The Tamám Shud Case And The Grave Mystery Of The Unknown Somerton Man

Published March 12, 2019
Published March 12, 2019

He was named the Somerton man for the beach on which he was found. Ominously, investigators found little on his person but a rolled piece of paper torn from a book that read "Tamám Shud" — Persian for "It is ended."

Somerton Man Dead

Youtube/ Buzzfeed BlueMortuary photograph of the anonymous Somerton man who was found with the ominous words, “Tamám Shud” meaning “It is ended” on his person. Taken in December of 1948.

The case of the Somerton man, a dead man found on Australia’s Somerton beach, continues to rattle investigators and curious minds alike to this day. The well-dressed fellow sat propped on a sea wall with a half-smoked cigarette fallen on to his lapel when he was found dead and with a curious note on his person which read, “Tamám Shud,” which means “ended” or “finished.”

As new and ever more confounding clues regarding the case of this mystery man cropped up for days surrounding the investigation, authorities came no closer to a resolution. Indeed, seven decades onward, the truth behind the case of the Somerton man remains virtually unknown.

Discovering The Somerton Man

On Nov. 30, 1948, at about 7 p.m. John Bain Lyons and his wife strolled on Somerton beach, a picturesque seaside resort in Adelaide, Australia. The couple noticed a man propped up on a concrete seawall across from the Crippled Children’s Home. His legs were outstretched and his feet were serenely crossed.

He was dressed immaculately in a full suit and polished shoes which was unusual attire for a warm summer evening and for the beach. The couple recalled that the man was only about sixty feet away from them when he raised his right arm and then let it fall to the ground. Lyons had surmised that the man was making a drunken attempt to light a cigarette, so they walked away from what they assumed was an overly-inebriated man.

Another thirty minutes transpired and a second couple spotted the man against the sea wall. His left arm was splayed out on the ground and his face was peppered by mosquitos. The couple had concluded that he was merely deeply asleep. The couple even joked that the mystery man must be dead to the world if he wasn’t reacting to the mosquitos.

The next morning, on Dec. 1, 1948, at around 6:50 a.m., a cluster of people on horseback surrounded the body. The same man from the night before, John Lyons, returned from his morning swim to see the crowd milling about where he and his wife had spotted the supposedly drunk man. Lyons abruptly realized that the man was now deceased.

Somerton Man Fingerprints

Youtube/ Unexplained MysteriesFingerprints of the Somerton man taken on Dec. 1, 1948.

Fancy Clothes And Mangled Toes

An initial inspection of the Somerton man — as he will come to be known — revealed no obvious cause of death. The clean-shaven man had no stab or bullet wounds and neither bruises nor blood were found at the scene. His death seemed passive and peaceful.

Three hours later, the body was transported to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Dr. John Barkley Bennet estimated that time of death was to be no earlier than 2:00 a.m. The attending pathologist, John Matthew Dwyer, then analyzed the body. By that time, rigor mortis had already set in. He noted that the lividity behind the ears and neck was deep which indicated that the body had not been moved after it had expired.

The man was sharply dressed. He had on boxer shorts and a men’s singlet, a white shirt and thin red tie with light brown trousers, a brown sweater, and brown double-breasted coat. His shoes were polished. In his pockets, doctors found a railway ticket to Henley Beach, a bus ticket to North Glenelg, an American metal comb, a packet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, a packet of Army Club cigarettes, a handkerchief, and a packet of Bryant & May matches.

But inside the man’s clothes, all name tags and maker’s labels had been clipped. One of his pants pockets was repaired with an unknown type of orange thread.

Many believed because of his dress and belongings that the man was indeed American. Curiously, the Somerton man had no wallet and in his breast pocket instead, investigator Thomas Cleland later found a folded piece of paper which read “Tamám Shud.” In Persian, this phrased means “Ended.” The words were written in fancy script and were found to have been torn from a rare New Zealand edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the 12th-century work of poetry.

As for the man’s body, Dwyer reported that the man’s “pupils were smaller and unusual, uneven in outline and about the same size. Certain drugs may be associated with a contraction in the pupils. Even barbiturates may do it, but it is by no means a distinguishing point.” He found that the Somerton man had blood in his stomach. He had then gone so far as to say that, “The blood in the stomach suggested some irritant poison but on the other hand nothing detectable in the food to my naked eye to make a finding…”

The man had athletic legs though he was middle-aged, perhaps in his 40s. His forearms were tanned. His toes were oddly mangled as though they had been shoved into tight shoes. Some believed that because of this, he could have been a ballet dancer.

Thomas Cleland, the coroner, later had hypothesized that there were two lethal poisons that could have quickly decomposed in the body leaving no trace: digitalis and strophanthin. Either poison could have been administered to the Somerton man and decomposed before the autopsy was performed.

Tamám Shud Scrap

Youtube/ Buzzfeed BlueThe scrap of paper discovered in a concealed pocket in the dead man’s trousers. “Tamám shud” is a Persian phrase; it means loosely, “It is ended.”

But the results for blood and urine had indicated that nothing was amiss. The conclusion was ultimately heart failure. What this meant was that his heart stopping is what killed him. But that the heart failure was most likely induced by poison—whether that was self-administered or murderously given was up to the police to find out.

Next was to run a search on the man’s fingerprints, but this too yielded no new information. Neither the FBI nor Scotland Yard had the fingerprints on file.

The Enduring Mystery Behind “Tamám Shud”

A call was then issued for abandoned property found at the local railway station. A day later, the police were notified of a brown suitcase found in the Adelaide Railway Station. The suitcase contained the exact same thread worn by the Somerton man. This was easy to identify as the luminous Barbour thread he wore was quite rare and not produced in Australia. Further, the clothing was all in the Somerton man’s size and written on a singlet, a laundry bag, and a tie was “T. Keane” or “T. Kean.” This, unfortunately, also yielded no leads in identification.

Police Somerton Suitcase

Youtube/ Unexplained MysteriesThe police were alerted of a suitcase found at the Adelaide Railway Station on Nov. 30, 1949.

The clothing in the suitcase was effeminate by some accounts but also contained a stenciling brush, a modified knife, a screwdriver, pencils, and a scissor.

Meanwhile, the world was notified of the strange case of the Somerton man, and several months later, a gentleman walked into the detective’s office with a copy of the elusive book from which “Tamám Shud,” a phrase likely to appear on the last page of the book, had been ripped. In December of the previous year, the man reported, he had taken a drive with his brother-in-law in an automobile that he parked a few hundred yards away from Somerton beach.

When they returned to the car, the brother-in-law noticed a peculiar book now lying on the floor of the car. Both men had assumed the book belonged to the other and it was consequently deposited in the glove department. But when the national coverage of the Somerton man had begun to circulate, the two men took a closer look at the book. They had quickly realized that they had the exact copy of the book with one page at the end torn out.

Detective Sergeant Lionel Leane took a close look at the book. It revealed two unlisted phone numbers and lines of code. The first phone number was a dead end, but the second phone number led to a young nurse that lived on Somerton Beach known only as “Jestyn.” Her name was never revealed to the general public. Jestyn had claimed to not know the Somerton man, but she almost fainted when she saw a cast of the Somerton man’s face.

Jestyn was reluctant to speak to the police, though she eventually admitted to having gifted a copy of it to a man named Alfred Boxall. When the Adelaide police pursued this lead, they discovered that Boxall was indeed alive and still had Jestyn’s copy in his possession.

Somerton Man's Written Code

Wikimedia Commons. A police scan of the handwritten code found in the back of a copy of The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam, in which the words “Tamám Shud” also appear. It is believed to have belonged to the Somerton man.

Under a black light, the book revealed a strange code. Five lines of incongruous letters were found with the second of which crossed out. The first three were separated from the last two by a pair of straight lines with an “x” written over them. But naval intelligence was unable to decipher the code, so the lines were published in newspapers for amateur codebreakers to tinker with:

W [or maybe M] RGOABABDWTBIMPANETP
MLIABO AIAIQC
ITTMTSAMSTGAB

The police then decided that it was at last time to lay the Somerton man to his final rest on June 14, 1949. When the South Australia coroner published the final results of his investigation in 1958, his report concluded with the admission: “I am unable to say who the deceased was…I am unable to say how he died or what was the cause of death.”

The case was, in a sense, itself “Tamám Shud”.

New Life For The Case Of The Somerton Man

In recent years, the mystery of the Somerton man and the significance in the phrase “Tamám Shud” has begun to grow in popularity.

The first popular theory was that the Somerton man killed himself after being rejected by Jestyn. It was also discovered that Jestyn had a young son who could have actually belonged to the Somerton man, due to similarities in their appearance. Investigators posited that when faced by life without his burgeoning family, the Somerton man decided to end it all.

This theory appeared the most attractive to investigators due to the apparent lack of defensive wounds on the man’s body which would have suggested a fight or murder. Also, the “Tamán Shud” note was solely connected to Jestyn. Lastly, no poison was found in his body, which indicated that the Somerton man most likely self-administered the poison if at all.

Somerton Man Burial

Wikimedia CommonsThe Somerton man buried on June 14, 1949.

And the more provocative second theory is that he was a spy that knew too much. The modus operandi of his death was so unusual, and the poisons doctors thought he could have used was not at all common. That the poison was potentially so deadly and unknown that it could kill a man and then disappear from his body within hours so that no medical testing could trace it suggested the Somerton man was a well-connected person.

But further, no one came to claim the body despite the case having been published throughout the world. Plus, the indecipherable code and confounding nature of the meaning of “Tamám Shud”, lent themselves to the theory that the Somerton man was a spy someone powerful or insidious wanted dead.

Weirder clues are still being found. Retired Australian policeman Gerry Feltus, author of the only book yet published on the case, discovered in his own investigation that in 1959, a witness came forward saying they had seen the Somerton man being carried on the shoulder of another man onto the beach and left where the man was later found.

The investigation has also since been picked up by Jestyn’s own daughter. She firmly believes that the Somerton man is her grandfather and that he and her mother were involved in a Soviet spy ring.

Jestyn’s daughter has requested that the Somerton man be exhumed and reexamined. Until then, one can only speculate. It seems as if this case will never be ended, or, “Tamám Shud”.


After you’ve tried to decipher the meaning behind “Tamám Shud” and the discovery of the Somerton man, check out the case of the Isdal woman. Then, read up on seven chilling cold cases where both the murderer and victim are still unknown.

Gisely Ruiz
Gisely Ruiz is a San Diego-based freelance writer.