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Australia's Somerton man died alone on a beach in 1948. Now scientists are close to solving the mystery

CNN logo CNN 6/1/2021 By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera © Courtesy Daniel Voshart

The children know the man whose portrait hangs above their playroom door as Mister S or Mister Somerton.

His real name remains a mystery more than 70 years after he was found dead in a smart brown suit on an Australian beach, a half-smoked cigarette resting on his collar.

The kids assume he's a distant relative, but he could just be a stranger whose story has fascinated their father for more than a decade.

University of Adelaide professor Derek Abbott first heard about the Somerton man in 1995, and has spent several years campaigning for his body to be exhumed so scientists can analyze his DNA to determine his identity.

The exhumation finally happened last month in the city's West Terrace Cemetery, where the Somerton man was buried in 1949, under a headstone marked "the unknown man".

At the grave site, South Australia Police Detective Superintendent Des Bray told reporters the exhumation was about much more than closing the file on one of Australia's most-intriguing cases.

a vintage photo of a man and a woman posing for the camera: Jo Thomson and her son Robin, Rachel Egan's father, in a photo dated 1948. © Courtesy Derek Abbott Jo Thomson and her son Robin, Rachel Egan's father, in a photo dated 1948.

"It's important for everybody to remember the Somerton man is not just a curiosity, or a mystery to be solved. It's somebody's father, son, perhaps grandfather, uncle or brother, and that's why we're doing this and trying to identify him," Bray said.

"There are people we know that live in Adelaide, they believe they may be related," he said. "And they deserve to have a definitive answer."

Those people include Abbott's wife, Rachel Egan, who he met after sending her a letter to explain why he thought she may be the Somerton man's granddaughter. After a single dinner dominated by talk of death and DNA, the pair decided to marry. They now have three children, a girl aged 8 and twins aged 6, and they are all are waiting to find out Mr S's true identity.

a group of people posing for the camera: Adelaide Cemetery Authority pall bearers carry the body of the exhumed Somerton Man on May 19, 2021. © MARK BRAKE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Adelaide Cemetery Authority pall bearers carry the body of the exhumed Somerton Man on May 19, 2021.

"Whether he's related to one of us or not, we've kind of adopted him into our family, anyway, because it's him that has brought us together," said Abbott. "His cause of death isn't really what is of interest anymore. It's more who was he and can we give him his name back."

A smartly dressed corpse

The man was found lying on his back in the sand, his head and shoulders propped up against the seawall on Somerton Beach, in Adelaide's southwest, on December 1, 1948. He was smartly dressed with freshly polished shoes, and looked out of place on a beach where the city's early risers were starting their day with a walk.

Derek Abbott and woman posing for the camera: Derek Abbott and Rachel Egan met during his search for clues to the identity of the Somerton man. © Courtesy Rachel Egan Derek Abbott and Rachel Egan met during his search for clues to the identity of the Somerton man.

Two apprentice jockeys stumbled upon the body, but several other people told police they'd seen someone of a similar description lying there the night before. One man said he saw his arm move, so he didn't think to call police.

"Where he was lying was a fairly public place, not the sort of a place a man would be likely to choose if he wanted to go somewhere and die quietly," said witness Olive Neill, according to the typed, yellowing notes from his 1949 inquest.

An examination of the body raised more questions than answers. There were no signs of violence, almost all the labels on his clothes had been cut off, and he wasn't carrying any ID.

An autopsy was unable to determine the cause of death, but three medical witnesses testified that it was not natural. Detectives theorized he may have consumed a poison so rare it could quickly kill then disappear without a trace. No poison was found in his system.

When police couldn't identify the man, a death mask was made of his face. © State Records of South Australia When police couldn't identify the man, a death mask was made of his face.

"I think the immediate cause of death was heart failure, but I am unable to say what factor caused heart failure," said Robert Cowan, a government chemical analyst who examined samples taken from the body.

text, letter: The odd array of letters was indecipherable. © Courtesy Derek Abbott The odd array of letters was indecipherable.

