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An Open and Shud Case
March 17, 2010 8:45 AM   Subscribe

If you'd like something to work on today other than your pint of Guinness, why not take a crack at "one of Australia's most profound mysteries," a sixty-two-year-old unsolved murder known as the Taman Shud case?

The Taman Shud Case, also known as the "Mystery of the Somerton Man," is an unsolved case revolving around an unidentified man found dead at 6.30am, December 1, 1948 on Somerton beach in Adelaide, Australia. Considered "one of Australia's most profound mysteries," the case has been the subject of intense speculation over the years regarding the identity of the victim, the events leading up to his death and the cause of death.

The University of Adelaide has further information: review of the case, lists of facts and misreported facts, timeline of events, and final report.

First sighted on Metafilter in this FPP
Punny title pilfered from turgid dahlia's comment.
posted by sallybrown (75 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
No thanks, I prefer Sam Adams Cream Stout.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:01 AM on March 17, 2010


This reminds me of Stephen King's not very good novel (redunant, I know) The Colorado Kid, which is a black mark on Hard Case's otherwise very good reputation and also its best selling book.
posted by dortmunder at 9:01 AM on March 17, 2010


Previously
posted by DU at 9:06 AM on March 17, 2010


D'oh.
posted by DU at 9:07 AM on March 17, 2010


I could've sworn this was a double from a few months ago, but it looks like I found it in this thread.

Interesting story, anyway.
posted by KGMoney at 9:08 AM on March 17, 2010


Theory: The nurse, 'Mrs. Thompson", has a wartime affair with Alfred Boxall, their interaction being evidenced by the gift of a poetry book, and her husband "Carl Thompsen" finds out and kills himself?
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 9:10 AM on March 17, 2010


Upon reviewing the details of this case, I come to the conclusion that the mystery man was a time traveler, and those mystery codes written on the last page of the Rubaiyat are just software anti-piracy keys that he left behind on a previous trip.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:10 AM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


well, i liked this anyway. the mystery behind this is incredible.
posted by shmegegge at 9:15 AM on March 17, 2010


Yeah, I heard about it from the "Best of Wikipedia" FPP (which is why I linked to it in my post), but I thought Taman Shud deserved its own day in the sun.
posted by sallybrown at 9:26 AM on March 17, 2010


the idea that this guy was a spy and the encoded messages were espionage communications is basically the coolest thing i have ever heard.
posted by shmegegge at 9:32 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Iocaine powder. I'd bet my life on it.
posted by norm at 9:33 AM on March 17, 2010 [11 favorites]


Derek has a problem

How appropriately enigmatic, Adelaide.
posted by steef at 9:34 AM on March 17, 2010


her husband "Carl Thompsen" finds out and kills himself?

And none of the neighbors recognized the body?

The Adelaide links aren't loading for me, so I read the Wikipedia version. Near the end it said something like "with the spy explanation becoming less likely". I don't get why that's less likely. He has a secret compartment in his pants with a code stashed inside! And he's dead from what is probably a specialist-knowledge-required poison! How can that be anything other than a hit on a spy?
posted by DU at 9:34 AM on March 17, 2010


I like the "mystery" aspect of it, especially as it would seem several people did know who this man is, but they're just weren't telling anybody.

(Oh, and the University of Adelaide links don't work for me.)
posted by Sova at 9:37 AM on March 17, 2010


The Adelaide links aren't loading

Sorry guys! Here are my Google caches of the Adelaide links: review of the case, list of facts and misrepresented facts, timeline of events, and final report.
posted by sallybrown at 9:43 AM on March 17, 2010


cache of the first Adelaide link
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 9:44 AM on March 17, 2010


mods pls delete my most recent post, thanks
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 9:45 AM on March 17, 2010


Cached links aren't working for me either. Firefox says it's waiting for adelaide....why would it be doing that when I'm talking to Google?
posted by DU at 9:47 AM on March 17, 2010


Clearly someone doesn't want this case solved.
posted by sallybrown at 9:48 AM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, could it have anything to do with my browser being Safari? My links still work for me, as does thermonuclear's.
posted by sallybrown at 9:49 AM on March 17, 2010


Timeline eventually loaded. Why doesn't Wikipedia mention the extremely relevant fact that ANOTHER Rubiyat poisoning happened near Jestyn's house a few years previously?
posted by DU at 9:53 AM on March 17, 2010


Little-known fact: "Rubaiyat" is the OSS code-word for the Necronomicon.

