Saturday, November 28, 2015

New Proposals on the Tamam Shud Case, by Keith Massey, PhD

New Proposals on the Tamam Shud Case

by Keith Massey, PhD

The unsolved mystery known as the Tamam Shud Case has been an enduring enigma for over 65 years. It involves a man found dead on a beach in Australia and an undeciphered code message. In this video I will describe this case and, as a former Intelligence Officer with the National Security Agency, offer a proposal for a partial decipherment of the secret message.

On December 1st, 1948, the dead body of an adult white male was found on Somerton beach near Glenelg, about seven miles southwest of Adelaide, South Australia. An autopsy concluded that the man may have died from poison, but it was impossible to conclude whether it was suicide or murder.

Strangely, a rolled-up piece of paper was found tucked into a small pocket of his pants. This piece of paper bore the words “Tamam Shud.” Tamam Shud is Persian for “The End.” The phrase is positioned at the end of Omar Khayyam’s work the Rubaiyat. And the piece of paper found on the body of the deceased was determined to have been torn out of a copy of that book.

Authorities desperate to identify the man publicized his photo and the Tamam Shud discovery. All attempts at identifying the man have failed.

The mystery only deepened when a man in Glenelg handed in to authorities a copy of Khayyam’s Rubaiyat that he said he found on the back seat of his unlocked car. And it turned out to be the very copy from which the Tamam Shud in the man’s pocket had been torn out. Also written in the back of the book were an unlisted phone number (X3239) and five lines of seemingly random capital letters, which seemed to be some type of a code, generally transcribed as the following:






The phone number in the book belonged to a woman living just 400 meters north of the spot where the body was found. When authorities interviewed her and showed her a plaster cast of the dead man, she denied any knowledge of the man or why her phone number was in his book.

She did admit that, during WWII, she had given a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man named Alfred Boxall. After she had married, Boxall contacted her, presumably to explore whether they could rekindle their relationship. She had rebuffed him and asked the investigating authorities to not publicly connect her to the Tamam Shud Case since she did not want her husband to know about her previous connection to Boxall or the current unidentified man.

Authorities assumed that the dead man was the Alfred Boxall she had named, but then, a year later, they actually located Alfred Boxall, who was alive and well and living in Sydney. And he even still had that copy of the Rubaiyat the woman had given him, with the Tamam Shud page fully intact.

The case essentially ended there, since there was no evidence that she was involved in the death of the mystery man, apart from the seemingly strange coincidence of her phone number being in his book and the same book being once given to another man.

The woman interviewed in connection to this case died in 2007. In 2013, descendants of that woman were interviewed by the Australian edition of the program 60 Minutes. They indicated their belief that Jessica Thomson, as they identified her, did know the deceased mystery man. And they suggest the two may even have been involved in espionage together.

Preliminary Conclusions

It cannot be a coincidence that a woman who admitted she gave a copy of the Rubaiyat to one man, then has another man show up dead on a beach near her house connected to a different copy of the Rubaiyat, with her unlisted phone number in that book. As her descendents apparently are now revealing, she clearly did know who the man was. The most likely scenario is that she herself had given the mystery man that book, just as she had once given a copy to Boxall.

And I believe that, even if the two were involved in espionage together, the facts of this case—a book shared between lovers and a woman trying to prevent her current husband from learning of her previous connections to other men—make it likely that the man’s death was possibly a suicide following an attempt to reconnect with his former lover. The woman’s family even suggests that Ms. Thomson’s first son may actually have been the biological child of the mystery man himself. Some of them are attempting, so far unsuccessfully, to have bodies exhumed for DNA testing to explore that possibility.

The Mysterious Message

Australian cryptographer Capt. Eric Nave concluded in 1949 that the message in question was consistent with an acrostic, meaning that these are the first letters of words forming sentences, presumably in English. I agree with that assessment.

Let’s look at the message itself. A top line of letters was written, presumably first. Then the encoder began writing a second line.  Based on the second line’s shortness relative to the others and the fact that there seems to be a line drawn through it, he seems to have wanted to delete this line.

Notice, when the encoder resumes the message, it is not the deleted line that is next attempted. The similarities between lines two and four are undeniable. But before returning to the deleted line, the encoder writes a new line altogether.

There is an important similarity between lines one and three—they both begin with the letter W. I suggest that the encoder, by scratching out line two, is actually completely starting the whole message over at line three.

Remember that this is a message written in a copy of the Rubaiyat. Therefore, I assert that in line one the R stands for Rubaiyat. And in line three the TB stands for the book or this book.  The encoder may have replaced line one because, like line two, he realized after the fact that it was perhaps poorly worded or even contained errors. If that’s the case, then efforts to tease out much more than Rubaiyat from line one may be a waste of energy.

