The mysterious disappearance of the Bermagui Five

Late on the afternoon of Sunday, the 10th of October 1880, farm worker William Johnston was riding his horse at Mutton Fish Point, near the coastal New South Wales town of Bermagui, 100 kilometres south of Sydney, when he noticed something ‘shining’ on the rocks. He dismounted, tied his horse to a tree and walked closer, discovering that the ‘shining’ object was a fishing boat, painted green with its mast and sail lashed.

Mystery Bay
Mystery Bay, near Bermagui, where the abandoned boat was found in October 1880.

In his subsequent statutory declaration Johnston wrote:

I went over to the boat and judged from her position that she had been wrecked. I did not touch or in any way interfere with anything…..I returned to my horse and only noticed my own tracks going out to the boat. I mounted my horse and rode away. After going about 100 yards [90 metres] it struck me to look at my watch, saying to myself, ‘as this is likely to have been a drowning match they will want to know the time I found the boat’. I saw that it was about 4.20 pm.

Johnston galloped to a nearby property owned by dairy farmer Albert Read. Both men returned to the boat and inspected it more closely. It was obvious to them that the vessel had been deliberately damaged. Someone had dumped a pile of boulders, along with pillows, blankets and piles of clothing into the stern. Read reached down and retrieved a book. It was a geology text, and written in copperplate on the flyleaf was the name ‘Lamont Young’.

 

Tall, bearded Lamont Henry Young was a 29 year old geological surveyor with the NSW Department of Mines. He was highly thought of by his colleagues, both for his considerable expertise and his modest demeanour. In October 1880 Lamont’s superiors instructed him to survey the newly-discovered goldfields north of Bermagui with a field assistant named Maximilan Schneider, who had recently arrived from Germany. Young and Schneider reached the goldfields on the 8th of October, and after pitching their tent, introduced themselves to Senior Constable John Berry, officer in charge of the police camp at the diggings. The three men lunched together, and then Schneider excused himself, saying that he was returning to the tent. He was never seen again.

Young spent the rest of the day examining the goldfields, and accepted an invitation from Berry to go fishing the next day. Young started the long walk back to his camp. Peter Egstrom, owner of a sly grog store, noticed Young near the local lagoon, walking towards Bermagui Heads. He a miner named Henderson spotted him again, shortly afterwards – the last time anyone was known to have seen Young, alive or dead.

On the morning of the 11th of October, Berry and Read, accompanied by goldfields warden Henry Keightley, examined the abandoned fishing boat. A second book signed by Young was found among the garbage. Why had Young been aboard the vessel? Who were his companions? And more to the point, where were all of them now?

Keightley noticed that someone had vomited copiously in the stern. Feeling sick, he ordered Berry to continue the examination of the boat. Berry produced a minutely detailed inventory of the boat’s contents, which included a pocket compass, several sacks of potatoes and pipe and coat belonging to Schneider, the other missing man.

Police determined that the boat belonged to a Thomas Towers, who two days earlier had set sail from his home at Bateman’s Bay, approximately 100 kilometres up the coast. He and his companions William Lloyd and Daniel Casey had intended to fish off Bermagui, and sell their catch, along with the sacks of potatoes to the goldminers.

In a report to his superiors, Keightley stated that there was nothing to suggest that anything of a unusual nature had taken place on board. There were no blood marks nor any sign of a struggle. A bullet had been found in the boat, but it had been used as a sinker for a fishing line. Senior Constable Berry was unable to continue the investigation, as he fell ill with a fever and vomiting. When he returned to duty nine days later he was told that the remains of a campfire and meal had been found close to the wrecked boat.

Keightley offered a reward of 10 pounds for the recovery of Young’s body, while the Metropolitan Police in London offered a 300 pound reward for information relating Young, Schneider and the boatmen Casey, Towers and Lloyd. Police, Mines Department staff and volunteers conducted an extensive land and see search for the five missing men – but found nothing.

Reward 2
The 300 pound reward notice issued by the Metropolitan Police of London.

