Australia Exhumes the Somerton Man, and His 70-Year Mystery


No one knows how the so-called Somerton man, found well-dressed and dead with a half-smoked cigarette on his lapel, wound up on the beach in South Australia where he was found. No one knows what he was doing there, or even how he died.

This week, after he had spent decades puzzling investigators in Australia and amateur sleuths around the world, his remains were exhumed for what might be the best chance of identifying the man in 72 years.

Called the Somerton man after the beach where he was found in December 1948, the man has proved to be one of Australia’s strangest and most famous cold cases. Should the authorities be able to extract usable DNA from his remains, they could potentially put to rest decades of speculation about whether he was a poisoned spy, a disguised black marketer, a former ballet dancer, a spurned lover or simply the victim of a natural but public death.

“For more than 70 years people have speculated who this man was and how he died,” Vickie Chapman, the attorney general of South Australia, said in a statement this week. “It’s a story that has captured the imagination of people across the state, and, indeed, across the world — but I believe that, finally, we may uncover some answers.”

Detective Superintendent Des Bray, speaking to reporters on Wednesday at the cemetery where the man had been buried since 1949, said the exhumation was part of a police operation to put names to all the unidentified remains in South Australia.

“It’s important for everybody to remember that the Somerton man’s not just a curiosity or a mystery to be solved: It’s somebody’s father, son, perhaps grandfather or uncle or brother,” he said. “There are people we know who live in Adelaide who believe they may be related, and they deserve a definitive answer.”

Like a handful of other strange mysteries of the 20th century, the case of the Somerton man has baffled investigators and drawn more than its fair share of internet sleuths, attracted by both the glaring unknowns — the cause of death, for one — and the uncanny assortment of clues that investigators did turn up.

“What makes this kind of go viral is, I think, just all the strange things,” said Derek Abbott, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Adelaide who has spent over a decade studying the case. “It kind of just gives you that creepy shiver down your spine.”

The man’s body was found slumped up against a sea wall near Adelaide, his legs crossed and his posture such that he was at first mistaken for a sleeping drunk. He wore a jacket and tie and had a partly smoked cigarette resting on his collar, with no apparent burn mark.

The tags on the clothing he wore had been cut off. His pockets held chewing gum, a box of matches, a pack of cigarettes, two combs, unused train and bus tickets, and a scrap of paper with a line of type reading “tamám shud” — “finished” in Persian.

An autopsy found an enlarged spleen and a liver in poor condition but could not determine a cause of death, factors that led to speculation of poisoning, though no trace of any poison was found. Examiners also found that the man had unusually strong calf muscles, a detail that fed theories that he had ballet training. The man also had two distinctive features: canines next to middle teeth and ears with large upper hollows.

At a train station, investigators found a suitcase they traced to the man thanks to a spool of thread that matched a repair in the man’s pockets. But the possessions they found there and on his body were of little help (some of his clothes appear to have been of American origin).

Months later, after news reports about the case emerged, a man gave the police a poetry book, “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam,” that he said he had found in his car with its last page torn out.

The man told the police he had no idea how the book had ended up in his car. On the book’s back cover, they found a list of apparently random letters. To some investigators, those letters suggested a code — especially in the wake of World War II and alongside rising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Dr. Abbott, intrigued by the possibility of a code that no one had cracked, performed a statistical analysis of the letters with students to determine whether the writing even was a code. They concluded that it did not have the sophistication of a code and that the letters were more likely the first letters of words in English.

Others thought the clipped labels suggested that the man had been involved in the black market that sprouted up during and after World War II. If the man had been involved in illegal activity, the theory went, that could explain why no one had stepped forward to identify him and why someone might have tried to obscure his identity.

“It’s a little bit tenuous, but it’s better than the spy theory,” Dr. Abbott said.

The book also had a phone number in it, which during the original investigation led the police to a 27-year-old woman named Jo Thomson. Her home was not far from the beach, but she denied any knowledge of the man. The police found her evasive, and her name was not known publicly until decades later.

After examining the mysterious letters in the late 2000s, Dr. Abbott said, “I kind of fell down the rabbit hole.” In 2009 he tried to track down Mrs. Thomson for an interview but found that she had died two years earlier. She had a son who had been a professional ballet dancer, Dr. Abbott learned, and photos showed he had distinctive teeth and ears similar to the Somerton man’s.

But he died in 2009, months before Dr. Abbott could reach him. He had a daughter, named Rachel Egan, and Dr. Abbott was able to schedule an interview with her.

To their surprise, they fell for each other, and married in 2010. (“He begged me,” she said, which Dr. Abbott disputed.)

Ms. Egan had never heard of the Somerton man, but she agreed to help Dr. Abbott in his effort to name the man who might be her grandfather.

Dr. Abbott laid out that scenario: “The Somerton man had Jo Thomson’s number. He was dead five minutes’ walk from her house. Rachel’s dad was only 1 year old at the time, with no father. So you kind of put two and two together — but until it’s absolutely confirmed, you never know.”

And Dr. Abbott acknowledged that, if usable DNA was obtained from the exhumed remains, it might in fact show his wife had no link to the Somerton man. “All I can say is there’s lots of twists and turns in this case, and every turn is pretty weird,” he said.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist who has worked with Dr. Abbott but is not involved in the exhumation, said the analysis of his remains could answer some questions about the man, such as where he was born and whether he died by poison, unintentional suffocation or some other cause.

And she was optimistic about scientists’ ability to reconstruct his family tree, even with DNA degraded by decades and only distant relatives to start.

“It’s kind of on the older side of some of the cases we’ve worked on,” she said. “But I’m working on one from the early 1950s and we’re making a lot of headway on it, so 1949, 1950 is still within range.”

Several years ago, Ms. Egan had her DNA analyzed, and links were found to people in the United States (including relatives of Thomas Jefferson). More recently, links were also found to the grandparents of the man that Jo Thomson eventually married.

“So my head is spinning,” Dr. Abbott said. “Does that prove she’s not connected now to the Somerton man? Or does that prove that somehow the Somerton man is related to her assumed grandfather? It’s getting all complicated, so complicated that I’m just going to shut up now and let the DNA from the Somerton man speak for itself.”


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