly grey around the temples, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, hands and nails that showed no signs of manual labour, big and little toes that met in a wedge shape, like those of a dancer or someone who wore boots with pointed toes; and pronounced high calf muscles consistent with people who regularly wore boots or shoes with high heels or performed ballet.

The Somerton Man wore a white shirt, brown suit with double-breasted jacket, a red white and blue tie, nice shoes, a brown sweater, and no hat. Fashion police identified the jacket as American in tailoring, and they also had concerns about the lack of a hat. Wearing a hat was practically socially compulsory for men at the time. This dead man had committed a faux-pas.

At the time, it was fairly common for people to label their clothes. Strangely, every tag had been carefully clipped off of the Somerton Man's clothes. He also carried no wallet or any papers that could identify him. Police took this as a sign that he had committed suicide, which is exactly what the horses want you to think.

They tried to pull his dental records, but seeing as how 18 of his teeth were missing, they had a bit of trouble matching his records to anyone.

The autopsy was performed by Dr. Dwyer, and he stated the following:

The heart was of normal size, and normal in every way ...small vessels not commonly observed in the brain were easily discernible with congestion. There was congestion of the pharynx, and the gullet was covered with whitening of superficial layers of the mucosa with a patch of ulceration in the middle of it. The stomach was deeply congested... There was congestion in the second half of the duodenum. There was blood mixed with the food in the stomach. Both kidneys were congested, and the liver contained a great excess of blood in its vessels. ...The spleen was strikingly large ... about 3 times normal size ... there was destruction of the centre of the liver lobules revealed under the microscope. ... acute gastritis hemorrhage, extensive congestion of the liver and spleen, and the congestion to the brain.

Dr Dwyer speculated that the cause of death was poison, probably an overdose of soluble hypnotics, or barbiturates. The Somerton Man's final meal had been a pie (or pasty) eaten around 3 hours before his death. Dwyer didn't think the pie had been the delivery method of the poison, although no delivery method could be identified.

The Somerton Man's body was embalmed on 10 December 1948, which made identification even more difficult. Luckily, a plaster mold had been made of the man's face, allowing investigators to create a death mask.

Further discoveries - Tickets, Shivs, and the Thread

The mystery only deepened as the investigation continued. Two sets of witnesses came forward after the investigation became a matter of public knowledge. None of the witnesses mentioned seeing suspicious horses or pasties.

First to appear was a couple who claimed to have seen a man matching the Somerton Man's description lying on the beach. In a classic case of "this is definitely not my circus, nor my monkeys," the couple saw the man raise his arm before dropping it limply to the ground. This action could be interpreted as a weak attempt at attracting help, but the couple was focused on something else, perhaps. They claim to have seen this all happening at 7pm on November 30.

The second couple to have seen the Somerton Man came around at 7:30pm and stuck around until 8pm. One of them claims to have seen a mysterious man leaning over the sea wall, looking at the Somerton Man. Both of them say that they could see the man lying on the beach, and the swarm of insects that surrounded him. According to them, they never saw the man moving. They remarked that they thought it was odd that he wasn't responding to the cloud of mosquitoes that covered him, but he was just drunk - is what they thought.

When the police rummaged through the deceased's pockets, they found a narrow aluminum comb of American make, an unused railway ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach, a packet of Juicy Fruit gum, a bus ticket that may or may not have been used, a packet of Army Club cigarettes with 7 Kensitas cigarettes inside, and a box of Bryant & May Matches. The cigarettes and the matches were made by British companies. While sold in Australia, Juicy Fruit was more popular among children than adults. Army Club cigarettes were unsurprisingly popular among soldiers, and there were soldiers from two countries in Australia at the time, locals and Americans.

January 14, 1949, brought a bagful of new evidence which further muddled the case. Workers at the Adelaide Railway Station decided to check if they had any evidence lying around. To their delight, they found a brown suitcase which had been checked into the cloakroom after 11:00 on November 30th. The label had been removed from this suitcase as well.

