Tamam Shud

A colleague has just returned from Australia where she came across an intriguing little mystery. She was told that this was a case of espionage. We have concluded that it was not, but it is interesting nonetheless. It shows the way that people believe that spies work – and how wrong they usually are.

At approximately 0630 on 1 December 1948, the body of a man was found on Somerton beach near Glenelg about 7 miles from Adelaide in Australia. He was lying down, leaning against a low wall. He had been seen the previous evening and at one stage had been seen to raise and then limply drop a hand (at approx 7pm). He was seen later than this, although not moving. People assumed that he was drunk or asleep. He was aged 45-50, about 5’1” tall, with sandy hair and he was smartly dressed in a jacket and tie. But who was he?

The only items on his person were an aluminium comb, a pack of chewing gum, a train ticket from Adelaide to the beach, a pack of Army Club cigarettes containing seven cigarettes of a different brand and a quarter full box of matches. It was reported that one unlit cigarette was found resting on his lapel suggesting that he was in the process of lighting it when he expired. There was no money, no wallet and no identification papers. The stitching of the suit and the direction of the stripes on the tie suggested that the clothes may have been American. His shoes had been recently cleaned. He had well developed calves, his toes were compressed and soft hands which suggested he may have been a ballet dancer or in some profession that produces these traits.

Six weeks later, on 14 January 1949, a suitcase was discovered in the left luggage office at Adelaide railway station. It had been checked in at 1100 on 30 Nov. There were more clothes (with the name Keane), an electrician’s screwdriver, a table knife cut down to a smaller knife, a pair of scissors and a piece of zinc (a soft foldable metal) which it was believed was used to wrap the points of the scissors and the knife while travelling. There was also a brush, believed to be a stencilling brush such as might be used to paint the letters on boxes of cargo. Orange thread in the case matched that used to repair a pocket of the trousers of the dead man. Checking the schedules, police believed that the man must have arrived on an overnight train from Sydney, Melbourne or Port Augusta. No one with the name Keane had been reported missing.

Four months later, in a fob watch pocket sewn into the pocket (or waistband) of his trousers, a rolled up scrap of paper was found. It had been torn from a book and contained two words “Tamam Shud” which are the last words of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It means “it is finished” or “the end”.

After a police appeal, in July 1949, the book was produced by a man who lived near Somerton beach and said that he had found it in the rear footwell of his car. He assumed someone had thrown it in through the open rear window as they passed by. Tests proved that it was indeed the book from which the scrap had been torn. Exactly when he had found the book has since become unclear as records have been lost, but it was believed to be about the time the body was found.

Examination of the rear inside cover of the book revealed indentations from where someone had rested another piece of paper while they were writing. There was a telephone number and five lines of letters (one ruled out, or possibly badly underlined):


MLIAOI (this line was crossed out)




The telephone number proved to be that of Jessica Ellen Thomson (nee Harkness). She lived in Moseley Street, only about 400m from where the body was found. For a moment it seemed they had identified the body when she admitted that she had given a copy of the Rubaiyat in August 1945 to an army lieutenant named Arthur Boxall just before he was due to go overseas and before she met her current husband. But Boxhall was soon found: he was alive and he still had his copy of the book.

More telling was when she was shown a cast of the dead man’s face. The person who made the cast recalls that she was visibly shocked and feels sure that she knew him even though she said that she didn’t. Detective Sergeant Lionel Leane who was present said that “she was completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint.” Her daughter in a TV programme in 2013 said that her mother had told her that she had indeed known the identity of the man and that it would be “known to a higher level that the local police force”. Her son Robin bore a strong resemblance to the dead man and analysis has since shown that Robin shared certain very rare physical traits with the dead man such as ear dimensions. Several journalists who interviewed her subsequently have felt that she was hiding something about the identity of the man.

Australian Naval Intelligence opinion was that the “code” was in fact an acrostic (first letters providing an aide memoire). It is speculated that the writer was trying to create a passage in similar verse form to the Rubaiyat.

The manner of death was at first thought mysterious, but at the inquest, the coroner suggested from the condition of the organs that death was by poison, probably digitalis which was freely available from pharmacies in those days. Time of death was estimated to be about 2 am. – although this was based on rigor and is likely to have been inaccurate.

To us as spies, the solution seems pretty clear: With no money, (not even spare change was found), second hand, badly repaired clothes and “borrowed” cigarettes, he was clearly down on his luck. But his shoes were very recently cleaned suggesting that he was hoping to impress someone with his appearance. The man was clearly a sensitive and artistic type (from his calves, his possession of the book, and the final dramatic piece torn from it). The dead man had probably travelled to see Mrs Thomson. She had clearly taken lovers before, Boxhall being one example. During the war she worked in Sydney (where she was born) at the Royal North Shore Hospital. Nurses were probably propositioned all the time. The dead man was possibly hoping to see his son (Robin was 16 months old in December 1948 (born July 1947) and would have been conceived c. Oct 1946. He died in 2009. When Thomson met her husband is unclear – it appears to have been late 1946. She changed her name in early 1947, but they could not get married because he was not then divorced. Either that or the dead man learned that day that he had a son that she would not allow him to see. She rejected him, probably because she was now married. He then bought digitalis, threw away all his papers because he was a suicide (so as not to bring shame to his family), but also possibly because it appealed to his romantic nature to die anonymously. As he walked to the beach he tore out the final words of the Rubaiyat and tossed the book into a parked car as he passed. He lay on the beach, took the digitalis, smoked a few cigarettes and watched the ocean as he waited to die.

So why the intelligence connection?

1) People thought the labels had been cut out of the clothes, an old intelligence trick, but in fact it was the old name tags, not the labels. This was just after the war and clothes rationing was still in effect. Cutting the labels out of second hand clothes was quite common. In the suitcase the labels had also been cut out of clothes except for two that read T. Keane and one that just said Kean (without the e). Police speculated that these might have been left in as they were not the real name of the corpse and he wished to confuse people who came looking after his death – or he just hadn’t got round to it.

2) The writing at the back of the book: early reports said that these were in invisible ink. In fact they were indentations left from someone using the inside back cover as a rest.

3) The writing appeared to be code. In fact the best theory was that these were an acrostic, first letters of words written as an aide memoire. This would make the letters indecipherable without further information.

4) It was a time of heightened international tension as the Cold War got underway and there was a lot of interest in spying. In 1949, ASIO was established because of the perceived Russian espionage threat. There are several intelligence facilities “nearby” to Glenelg eg the nuclear testing grounds at Woomera.

5) Alfred Boxhall worked in Special Forces during the war and Jessica Thomson’s daughter believed that her mother knew at least some Russian. But Boxhall was sure that Thomson never knew of his intelligence connection. It appears to be one of those coincidences that life throws up if you look hard enough. Many people served in such work during the war. Boxhall was in the North Australian Observer Unit (NAOU), a reconnaissance unit that protected the wild northern coastal areas of Australia.

6) Once the police issued an appeal, it became a well-known mystery. People love a mystery. By 1953, mre than 250 people had been “identified” as the missing man. Details became confused and false details were added as people retold the story. And spies often taken the blame – even for a suicide.

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