The Somerton man was well-built, about 40 to 50 years old, 5 feet, 11 inches tall, with grey-blue eyes and gingery-brown hair that was greying at the sides. Pathologist John Cleland noted: "Many people who find their way to the morgue have toenails which are dirty and unattended to. His were clean."

a group of people standing next to a fence: The Somerton man's remains were exhumed on May 19, 2021. © Mark Brake/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock The Somerton man's remains were exhumed on May 19, 2021.

Forensic VR specialist Daniel Voshart created this visual representation of the Somerton man.

His calf muscles were particularly pronounced, said Paul Lawson, a taxidermist who was asked to embalm the body. "His feet were rather striking features, suggesting ... he had been in the habit of wearing high-heeled and pointed shoes," Lawson said. "(His) calf muscle was high and well developed, such as found in women."

a person lying on a bed: The unknown man was found dead on an Australian beach in 1948. An autopsy found his cause of death was inconclusive. © State Records of South Australia The unknown man was found dead on an Australian beach in 1948. An autopsy found his cause of death was inconclusive.

Some suggested he may have been a dancer, a blackmarket trader, a sailor, or even a spy. "The deceased to me looked like a European, I would say he looked very much like a Britisher," Cleland told the inquest. "His hair was brushed back from the forward, and there was no part in it."

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: A painting of the Somerton man by local artist Greg O'Leary hangs above the children's playroom. © Greg O'Leary/Courtesy Derek Abbott A painting of the Somerton man by local artist Greg O'Leary hangs above the children's playroom.

He may have looked British, but his coat was distinctly American, according to a tailor who was asked to examine his clothing. "He had either been in America or bought the clothes off someone who had been there," Detective Raymond Leane told the inquest, quoting the tailor. "Such clothes are not imported."

The story of the "unknown man" made headlines across Australia and New Zealand, and his fingerprints and photograph were sent around the world, including to England, America, and English-speaking countries in Africa, his inquest heard. A letter dated January 1949, signed by FBI director John Edgar Hoover, confirmed the US had found no match for his fingerprints in its files.

A number of people came forward to claim the body, but none of their stories withstood scrutiny.

For example, one man claimed he was a pipe-smoking laborer by the name of "McLean," but police said his hands were too smooth to belong to a laborer, and there was no evidence he had ever smoked a pipe.

The man's body was embalmed to give police more time to identify him, and a plaster cast -- or death mask -- was made of his face, as a physical reminder of who he was.

With no more leads to pursue, detectives released the body for burial in June 1949.

The link to "Tamam Shud"

Before the Somerton man was buried, the investigation had turned up many clues -- which all led to dead ends.

For example, tickets were found on his body suggesting that the day before he died he had taken the train to Adelaide Railway Station, from an unknown location, before checking a suitcase into the station's luggage room.

a young boy standing next to a child: Derek Abbott and Rachel Egan's children call the Somerton man Mister S or Mister Somerton. © Courtesy Rachel Egan Derek Abbott and Rachel Egan's children call the Somerton man Mister S or Mister Somerton.

He bought a train ticket to Henley Beach, near Somerton Beach, but didn't use it, and instead made his way to the beach by bus.

Police found his suitcase at the train station -- it contained the same distinctive orange thread that had been used to repair his trousers. Nothing in the bag supplied them with a name.

Then, in April came a breakthrough.

Cleland, the pathologist, re-examined his clothes and found a hidden fob pocket containing a rolled-up piece of paper printed with the words "Tamam Shud," meaning "the end" or "finished" in Persian.

Those are the final words of the poem "The Rubaiyat," by 11th century Iranian polymath Omar Khayyam, and had been torn from a book later handed in to police. An unnamed man said he found it discarded in his car on November 30, the day before the Somerton man's death. He had no further information to give police.

Detective Leonard Brown explained to the inquest: "The poem itself simply means that we know what this world has in store for us, but we do not know what the other world has in store, and while we are on this earth we should enjoy life to the fullest, and when it is time for us to pass on, pass on without any regrets."

Cleland said the words supported his conclusion the man had taken poison "with suicidal intent." "I think the words were put there deliberately and indicated that intention that he was fed up with things," he told the inquest.

So far, the book has offered the strongest clues to the man's identity.

The code and the phone number

The book had two major clues inside.

The first was a handwritten phone number on its back cover that police traced to a woman who lived in the nearby Adelaide suburb of Glenelg. She was reportedly horrified when shown the death mask, though denied she knew the man.

