December 1st, 1948 – An unidentified man is found dead along the beachline of west Australia near the unsuspecting town of Adelaide. Penniless, his sprawled form lies propped against a seawall, face frozen in haunting incredulity, a cigarette tucked behind a single ear while another languishes half-burned, perched upon the lapel of an unfashionably-warm coat of American make. He stares across the water, silently pondering a fate that would baffle detectives and frustrate codebreakers for the next 70 years.
His name is unknown; his nationality unknown. No one knew his purpose in Adelaide nor truly recognized his face. It’d be easy to discredit his existence as yet another drifting homeless, a refugee of the sequel to a World-Class conflict, an aimless wanderer amid a generation mired in the brewing fear of secular patriotism, the Cold War constituting its own bones from the palpable restlessness of a worn population. These bones would be the structure, the hat-rack, for a culture of espionage to be hung while the “Somerton Man” with no better name than the beach he was found on would have his own bones unceremoniously stacked atop two other bodies in a public plot.
But the evidence surrounding this anonymous death can’t be so easily cast aside like an orphaned corpse without a country. Indeed, the features of the well-built individual with the broad shoulders, highly-toned calves, and tapered feet suggested many things to the coroner and errant speculators, guesses spanning the gamut of professional runner to ballet dancer to an unspecified profession wearing solely boots. He was clean-shaven, presentable, hands immaculate as if a day of labor never left its mark. Dressed nicely even by that era’s standards, the deceased was in peak physical condition…. should his spleen -swollen three times normal size- and the congested destruction of his liver or brain be discluded. Officially, no cause of death was certain and it was haphazardly assumed that the Somerton Man had found some clever way to suicide. Unofficially, his organs had been ravaged by a brutal, untraceable poison.
Passersby believed him to be drunk.
Project Venona is to ’50s McCarthyism what professional baseball is to the laughable floundering of a child as he toddles up to a static tee, oversized bat draped limply across a diminuitive shoulder. While the States would one day fall prey to the imagined boogeymen rattled on about from a venomous pulpit, calculated paranoia endorsing terror-fueled snitching, Project Venona would conduct itself silently in the shadows in an attempt to counter actual threats: 349 distinct moles scattered within all tiers of American government. The intelligence division sought these defects, these spies, whom freely bled sensitive information regarding the nuclear “Manhattan Project” and more, having infiltrated our Treasury, the Department of Secret Services, and even occupying a 1950’s White House. Russian sympathizers were afoot.
Adelaide’s latest mystery was tantamount to an obsession for the Australian police force, the Somerton Man’s pockets concealing nothing but a half pack of Juicy Fruit, an aluminum comb from America, a used bus ticket, an unspent train pass, matches…. and expensive European cigarettes jammed inside a relatively common casing of lesser brand. His stomach was empty, save for a pastry eaten sometime the previous day, close after arrival in the city he would never leave. No wallet. No hat, (which was notably bizarre to the locals). The clothes, themselves, were tag-less as the detectives struggled to place a name. It was common practice during wartime to remove previous labels from second-hand clothing but “T. Keane” was the only lettering found and even this bit of nomenclature wasn’t spelled consistently, leading police to a conclusion that those markings were left for material integrity, and “Keane” would be of no use.
When unclaimed luggage was donated via the rail station’s baggage-checking service even more loose articles spilled into the evidence pile, providing perplexity in the place of answers. A red dressing gown was inside, complete with matching felt slippers, four underpants, pajamas, shaving tools, six-pence in change, brown trousers (bespeckled with sand), an electrician’s screwdriver, and a table knife whittled to a wicked shiv. This once-harmless knife competed with a pair of shears as the sharpest instrument in the bag but a 3rd officer’s stenciling brush (common for merchant ships) rounded out the more particular, and peculiar, objects. Despite it all, Australian police sat dumbfounded, solutions eluding the itchiest of scalps. Nothing added up, and nothing furthered the investigation…. at least not yet.
Six months pass, and then there is the scrap of paper. Rolled surreptitiously in an obscured trouser pocket, it had been concealed within the dead man’s garb all along, evading all but the most meticulous of searches.
“Tamam Shud”, the paper said, a Persian phrase meaning “It is Finished” or “The Ending”.
Spinal chills come naturally, though it is this spec of evidence that proved a boon to the case. See, it was identified by librarians as belonging to a rare book, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. In truth, the tome was said to contain love poems and generally invoked an appreciation for life sans regrets, though in this context -clipped from a dusty page and trailing an unloved corpse- it was clearly off mark. Advertisements were rented from newspapers, pleading for a carved copy of the book to be revealed, anything to cast light on the city’s deepening shadows and one of the country’s most complicated cases to date.
