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.
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?
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.” Investigators suspected that the unknown man had thus 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 Somertan 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.
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.
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 kilometres 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.
Featured image: Book cover and illustration from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam