It’s troublingly easy to make people disappear. If you live somewhere sufficiently remote – the Mojave Desert, say, or the Australian Outback – you can just stick a body in the ground and there’s a good chance it’ll remain unfound. What’s rather more difficult, however, is to make someone disappear while keeping them in plain sight. And it’s this that makes the Taman Shud Case so compelling.
At 6:30am on December 1st 1948, the body of a man was found on Somerton Beach, a few miles southwest of Adelaide, South Australia. He appeared to have died in his sleep – he was lying with his head resting against the sea wall, legs extended and feet crossed, an unlit cigarette in his coat collar. He looked supremely relaxed. Well, a little too relaxed, obviously, but far from suspicious.
When the police searched his pockets, they found a bus ticket, an unused train ticket to Henley Beach, cigarettes, chewing gum, and a comb. So far, so unremarkable. However, there were a few details that started to raise suspicion: all of the labels of his clothes had been carefully removed, he had no hat (which sounds insignificant, but this was unusual in Australia in 1948), he carried no wallet or identification, and his dental records didn’t match any known person. The coroner remarked that “if the body had been carried to its final resting place, all these difficulties would disappear,” which tallied with eyewitness reports of a man being carried along the beach by three other men on the evening before the body was found.
The autopsy threw up some confusing results. While the man’s heart was ‘normal in every way’, the small and usually undiscernible channels of the brain were visibly engorged by congestion, the kidneys and stomach were also congested, the stomach and liver were full of blood, and the spleen was three times its normal size. The conclusion was that there was no way the death could have resulted from natural causes, and he’d almost certainly been poisoned… but there was no trace of any foreign substance in the body. Mysterious.
The following day, Adelaide newspaper The Advertiser ran a story identifying the man as an E.C. Johnson. But the day after that, E.C. Johnson presented himself at the police station, which rather clearly eliminated him from the list of possible identities. By February 1949, there had been eight separate ‘positive’ identities of the body, a number which rose to 251 by November 1953 – but there just seemed to be no way to actually identify the man. Everyone who thought they knew who he was turned out to be mistaken.
On January 14th 1949, a suitcase was discovered at Adelaide railway station which, much like the dead man’s clothes, had had its label and those of its contents carefully removed. It contained various items of clothing, a table knife that had been cut down into a short, sharp instrument, a pair of scissors with sharpened tips, and a stencil brush of the type used on merchant ships for stencilling cargo. There was also a reel of waxed orange Barbour thread of a type not available in Australia – the same type that had been used to repair the inside pocket of the trousers the body was wearing. The only labels that remained in the case bore the name ‘T. Keane’, although after an extensive international missing persons search, police concluded that this name had been left in deliberately to send them on a wild goose chase.
The coroner’s inquest began a few days after the body was discovered, and it was highlighted that there were no signs of convulsing or vomiting at the scene – two things you’d expect to find in a death-by-poisoning case – which firmed up the suspicion that he’d died elsewhere and been brought to the beach. Possible poisons were suggested, but the official conclusion was that while he seemed to have died from poison that wasn’t accidentally administered, it was impossible to say what was administered, or where, or when, or by whom. The authorities called it ‘an unparalleled mystery’.
…and the mysteries kept coming. At the time of the inquest, a tiny piece of rolled-up paper was discovered in a small fob pocket that had been stitched inside the man’s trousers – it was printed with the words ‘Tamam Shud’. (You’ll note that the spelling is slightly different to the aforementioned ‘Taman Shud’ – early reports of the case misspelled it ‘Taman’, and that’s the name that’s stuck.) Library officials were called in, who identified it as a Persian phrase meaning ‘ended’ or ‘finished’, found on the last page of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a 12th century philosopher and poet. The police made a public appeal to find the copy of the book from which the phrase had been torn, and a member of the public – who has never been formally identified – presented the book to the authorities. There’s some uncertainty about how the book was found, although most reports claim that it was found in an unlocked car not far from the body. (The timings present difficulties, however – some claim it was discovered shortly after the body, some say two weeks before, which change the possibilities exponentially.)
On the inside back cover of the book, police found indentations from handwriting, including a telephone number and some text that appeared to be an encrypted message. Codebreakers worked with cryptographers to try to wrap their heads around the cipher, but their efforts proved fruitless. No-one could crack the code.
The phone number belonged to a nurse, Jessica Ellen Thomson, who lived about 400m from where the body was found, although when interviewed she said she had no idea who the man was, why he would have her number, or why he should be in her neighbourhood. The fact that she recoiled in horror and almost fainted when shown a plaster bust of the corpse’s head and shoulders, and that she admitted to having owned a copy of the Rubáiyát, was suspicious, but inconclusive. The further fact that she requested to remain anonymous in official records, and that the police happily acquiesced, went on to cause later complications.
And so the mystery rumbled on. The death occurred not long after the start of the Cold War, a time of heightened international tensions, and the idea of murder by unidentifiable poisons and the inability to identify the man led to widespread speculation that he was a spy. But who for? And which country’s agents (or miscreants) killed him? And why in such secretive but public circumstances? Why leave clues that led nowhere – the ‘Tamam Shud’ paper, the suitcase, the Keane labels, the phone number, the cipher? How could it be that a man could die so publically, and yet be recognised by nobody?
The body was buried in Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery, beneath a stone that read ‘Here lies the unknown man who was found at Somerton Beach’. Years after the burial, flowers started appearing on the grave; police questioned a woman seen leaving the cemetery at a time when fresh flowers appeared, but she denied all knowledge of the man. And from there, the trail goes cold. The embalming fluid will have broken down the body’s DNA, the suitcase was destroyed for some reason in the 1980s, witness statements have disappeared from police files over the years… one of Australia’s great mysteries is a seemingly insoluble case.
The closest answer available was unearthed by the investigation of Professor Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide in 2009. On investigating photos of ‘the Somerton Man’, he found something interesting in his ears: the cymba (the upper ear hollow) was bigger than the cavum (the lower ear hollow), something found in only 1-2% of the Caucasian population. On checking the dental records, the man was found to have hypodontia, a rare genetic disorder of the lateral incisors, again only present in 2% of the general population. Why were these findings of interest? Because the aforementioned Nurse Thomson’s son also had larger cymba and hypodontia. The chance of these two men just coincidentally sharing these features is around 1 in 20,000,000 – so it’s highly likely that the dead man was father to Thomson’s son instead, as she maintained, of her husband being so. But the son died in 2009 and the authorities won’t allow him to be exhumed, so there’s no conclusive proof. And even if there was, it wouldn’t answer all that many questions about the man’s death. (Interestingly, Abbott went on to marry Jessica Thomson’s granddaughter in 2010. Make of that what you will.)
In 2013, Jessica’s daughter, Kate Thomson, revealed to TV show 60 Minutes that her mother had told her she’d lied to the police when questioned, that she did indeed know the dead man, and that he was “known to a higher level than the police force”. Kate also pointed out that her mother could speak Russian (although would never say where she’d learnt it, or why), had an interest in communism, and taught English to migrants. The implication was that Jessica Thomson and the mystery man were both spies. But again, everyone involved is dead, so there’s no way of finding out.
Annoying, isn’t it? There are some things in the world that you can just never know. Such is the intrigue of international espionage – it’s not all gunfights and vodka martinis.