A journalist writing in the Sydney Morning Herald described the whole affair as ‘a puzzle enshrouded in an enigma’ – adding,

‘I cannot conceive of any motive to account for the horrible suspicion that they were murdered …. But how could the murders (assuming they existed) have known where the men were to land – unless they were murdered by the first party they met? …. The idea is so dreadful and the motive so unintelligible that I cannot yet entertain it.”

Young’s father Major General CB Young wrote to the NSW Under-Secretary of Mines on the 31st of December:

‘The universal conclusion of all parties in this country is that the five men could not have drowned or been murdered without leaving some trace behind. I earnestly beg of you, my dear sir …. to take up this line, to see what the Governments, Imperial and local, have done in this direction, to look for the bodies.”

 

Young also raised suspicions about Schneider, his son’s assistant:

What sort of person and of what character was Mr Schneider? Where does he come from in Germany and to whom was he known in England?”

With the official searches and investigations appearing to have run into a brick wall, members of the public weighed in with their own investigations, searches and theories as to how the five men had disappeared. One man, William Tait, visited police headquarters and claimed that Lamont Young had spoken to him on the 13th of November, more than a month after the disappearance. Tait, a self-styled spiritualist, claimed that Young had appeared to him as a ghost, and revealed that he and his companions were murdered by three men who asked them for matches to light their pipes. After beating the five victims to death with oars, the killers buried the bodies in a deep hole near a black stump, about 50 metres above the high water mark, covering the makeshift grave with boulders. Police mounted a search, but found no black stump nor a cairn of boulders.

More promising to detectives was a small blue bottle, filled with a mysterious liquid, recovered from a saddlebag in the boat. There was speculation that the liquid may have been an exotic poison, but tests shows that it was the balm, oil of copaiva.

On the 11th of March 1885 the Melbourne Argus reported that Young’s bloodstained coat, ridden with bullet holes, had been found near Bermagui. Unfortunately for the Argus, the ‘report’ was a practical joke, and the paper was forced to make an embarrassing retraction.

On the 22nd of August 1888 the Bega Gazette announced that it had uncovered vital new evidence:

Though the police authorities have kept the matter a secret, it has transpired that during the past two months the police have had under surveillance a person suspected of complicity in the Bermagui murder, but that he has escaped their clutches. It appears that some time ago a man who is said to have lived with a woman near the scene of the alleged murder, came to Sydney and married a barmaid employed in one of the leading hotels. Shortly after their marriage, he gave way to drink and on several occasions uttered remarks which led his wife to believe he was concerned in the murder of Lamont Young and his companions. The detective police got wind of the affair and kept the suspect person under surveillance for several days. All at once, however he disappeared …. The barmaid has since returned to her situation in the hotel from which she was married and expresses herself as willing to aid the authorities in bringing the supposed murderer to the police.

Bega police checked with their colleagues in Sydney. There was no barmaid, nor a drunken husband who had confessed to the murder – just the writings of an imaginative journalist.

To this day, there is still no definitive proof of what happened to the five men, not has there been a credible explanation found for the abandoned boat and its contents. The inlet where the boat was found was renamed Mystery Bay. A park and road is named after Lamont Young, while a monument was erected in 1980 to commemorate what is still one of the most mysterious and unexplained disappearances in Australian history.

Mystery-Bay-Sapphire-Coast-Commemorative-Plaque
The memorial plaque erected in 1980, the 100th anniversary of the disappearance.

The source for this blog post is “The Five Missing Men of Bermagui”, by John Pinkney, from his book “Unsolved – Unexplained – Unknown: Great Australian Mysteries”, Five Mile Press, Rowville Vic, 2004, pp. 269-281.

 

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The mystery of Room 1046

Those of you who are followers of this blog should know that I have an interest in the unusual, bizarre and the unexplained. One event that fits all of these categories, as well as being chilling and scary, is what happened in the room of a hotel in Kansas City in early 1935.

Here is a newspaper account from the Newcastle Sun of the 22nd of May 1943, of the murder that took place in Room 1046 of the Hotel President, and the unusual events that took place both before and after the grisly death of Roland T Owen.

Mystery Murder in Room 1046

Too many clues spoil the broth! So the police of Kansas City, Mo., might have parodied the old adage on that morning, some eight years ago, when the curtain rose on one of the strangest murder mysteries in the annals of American crime.

