Armchair Detective: The Tamam Shud case

Like many people, I love a good unsolved mystery. Don’t get me wrong, not enough to actually go and do in-depth research about them (the very thought!), but certainly enough to waste time playing Sherlock Holmes and coming up with half-baked theories about them. Actually, whilst I wouldn’t generally defend half-arsed amateur theorising based on limited knowledge in most areas of human endeavour, I do think there’s a place for it in the investigation of decades-old mysteries.

After all, the well-informed experts on solving crime – the police, forensic scientists, courts and so on – will already have tried and failed long before the amateur turns up on the scene. If they hadn’t, it wouldn’t be a decades-old mystery. More importantly, a lot of well-known mysteries tend to attract such bonkers suggestions as to their solution that, whilst an armchair detective certainly isn’t going to solve the mystery, they might at least have a shot at knocking some of the accumulated crud of bonkers suggestions off it, using no more than common sense. And that’s really what I’m trying to do here.

The mystery in question is the Tamam Shud case . No, that isn’t how Jabba the Hutt told Han Solo he might have been a good smuggler, but now he was just Bantha fodder. It’s actually Persian for “ended” or “finished”, and those were the words found on a scrap of paper torn from a book in the pocket of a man found lying dead on Somerton beach in Glenelg, near Adelaide in South Australia, on 1 December 1948, his head leaning back on the seawall.

In fact, strictly, they were in a pocket within his pocket, and despite a lot of investigation in the years since, the man has never been identified, nor his cause of death established. The doctors who did the autopsy suggested he might have been poisoned, largely because his organs appeared inflamed, but since they couldn’t establish that there was any kind of poison in the body, that seems guesswork at best and later researchers have said that there are illnesses that might create similar symptoms.

He wasn’t a local, though. From the evidence of tickets found on the body, he appeared to have turned up in Glenelg by bus the day before he was found, and in Adelaide by train on the morning of that day (although it has never been clear from exactly where in Australia he came).

Nor has anyone ever been able to work out why he was carrying an oddly-apposite quote torn from the last page The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with him when he died, although the police were able to track down the actual copy of the book that the scrap came from, which either the man or someone else had dumped in an unlocked car in a nearby road. The book’s back inside cover had faint indentations in of five lines of meaningless all-caps text that most people have concluded was some kind of code, and of the unlisted telephone number of a local, soon to be married, nurse called Jessica Ellen Thomson. Very local, in fact – she lived only 400 metres away from where the body was found.

When contacted, Thomson denied knowing the man. She continued to do so until she died a few years ago, although in a way that apparently failed to convince police officers then or years later, or independent researchers who interviewed her, or even her own daughter, that she was telling the truth.

As for the “code” – well, in spite of various attempts by professional code-breakers, no-one’s ever been able to make sense of it. Really, then, it’s the book and the evidence related to it that has led to the mystery enduring. It isn’t that unusual for unidentifiable dead people to turn up, and even for it to be impossible to work out exactly how they died (especially after they’ve been dead a while). It is unusual for such deaths to be associated with unbreakable codes, people who vehemently deny knowing the dead person and mid-Victorian romantic poetry loosely translated from Persian.

And it’s really this evidence that’s led to the theory about this case that I think even an armchair detective can knock holes in – that it was somehow connected to espionage. Who uses codes? Spies, of course! And a spy would, of course, make sure that their origins were untraceable and, if you’d been working with them, you wouldn’t want to admit you knew them. And, of course, spies always have plenty of professional enemies who’d bump them off at the drop of a hat, and probably leave an apposite poetic quote in their pocket to send a message as well. Huge drama queens, those intelligence people.

It’s at this point that I start theorising, and I start from the point of “what’s more inherently likely? That what happened here is something common, or something exotic and unusual?” It’s the former, of course. And dead spies, especially the murdered kind, are exotic and unusual.

In 1948, espionage basically meant Communist Russia and its satellites v. “the West” (including Australia). Let’s assume that the dead man was some kind of Eastern Bloc agent because (a) that seems to be what the espionage theorists think (much gets made of Jessica Thomson having “Communist leanings” and “being able to speak Russian”, points to which I will return later) and (b) openly murdering a Western intelligence agent in a Western country seems like crazily risky behaviour even for the Stalin-era KGB. So what exactly would there be for an Eastern Bloc agent to spy on in 1948 Adelaide?

Well, Australia was a Western ally, was contributing military forces to various parts of what was becoming the Cold War and was part of an intelligence-sharing agreement with the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand that still exists. On the other hand, none of that seems like something you’d particularly need to go to Adelaide to spy on, still less employ some kind of local agent there, if that it what Jessica Thomson is supposed to have been. It’s also hard to see how a nurse would have access to such secrets (and, since she had a 16-month-old son, it is not clear Thomson was even working as a nurse at the time). By the mid-1950s, the British were carrying out nuclear testing at Maralinga in South Australia. It’s still hundreds of miles from Adelaide, but the whole espionage scenario might make a bit more sense if the dead man had been found in 1956. However, he wasn’t.