Ergo, this case is simply yet another XK-division hit operation aimed at preventing Shoggoth deployment by bolshevik agents.
posted by aramaic at 10:18 AM on March 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Time travel, of course.
posted by The Whelk at 10:29 AM on March 17, 2010


I love this story, thanks for this post.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:35 AM on March 17, 2010


A book... which KILLS! </Connery in Name of the Rose>
posted by steef at 10:37 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


A reminder about how one's entire life can leave no trace save a body. Reminded of the remarkable story of the missing man who fought Ali, which I also learned of via metafilter. It is a good daily practice to plant cryptic evidence on onesself, for just such an outcome as this.
posted by eccnineten at 10:38 AM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh man. I read this when the wikipedia FPP went up and I was just...riveted. Just an awesome, awesome story. I mean...secret codes? Books? Spies? Awesome.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:48 AM on March 17, 2010


So here's a guy who disappeared in New York without a trace in 1937.
Same height.
The right age (32 in 1937, 40-45 in 1948).
By the sketchy pix, there's some resemblance. Can't see the ear well enough in the 1937 pic.
Same color eyes (grey vs. blue-gray)
Plausible weight: 180 pounds in 1937, 88 kg (194 pounds) in 1948. Not unusual.
Not a match on hair color (Hurd is brown, Somerset man is "mousy ginger". Still, the Hurd info is sketchy and could be wrong.
posted by beagle at 11:08 AM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


One man's mousy ginger could easily be a less descriptive man's "brown".
posted by amethysts at 11:16 AM on March 17, 2010


Especially if it had been lightened due to sun exposure.
posted by amethysts at 11:17 AM on March 17, 2010


So here's a guy who disappeared in New York without a trace in 1937.

How did you happen to choose that guy? There's no real ability to search the site, especially for things like "would have been 40-45 in 1948".
posted by DU at 11:25 AM on March 17, 2010


Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the candlestick.
posted by schleppo at 11:42 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


DU: I think beagle just went to this page and browsed. There aren't very many pre-Shud ones on the site.
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:52 AM on March 17, 2010


Yeah, I figured that out. Some of those cases are pretty sad and weird. More than one involve a house fire that may have been set to cover a kidnapping.
posted by DU at 11:56 AM on March 17, 2010


Yes, I browsed that page.

I would add: there's no reason to think that an unidentified corpse in Australia belongs to a guy who disappeared from the face of the earth in New York. Then again, much stranger things have happened. And, Hurd's much earlier missingness would explain why Somerset man did not match anyone reported missing around the same time of his death. Guy disappears, wanders the earth for 11 years, turns up dead, and nobody misses him (assuming no real relationships formed in the meantime), plus perhaps recent arrival Down Under.
posted by beagle at 12:17 PM on March 17, 2010


He looks a little Harvey Keitel, a little Arte Johnson, a little Boris Yeltsin.

Lunatic, lonely, broke, suicide. The code doesn't have to mean anything. He could have been trying to encode or decode his life. And failing.
posted by pracowity at 12:32 PM on March 17, 2010



Colonol Mustard. Lead Pipe. Observatory.

[/that guy]
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 12:34 PM on March 17, 2010


I don't know if there's an afterlife, but if there is, I hope it has an information kiosk where you can get all the great questions like this one answered.
posted by notmydesk at 12:34 PM on March 17, 2010 [11 favorites]


Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the candlestick.

DAMN IT!