Near the phone number was a scribbled code that decades later would intrigue Abbott, who set it as a puzzle for his engineering students in 2009. They thought it could be a secret wartime code, adding to the theory the Somerton man was a spy. However, their investigations led nowhere.

Abbott and his students analyzed the letters and decided it lacked the sophistication of a wartime code. It was more likely the first letters of a series of English words -- for example, a list of places the Somerton man had visited, or horses he had placed bets on, Abbott said.

After drawing a blank on the code, Abbott, like the police, traced the phone number to the woman who once owned it.

But Jo Thomson too had died. Abbott then tracked down her son, Robin Thomson, a dancer with the Australian Ballet Company. He was also deceased, so Abbott looked for anyone related to him: He found Thomson's daughter, Rachel Egan, now Abbott's wife.

Egan was adopted at a young age, and wasn't aware of her potential link to the Somerton man.

One of Abbott's theories is that the Somerton man is Robin's father, but his mother told police she didn't recognize his face because she had met somebody else and didn't want to complicate matters.

Tests of Egan's DNA against genetic material extracted from strands of hair found trapped in the plaster of the Somerton man's death mask have been inconclusive.

Before that DNA test, Egan thought the two could have been related. Now she's not sure.

"They have an incomplete DNA sequence from Mr S -- it's very, very incomplete. I would have thought, though, that there might have been some sort of match there. And to date, there hasn't been," she said.

New DNA examination

The remains are now in the Forensic Science SA lab in Adelaide where scientists are determining the best way to analyze them.

Linzi Wilson-Wilde, director of Forensic Science SA, said the process had been complicated by the length of time the remains had spent in the ground, and the embalming process.

"Embalming chemicals are designed to preserve remains, but they do that by breaking down the protein inside the body, so that there's nothing available for bacteria to consume. It does have a very detrimental effect in degrading the DNA," she said.

DNA was first used to solve a crime in the United Kingdom in 1980s, some 30 years after the Somerton man died, and technology has advanced significantly since then.

"We've gone from requiring quite a considerable amount of biological material, a sizable quantity, to being able to get a result from an amount of DNA that you can't even see with the naked eye," said Wilson-Wilde.

If scientists are able to create a DNA profile, it'll be checked against people in Adelaide who think they may be related, before a wider net is cast across DNA databases.

Australia has three DNA databases for law enforcement, including the National Criminal Investigation DNA Database (NCIDD) which contains more than 1.2 million DNA profiles. Last year, the Australian Federal Police launched the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons to try to identify some 500 sets of unidentified human remains.

If a DNA match is found to the Somerton man, detectives will then attempt to find living descendants.

"I'm not holding my breath," said Abbott. "Similar tricky cases that have been solved in America have taken anywhere between a few months to a couple of years. So, you know, I'm prepared for a two-year haul, if that's what it takes."

The couple doesn't believe the DNA will expose Mr S as a sailor, a spy or any of the other fanciful theories around who he was and why he died.

"Perhaps he was a World War Two black market trader or something like that. And that can explain a number of things. For example, why people possibly didn't come forward to identify him. Because, you know, if he's in with a group of people that are doing something a bit dodgy, they wouldn't want any light shone on their activities," Abbott said.

"For the clothes, perhaps they were second hand, and in those days you tended to clip off the labels because quite often people wrote on those manufacturers' labels in ink to indicate their name or something."

Egan has already decided to move the painting from the playroom into Abbott's office where it will stay as a reminder of the mystery that brought them together. She doesn't need him looking over them each day.

Scientists could soon find he has no genetic link at all to the family.

Egan says, even then, Mr S will remain an important part of their family folklore; a story for the children to share when they grow up about how their parents met.

The family has also discussed the possibility that science could reveal something they don't want to know.

"What if he was somebody who wasn't nice?" Egan asked. "At the moment we feel very protective towards him ... that positive spin could well change if we find out that Mr S was not a savory person."

Though, she said that would give them a new mystery to solve.

"Going back to 1948, times were very different," Egan said. "So, if he was involved in a war crime, or something else that's horrific, maybe we can unpack the reasons and try and understand as to why he did what he did."

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