At 7 a.m. on January 4, 1935. the switchboard operator of the Hotel President prepared to call Room 1046 in accordance with instructions left by the occupant, who had registered on New Year’s  Day as Roland T Owen, Los Angeles, Cal.  As she picked up the plug, the red light over 1046 blinked on. Indicating that Mr. Owen had removed the receiver from the hook, presumably to inform her he was already awake. But no response to her repeated “good mornings” came from the other end of the line. Perhaps Mr. Owen had inadvertently knocked the receiver from its cradle in his sleep, she thought, and despatched a bellboy. In answer to his knock a gruff voice responded, and the boy returned downstairs.

At 8.30 the phone in 1046 was again off the hook. Discovering the door locked-from the outside-the bellhop entered with a passkey. The blinds were drawn, the room dark; and he was surprised to see the shadowy, nude form of Owen sprawled on the bed, face to the wall. The bell boy, believing Owen intoxicated, replaced the phone which had fallen from its stand, and tiptoed out. At 11.15 the same thing was repeated. This time the bed was empty. The bellboy raised a blind-and froze. A chair was overturned. The telephone sprawled on the floor. The bedclothes were in a rumpus, and everywhere-on sheets, pillows, wall- were crimson stains. Blood! The bathroom door was ajar. Seated on the edge of the tub was a stalwart figure, stripped, clung with scarlet hands to the wash stand. Shoulders, chest, abdomen were slashed and bleeding.  The back of his head was crushed; his throat was gashed: blood pumped from a stab wound above his heart. House doctor and detective, summoned by the bellboy’s walls, found Owen still conscious. The detective knelt over him. ‘Who did this. Mr. Owen?’ ‘Nobody.’ he whispered. ‘What happened?’ ‘I fell against the bathtub,’ he mumbled, and collapsed. He died 18 hours later without regaining consciousness. Meantime a police squad, rushed to the hotel: discovered that not a single article of Owen’s remained in the room. His clothing, travelling kit, toothbrush, everything was gone. The door key, too, was missing. The telephone and a broken tumbler yielded smudged fingerprints-apparently a woman’s.  They could not be traced. Guests in an adjoining room reported hearing visitors in 1046 around midnight. The voices indicated two couples, they thought, and about 2 a.m. a quarrel developed. Then at 4 a.m. there was a sound like drunken snoring. The night elevator man recalled taking up to the tenth floor a woman who inquired for 1046. A half-hour later she’d descended to the lobby. An hour after that she returned with a man and went up to the ninth  floor. This couple departed the hotel around 4 a.m. So did a gentleman carrying a Gladstone bag.

The inquest established that Owen had been attacked about 4 a.m., but the identity or involvement of the nocturnal visitors could not be determined.  His slayers had tortured Owen cruelly. Why? And why had he refused to name them? And who was Owen? Los Angeles authorities, advised of the murder, were unable to find any records of such an individual. A maid in the hotel said that on the afternoon of the 2nd (Wednesday) she had entered 1046 and found Owen sitting with the shades drawn, in semi-darkness. ‘Leave the door unlocked. I’m expecting a friend.’ he told her, and walked out looking worried. Returning later with fresh linen she found him lying on the bed in the still darkened room. The following morning she found the door locked from the outside, and let herself in with a pass key to make up the bed. To her surprise there sat Owen, fully dressed, in the dark. He told her to go ahead with her work.  Presently the phone rang and she heard Owen say. ‘No, Don I’ve had my breakfast. I don’t care to go out.’   Obviously, then, Owen was being held a prisoner. And in a situation in which he did not dare attempt escape or appeal for help. On March 3, 1935 the local papers carried an announcement that Owen’s body was to be buried in potter’s field.

