The mystery of the body on the beach

By James Cook on September 19th, 2013

On the evening of 30 November 1948, a man is seen lying on a beach in Australia, behaving strangely. He extends his right arm out, according to eyewitness reports, and then lets it drop to his side.

Other witnesses say they watched him for half an hour, yet didn’t see him move. The body was discovered the next day. And here’s where the story gets interesting.

The location that the mystery body was found on a beach in Australia.

The location that the mystery body was found on a beach in Australia.

The man is thought to be aged between 40 and 45. He was dressed in “quality clothing”. Despite it being a hot day, the man wore a suit, a pullover and a double-breasted coat. All labels on his clothing had been removed.

Police found his arms in strange positions, with his right arm bent double. In his pockets were a used bus ticket, an unused rail ticket, an American comb, some chewing gum, a packet of cigarettes that contained a different brand, sold exclusively in Britain, and some matches.

The bus ticket had been used at a stop around 1,100 metres north of the body’s location.

The autopsy found his heart to be in normal condition, yet his gullet was covered with “whitening of of superficial layers”. There was blood mixed with the food in his stomach. His spleen was around 3 times larger than normal. Surgeons were convinced he had not died a natural death.

Photographs of the mystery body.

Photographs of the mystery body.

There were other peculiarities. His calves were unusually well-developed for a man in his forties. Along with that, his toes were almost wedge-shaped. An expert at the inquest into his death suggested that the dead man might have had a fondness for high heels.

The police now began to speculate as to the identity of the body. Newspapers published images of the man, and received calls regarding his identity. By February 1949, there had been eight positive identifications of the body. Each was eventually disproven.

On 14 January 1949, staff at Adelaide Railway Station discovered a brown suitcase that had been checked in the day the man had been seen on the beach. In the case was a dressing gown, size seven slippers, four pairs of underpants, pajamas, shaving items, light brown trousers with sand in the cuffs, an electrician’s screwdriver, a table knife that had been fashioned into a shorter instrument, a pair of scissors with sharpened points, and a stencilling brush of the type used on merchant ships for stencilling cargo.

Also in the case was some orange thread of a type not available in Australia. This thread had been used to repair the trousers on the body. Again, all labels had been removed, except for the two that were impossible to remove. A tie had the name “T. Keane”, “Keane” was on a laundry bag, and “Kean” (No “e”) was on a singlet with dry cleaning marks.

Nobody named T Keane was missing in any English-speaking country. The style of stitching revealed that the man’s coat had been made in the United States.

Suitcase Somerton Man

Within the dead man’s trousers, a secret pocket had been made. In it was a tiny, rolled-up piece of paper with the words “Taman Shud”

During the inquest, it was discovered that the man’s shoes were remarkably clean and recently polished. It was at this point that police began to suspect the man had been poisoned, and that the witnesses had seen his final convulsions.

Within the dead man’s trousers, a secret pocket had been made. In it was a tiny, rolled-up piece of paper with the words “Taman Shud”, with the paper trimmed around these words. Library officials discovered this to be an extract from a collection of poems named The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, meaning “it is ended” or “finished”.

A photograph of the scrap was released to the public, and a man discovered a rare first edition of the book had been placed in the back seat of his car. The book was missing the words “Taman Shud” on the last page. In the back was the following writing:


Also found in the back of the book was an unlisted telephone number belonging to a lady named Teresa Powell. She said that she used to own a copy, but had given it away to an army lieutenant who had previously worked in military intelligence named Alfred Boxall. After the war, she had moved away from the area where she had met the man and gotten married.

She later received a letter from him, and, in 1948, a mystery man had asked her neighbour about her. But Alfred Boxall was later found alive, and with his copy of the book. The woman’s real name was never confirmed, as she died in 2007, and police believe this may have been the clue to deciphering the code.

Years after the burial, the case was still active. A receptionist from the hotel opposite Adelaide Railway Station claimed she saw a similar man occupy one of the rooms, and that cleaners had a found a black medical bag and hypodermic syringe in the room.