Police thought the suitcase belonged to the Somerton Man, and so they seized it for investigation. Within the suitcase they found a curious collection. One size seven red checked dressing gown and a matching pair of felt slippers, for the man who likes to dress pretty. He, if indeed it was the Somerton Man's suitcase, also had a pair of brown trousers with sand in its cuffs, a coat made in America, four pairs of underwear and a pair of pajamas along with a few ties and an undershirt. Next we come to the more suspicious items, a pair of which had been filed to have sharp tips, a table knife that had similarly been turned into a shiv, an electrician's screwdriver, a small square made of zinc, a shaving kit, a spool of orange thread, some dry-cleaning marks, and finally a stencilling brush. This kind of stencilling brush was usually used by the third officer on a merchant ship for marking cargo. Police theorized that the zinc square had been used as a makeshift sheath for the knife and scissors so that the user didn't accidentally shiv themselves.

Hopeful that the suitcase would hold the key to the mystery, police checked the tags of the clothes within. Most of the tags had been removed from these clothes as well. The ties still bore a name, though, T. Keane. They also found Keane on a laundry bag in the suitcase, and Kean on the undershirt. Police theorized that the name Keane was left on the clothes because it wasn't the dead man's name. These cops were already thinking that this case was far too mysterious to be solved so easily, Occam's Razor be damned!

World War II had only just ended, and wartime rationing was still in effect. Clothes were a commodity, and while it was common practice to label your clothes, it was also common to buy second-hand clothes. Removing the tags from second-hand items was normal. The fact that they found stationary, but no letters, was strange to Adelaide's finest.

The orange thread found in the suitcase was not manufactured or available in Australia. That same orange thread had been used to repair a torn pocket on the Somerton Man's trousers. Suitcase and Man were therefore held together by a strange, foreign thread.

Police performed a nationwide search for a missing person by the name of T. Keane, which bore no fruit. Similar searches were performed in other English-speaking countries, with similar results. The dry-cleaning marks were also useless, after a nationwide search failed to provide any leads. Whoever washed those clothes lived their lives by the code of dry-cleaner/client confidentiality. The coat found in the suitcase was made in America, and had not been imported.

So far the police timeline had the Somerton Man arriving by overnight train from either Melbourne, Sydney or Port Augusta. After arriving, he went across the street to take a shower at City Baths (which was a swimming pool). For some reason, he avoided the bathroom at the Adelaide Station. The Somerton Man returned to the railway station, checked in his suitcase, and caught a bus into Glenelg, where he spent his final day.

Cleland's Autopsy

After the initial investigation, the autopsy was postponed until 17 June 1949. Until then, the body would be embalmed and preserved, distorting its features.

Cleland noted a couple of things about the body, whoever the man was, he was in top physical condition. He had well-developed, high calf muscles, like a ballet dancer. His toes were pointed as if they had been scrunched in tight shoes for a long time.

Cleland also remarked on both the condition of the man's shoes and the lack of evidence of vomiting or convulsions. The shoes were freshly polished, and shoes no signs of having been used to wander around town all day. Vomiting and convulsions are the most common symptoms of poisoning, and the lack of evidence for both seemed to indicate that the man had died elsewhere and simply been dumped on the beach.

Evidence released to the public in the 80s showed that Professor Cedric Stanton Hicks from the University of Adelaide provided Cleland with the names of two drugs that could be responsible, Digitalis and Ouabain. These drugs increase the output force of the heart while slowing its contractions. According to Professor Hicks, these drugs can be toxic in tiny doses and would be near-impossible to detect even if you knew to look for them.

Cleland had this to say during the inquest:

"I would be prepared to find that he died from poison, that the poison was probably a glucoside and that it was not accidentally administered; but I cannot say whether it was administered by the deceased himself or by some other person."

