The curious case of the Somerton Man (+ update september 2022!)

Someone walking along Somerton beach in Adelaide in December 1948 found a man slumped against a seawall. They first thought he must be asleep, but he was very still. Too still. The police were alerted and started an investigation. They found the man lying with his head resting against the wall, with his legs stretched out and his feet crossed. He looked like he was sleeping.

The man was dressed in a suit and tie. An unlit sigaret was found tucked behind his right ear and another half-smoked sigaret was lying on his coat. His pockets contained a used bus ticket from Adelaide to St. Leonards (Glenelg), an unused train ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach, a aluminum comb (thought to be American), a half-eaten pack of Juicy Fruit gum, a packet of Army Club filled with Kensiats brand sigarets and a Bryant & May matchbox. Nothing else was found that could point to the man’s identity.

A police photo of the Somerton man

The night before a couple saw a man in the same location moving an arm, and another couple didn’t see him move, but did think his positioning changed. Both couples assumed the man was asleep or very drunk.

The autopsy showed that the man was in great physical condition. The pathologist, John Burton Cleland, described the man as of ‘Britisher’ appearance and between 40-45 years old. His hands were not calloused and his toes were wedge shaped, like a dancer or when wearing boots with pointed toes. His calf muscles were highly developed, also like a ballet dancer. All the labels in his clothes were removed and he was not wearing a hat. His dental records did not match any in the system. The pathologist concluded after the autopsy ‘I am quite convinced the death could not have been natural … the poison I suggested was a barbiturate or a soluble hypnotic‘. The body was embalmed on the 10th of December after they had failed to identify him and find his next of kin.

In January of 1949, staff found a brown suitcase in the station’s cloakroom that had not been picked up by it’s owner. It had been checked in on the 30th of November, which led the police to believe the Somerton man might be this lost owner. The case contained a red dressing gown, red pair of slippers, pajamas, underpants (4 pair), a shaving kit, brown pair of trousers, a screwdriver, a table knife altered to be short and sharp, scissors with sharpened points and a stenciling brush. A thread card with orange thread was also found, the brand Barbour wasn’t available in Australia at the time. Police had seen this thread before. It was used to repair a hole in the pocket of the trousers the dead man had been wearing. All the tags had been removed, again, but now the name T. Keane was found on a tie and a laundry bag. Police believed this name could have been left on purpose (to confuse the investigation) or by accident. No-one named T. Keane or Keane was found to be missing.

A inquest by the coroner Thomas Cleland concluded that seeing as the mans shoes were very clean, he was murdered elsewhere and the crime scene at Somerton had been staged. This also explained why no vomit had been found at the scene. However, this did not align with the sightings of the man moving around on the night of the 30th of November. Cleland suggested that the witnesses might have seen someone else. The witnesses denied this, claiming the dead man was the man they saw. Cleland, the coroner, stated ‘I would be prepared to find that he died from poison, that the poison was probably a glucoside and that it was not accidentally administered; but I cannot say whether it was administered by the deceased himself or by some other person‘. After this inquest a plaster cast was made of the man’s head and he was buried in Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery.

The gravestone of the Somerton man

At the time of the inquest, a tiny piece of paper was found in the pocket that was sewn closed. The words ‘ Tamán Shud’ were printed on it. After investigation by police, it was found to mean end or finished and was printed on the last page of a book called ‘Rubaiyat’ by Omar Khayyam. A photo of this piece of paper was released to the public. Miraculously, a man came forward with an 1941 edition of a translation of the Rubaiyat. How this man, that remains unidentified, found this book is unclear. The most common story is that the man found the book in his unlocked parked car (which was parked in Glenelg, the town the used bus ticket was to). Tests showed that the piece of paper was ripped out of this copy of the Rubaiyat. The back of the book showed lines, as if someone had written on a piece of paper on top of it. Police thought these lines represented some kind of code. Code experts were asked to decipher it, but were unsuccesful.