All of which brings us current. In March 2008, a team from the University of Adelaide once again investigated the case. They found the letters of the code in the back of the book followed the quatrain format of the text itself, and suggested it may have been a “one-time pad”. Researchers have been looking for a similar edition of the book ever since, with no success.

A professor of anatomy examined the photographs of the man’s ears, showing that the upper ear hollow was larger than the lower, a feature possessed by only 1-2 per cent of the caucasian population. In addition to this, dentists discovered the man had a rare condition named hypodontia, present in only 2 per cent of the population.

In June 2010, police obtained an image of the son of “Teresa Powell”, showing the son also possessed both of these features. The chance that this is a coincidence is between 1 in 10,000,000 and 1 in 20,000,000.

Since 2008, developments in the case have been slow to appear. The original detectives have largely lost interest, with only the most dedicated followers remaining. However, the “Taman Shud Case” has become a popular tale on the internet, becoming a regular topic on internet message boards.

Adelaide University professor Derek Abbott recently commissioned a portrait of the dead man, believing that it could better represent his appearance than the autopsy photographs. He told his reasoning for the commission.

“All this time we’ve been publishing the autopsy photo, and it’s actually hard to tell what something looks like from that, this didn’t hit me until I was looking on the internet and stumbled on Marilyn Monroe’s autopsy photo.

“If somebody had just shown me that picture and not told me it was Marilyn Monroe I never would’ve thought it was her.”

The new portrait of the mystery man.

The new portrait of the mystery man.

One of the driving forces behind the present-day Taman Shud investigation is Gerry Feltus, a detective who has spent years trying to solve the mystery. His enquiries revealed that another man had died in Australia with a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam next to him. His book was a seventh edition.

According to the book’s publishers, there were only ever five editions printed. Could the mysterious book have been a one-time pad created specifically for spies?

The Australian police have never classed the death of the mystery man as anything other than suicide. However, a witness statement has recently come to light. In this statement, a man who had been on the beach that night describes seeing a man carrying another man on his shoulder, near the water’s edge.

With so many unanswered questions and signs pointing towards a Cold War-style murder, campaigners have been fighting to exhume the mystery body to conduct DNA testing. The Kernel talked to Tracey Bryan, a former Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. After reading a post by this author on Quora about the Taman Shud mystery, she embarked upon a campaign to try and solve the mystery.

“I was amazed that all this had transpired so close to where I spent my teenage years and that I’d never heard of it. I always love an unsolved mystery as I’m insatiably curious; when you add in the link to the Rubayyat – I was already a Rumi fan – and possible Cold War links, plus the many promising leads that didn’t lead anywhere, I just find the whole story riveting.

Bryan launched a petition to exhume the body of the mystery man, believing that modern DNA testing methods would be able to reveal his identity.

“Unfortunately his family probably have no idea what happened to him.”

“DNA databases have come a long way since he recommended to the South Australian government that [the lead detective at the time] didn’t think that it was worthwhile. There was a 215-year-old paternity dispute in my family tree that we were able to – at least partly – resolve using yDNA.

“The most recent development is that the Attorney-General of South Australia denied a petition for exhumation in 2011. The crux of the matter seems to be that both Gerry Feltus and the Attorney-General think that the request should come from police or possible family rather than interested strangers.

“Unfortunately his family probably have no idea what happened to him, and the police either don’t care, or don’t understand the science.”

The Kernel asked Bryan what other developments have taken place in the case.

“I don’t believe Gerry Feltus is still working any angle. Professor Derek Abbott at the University of Adelaide got involved because he had some students trying to decrypt the message – if there was any – on the paper fragment. He is still very enthusiastic about the case.

“I have never met either personally, but my impression is that Gerry Feltus considers it is probably a personal story – a guy with a failed marriage, or depression, or something like that – and whilst he’s open to a “sexier” story – e.g. that he was a spy or something – that he hasn’t seen compelling evidence of that, and he thinks that some people are pushing that angle too heavily.”

It’s unusual for a mystery like this to persist for so long, and for it to draw such attention from both online and offline sleuths. But so long as the mystery man’s body remains interred, the questions surrounding his death and identity are likely to remain unanswered.