Following the inquest, a plaster cast of the Somerton Man was made in order to cast a death mask. This lead to the unintentional capture of several strands of the deceased's facial hair, which will come into the story later.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - Poetry Gets Involved

Police love diggin around in pockets. Once they had taken everything that the Somerton Man had stuffed in there, they decided to go for the lint. Using a tweezer, they dug deep, and discovered a tiny scrap of paper mashed down in the fob pocket of the deceased's trousers. This paper read, "Tamam Shud", which is Persian for It is finished.

Experts from the public library identified the words as the final words found in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The paper's other side was blank.

The police sent out a nationwide call for assistance in finding the particular copy from which the scrap had been torn. Eventually a man came forward with a rare copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. This man's true identity has never been revealed, but Detective Sergeant Lionel Leane used the pseudonym Ronald Francis when refering to the man who found the book.

The copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that the man found was a copy of the poet, Edward Fitzgerald's, translation made in 1859. Published in 1941 by Whitcombe & Tombs, now known as Whitcoulls, out of Christchurch, New Zealand. Few books were printed in this edition.

According to Detective Gerry Feltus of the South Australian Police, who worked the case after it went cold, the man, Francis, found the book shortly after the body was discovered on the beach. Ronald Francis had left his car unlocked and parked on Jetty Road, Glenelg. After returning to his vehicle he noticed a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam lying in the rear floor well. At first he thought it was either his own, or his brother's copy. When the police call went out, he figured out that it was the book in question. It seems that Omar Khayyam had many fans in Southern Australia.

Police found the last page had been vandalized. The words, Tamam Shud, had been ripped out. Under microscopic inspection, they confirmed that this was indeed the book that produced the Somerton Man's sliver of paper. They found indentations in the back of the book where something had been written, all in capital letters. This appeared to be a code, and so, with yet another piece of evidence, the mystery only grew deeper.

This Guy was Totally a Spy, Right?

The code looked to be carefully written, with the second line stricken out, implying an encryption mistake. What appears to be an M/W is scribbled on the first line, it is commonly accepted to be an W but it is anyone's guess and it could even be both. Codes can get squiggly like that.

Unfortunately the code has never been cracked. Unlike the Somerton Man's DNA, he left no clue to crack this one. Many people, ranging from amateurs to professors to the Australian Department of Defense have made attempts. The Department of Defense claimed that the code was too short to break, and could be the product of a disordered mind.

Gerry Feltus, retired Detective, posited in a 2004 Sunday Mail article that the last line was the initials for:

"It's Time To Move To South Australia Moseley Street"

Moseley Street was the main thoroughfare through Glenelg, and the residence of Jessica Thomson.

Hello Nurse - Jessica "Jo" Thomson

Another interesting, and far more tangible, clue the police found in the back of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was a telephone number. This number belonged to a Glenelg nurse, Jessica Thomson.

Police contacted her, and rushed to conduct an interview with their first real lead. Unfortunately, Jessica claimed to not have known the Somerton Man. She had no idea why he had her number written in his book, either. What a mystery, she might have exclaimed.

Jessica did confess that a 'strange' man had come to her house in late 1948. This man had also pestered her neighbors with question about Jessica. What he could possibly have wanted is beyond her, she may have claimed.

During the interview, Detective Leane showed Thomson the plaster Death Mask of the Somerton Man. He described Jessica's reaction as taken aback to the point of nearly fainting. She apparently, according to the technician, Paul Lawson, who was present, spent the rest of the interview speaking towards the floor. Thomson claimed to not know the identity of the deceased.

Detective Leane agreed to not release Thomson's name or record it in any part of the official investigation. He was a sweet man, but his actions may have set the investigation back when he decided to ommit the names of involved parties. His kindness may have been better suited to a career in journalism.

Jessica, like all Australians of the time apparently, had owned a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. This copy had been given to a young Lieutenant named Alf Boxall, who served in the Water Transport Section of the Royal Australian Engineers.