Simultaneously, police commissioned a plaster bust of the deceased, droves of locals making certain to stop by and provide false positives of the identity. These all lead to varying degrees of nothing, of course, many testimonials forcing other annoyed citizens to officially declare they had no current need of burial, thank you very much. It would seem no one knew the American tourist. Or was he a European visitor? Or was he an Australian from Victoria as some would insist based on “distinctive” features? Others claimed he had worked for the Russians. “A spy”, they whispered, wishing for it to not be true.
An anonymous man comes forward, police releasing only the maddening detail that the witness was a “professional of his craft”. He parts with a Rubaiyat, the rare print from which the scrap was shorn. It was tossed into the back of his unlocked car, he claimed, prior to the body’s discovery all those months ago. The pieces are a perfect match. Interestingly enough indentions are discovered, impressions located towards the back of the script. Equally of note, a pair of phone numbers would provide more direct leads while a hurried chicken-scratch remained scrawled within its covers. To some, the random consonants underscored by angles and frustration laid apparent were indicators enough of a drunken, possibly disturbed, mind. But for years to come this supposed code would be treated as one of the most confounding pieces of an ever-taxing puzzle. And this mystery was just warming up.
Try your hand at code-breaking, but remember to disengage eventually.
It’s worth noting that between the coordinated efforts of the United Kingdom, Australia, and the USA, the special project of Venona (its 13th secret name) successfully translated only 3,000 some-odd messages of the hundreds of thousands intercepted during the mid to late ’40s (and even those were due to Russian error). This is the equivalent of about 2,000 enemy messages sent a month, perhaps 35 a day world-wide and 97% of them went unimpeded, un-decrypted. Still these daunting statistics don’t stop modern analysts from throwing the refined book of code-breaking at the now-infamous page of scribbles which resist verifiable proof to this day.
Why do you sense uncertainty in that paragraph? Well, it’s because there are hundreds of theories on what the page literally means, none yielding concrete answers beyond hypothesis. “Were his own cigarettes poisoned?”, “Was an assassin on his heels?”, “Of what importance was both ‘Tamam Shud’ and the limited edition of Persian poetry?” “Were these lines used for encryption or was it an unsuccessful decryption, someone sending our dead man one final note?” “Had this note even belonged to him?”
A suicide scrawl could have been penned in personal shorthand, MLIABOAIAQC becoming “My Life Is All But Over And I Am Quite Calm”, while more “sophisticated” studies utilized the ABAB patterns as poetic underpinnings of sentence structure, a fundamental arrangement that made sense in context. The infrequency of common letters did not go un-noticed nor did the uneven distribution of character height, stray marks, and the distinct impression that the author had overwritten a mistake. Regardless, this beacon for brazen novices and professional institutions, alike, proves that theories are all well and good but a meaning, any meaning, will be eventually conjured through commensurate efforts towards closure. Several blacklights and military inquests later, armchair philosophers generally agree only that these strings represent a tragic end which befell the Somerton Man, the melancholy air of yearning clouded heavily around his passing, almost like that of a spurned lover.
Stacked 3 corpses deep, the Somerton Man would uncomfortably RIP.
Turns out, there was more to this sequence of scratches…. and even a woman at the heart of these events.
Back in 1950 police followed up on the phone numbers, one dialing a bank while the other pointed investigators towards a young nurse in training, whose dodgy interviews revealed at least three sets of aliases throughout the separate questionings. “Jestyn”, as she would be commonly called for years to come, sold her tale as a theatric gypsy in nearly fainting, an action that belied her stated indifference to the stark-white cast of a dead man’s shroud. She didn’t know him, she said, but the Rubaiyat –formerly- held in her possession had been given to a suitor as a parting gift, one Alf Boxall. She plead anonymity as it would apparently bring dishonor for her business-oriented husband, associations with murder being too unseemly for 1948. Only her mother knew the truth: “Jestyn” wouldn’t be married for another year since “Prestige Johnson” (an additional alias for protection) wouldn’t be fully divorced from his ex-wife for some time.
But that detail gets us nowhere at the moment; at last, we have a positive identification! It was a great lead indeed, a cause for celebration. Except that there were two problems: 1) Alf Boxall was very much alive and 2) he presented police with his own copy of the rare publishing this one with a signed sketch of Jestyn, her favorite poem from the Rubaiyat hand-written into one of its initial margins.
“Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore—but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring,
My thread-bare Penitence a-pieces tore.”
We know not what repentance the novice actress swore but it is evident that her homestreet paved the path between the victim’s bus arrival and his final resting place propped uncomfortably against a seawall. Mr. Alf Boxall would later give interview to an ABC documentary in 1978, verifying his own employment in the intelligence field but denied that a spy story fabricated from these cloak-and-dagger trappings was even remotely plausible. He grits teeth at the camera choking out a meted statement about his brief romance with Jestyn, how there was no possibility she knew of his history with American Intelligence…. “unless someone told her”, he said, sparks of life draining from his withered visage with each passing second.
A timeline was starting to come together.
Of interest, however, are the events actually encircling this moment of Adelaide’s turgid history. Not only would sensitive information be banned from Australian grasp during the ensuing years but Woomera, a nearby town, was revealed to house a secret missile-launching site and intelligence gathering capabilities…. certainly a prime target for spies beyond the iron curtain. More peculiar, this wasn’t the first death to involve the Rubaiyat at all. Joseph Marshall had been poisoned three years prior, an open copy of the tome sitting atop his chest in a park near Adelaide. Even more perplexing, his particular version (seventh in a series) had never been published by its firm in London and a woman whom testified at his inquest was found naked in a bath, wrists slit open.
So what does it all mean?
After a two day obsession in mulling these circumstances I now staunchly believe that “Jestyn”, Alf Boxall, and the Somerton Man knew and possibly worked together as Allied spies. In this period of Soviet infiltration however, I think it quite possible that Britain’s H. C. Reynolds (an uncanny sailor ID from the victim’s youth, discovered in an attic) defected, shared sensitive information regarding a nearby missile facility and, upon discovering his own exposure, fled via rail. Doubt crept the darkened hallways of his mind.
At some point he may have deemed it futility, settling for one last visit to a romantic partner. In checking his bags and leaving the station, Reynolds is glimpsed by an assassin from a juxtaposing hotel (a syringe is later discovered by cleaning crew) and he gains a tail on his way to Jestyn’s. Just before a subsequent bus ride across town, Reynolds ditches the codebook in some random unlocked car, jaunting the rest of the way to his former associate after tucking a scrap of last words into a hidden pants pocket. Jestyn feeds him, loves him, and sends him on his way, aware of his betrayal and the inevitable. Who knows? She might have even ousted him in their previous meetings, hence the Repentance. Injected with digitalis, a poison accessible enough to go un-named by authorities, the Somerton Man stumbles his way to the beach and slowly dies in a reflective position, dismissed as a hapless drunk for several days.
In that aftermath, I believe Project Venona recognized Australia’s compromised security, dead-locking the flow of Intelligence and rendering Jestyn’s counter-spy capabilities moot (she’s linked to two Rubaiyat deaths afterall) and prompting her to marry her businessman in actuality. Her only job from that point forward would be to keep quiet about the warped judicious system for covert agents as well as pretend that her new son wasn’t born out of wedlock to a passing fling as she continued to lay flowers on a nameless grave. Her son would grow to have the same statistically improbable ears as the Somerton Man and Alf Boxall likely maintained civilian life to the best of his ability, along with the ghosts of unrequited love.
This whole thing is so strange that it would eventually be resurrected by modern theorists, though it was Alf Boxall and Prestige Johnson’s fate to die in the same year: 1995, closely followed by Jestyn and her son, whom passed only two years apart.
And what about the book of codes that thousands have failed to unravel even with the pursuant advances of computing power, crypto-analyst efforts, and collective knowledge? Why, it disappeared from police custody within the year of course, all other belongings intentionally burned 8 years later! Assumedly, the allied spies left the victim’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Australian hands as bait before deciding its intended recipient wouldn’t risk exposure, finally collecting it after several months…. but that (like much of these last paragraphs) is just personal conjecture.
With so many souls working fervently to crack the code, to shatter the mystery, one would think that a mass-produced, poorly-lit photocopy would eventually yield answers, even in absence of the original. Isn’t it a matter of time before we figure it out, anyways?
Unfortunately, my response to that would be in the negative. If micro-writing, a spy advent from before the World War, could be overlooked in the randomness of an “encoded” document, it’d be too tiny to see without the source material. We’d be left with but blurry guesses in the haze of extraneous pencil smears.
If this image on the right looks at all plausible to you, there is only one phrase to suit this case:
Tamam Shud. It is finished.
For more on the microwriting aspect and other fantastically mysterious details, check out this blogger’s high-res images and articles: http://tamamshud.blogspot.com.au/