Sorry for the repeat comment, but hey, apparently repeat is cool.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 12:35 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, take the code and be biased about which letters are correct and which are redirection. A lot have some weird mark in them and the first letters seem repetitive. The ones that are left are:
RGOABABD
TBIMANETP
LIABOAIAQ
TTMTSATGA
The space between W and R in letters one and two is different than the rest so if we accept that first W is a real letter we're left with four lines of nine letters exactly:
WRGOABABD
TBIMANETP
LIABOAIAQ
TTMTSATGA
No idea where to take it from there though. The removed letters are:
MLIAOI
WP
MC
?MSB
Guessing the ? is 'I' but I'm not sure. Anyway, maybe these are the decryption key: "MLIAOIWPMCIMSB" or just "WPMCIMSB" if the crossed out line is really a mistake. Letters are repeated so it wouldn't be monoalphabetic.
posted by jwells at 12:48 PM on March 17, 2010


I don't know if there's an afterlife, but if there is, I hope it has an information kiosk where you can get all the great questions like this one answered.
posted by notmydesk


When I was a little kid (and still religious/into the whole "heaven" thing), that is EXACTLY how I imagined heaven would be.

Well, it wasn't a kiosk, it was more a library that contained every sentence ever written and the answers to every mystery or idle curiosity that I ever wondered about. If there does turn out to be a heaven, and the whatever it is that puts people there lets me in, that's still what I think it would be like.

(heaven would probably have other stuff too, not just a ginormous library, but that has to be a big part. Also dinosaurs.)
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 1:01 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


We all agree it's time-travel, but I'm pretty sure it was Harvey Keitel during an unreleased film made 20 years ago about the Taman Shud case, causing a recurring time-loop. All this has happened before and it will happen again...
posted by eperker at 1:02 PM on March 17, 2010


I love this part in the photo caption on the Wikipedia page:

"The markings are presumed to be some sort of code."

Yes. Yes. I would agree. Good presumption.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 1:03 PM on March 17, 2010


some sort of code

My money's on it being the cipher for a one-time pad, meaning that there's no way in hell we're ever going to know what it means.
posted by The White Hat at 1:10 PM on March 17, 2010


A dingo did it.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:17 PM on March 17, 2010


The swagman, by the billabong, with the didgeridoo.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:27 PM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


The minister, in the attic, with a power cable.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:47 PM on March 17, 2010


Unsolved isn't quite the right word. The police deliberately didn't follow up with the only good lead, Jestyn.

This is my understanding of what centers on Jestyn:

-In 1948 Somerton man is found dead near where she lives in Adelaide, he has a scrap of the Rubaiyat hidden in his clothes, this scrap is eventually found to be torn from a copy that has Jestyn's phone number.
-In 1945 there's a poisoning, "George" Joseph Saul Haim Marshall, thought to be a suicide, near where Jestyn was living in Sydney at the time. He has a copy of the Rubaiyat.
-Also in 1945 Jestyn gives Alf Boxall a copy of the Rubaiyat.

The police seemingly fail to investigate Jestyn and for privacy reasons do not record her name. She dies in 2007.

Unsolved it may but it sure sounds like it was solvable before 2007.
posted by 6550 at 2:28 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think I just cracked the code, but all it says is something about hardcore and softcore taters. Any ideas, anyone?
posted by shakespeherian at 2:32 PM on March 17, 2010


I would hereby like to request my pint of Guinness. I don't seem to have gotten mine.
posted by Malor at 2:33 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


"An Open and Shud Case"

Hey!
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:15 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


turgid dahlia: Pssstt.. The more inside of the post mentions she took that from you.
posted by haveanicesummer at 4:00 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's to Taman Shud man. Once more stopped THEM from immanentizing the Eschaton—and by the narrowest of margins.

Slightly more seriously: The Adelaide final report uses Markov models to test the hypothesis that the "code" is an acronym. They find that if it is, it's in English. Meanwhile, the code is in four lines of roughly equal length, about 40 symbols in all (depending which ones you omit).

Well, OK, so the Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat is a collection of English quatrains in iambic pentameter: groups of 40 syllables divided into four equal lines. I think I know what I'm training a Hidden Markov Model on tonight.

I'll report back here if any of the predictions manage to fit the rhyme scheme :-)
posted by eritain at 4:30 PM on March 17, 2010


My money's on it being the cipher for a one-time pad

While not exactly a one-time pad, the verses of The Rubiayat (taking first letters or some such of a prearranged verse number) would make a good start for a key -- especially for people coordinating over long distances in a pinch. If it were used as some sort of shared source for a key, that would at least help explain why everyone seemed to have a copy handy when near this woman...

My guess is spy-stuff.
posted by Avelwood at 4:40 PM on March 17, 2010


I think there's something charming about the fact that an anonymous corpse can still excite this childlike wonder in us.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:44 PM on March 17, 2010


Yeah, there's nothing more charmingly childlike than a corpse.
posted by DU at 5:38 PM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


You kids wanna see a dead body?
posted by The Whelk at 5:41 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can anyone help me cure my scepticism? As far as I can tell, someone just turned up with the book that linked to the scrap, which contained the "code". Doesn't this spy story ring false somehow?

What spy would put the pad in someone else's car and run off with an easily memorable section of it?

Drunk people make silly symbolic gestures. Suicidal people do similar things. There are always lots of odd details, and if you look at them long enough you'll see a pattern.
posted by howfar at 6:53 PM on March 17, 2010


The thing that really strikes me as weird and interesting is how all the identifying labels were removed from his clothes and even the suitcase that was later found. I've never heard of anything like that before. Someone went to great lengths to make this guy disappear and never be identified.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:15 PM on March 17, 2010


Pssstt.. The more inside of the post mentions she took that from you

Oh God, my valve!
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:16 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


What spy would put the pad in someone else's car and run off with an easily memorable section of it?

One who wanted to send people on a wild goose chase?

Someone went to great lengths to make this guy disappear and never be identified.

Adelaide's busiest beach - a short tram ride from the centre of town & about the liveliest residential area in the entire city - wouldn't be my choice of where to make somebody disappear. Not when you have deserts the size of Europe to hide a corpse in, not to mention ravenous crocs, sharks & dropbears.

Funny, too, that his teeth & fingerprints were intact. That also goes against the idea that his killers (if any) wanted to ensure he was never identified.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:32 PM on March 17, 2010


Someone went to great lengths to make this guy disappear and never be identified.

Instead of assuming that someone else (or some group with government backing) very sanely and carefully did all that but, for some stupid reason, made it really easy to find the body (as UbuRoivas has pointed out), you could instead assume that the guy was a nutter.

He removed all of the labels because he was nuts (or was an early No Logo fanatic). He owned (or found) a copy of a book of poetry. A guy with no money slept in someone's unlocked car. He had a book he found or was given. He played with letters. His "codes" aren't crackable because the encoder was cracked. He sat on the beach because he had no money or forgot where he was or just felt very bad. He died on the beach. No poison was found in his system because he was not poisoned. Or maybe he was poisoned, but it was something he did to himself accidentally (he ate weird things, including maybe his labels) or on purpose (suicide). Anyone mixed up with a crazy suicide -- particularly a married woman back in those days -- would be reticent to publicize that fact, and the police would be likely to sympathize with her. Or the woman, a former nurse, offered a poor crazy wandering babbling guy some help but was afraid she'd get into some sort of professional or legal trouble. You don't need to assume that there were complicated international conspiracies and cover-ups and murder and spy rings and so on.
posted by pracowity at 3:22 AM on March 18, 2010


Well, the woman had given a copy of the Rubaiyat to some guy - presumably a lover - with a risque-for-the-time verse inscribed by her within the cover.

Another guy, with his own copy of the Rubaiyat & her phone number in it, travels to her neighbourhood. You'd tend to assume similar circumstances to the first guy. He wears his sunday best to visit her, even though the weather is warm.

Only, now she's married, and the second guy's a bit of a nutter with a habit of writing his plans in acronyms. Apart from that, he belongs to the kind of subcriminal detritus that can get about more easily during & just after wartime, has no living relatives who care about his existence or whereabouts, and has gone to some effort to mess with his clothing tags to hide his dodgy identity & pretend he is somebody kosher.

Not wanting anything to do with this scumbag, she sends him on his way. He eats some poisonous flowers (or extract therof) & misses the train he had earlier planned on catching.

Like most suicides, he wants to leave some kind of note. In this case, a histrionic "tamam shud" (meaning "ended" or "finished"), torn from the book given to him by his ex-lover - also left behind to posthumously emotionally attack her.

Simple enough, to me.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:33 AM on March 18, 2010


It isn't necessarily an oversight or a sign of poor planning to have left the body in a public spot. Maybe he was meeting someone there and that someone killed him. Better to leave the body than try to lug it out to the desert or something. Or maybe they wanted to leave him there so he'd be seen and thought alive (as the couple thought) to provide an alibi or something. Or even the main theory, which is that he was poisoned (or given something poisonous) earlier and elsewhere and only expired when he got to his final location.

For instance, maybe he and Jestyn really did have a thing and it really was related to the book. But that might not have anything to do with his death. He's just a spy who was caught or became superfluous and was poisoned. Knowing he was dying, he traveled to his old lover's street one last time...
posted by DU at 4:41 AM on March 18, 2010


heh: from the University of Adelaide's cipher cracking assignment on the case:

Possible extension


If you knock off this project too easily and are looking for a harder code cracking problem to try your software out on, you can progress to analyzing another famous unsolved mystery: the Voynich Manuscript.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:50 AM on March 18, 2010


(check out the links on the Adelaide University site, too...)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:52 AM on March 18, 2010


I like that U of Adelaide included this in the budgetary expenses:

Cake for police historians so that they will talk to us - $24.95


Everyone cracks for cake. They should have given JEstyn some cake.
posted by like_neon at 6:50 AM on March 18, 2010 [7 favorites]


(he ate weird things, including maybe his labels)

Weird things maybe, but if he ate his labels I'm assuming they would have found remnants of them in his stomach during the autopsy.
posted by haveanicesummer at 9:12 AM on March 18, 2010


Like most suicides, he wants to leave some kind of note. In this case, a histrionic "tamam shud" (meaning "ended" or "finished"), torn from the book given to him by his ex-lover - also left behind to posthumously emotionally attack her.

So he sews it into a secret pocket in his clothing?? That doesn't sound very histrionic to me. Suicide notes are left to be found.

Simple enough, to me.

I don't think it's "simple enough" to anyone, hence the mystery.
posted by Avelwood at 3:13 PM on March 18, 2010


they would have found remnants of them in his stomach during the autopsy.

I didn't really mean for you to take the part about poisoning himself by eating the labels seriously. I'm just saying that a crazy or otherwise mentally diminished guy would be a good candidate for a guy who wandered around with no money or ID, cut the labels out of everything (perhaps a bit obsessively), played with nonsense secret messages, had no friends or relatives ready to come forward to identify him, left no identifying belongings behind in a room anywhere, perhaps slept in an unlocked car, plonked himself down in his good (only?) clothes on the beach, and kicked the bucket, perhaps as a suicide (wanted to die on a nice beach and make a presentable corpse?). Everything that might be a bit unlikely about that is still way simpler and more likely than international spies, code books, untraceable poisonings, etc. Anything's possible, but some things are more likely than others.
posted by pracowity at 3:26 PM on March 18, 2010


To add to what pracowity said, "tamam shud " is quite a short & pointless note for anybody but a psychotic to sew into their clothing. Like, it's so difficult to remember two words (eg a secret password), especially when you have a simple lookup to jog your memory if required: they're the final two words of the Rubaiyat. Far safer to carry a copy & flip to the final page than to risk drawing attention to the phrase by sewing it into your clothing.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:31 PM on March 18, 2010


Everything that might be a bit unlikely about that is still way simpler and more likely than international spies, code books, untraceable poisonings, etc. Anything's possible, but some things are more likely than others.
posted by pracowity


Sounds like he killed himself with OCCAM'S RAZOR!

(Please tip your waitress. Try the Veal.)
posted by haveanicesummer at 4:24 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why did the wikipedia article say that the spy theory is unlikely? Way to try to ruin the fun!
posted by Neekee at 9:19 AM on March 19, 2010


you could instead assume that the guy was a nutter

Unfortunately if you assume irrationality, everything is easy to explain or dismiss. Extrapolating from rationality is more useful.
posted by Sutekh at 9:49 PM on March 19, 2010


Fun too.
posted by The Whelk at 9:54 PM on March 19, 2010


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