They had met in 1945 while Jessica was working in the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. After their initial meeting, and potential romance, the two parted ways. Later, Boxall had contacted Jessica, only to be rejected and told that she had moved and married. Boxall never reached out to her again. Jessica was not married at the time, she was seeing a man named Prosper Thomson, who was in the process of divorcing his wife in order to marry Jessica, which wouldn't happen until 1950.

The police assumed that the dead man must be Boxall, but after a short search, they found him alive and well, living in Sydney, 1949. Of course they demanded to see his copy of the Rubaiyat. He produced it, and it still had the words Tamam Shud in place. Jessica, Harkness at the time, had signed her name as JEstyn in the front and written out a verse for her one-time beau. Boxall's involvement ends here.

The Mystery Endures - Decades of Pure Speculation

The South Australian Police checked the Somerton Man's fingerprints and found that they didn't match anything they had on record. So they did the only thing that was left to them, they published the deceased's photo in the newspaper with a call to anyone who could identify him.

People being people, the Police soon found themselves flooded with "positive" identifications. By 1953, they had trotted the body out hundreds of times and had seen the body identified 251 different times. It seems that everyone whose friend or family member that went out for cigarettes and never returned was trying to pin it on the Somerton Man.

Agencies all over the world took an interest in the case, including the FBI, and Scotland Yard. Their efforts to identify the fingerprints and the dead man bore no fruit either. The Somerton Man was a ghost, pardon the pun.

This unidentified man's body was buried in 1949 by the Salvation Army. The only people in attendance were the police, journalists and members of the Salvation Army.His gravesite was marked by a simple epitaph:

Here lies

The Unknown Man

Who was found at

Somerton Beach

1st Dec 1948

The Somerton Man's suitcase was destroyed in 1986 during a cleanup operation at the police station. Several witness statements have also gone missing over the years as well.

So why would a spy end up dead on Somerton Beach? There were two Top Secret sites near Adelaide, the Woomera Range Complex and Radium Hill mine. Woomera Range Complex is a Royal Australian Airforce facility where they test new military equipment, so any spy worht their salt would be salivating at the chance to scrounge around on site. At the time that the Somerton Man lay dying, the Australian Secret Service was in the process of reorganizing into its modern form, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

Another link is lieutenant Boxall himself. He worked not only in Water Transport it seems, but was also involved in Intelligence Operations around the end of World War 2. This coincides with his time spent with Jessica Harkness (Thomson). He claimed in a 1978 interview that there was no way she could have known about his work. When pressed on whether the Somerton Man's death was linked to espionage, he called the idea "Melodramatic".

Jessica Thomson 'Lied' - Shock of the Century

After the death of Jessica Thomson in 2007, two of her family members were interviewed by the television show, 60 Minutes. Jessica's daughter, Kate Thomson, claims in the documentary that her mother had confessed to lying to the police. She had, in fact, known who the Somerton Man was. Furthermore, Jessica claimed that his identity was known to people far above the police force.

Kate speculates in the show that both her mother and the Somerton Man may have been spies. Her proof? Mother dearest was an English teacher working with foreigners later in life, she was fluent in Russian, and had an interest in communism. All very suspicious, or simple coincidence fuelled by Cold War paranoia.

Kate Thomson's sister-in-law, Roma Egan and her daughter, Rachel Egan, also appeared in the documentary. They claimed that they believed Kate's brother, Robin, was actually the Somerton Man's son.

As it turns out, the Somerton Man had a few genetic abnormalities. His teeth were practically unique, as well as the structure of his ears. Statistically speaking, the chances of both appearing in a person are very low. Jessica Thomson's son, Robin, exhibited both traits.

Professor Abbott - 13 Years to Crack the Case

Professor Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide has been working tirelessly to identify the mystery man. Since 2009, Abbott has been leading the charge to apply modern methods to solving the Somerton Man mystery. He put together a team and gripped the mystery by the horns.

