Mike’s Booknotes: Rubaiyat

Three people. Three Books. And a whole lot of questions.

Mike Selby

In June of 1945, a nurse gives a soldier a copy of the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ at a beach hotel in Sydney, Australia. On that same beach during the same month, another man takes his own life, and in found with a copy of the ‘Rubaiyat’ draped over his body. Three years later, an unidentified body is found on a beach in Adelaide. In the clothing is found a page ripped from yet another copy of the ‘Rubaiyat.’ When the police discover the actual book the page was ripped out of, they also found a phone number scrawled across the back cover. It is the phone number of the nurse mentioned above.

70 years later, aspects of this case continue to haunt Australians. The unidentified body remains unidentified, which has been the focus of countless documentaries, books, and even societies dedicated to solving it. Equally baffling is the book connection, which is far more interesting.

Joseph Marshall was the name of the man who sadly committed suicide on the Sydney beach in 1945. An aspiring poet, his family testified that he had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and had tried to kill himself a number of times before. The ‘Rubaiyat’ was a favourite book of his, and police notes and photographs identified it as the seventh edition published by the Methuen Press. It wasn’t until much later that someone noted the Methuen Press had only published five editions.

The name of the man whose body was found three years later on a beach in Adelaide remains unknown. It was one of the pathologists who found the torn page with the words “Tamam Shud” on it. Recognizing it as the last two words of the ‘Rubaiyat’ (Farsi for “the end” or “finished”), he told the police of his findings. Armed with the scrap of paper, a detective visits various libraries and bookstores trying to match the font and size of the letters to a specific edition of the book. He finally has luck in Adelaide’s Beck’s Bookshop, matching it to a 1941 first edition published by Whitcombe & Tombs of New Zealand.

Unable to identify the body, the police publish his photo and description asking the public for help. They also mention the edition of the ‘Rubaiyat’ they are looking for with a torn out back page. While only false leads came in regarding the body, the book itself showed up almost immediately. A man who had parked near the beach claimed that someone had thrown the book into his backseat. Not only was it the exact edition the police were looking for, but it had the “Tamad Shud” passage ripped out of it.

The book also had an Adelaide phone number written across the back, as well as a series of capital letters. The letters, which begin with MRGOBABD, has led to endless speculation that the deceased was a spy, and this was a secret code. Australia’s Royal Navy Intelligence disagreed though, stating it did not match any code pattern from the war. It is more than likely a memory aid. eThe phone number belonged to a nurse named Jessica Thompson, who lived within walking distance of where the body was found. Although she appeared to almost faint when shown a photo of the deceased, she denied any knowledge of him. After repeated questioning (the police found her evasive), she eventually admitted to giving a copy to a soldier named Alfred Boxall during the war at a Sydney hotel.

Was the deceased man Alfred Boxall? No, as Boxall himself opened the door when police went to his last known address. He also produced the copy of the ‘Rubaiyat’ Thompson had given him.

And that was that. With no identity known, and with no one claiming to know he was, the man was buried by the Salvation Army, with a headstone reading “Here Lies the Unknown Man.”

He remains unknown, although a google search of the “Tamam Shud Case” will take one down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and conjecture, most of it quite fascinating.

The book is our concern here though. The unknown man’s copy of the ‘Rubaiyat’ was reported as a first edition by the New Zealand’s publisher Whitcombe & Tombs. After 70 years of searching, no one has ever been able to locate another first edition by them anywhere on the planet. Frustratingly, the original was destroyed in 1952 during a purge of old cases when the Adelaide police changed buildings.

While it seems something fishy is going on and the book is the link to it all, it is—somewhat disappointedly—unrelated. Often overlooked is the fact that Australia was having a love affair with the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ during this time in history. Written in the 11th century by a Persian astronomer, the ‘Rubaiyat’ has an undeniable “Australianness” to it. Any history of reading and literature of Australia in the first half of the 20th century will find Omar Khayyam’s poetry to be central among all other works. The book was found at these deaths for the simple reason is that was what everyone was reading at the time.

The nonexistent editions also have a less exciting explanation. A ‘Rubaiyat’ collector in 2017 discovered that while Methuen never deposited a seventh edition with the British Library (the only way to establish copyright at the time), it did print varied miniature editions of several titles, including the ‘Rubaiyat’ which carried a “seventh edition” printed inside.

Another current researcher into the Whitcombe & Tombs archives found that company was trying to break into the sale of art books immediately after the war and had produced a whole range of ‘Rubaiyat’ editions in different sizes, inks, and covers. This was a financial failure for them, and the now missing first edition may have indeed been the only one printed.

Another reasonable theory is that either book or both were simply pirated editions, which saw a small boom during the war years. With the book mystery solved, the only thing left is the identity of the unknown man.

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