The Intriguing Mystery of the Somerton Man

May 7, 2024

The location where the Somerton Man was found in Adelaide, Australia

In the early morning of December 1, 1948, the well-dressed body of a man was found lying against a seawall on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia. No one knew who the man was or how he died. The unidentified body became known as the Somerton Man, and it took 73 years for there to be a plausible explanation of who he was.

On the night of November 30, 1948, two separate couples walking on Somerton Beach saw a man lying on the sand. They dismissed him as either being drunk or sleeping, and it wasn’t until the following day when the Adelaide Police arrived after getting calls there was possibly a dead man on the beach.

The police found that the deceased man on the beach was well-dressed in a suit and tie and between 40 and 50 years old. In his pockets were some matches, a used bus ticket, an unused train ticket, chewing gum, two combs, and a pack of cigarettes. He had no wallet, cash, or identification anywhere on his body. The examiner at the Royal Adelaide Hospital put the time of death at no earlier than 2 AM. He concluded that the man’s death was likely due to heart failure, but he also suspected the cause could be poisoning.

A month later, police found a suitcase at the Adelaide Railway Station that they believed belonged to the man since an orange spool of thread in the suitcase matched orange stitches from a repair to the man’s clothing. The suitcase contained an assortment of items such as a screwdriver, shaving brush, shoe polish, scissors, and apparel with variants of the letter and word “T. Keane.” Some items of clothing were missing tags altogether. A tailor assessed the clothing and determined it had been made in the United States.

The next big clue appeared in May 1949. A pathologist was reexamining the man’s body and found a rolled piece of torn paper in one of his pockets. It had the phrase “Tamám Shud” on it, which was Persian and meant, “it’s finished.” The words were traced to a 12th-century book of Persian poetry called The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

SomertonmanActual tamam shud
The torn piece of paper with the Persian phrase

In July 1949, a man in Adelaide brought a copy of the Persian poetry book to the authorities. He discovered it in the back of his car around the time the Somerton Man had been found on the beach. He had no idea how the book got into his car. On the book’s final page was a torn section, which matched perfectly with the torn scrap of paper the pathologist had found in the man’s pocket.

The book had written annotations, some writing suspected as a code, and a phone number in tiny handwriting. The phone number led police to a house only about five minutes away from the beach where the body had been found. 

A 27-year-old woman answered and denied knowing anything about the man. The woman told police she was married, but later investigations revealed she hadn’t married until 1950. The woman also said she was a nurse, but later findings showed she had not completed her final nursing exams because she had become pregnant.

The Somerton Man Code

Police took the woman to see the death mask of the man since the funeral had already taken place, and she was “completely taken aback” and “about to faint” after seeing the mask, according to Adelaide Detective Sergeant Lionel Leane. Police also noted that she stared at the floor during the interview without looking at the bust. The woman admitted, however, that she had given a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man during the war, whose name was Alfred Boxall.

The police thought they had discovered the identity of the unknown man and found his home in Maroubra, New South Wales. But the problem was Boxall was still alive and still had a copy of the Rubaiyat the woman had given him years before. The book was intact and had an inscription from the nurse in it.

For some reason, investigators dropped any other investigation relating to the woman and agreed not to reveal her identity to the press. The press began referring to her using the pseudonym “Jestyn.” In 2013, the woman’s daughter revealed “Jestyn” had the name Jessica “Jo” Thomson, who had died in 2007.

Theories swirled for 73 years about who the Somerton Man was and what the writings and items meant. One theory was that the Somerton Man was a Russian spy, but no objective evidence existed to back this up, as cryptographers surmised that the letters seen as code were not, in fact, a code of any sort. Another theory was that he was a former professional ballet dancer due to the coroner’s comments about the man’s well-developed calf muscles, which were associated with ballet dancers.

Though this last theory may have seemed far-fetched, it did have some connection. The son of Jessica “Jo” Thomson, Robin, was born in 1946, and his ears and teeth closely resembled those of the unknown man. Robin, who died in 2009, had been a dancer for the Australian Ballet Company, and it was theorized that Robin was the Somerton Man’s son. Thomson might not have identified him because she was having a relationship with another man that she would later marry and didn’t want to admit that this was her child’s father based on that.

It wasn’t until 2022 that the best evidence of who the Somerton Man was came to light. Derek Abbott, a University of Adelaide electronic engineer and physicist, and Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist specializing in DNA used for cold cases, conducted a DNA test using hairs embedded in the Somerton Man’s death mask.

They put the DNA into a genealogical research database called GEDmatch, and after finding a match to a distant cousin, they made a family tree consisting of around 4,000 people. From there, they were able to use archival data to find biographies similar to what they knew about the Somerton Man.

They traced the DNA to a mother and father who had children. When they checked the children, only one did not have a documented death. His name was Carl “Charles” Webb, a man born in 1905 who later became an electrical engineer and lived in Melbourne, Australia. Webb disappeared from any public records in April 1947, the year he left his wife. His wife began divorce proceedings three years after he died in 1951, citing desertion as the reason.

Webb liked writing poetry, reading, and betting on horse races. Investigators surmised that the letters thought to be code were merely the names of horses he was betting on or wanted to bet on. Webb had a sister in Melbourne who was married to a man named Thomas Keane, so it appears likely that the name “T. Keane” found in the suitcase referred to his brother-in-law.

Webb also had a brother who died as a prisoner of war during World War II, and when the pictures were compared with what Webb looked like, they bore a resemblance. The DNA did rule out one thing, the theory of Robin being the Somerton Man’s son. The DNA survey showed no genetic link between the two people, so Robin was not Webb’s son.

Many more questions have been unanswered and appear to be unanswerable. No one knows why Webb was at Somerton Beach, the actual cause of his death, if he committed suicide or was murdered, or if he was having health issues. And no one knows what his connection to Thomson was or if there was any connection. One of the saddest questions is why no one noticed he was missing and why no one told the police he had disappeared. But these seemingly impossible questions haven’t stopped researchers from continuing to investigate this fascinating mystery.

Another interesting aspect of the investigation was that Abbott, who partnered with Fitzpatrick to have the DNA tests done and had been researching the Somerton Man for over two decades, met his wife, Rachel Egan, because of the cold case.

After learning that Thomson had died in 2007 and her son, Robin, had died in 2009, Abbott began trying to find Robin’s living descendants. He found his granddaughter, who happened to be Egan, whom he would marry. She had no idea who her grandfather was at the time because she had been adopted as a child and lived in New Zealand, knowing nothing of her link to the mystery of the Somerton Man.

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine (1), CNN, Huffington Post, Smithsonian Magazine (2), The Guardian, BBC , Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Adelaide City Explorer

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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