The first thing that he analyzed was the mysterious code written in the back of the Somerton Man's copy of the Rubaiyat. What they discovered was that the letters aren't distributed randonly. The letters seem to follow the quatrain structure of the Rubaiyat. They even tested to see if the intoxication level of the writer could affect the output of the code, which must have been a fun afternoon. Finally, they concluded that that it was most likely a one-time pad encryption, which is unbreakable.

Another discovery made by Professor Abbott's team was that the original autopsy reports had disappeared. They showed the photos of the Somerton Man to a colleague of Professor Abbott, Maciej Henneberg, a professor of Anatomy at Adelaide University. Hennenberg noted that the cymba (hollow part of the upper ear) of the deceased's ears was oversized, and the cavum (hollow part of the lower ear) was smaller. This feature is only seen in 1-2% of the caucasian population.

Abbott also had the Somerton Man's teeth analyzed, indicating that he had hypodontia of both lateral incisors. Hypodontia is a condition where a person has fewer teeth in their mouth than normal. This condition is only present in 2% of the general population.

The team obtained a photo of Robin Thomson, Jessica Thomson's son, and concluded that he had both of the same genetic abnormalities as the Somerton Man. The chances of this being a coincidence are infinitesimal, between 1 in 10-20 million.

Professor Abbott has been pushing to have the Somerton Man exhumed for DNA testing since 2009. He desperately wanted to test the link to Robin Thomson theory. The team found one of Robin's children, Roma Egan, who had been adopted by a New Zealand family when she was young. They tested her DNA and found links to Prosper Thomson's grandparents, all but disproving the theory.

Abbott and Roma actually ended up getting married in 2010, which makes this mystery all the more personal for him. They had three children, who are all potentially related to the Somerton Man.

At last in December 2017, Professor Abbott anounced that he had obtained three good hairs for DNA analysis. The hair had been captured on the plaster cask made for the Somerton Man's death mask. DNA testing couldn't prove any links to Roma, as they analyzed the mitochondrial DNA. This analysis indicates that the Somerton Man was in haplogroup H. The specific subset of haplogroup H in which the Somerton Ma's DNA falls, is only shared among 1% of Europeans.

Somerton Man Mystery Solved! - Tamam Shud, Indeed

Working with the genealogist, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Abbott anounced in 2022 that they had identified the Somerton Man. The pair conducted extensive Investigative Genetic Genealogy experiments using the strands of hair recovered from the Somerton Man's death mask.

Abbott and Fitzpatrick had the name "Webb" by March 2022. Working off of the DNA results obtained from the hair, they managed to find descendants of some of his cousins. They built an extensive family tree that includes over 4000 entires, and finally settled on Carl "Charles" Webb.

Carl Webb's date of death had never been recorded and he had reportedly disappeared a few years before his body was found on Someton Beach. They matched his DNA to samples taken from his living relatives on 23 July 2022.

Carl Webb was born in 1905, the son of a German immigrant and an Australian woman. He was their 6th child.

Carl was a married man, he got hitched in 1941 to Dorothy Jean Robertson. According to their marriage certificate, Carl was an instrument maker. The couple lived in South Yarra, Victoria before Carl's disappearance and unfortunate metamophosis into a legendary mystery.

Dorothy and Carl got divorced and some experts believe that he was trying to track her down around the time that he was found dead. The last official record of his existence was when Dorothy filed for divorce in 1947. Carl had walked out on her first, so don't feel too sorry for him about the divorce thing.

Carl was fond of poetry and betting on horses, according to Abbott's research. The team of researches theorize that the code could be a list of horses' names. Webb had also written some poetry of his own.

Thus, the mystery is solved, although the South Australia police have yet to confirm the findings before it can be written into the record. It seems that after 73 years the Somerton Man mystery case has been solved.

Tamam Shud - It is Finished


Never miss a new story

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page