If you’re a true crime buff and you don’t live under a rock, you may have heard the Tamám Shud case — AKA the disappreance of the Somerton man, one of Australia’s greatest true crime mysteries — has finally been solved. Well, kinda. The man of the moment has been identified 74 years after his body was found on Adelaide’s Somerton Beach. Here’s everything we know.
When was the Somerton man’s body found?
The Somerton man was found on December 1, 1948 on Somerton Beach in Adelaide. He was clean shaven and appeared to be a white man of about 40 years old.
What was the Somerton man’s cause of death?
A coroner who inspected his body found that he’d died of internal bleeding and an enlarged spleen. It was ruled that he did not die of natural causes.
There’s a popular understanding that he died by poison. However, there were no traces of poison found in his body, or any other symptoms that indicated he had been vomiting, convulsing or had diarrhoea. Which are generally dead giveaways.
What was the Somerton Man’s body found with?
The Somerton man was clothed in a dry, neatly pressed brown suit and all the tags of his clothes had been removed. He had no belongs or identification with him. In his lapel was a half-smoked cigarette, and according to some reports, his legs were crossed. They also found bus and railway tickets in his pockets, but no wallet. Essentially, he looked like he was just chilling at the beach — except he was dead.
The mans’s fingerprints weren’t in any database, and no one came forward to identify him.
A month after the body was discovered, a suitcase was found in the local train station’s cloak room. It contained clothes with the labels removed and wax thread which was not sold in Australia at the time. It’s believed the suitcase belonged to the Somerton man, especially because it was lodged at the station the day before his body was found.
Among the items in the suitcase, some were labelled with “Keane” and “Kean”. Remember that because it’ll be important later.
Now, this is where things get weird…
Four months after the body was found, in April 1949, authorities found a secret pocket sewn into the man’s pants. Inside the pocket, a tightly rolled scrap of paper with the phrase “tamám shud” was found. Turns out it’s Persian and roughly translates to “it is finished” or “it is ended”. This whole mystery is now called the Tamám Shud case because of it.
The paper was actually traced back to a specific copy of a poem, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and the book contained a weird assortment of hand-written letters believed to be a secret code, as well as the phone number of a young nurse named Jessica Thomson who lived near Somerton Beach. Thomson denied ever knowing the man.
FYI, no one has ever cracked the code and the Australian Navy believed it more likely to just be initials of a poem.
What are the theories about the Tamám Shud mystery?
So, there are several theories around the Somerton man’s death. The most believable is that he died by suicide. The Rubáiyát is all about mortality, so there are theories the scrap paper hidden in the man’s pocket was a suicide note.
The other theory is that the man was killed by Russian spies. Farfetched perhaps, but his death was at the dawn of the Cold War so there was a lot of paranoia around the Soviet. Which maybe isn’t that wild because there actually was a spy ring uncovered in Canberra which operated between 1945 and 1948.
Since no one could identify the man, and the fact that he had no belongings or ID and was well-dressed and clean shaven, it’s a popular theory. And that’s without the freaky book of poems and codes.
In 2013, Kate Thomson — the daughter of the nurse whose number was in the Somerton man’s book — told 60 Minutes her mother had lied about not recognising the body.
“She said to me she knew who he was, but she wasn’t going to let that out of the bag, so to speak,” she said.
“There’s always that fear that I’ve thought that maybe she was responsible for his death.”
Fighting words, honestly. Her own mother! You could not waterboard this information out of me. It’s called loyalty, sweetie.
The 60 Minutes episode was pretty wild — it revealed claims the Somerton man and Jessica Thomson were Soviet spies who were also having an affair. The family of Jessica’s son Robin also claimed they now believe he was actually fathered by the Somerton man.
They were on 60 Minutes to help Adelaide University physicist and Somerton man expert Professor Derek Abbott convince authorities to allow him to exhume the body and use DNA testing to identify it. Which brings us to the here and now, 2022, where the body has finally been identified.
Has the Somerton man been identified?
Prof Abbott did actually succeed in getting his hands on the Somerton man’s DNA — and the results will probably be a little disappointing if you’ve gone down the spy rabbit hole.
He and American genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick announced that they reckon the man was Carl “Charles” Webb, a 43-year-old engineer from Melbourne.
They figured it out by comparing a hair stuck in the plaster bust of his head with samples uploaded by millions of people around the world in online databases of family trees.
The match hasn’t been formally confirmed, but since there was a DNA match on both the maternal and paternal sides of Webb’s family, Proff Abbott is pretty sure it’s legit.
“It’s not just that it matched but it actually triangulated, so it connected to a cousin on the father’s side and a cousin on the mother’s side,” he said per The Guardian.
So, what of all the freaky clues?
Well for one, records show Webb and his wife were separated at the time of his death.
“In 1947 guess where she went? She went to South Australia. So you might think, ‘well, this guy is somebody who sort of seems to be a bit of a loner [from] Victoria. What’s he doing in South Australia?
“It’s speculation, of course, but you know, you can join the dots and say, well, maybe he’s there to go and see her.”
Abbott also joked a few years ago that the code in the book were just the first letters of race horse names. Well what do ya know — turns out Webb had a fondness for horse racing. Obvs there’s no way to know if that’s what the scrawl in his book actually meant, but it’s probably more likely than secret Soviet communications.
Oh, and guess what? Remember how the name “Keane” was found labelled on some of the man’s items in his suitcase?
Turns out Webb had a brother-in-law named Thomas Keane who lived near him in Melbourne. Maybe he just borrowed his stuff?
While this is all very illuminating, it still hasn’t uncovered how he died the way he did. The Tamám Shud mystery remains…