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Unknown corpse becomes Australia's most profound mystery

Updated: Feb 12

Usually when someone goes missing, they are reported to police and a search is conducted. What happens, however, when someone is found but no one has reported them missing? On top of that, there is no identification on the body to help authorities discover who they are.


This very situation occurred on December 1, 1948 at Somerton Park beach, just south of Adelaide in the early hours of the morning. A man's body was found lying in the sand across from the corner of The Esplanade and Bickford Terrace. He was lying back with his head resting against the seawall with his legs extended and his feet crossed. It was suggested he died while he was sleeping.


The corpse of the unknown man found at Somerton Park beach in 1948. Source: Wikipedia


He was found with an unlit cigarette on the right collar of his coat, an unused second class rail ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach, a bus ticket from the city that could not be proved to have been used, a narrow aluminium American comb, a half-empty packet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, an Army Club cigarette packet containing seven cigarettes of a different brand, and a quarter-full box of Bryant & May matches.


Witnesses came forward saying they had seen the man in the evening of the night before, but he was at that time still alive. He was described by the pathologist as having a 'Britisher' appearance aged between 40-45 years old and in top physical condition. He was 180cm tall, with grey eyes and fair to ginger-coloured hair.


Along with the lack of identification, when authorities checked his dental records, there was no match to any known person. An autopsy revealed that he died around 2am. The coroner was unable to reach a conclusion as to the man's cause of death. The body was then embalmed on 10 December 1948 after the police were unable to get a positive identification. The police said this was the first time they knew that such action was needed.


The mystery deepens


The greatest mystery surrounding the unknown man was the discovery of a scrap of paper found months later in the pocket of his trousers. On the paper was written a Persian phrase "tamum shud" meaning "ended" or "finished". It had been torn from the final page of a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, written by 12th-century poet, Omar Khayyám.


Strange text resembling an encrypted message found at the back of the book possibly owned by the Somerton man. Source: Wikipedia


After an appeal to the public, the police located the book which had the torn page. They discovered on the inside back cover in indentation from handwriting of a local telephone number and a text that resembled an encrypted message. To this day the text has never been properly deciphered. The phone number was unlisted and was traced to a woman living in Glenelg who could not identify the man.




While a number of leads came to the police over the years, including a suitcase found at the Adelaide railway station and an inquest, the body of what became known as the Tamum Shud man was buried at the West Terrace cemetery in Adelaide without a name.


The headstone of the unknown man. Source: Wikipedia


Recently on October 14, 2019 the South Australian Attorney General granted conditional approval for Somerton Man to be exhumed in order for a DNA sample to be obtained.


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References

* 'Tamum Shud case', Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamam_Shud_case#cite_note-Bus1-12, accessed 6th February, 2020

* 'Who was the Somerton Man?', Investigates podcast, https://play.acast.com/s/investigates/b23338bb-308b-46d6-93c0-709123699f18, accessed 6th February, 2020

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