Many people attempting to decipher this message have worked from the assumption that it is a suicide note. But it doesn’t seem to me likely that someone would encode a suicide note in a book, let alone then toss that book in the back seat of someone’s car, with no expectation that the message would ever even be connected back to the deceased.

It seems probable to me that the “suicide note” was in plain text and on the person of the deceased. The suicide note was the rolled up piece of paper with Taman Shud on it. Remember, Tamam Shud means “The End.”

And so I suggest that the message in the book is neither a suicide note nor is it even really an encoded message. I propose that the mystery man was actually composing a short statement he intended to convey to someone orally. The capital letters of the message would serve as a memory aid to practice that short speech a few times before then delivering it in person. It would seem reasonable that the mystery man who had arrived in Glenelg to visit his former lover had crafted something he wanted to say to her before then proceeding with his plan to take his life. Given the significance of that book to their past relationship, he perhaps had it with him in that planned confrontation. He may have given it back to her along with the words he practiced saying. It may even be that it was she, not he, who later threw it in the back seat of someone’s car.

The Process of Decipherment

It is impossible to arrive at an interpretation of this entire message that would convince everyone of a definitive decipherment. Even so, using sound decipherment methodology, it should be possible to find some likely values. And that is what I will attempt to perform in this video.

The relative frequencies of words that start with certain letters in English enable us to make reasonable judgments on certain words. For instance, if the message is encoding the first letters of English words, then there is a high likelihood that any instance of the letter A is encoding one of the words a, am, an, or and. By the same token, there’s always a really good chance that the letter T in the code might represent the word the. The letter I in the code should be expected to represent one of the words I, is, or in most of the time.

As for lines one and three, it is statistically probable that a W starting a sentence in English is an interrogative, such as who, what, where, when or why.

It is worth considering whether the message includes a reference to the most significant event that this copy of the Rubaiyat had experienced, namely the tearing out of the Tamam Shud.

If that is so, then the letters TS which occur consecutively in line five could stand for Tamam Shud.

Towards a Partial Decipherment

And so, I will take all that I have suggested to its natural conclusion.

I start with TS, which I will read as Tamam Shud. The letters are preceded by M. What is the Tamam Shud in that copy of the book? It is missing. And since the M is preceded by T, I propose “the missing Tamam Shud.”

If the Tamam Shud is “missing” in line five, perhaps that is also the best reading for the M in line three. I suggested earlier, based on the similarity between lines one and three that TB, in parallel to R (Rubaiyat), should be read as the book. Interpreting W as a common interrogative, I propose WTBIM to read “What the book is missing,” a reference to the torn out piece from the final page.

The rest of that line might read something like:

“What the book is missing presents a note ending the page.”

What is missing is the note, the suicide note. Ms. Thomson, knowing the Rubaiyat well as she clearly did, would understand the significance of that statement.

Many have hypothesized that the MLI in lines two and four should be interpreted as “My Life is” or “My Love is,” followed by some fitting description of one of those. In keeping with my hypothesis that the message represents something the mystery man may have intended to speak to Ms. Thomson, I interpret the ML as a term of address, with the two occurrences of IA in the line as each representing the commonly joined words I am.

And so I offer the following interpretation in keeping with words a suicidal and dejected man might say:

“My love, I am badly overwhelmed. And I am quite crushed.”

My interpretation of line four assigns statistically probable values for basic words and displays a balanced structure of two part participles, each modified by a preceding adverb. And these phrases are not novel to my interpretation. They are both are attested elsewhere prior to 1949:

I am badly overwhelmed with work.” (P. 149, The Correspondence of Edward Hincks: 1818-1849 [Dublin: 2007]).

“I have preached to my people all day for the last time as their minister. I am quite crushed.” (P. 390, Autobiography of the Rev. William Arnot … and Memoir [New York: 1878]).

Finally, to return to line five. Most transcriptions you will see of this message read the first letter of the line as an I. I am not inclined to read the pencil mark there as a letter at all. The other instances of I in the message are all a single straight line. This mark is shaped like an elongated V, similar to the mark between lines three and four.

I understood TMTS in this line as signifying “the missing Tamam Shud.” Perhaps someone else, pressing my hypothesis further could produce something convincing from the remaining letters. I am personally not inclined to produce a purely speculative series of words that might fill out the line. Instead, I am content to have offered here what I believe is a reasonable partial decipherment of this cryptic message.

It is my hope that DNA tests and further suggestions from others examining this case and message will eventually bring definitive answers to this enigmatic case.

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