The Rubaiyat, First Whitcombe and Tombs Edition.
In December 1948 an unidentified man dressed in a shirt and tie was found dead on Somerton beach in Adelaide, Australia. He carried no identification, his dental records matched no known person, and all of the labels on his clothes were missing. An inquest determined that the man’s death could not have been natural, and though no foreign substances were detected, pathologists were led to suspect poison.
Around the time of the inquest, a secret pocket was found in the man’s trousers, containing a small scrap of paper. On one side, it was blank. On the other, the words “Taman Shud” were printed. This phrase, translating to “ended” or “finished,” appears on the last page of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
The Somerton Man's Cipher
Following an unsuccessful search for a copy of the Rubaiyat with pages blank on the reverse side, a photograph of the scrap was released to the public. A man subsequently came forth with a rare first edition of the book, translated by Edward Fitzgerald and published by Whitcombe and Tombs in New Zealand. He had found it in the back seat of his unlocked car on November 30, 1948, but had been unaware of its significance. The words “Taman Shud” were missing from the last page, and five lines of capital letters were written in faint pencil on the back of the book. Code experts were called in to analyse these letters, but were unable to descry their meaning.
Though police were ultimately unable to solve the mystery of the Somerton man, researchers have remained interested in the so-called Taman Shud case ever since. Recent efforts to crack the code have suggested the possibility that it represents a one-time pad encryption algorithm; a type of substitution cipher that is impossible to break without access to a unique key. Given that the code matches the quatrain format of the Rubaiyat, a strong possibility is that the book itself was the “one-time pad” necessary to decipher the message. The original copy, however, has since been lost by police.
In this case, all that would be required to crack the code would be a copy of the Whitcombe and Tombs first edition of the Rubaiyat…so, have you got one? It was a rare edition in 1948, and over 60 years later, researchers have been hard pressed to find another, but a copy is bound to be gathering dust in some old lady’s attic somewhere. If you are this old lady, Professor Derek Abbott would like to hear from you.