Hardly was this story on the  street when the phone rang in one of the city’s editorial rooms. ‘You have a story in your paper that is wrong,’ a woman’s voice said. ‘Roland Owen will not be buried in a pauper’s grave. Arrangements have been made for his funeral.’ ‘Who are you?’ queried the startled editor. ‘Who’s calling? ”Never mind. I know what I’m talking about.’ ‘What happened to Owen at the hotel?’ ”He got into a jam,’ was the laconic answer, punctuated by the receiver’s click. Meantime: ‘Don’t bury Owen in a pauper’s grave.’ a man’s voice instructed McGilley’s undertaking parlors. ‘I want you to bury him in Memorial Park Cemetery. Then he will be near my sister. I’ll send funds to cover the funeral expenses.

‘Who is this? I’ll have to report this to the police.’   ‘That’s all right, Mr. McGilley,” the undertaker was assured.   In answer to another question the voice explained that Owen had jilted a girl he’d promised to marry— the speaker had witnessed the jilting— the three had held a little meeting at the President Hotel. ‘Cheaters usually get what’s coming to them!’ he exclaimed, and hung up. A little while later the telephone rang in the office of the Rock Floral Company. ‘I want 13 American Beauty roses sent to Roland Owen’s funeral.’ the anonymous caller said. ‘I’m doing this for my sister. I’ll send you a five-dollar bill, special delivery.’ None of these phone-booth calls could be traced. Neither could the subsequent letter to McGllley’s mortuary— its address carefully printed by pen and ruler. Enclosed was 25 dollars. A similar missive with money reached the florist. Inside was a card, its handwriting obviously disguised, to go with the flowers: ‘Leave for East. — Louise.’ These melodramatic developments, tauntingly brazen, drove the Kansas City authorities to new furies of endeavor. A love vendetta seemed evident. Louise was the jilted. Owen, supposedly faithless, had been decoyed into a trap and vengefully slain. Detectives serving as pall bearers guarded the funeral. Others, disguised as grave diggers, watched the cemetery for days. But nothing happened.

Two years went by-then in November 1936. Mrs. L. E. Ogletree, of Birmingham, Ala., saw a resume of the case published in ‘The American Weekly,’ with ‘Owen’s’ photograph. Mrs. Ogletree was shocked to recognise the portrait. The scar-result of a childhood burn. The features-stalwart build. No doubt about it. ‘Ronald Owen’ was Artemus Ogeltree-her son! Early in 1934, Artemus, then a 17-year-old high-school student, had started to hitch-hike to California, she said. Ample funds were sent him while he was apparently enjoying his holiday. Then, early in 1935, Mrs. Ogle tree had received a typewritten letter, signed ‘Artemus,’ queerly slangy and unfamiliar, postmarked Chicago. In May, from New York, came a second note, telling her Artemus was going to Europe, followed immediately by a special delivery saying he was sailing that day. The letters seemed spurious-Artemus had never before used a typewriter-and Mrs. Ogletree was suspicious, and worried. Then, on August 12, 1935, she received a long-distance call from Memphis, Tenn. A man who gave his name as Jordan and explained that her son had once saved his life, said that Artemus was in Cairo, Egypt, and well. He called later to tell her Artemus had married a wealthy woman in Cairo and was unable to write because he’d lost a thumb in a bar-room brawl. The speaker sounded irrational. Mrs. Ogletree sent her son’s photograph to the Kansas City police. Sergeant Howland identified the youth at once. And the grim fact was immediately evident-Mrs. Ogletree had received mysterious phone calls and typewritten letters after Artemus was dead. Was the purpose of this cruel deception to further cloak the slain youth’s identity? Perpetrator of letters and calls has never been found. The mystery of Room 1046 is still unsolved.”

I originally was made aware of the story of Room 1046 through this blog entry on the Strange Company blog, which has some further details. One detail from this account is how Owen was found wandering the street and hitched a ride to a cab rank. If he was in such mortal danger, why didn’t he just flee Kansas City and go somewhere else?

It looks like the murder in Room 1046 will never be solved.

 

 

 

 

 

Numbers stations

Back in the early 1980’s, I had a radio receiver which had the usual AM and FM bands, but also had shortwave frequencies. I remember extending the aerial as far as it would go, and then twiddling the dial to see what stations I could pick up. There were stations from major broadcasting bodies, such as the BBC World Service, NHK from Japan, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle from Germany, plus services from many other smaller bodies as well. The brodacasting frequencies were very crowded, so you would have no trouble finding stations.