The text in the back of the book ‘ Rubaiyat’

The back of the book also contained a phone number, belonging to Jessica Thomson, ‘Jo’. She lived in Moseley, Glenelg, about 400 meters (1300 ft) from where the Somerton man was found on the beach.

Jessica stated she did not know the man and why he would have her phone number. She then asked police to not record her name, as she was a nurse and it would be detrimental to her reputation to be associated with such a case. Jessica also made a statement that she once owned a copy of the ‘Rubaiyat’ book , and had given it to an Army lieutenant Alf Boxall during the Second World War in 1945. Jessica moved to Melbourne and married after that. She stated that she received one letter from Boxall to which she only replied that she was now married.

The police suspected that Boxall might be the Somerton man. However, when they found Boxall alive and well in Sydney in 1949, his copy of the ‘Rubaiyat’ was complete, including the last page. On the front page Jessica had signed her name and written out a verse.

The copy of the Rubaiyat Jessica gave to Boxall

During the years, people have thought the Somerton man to be a spy. He was found just after World War II ended, the circumstances of his death are very suspicious and he remained unidentified.

In 2009, Professor Derek Abbott and his team tried to solve the case through DNA and by attempting to crack the code in the back of the book. They found that the autopsy files of 1948-49 are missing and that most of the physical evidence, like the suitcase, has been destroyed. A professor of anatomy (of the University of Adelaide) looked at images of the Somerton man. He concluded that the man’s ears are of a rare genetic variant in Caucasian people (seen in only 1-2%). Also, dentists found that the Somerton man had hypodontia, a genetic disorder that leads to missing teeth.

Abbott suspected that Jessica did know the Somerton man. On a photo of Jessica’s children, it can be clearly seen that her oldest son, Robin, has the genetic disorders of both the ears and teeth. The chances that that is coincidental are very slim.

Jessica had died in 2007. Her daughter Kate told the tv-show ’60 minutes’ that her mother confessed to her that she did know the Somerton man. She suggested that her mother taught English to immigrants and spoke Russian, but would not tell Kate how she learned it. Kate thought both her mother and the Somerton man might have been spies. Robin Thomson, Jessica’s eldest son, was a ballet dancer… He unfortunately died in 2009 and was cremated.

Robin’s widow Roma and their daughter Rachel were also interviewed on ’60 minutes’. They believed the Somerton man was Robin’s father, as he shared some striking physical characteristics with him. Rachel and her mother wanted the remains of the Somerton man exhumed, so that they could test his DNA. In April 2021 it was confirmed by police that the Somerton man’s body will be exhumed so that DNA testing can be tried. Derek Abbott, the professor who started a reinvestigation of this case in 2009, said: ‘I knew it would happen one day. It’s an enduring mystery here in South Australia. The public wants to know who this man was. He also has a family somewhere missing him from their family tree and they have a right to know. There are so many weird twists and turns in this case — so many unlikely things keep happening.’

So many weird twist and turns indeed. When Derek Abbott finally met Rachel Egan, the woman who he thought was the Somerton man’s granddaughter, they fell in love. They married 4 months after they met, and since then have had three children. So his investigation into the Somerton’s man is now… a family affair?

I will update when there is news after the Somerton man is exhumed and DNA tests are done. What do you think, is Robin’s father the Somerton man?

Update sept 2022: The Somerton man has been identified by DNA analysis! Scientists used hairs caught in the death mask made before the burial of the unidentified body to make a DNA profile. This profile was then used to construct a family tree. After a lot of research, scientist found that the DNA from the death mask could only belong to Carl (Charles) Webb, an electrical engineer from Melbourne. And other evidence matched also. His sister was married to Thomas Keane, which connects to the clothing from the suitcase of the Somerton man that was labeled with T. Keane. One question has now been answered, but the rest remain: What was Carl Webb doing in Adelaide? What happened to him? Was he murdered? Maybe one day we will get answers to these questions too, what do you think?


  6. Sept 2022: