On December 1, 1948, a man’s body was found on a beach in Australia. He carried no identification. He was dressed in a suit with all the labels deliberately cut off, suggesting that someone was trying to obfuscate his identity. Early attempts to determine who he was were unsuccessful, as dental records resulted in no matches, and his personal items — cigarettes, a pack of Juicy Fruit, and some change — were otherwise not unique to him. Not knowing who the man was, how he got to the beach, or how he died, officials turned to an autopsy. The results were consistent with poisoning, as examiners found congestion throughout the brain and body, blood in the man’s stomach and liver, an extremely enlarged spleen, etc. Clear cut poisoning — except that no poisons were found in the man’s system.
The police managed to come up with a few possible identities, each eventually proven wrong. (At one point, police determined that the body was that of one E.C. Johnson — only to have the real Mr. Johnson walk into the police station a few days later.) By mid-January of 1949, the case had gone cold. But then, officials hit pay dirt. A suitcase, checked into a nearby train station the night the mystery man died, turned up. Again, all labels were removed — except for a few which ascribed ownership to a “T. Kean[e],” spelled in various ways (e.g. “Kean” or “T. Keane”). A sailor by the name of Thomas Keane had recently gone missing, but those who knew him stated that the body could not be his. Again the trail had gone cold.
And then — then! — things got weird.
In the summer of 1949, inspectors found a concealed pocket inside the man’s trousers. In the pocket was a piece of paper, which read “Tamam Shud,” which means “ending” in Persian. (The actual phrase is “Taman Shud,” but in transliteration, the “n” became a second “m.”) Officials from the public library identified the paper as coming from a version of a collection of poetry called The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. After circulating copies of the piece of paper (and the name of the book it came from) in the press, the police gained what they hoped would be a key clue: the book from which the paper came. The relevant copy of The Rubaiyat was in the back seat of an unlocked car the night before the mystery man’s death. On the back was a cipher, pictured above. In the front was a phone number.
The phone number belonged to a former nurse who, being recently married and now the mother of a toddler, requested that she be spared the embarrassment of being associated with a murder, and that her name not be disclosed. Incredibly, the police agreed. She claimed that, four years earlier, she gave the book to a man named Albert Boxall. Police, convinced that the mystery man was Boxall, were thrown for another loop in the weeks upcoming. Not only did the police find the real Mr. Boxall, alive and well, but he provided them with the copy of The Rubaiyat give to him by the unnamed nurse — with the phrase “Tamam Shud” still intact.
To date, the identity of the mystery man remains unknown, as does the meaning, if any, of the cipher. Even the cause of death is not certain. Researchers are still enamored with the case and there are current attempts to crack it. In fact, new research has determined one thing to be almost certainly true: the mystery man was the father of the unnamed nurse’s (illegitimate) son.
From the Archives: Mystery Tome: The story of a book apparently written in another language — that is, other than all the ones we collectively as people understand.
Related: A book on uncracked codes and ciphers.