You also have to ask yourself – who would kill an Eastern Bloc agent, as such? Logically, either a Western intelligence agency or his own side (if he looked like he might have betrayed them, or be about to). In the first case, you would assume that Western agents would rather have arrested the Eastern Bloc agent and anyone working with him whilst they were all in a friendly jurisdiction, to break up the spy ring and extract as much information as possible about what they’ve all been up to, rather than kill the agent (and only him) and leave his body somewhere very public in a way that was bound to attract a potentially embarrassing police investigation.

Another Eastern Bloc agent, of course, would not have the arrest option. Still, that doesn’t explain why they would leave the body in a public place, leave any evidence at all on it (even if it turned out that it was not evidence that could be used to trace the dead spy) or make sure that he was carrying a poetic message in his pocket. Who’s “tamam shud” supposed to be directed at, in this theory? Other potential traitors connected to this guy? Then why not kill them too, if you’re going down that road? And, of course, we have no cause of death for the man on the beach, and so no clear evidence he was murdered at all, by anyone.

Jessica Thomson, even if she did know the dead man, also comes across as a poor candidate for a foreign intelligence agent’s local asset. She was not in a place or a job that suggests she would have easy access to important secret information. On closer examination, her “Communist leanings” were probably more “kind of bohemian and left-leaning” and the extent to which she could actually speak Russian, or any other foreign language, is heavily disputed.

It also seems unlikely that English-speaking Russian intelligence operatives would waste time teaching their Anglophone agents to speak Russian. It would take ages, not be particularly necessary for the latter to do their jobs and potentially put the whole operation at risk, if a local agent somehow reveals to others that they can speak Russian when there is no particular reason why they should be able to.

It’s probably also worth mentioning again that Thomson’s story didn’t manage to convince various investigators, including the police at the time, which suggests she wasn’t a great liar. Personally, I would say that being a good liar is probably the number one quality you need to be any kind of spy.

Nevertheless, it does seem very likely that the man on the beach was connected to her. He had her phone number, there are the unconvincing denials from her and there is the connection with The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which was clearly an emotionally significant poem for Jessica Thomson. A few years before she had given a copy of it to a former boyfriend just before he was posted overseas on active service in the Second World War. Indeed, when they heard about this, the police suspected the body might be that of the boyfriend, until he turned up, very much alive and still with his copy of the book.

There were a number of reasons why Thomson might not have been wholly forthcoming about what was going on that have more to do with the moral constraints of the time than her involvement in espionage. It is pretty likely that her eldest son (who’s now also dead) was not the son of the man who she was then living with, Prosper Thomson. Prosper was not her husband, although she called him that, and he would soon become so in reality. His divorce was still going through (and divorce itself was less socially acceptable at the time). She also seems to have been concerned about Prosper finding out about the ex-boyfriend mentioned above (and presumably any others too). None of this would be regarded as very shocking now, but taken all together it certainly was not the way “nice girls” in the late 40s were supposed to act.

I mentioned earlier the melodramatic nature of the words on a scrap of paper in the dead man’s pocket, and whilst a murderer might leave melodramatic messages with their victims, it seems far more likely as a suicide’s gesture. Jessica Thomson clearly had men in her life before she was married, one of whom may even have been the father of her son. There’s nothing particularly improbable in the idea that one of them might have turned up at her home one day, with or without warning, been told that it was definitely over, and reacted badly enough to end his life on the spot. Disappointed lovers committing suicide are, after all, a lot more common than spies being murdered.

It has been suggested that the dead man was chronically ill anyway and simply died of natural causes on the beach, which all seems a bit coincidental to be convenient, but (a) that’s on the assumption that the message the man got was “this is definitely over, go away”, which might not have been the case and (b) given the lack of a cause of death, can’t be called impossible.

The failure to establish an identity might be explained by the dead man being a foreigner of some kind, perhaps an Allied soldier formerly stationed in Australia during the war, a migrant or refugee, or simply an orphan or someone else with few family connections and no-one who would particularly miss them. As for the code…well, no-one’s clearly ever established the writing is a code, at least of the formalised, used-by-spies, kind. If it is, it’s surprising it hasn’t been broken yet. The code used by the Zodiac murderer of late 60s California was broken fairly quickly by comparison.

It may be that the writing is some kind of entirely personal and unbreakable shorthand, rather than a code, is the meaningless product of an unstable mind or even that it got indented on the inside back cover from a previous owner using that to support a bit of paper for scrawling meaningless nonsense on. After all, the edition of The Rubaiyat in question was published in 1941, and might easily have had previous owners before the dead man.

I think what we have here is much more likely to have been a private tragedy than a Cold War thriller. As an armchair detective, I can’t tell you what it was, but I’d be very surprised if any spies were involved.

 

 

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