He was found dead on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1948. A fit and healthy middle aged man, his death was attributed to either natural circumstances—or a poison whose chemical traces had disappeared by the time his body was discovered, such as digitalis.
He had no ID, and a circulation of his photo and description around Australia yielded no response. The labels had been removed from all of his clothing, and among the generic contents of his pockets like gum and cigarettes, an unused train ticket turned up. At the train station, police found a suitcase he had checked, though there was no record of his name and the clerk couldn’t remember helping him. Like his clothing, all identifying marks had been deliberately removed from the suitcase and its contents, which included a stencil kit, a screwdriver, a kitchen knife, scissors, and thread.
Sometime later, investigators discovered something they’d missed: a tiny scrap from a book that had been rolled up and sewn into a small key-fob pocket in his trousers. It read TAMAN SHUD, which translates from Persian to “it has ended”: the last line of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. It was torn from a copy of the book, but not just any copy—a very rare first edition.
After police disclosed this finding in the news, a man came forward to and claimed he’d found just such an edition in the back seat of his car, which he’d parked near Somerton Beach. The phrase TAMAN SHUD was torn from the last page. In the back of the book was written a phone number and five lines of code, which the Australian Department of Defense could not decipher.
The phone number rang to a woman who had been a nurse in a local military hospital during the war. She claimed she had given a man a copy of The Rubáiyát, but that man, an Army lieutenant, was located alive and well—with his copy of the book still intact, bearing an inscription from the nurse.
Though the nurse told police she’d never seen the Somerton Man before, she had a visibly emotional response to seeing both his photo and a plaster cast made of his face—a reaction so intense detectives felt she must have known him. Her own daughter confirmed this in an interview decades later, claiming her mother may have been a spy—she’d been intentionally cryptic about her past, had changed her name and deliberately obfuscated details regarding her marriage when recalling her personal history to the police, and was a Russian speaker with admitted Communist sympathies. The daughter said that her mother had once privately admitted the Somerton Man’s identity was likely known to individuals operating at a “higher level” than law enforcement.
And here’s another strange wrinkle: the Somerton Man was not the first person to mysteriously die with a copy of The Rubáiyát in Adelaide. In 1945, just two months before the nurse met the Army lieutenant, a man was found dead in a nearby park with a different rare edition of the book on his chest. His cause of death was attributed to poisoning, though deemed a suicide. A woman who testified at his inquest was herself found dead less than two weeks later in a scene staged to look like suicide.
For some thirty years after his death, a mysterious visitor left flowers on the Somerton Man’s gravestone each spring.
The identity of the Somerton Man remains unknown. Many of those involved in the case have since died, and much of the physical evidence has been destroyed or has disappeared. In recent years hairs were recovered from the plaster cast made of his face that yielded viable DNA, but so far no relatives have been located.
His coded message is still undeciphered.
An interesting footnote to this story, which has always been the icing on the cake for me: there’s some dispute among literary historians as to whether Omar Khayyám actually wrote The Rubáiyát at all. In his time, he was known primarily as a mathematical scholar and astronomer.