As I started to find out more about shortwave radio, I began to read about references to “numbers stations”. These stations are one of the great mysteries of shortwave radio. While they can be easily picked up and listened to, no-one is still 100% sure what their purpose is, and who runs them. I don’t remember listening to any of them as a teenager, as I wasn’t aware of their existence.

Here is a video of an excellent BBC Radio 4 documentary from 2005 about the strange, secretive and disturbing world of the “numbers stations”.

Somerton Man – the enduring Australian mystery

I have always had an interest in unexplained mysteries, and one of my favourite mysteries is also one of the most enduring. Here is the story of the Somerton Man, or the Taman Shud mystery.

At 7 o’clock on the warm evening of Tuesday, November 30, 1948, jeweler John Bain Lyons and his wife went for a stroll on Somerton Beach, a seaside resort a few miles south of Adelaide. As they walked toward Glenelg, they noticed a smartly dressed man lying on the sand, his head propped against a sea wall. He was lolling about 20 yards from them, legs outstretched, feet crossed. As the couple watched, the man extended his right arm upward, then let it fall back to the ground. Lyons thought he might be making a drunken attempt to smoke a cigarette.

Half an hour later, another couple noticed the same man lying in the same position. Looking on him from above, the woman could see that he was immaculately dressed in a suit, with smart new shoes polished to a mirror shine—odd clothing for the beach. He was motionless, his left arm splayed out on the sand. The couple decided that he was simply asleep, his face surrounded by mosquitoes. “He must be dead to the world not to notice them,” the boyfriend joked.

It was not until next morning that it became obvious that the man was not so much dead to the world as actually dead. John Lyons returned from a morning swim to find some people clustered at the seawall where he had seen his “drunk” the previous evening. Walking over, he saw a figure slumped in much the same position, head resting on the seawall, feet crossed. Now, though, the body was cold. There were no marks of any sort of violence. A half-smoked cigarette was lying on the man’s collar, as though it had fallen from his mouth.

The body reached the Royal Adelaide Hospital three hours later. There Dr. John Barkley Bennett put the time of death at no earlier than 2 a.m., noted the likely cause of death as heart failure, and added that he suspected poisoning. The contents of the man’s pockets were spread out on a table: tickets from Adelaide to the beach, a pack of chewing gum, some matches, two combs and a pack of Army Club cigarettes containing seven cigarettes of another, more expensive brand called Kensitas. There was no wallet and no cash, and no ID. None of the man’s clothes bore any name tags—indeed, in all but one case the maker’s label had been carefully snipped away. One trouser pocket had been neatly repaired with an unusual variety of orange thread.

By the time a full autopsy was carried out a day later, the police had already exhausted their best leads as to the dead man’s identity, and the results of the postmortem did little to enlighten them. It revealed that the corpse’s pupils were “smaller” than normal and “unusual,” that a dribble of spittle had run down the side of the man’s mouth as he lay, and that “he was probably unable to swallow it.” His spleen, meanwhile, “was strikingly large and firm, about three times normal size,” and the liver was distended with congested blood.

In the man’s stomach, pathologist John Dwyer found the remains of his last meal—a pasty—and a further quantity of blood. That too suggested poisoning, though there was nothing to show that the poison had been in the food. Now the dead man’s peculiar behavior on the beach—slumping in a suit, raising and dropping his right arm—seemed less like drunkenness than it did a lethal dose of something taking slow effect. But repeated tests on both blood and organs by an expert chemist failed to reveal the faintest trace of a poison. “I was astounded that he found nothing,” Dwyer admitted at the inquest. In fact, no cause of death was found.

The body displayed other peculiarities. The dead man’s calf muscles were high and very well developed; although in his late 40s, he had the legs of an athlete. His toes, meanwhile, were oddly wedge-shaped. One expert who gave evidence at the inquest noted:

I have not seen the tendency of calf muscle so pronounced as in this case…. His feet were rather striking, suggesting—this is my own assumption—that he had been in the habit of wearing high-heeled and pointed shoes.

Perhaps, another expert witness hazarded, the dead man had been a ballet dancer?

All this left the Adelaide coroner, Thomas Cleland, with a real puzzle on his hands. The only practical solution, he was informed by an eminent professor, Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks, was that a very rare poison had been used—one that “decomposed very early after death,” leaving no trace. The only poisons capable of this were so dangerous and deadly that Hicks would not say their names aloud in open court. Instead, he passed Cleland a scrap of paper on which he had written the names of two possible candidates: digitalis and strophanthin. Hicks suspected the latter. Strophanthin is a rareglycoside derived from the seeds of some African plants. Historically, it was used by a little-known Somali tribe to poison arrows.

More baffled than ever now, the police continued their investigation. A full set of fingerprints was taken and circulated throughout Australia—and then throughout the English-speaking world. No one could identify them. People from all over Adelaide were escorted to the mortuary in the hope they could give the corpse a name. Some thought they knew the man from photos published in the newspapers, others were the distraught relatives of missing persons. Not one recognized the body.

By January 11, the South Australia police had investigated and dismissed pretty much every lead they had. The investigation was now widened in an attempt to locate any abandoned personal possessions, perhaps left luggage, that might suggest that the dead man had come from out of state. This meant checking every hotel, dry cleaner, lost property office and railway station for miles around. But it did produce results. On the 12th, detectives sent to the main railway station in Adelaide were shown a brown suitcase that had been deposited in the cloakroom there on November 30.

The suitcase left by the dead man at Adelaide Station – with some of its perplexing contents

The staff could remember nothing about the owner, and the case’s contents were not much more revealing. The case did contain a reel of orange thread identical to that used to repair the dead man’s trousers, but painstaking care had been applied to remove practically every trace of the owner’s identity. The case bore no stickers or markings, and a label had been torn off from one side. The tags were missing from all but three items of the clothing inside; these bore the name “Kean” or “T. Keane,” but it proved impossible to trace anyone of that name, and the police concluded–an Adelaide newspaper reported–that someone “had purposely left them on, knowing that the dead man’s name was not ‘Kean’ or ‘Keane.’ “

The remainder of the contents were equally inscrutable. There was a stencil kit of the sort “used by the Third Officer on merchant ships responsible for the stenciling of cargo”; a table knife with the haft cut down; and a coat stitched using a feather stitch unknown in Australia. A tailor identified the stitchwork as American in origin, suggesting that the coat, and perhaps its wearer, had traveled during the war years. But searches of shipping and immigration records from across the country again produced no likely leads.

The police had brought in another expert, John Cleland, emeritus professor of pathology at the University of Adelaide, to re-examine the corpse and the dead man’s possessions. In April, four months after the discovery of the body, Cleland’s search produced a final piece of evidence—one that would prove to be the most baffling of all. Cleland discovered a small pocket sewn into the waistband of the dead man’s trousers. Previous examiners had missed it, and several accounts of the case have referred to it as a “secret pocket,” but it seems to have been intended to hold a fob watch. Inside, tightly rolled, was a minute scrap of paper, which, opened up, proved to contain two words, typeset in an elaborate printed script. The phrase read “Tamám Shud.”

The scrap of paper discovered in a concealed pocket in the dead man’s trousers. ‘Tamám shud’ is a Persian phrase; it means ‘It is ended.’ The words had been torn from a rare New Zealand edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Frank Kennedy, the police reporter for the AdelaideAdvertiser, recognized the words as Persian, and telephoned the police to suggest they obtain a copy of a book of poetry—the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. This work, written in the twelfth century, had become popular in Australia during the war years in a much-loved translation by Edward FitzGerald. It existed in numerous editions, but the usual intricate police enquiries to libraries, publishers and bookshops failed to find one that matched the fancy type. At least it was possible, however, to say that the words “Tamám shud” (or “Taman shud,” as several newspapers misprinted it—a mistake perpetuated ever since) did come from Khayyam’s romantic reflections on life and mortality. They were, in fact, the last words in most English translations— not surprisingly, because the phrase means “It is ended.”

Taken at face value, this new clue suggested that the death might be a case of suicide; in fact, the South Australia police never did turn their “missing person” enquiries into a full-blown murder investigation. But the discovery took them no closer to identifying the dead man, and in the meantime his body had begun to decompose. Arrangements were made for a burial, but—conscious that they were disposing of one of the few pieces of evidence they had—the police first had the corpse embalmed, and a cast taken of the head and upper torso. After that, the body  was buried, sealed under concrete in a plot of dry ground specifically chosen in case it became necessary to exhume it. As late as 1978, flowers would be found at odd intervals on the grave, but no one could ascertain who had left them there, or why.

In July, fully eight months after the investigation had begun, the search for the right Rubaiyat produced results. On the 23rd, a Glenelg man walked into the Detective Office in Adelaide with a copy of the book and a strange story. Early the previous December, just after the discovery of the unknown body, he had gone for a drive with his brother-in-law in a car he kept parked a few hundred yards from Somerton Beach. The brother-in-law had found a copy of the Rubaiyat lying on the floor by the rear seats. Each man had silently assumed it belonged to the other, and the book had sat in the glove compartment ever since. Alerted by a newspaper article about the search, the two men had gone back to take a closer look. They found that part of the final page had been torn out, together with Khayyam’s final words. They went to the police.

The dead man’s copy of the Rubaiyat, from a contemporary press photo. No other copy of the book matching this one has ever been located.

Detective Sergeant Lionel Leane took a close look at the book. Almost at once he found a telephone number penciled on the rear cover; using a magnifying glass, he dimly made out the faint impression of some other letters, written in capitals underneath. Here, at last, was a solid clue to go on.

The phone number was unlisted, but it proved to belong to a young n

urse who lived near Somerton Beach. Like the two Glenelg men, she has never been publicly identified—the South Australia police of 1949 were disappointingly willing to protect witnesses embarrassed to be linked to the case—and she is now known only by her nickname, Jestyn. Reluctantly, it seemed (perhaps because she was living with the man who would become her husband), the nurse admitted that she had indeed presented a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man she had known during the war. She gave the detectives his name: Alfred Boxall.

At last the police felt confident that they had solved the mystery. Boxall, surely, was the Unknown Man. Within days they traced his home to Maroubra, New South Wales.

The problem was that Boxall turned out to be still alive, and he still had the copy of the Rubaiyat Jestyn had given him. It bore the nurse’s inscription, but was completely intact. The scrap of paper hidden in the dead man’s pocket must have come from somewhere else.

It might have helped if the South Australia police had felt able to question Jestyn closely, but it is clear that they did not. The gentle probing that the nurse received did yield some intriguing bits of information; interviewed again, she recalled that some time the previous year—she could not be certain of the date—she had come home to be told by neighbors than an unknown man had called and asked for her. And, confronted with the cast of the dead man’s face, Jestyn seemed “completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance she was about to faint,” Leane said. She seemed to recognize the man, yet firmly denied that he was anyone she knew.

The code revealed by examination of the dead man’s Rubaiyat under ultraviolet light. (Click to see it at a larger size.) It has yet to be cracked.

That left the faint impression Sergeant Leane had noticed in the Glenelg Rubaiyat. Examined under ultraviolet light, five lines of jumbled letters could be seen, the second of which had been crossed out. The first three were separated from the last two by a pair of straight lines with an ‘x’ written over them. It seemed that they were some sort of code.

Breaking a code from only a small fragment of text is exceedingly difficult, but the police did their best. They sent the message to Naval Intelligence, home to the finest cipher experts in Australia, and allowed the message to be published in the press. This produced a frenzy of amateur codebreaking, almost all of it worthless, and a message from the Navy concluding that the code appeared unbreakable:

From the manner in which the lines have been represented as being set out in the original, it is evident that the end of each line indicates a break in sense.

There is an insufficient number of letters for definite conclusions to be based on analysis, but the indications together with the acceptance of the above breaks in sense indicate, in so far as can be seen, that the letters do not constitute any kind of simple cipher or code.

The frequency of the occurrence of letters, whilst inconclusive, corresponds more favourably with the table of frequencies of initial letters of words in English than with any other table; accordingly a reasonable explanation would be that the lines are the initial letters of words of a verse of poetry or such like.

And there, to all intents and purposes, the mystery rested. The Australian police never cracked the code or identified the unknown man. Jestyn died a few years ago without revealing why she had seemed likely to faint when confronted with a likeness of the dead man’s face. And when the South Australia coroner published the final results of his investigation in 1958, his report concluded with the admission:

I am unable to say who the deceased was… I am unable to say how he died or what was the cause of death.

In recent years, though, the Tamám Shud case has begun to attract new attention. Amateur sleuths have probed at the loose ends left by the police, solving one or two minor mysteries but often creating new ones in their stead. And two especially persistent investigators—retired Australian policeman Gerry Feltus, author of the only book yet published on the case, and Professor Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide—have made particularly useful progress. Both freely admit they have not solved mystery—but let’s close by looking briefly at the remaining puzzles and leading theories.

First, the man’s identity remains unknown. It is generally presumed that he was known to Jestyn, and may well have been the man who called at her apartment, but even if he was not, the nurse’s shocked response when confronted with the body cast was telling. Might the solution be found in her activities during World War II? Was she in the habit of presenting men friends with copies of the Rubaiyat, and, if so, might the dead man have been a former boyfriend, or more, whom she did not wish to confess to knowing? Abbott’s researches certainly suggest as much, for he has traced Jestyn’s identity and discovered that she had a son. Minute analysis of the surviving photos of the Unknown Man and Jestyn’s child reveals intriguing similarities. Might the dead man have been the father of the son? If so, could he have killed himself when told he could not see them?

Those who argue against this theory point to the cause of the man’s death. How credible is it, they say, that someone would commit suicide by dosing himself with a poison of real rarity? Digitalis, and even strophanthin, can be had from pharmacies, but never off the shelf—both poisons are muscle relaxants used to treat heart disease. The apparently exotic nature of the death suggests, to these theorists, that the Unknown Man was possibly a spy. Alfred Boxall had worked in intelligence during the war, and the Unknown Man died, after all, at the onset of the Cold War, and at a time when the British rocket testing facility at Woomera, a few hundred miles from Adelaide, was one of the most secret bases in the world. It has even been suggested that poison was administered to him via his tobacco. Might this explain the mystery of why his Army Club pack contained seven Kensitas cigarettes?

Far-fetched as this seems, there are two more genuinely odd things about the mystery of Tamám Shud that point away from anything so mundane as suicide.

The first is the apparent impossibility of locating an exact duplicate of the Rubaiyat handed in to the police in July 1949. Exhaustive enquiries by Gerry Feltus at last tracked down a near-identical version, with the same cover, published by a New Zealand bookstore chain named Whitcombe & Tombs. But it was published in a squarer format.

Add to that one of Derek Abbott’s leads, and the puzzle gets yet more peculiar. Abbott has discovered that at least one other man died in Australia after the war with a copy of Khayyam’s poems close by him. This man’s name was George Marshall, he was a Jewish immigrant from Singapore, and his copy of the Rubaiyat was published in London by Methuen— a seventh edition.

So far, so not especially peculiar. But inquiries to the publisher, and to libraries around the world, suggest that there were never more than five editions of Methuen’s Rubaiyat—which means that Marshall’s seventh edition was as nonexistent as the Unknown Man’s Whitcombe & Tombs appears to be. Might the books not have been books at all, but disguised spy gear of some sort—say one-time code pads?

Which brings us to the final mystery. Going through the police file on the case, Gerry Feltus stumbled across a neglected piece of evidence: a statement, given in 1959, by a man who had been on Somerton Beach. There, on the evening that the Unknown Man expired, and walking toward the spot where his body was found, the witness (a police report stated) “saw a man carrying another on his shoulder, near the water’s edge. He could not describe the man.”

At the time, this did not seem that mysterious; the witness assumed he’d seen somebody carrying a drunken friend. Looked at in the cold light of day, though, it raises  questions. After all, none of the people who saw a man lying on the seafront earlier had noticed his face. Might he not have been the Unknown Man at all? Might the body found next morning have been the one seen on the stranger’s shoulder? And, if so, might this conceivably suggest this really was a case involving spies—and murder?

This post was taken from http://allkindsofhistory.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/tamam-shud/