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For decades, a professor dedicated his time to solving one of Australia’s most long-lasting mysteries of the Somerton man. This case was one of Australia’s greatest true crime mysteries. 

On December 1st, 1948, at a beach in Adelaide, Australia, a man’s body was discovered lying against a wall. The man was found wearing a suit and there was a pack of cigarettes, a train ticket, and a box of matches in his pocket. There was also a small slip of paper with the Persian phrase “Tamám Shud” which translated as “It is finished”. 

It took more than 70 years to solve this mystery and to identify the Somerton man. So who is this Somerton man? And why is his case considered a true crime mystery of Australia? 

The discovery of Somerton man

the Somerton man mystery

It was on the evening of November 30th, 1948.  Around 6:30 a.m,  passer-bys found the body of a man laying on Somerton beach.  His legs were outstretched and his feet were serenely crossed.  Some witnesses claimed that they saw him on the beach the night before and since they thought they have seen his arm moving, they thought that he might be homeless or drunk and pressed on.

By the next morning, the next witness knew something was wrong and called the police. Some witnesses said that he wore a full suit and polished shoes, and it was strange beach attire on a warm evening. He had on a white shirt, thin red tie, light brown trousers, brown sweaters, and a brown double-breasted coat. 

One of his pants pockets was repaired with an unusual type of orange thread.

A couple said that they remembered him raising his arm as if drunkenly trying to light a cigarette. Some recall that they saw mosquitos buzzing around his face and thought that he was too drunk to wave them away. 

He appeared to have a clean-shaven face and to be about 40 years old. No wallet was found to be identified and his clothes had their labels removed. 

Investigators found a railway ticket to Henley Beach, a bus ticket to North Glenelg in his pockets along with an American metal comb, a handkerchief, a packet of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, a packet of Army Club cigarettes with a different brand of cigarettes, and a packet of Bryant & May matches.

He had athletic legs, tanned forearms, and oddly mangled toes shoved into tight shoes. It was suggested that he had been a dancer. The tags and labels of his clothes had been cut off. 

No one came forward to identify him and the man’s fingerprints weren’t in any database. 

The discovery of his suitcase

The story made headlines all around the world, with copies of his fingerprints and photograph sent to the UK and USA.

Somerton Man Death Site

A month after the body was discovered, the investigators were able to find a suitcase in the local train station’s cloakroom.  The suitcase contained clothes with labels which were removed and wax thread.  This was something that was not sold in Australia at the time. There were some labels with “Keane” and “Kean”. 

It was believed that the suitcase belonged to the Somerton man because it was launched at the station before the day his body was found. 

In April 1949, which is four months after the body was found,  the authorities found a secret pocket sewn into the man’s pants.  That was a tightly rolled scrap of paper with the phrase “Tamam shud”.  It was found that it was Persian and roughly translates to “It is finished”.  And so this whole mystery is called as Tamam Shud case.

The paper was traced back to a specific copy of a poem, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

The mystery behind the Tamam Shud 

The investigators were deeply involved in searching for a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam matching the distinctive font. But they could not find it anywhere. But then a man came to the police station with the copy. 

The last page of the book, the part that contained “Tamám Shud” had been ripped out. The man who brought the book claimed that he knew nothing about the poems or the Somerton Man. He reported that in December 1948, he drove with his brother-in-law and parked a few hundred yards away from Somerton beach. 

Somerton Man Code

When they returned to the car, a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was on the floor, and noticed by his brother-in-law noticed Both men had assumed the book belonged to the other. And when the national coverage of the Somerton Man began circulating, the men got to know that it is the book the police were looking for. 

This book contained a weird hand-written letter believed to be a secret code. They unlisted phone numbers and faint lines of codes. The first phone number was a dead end. And there was a phone number of a young nurse named Jessica Thomson who lived near Somerton Beach. 

Investigation with Thomson

When they investigated Thomson, she was first reluctant to speak to the police. Thomson denied saying that she didn’t know the Somerton Man but eventually admitted that she gifted a copy of it to a man named Alfred Boxall. The Adelaide police went following this lead and discovered that Boxall was still alive. He had Thomson’s copy in his possession.

The police reported that she reacted strangely to seeing a plaster cast on his face, and almost fainted. So the police next turned to the faint code in the book. They made out a strange jumble of letters under a black light that read, 

“W [or maybe M] RGOABABDWTBIMPANETP

MLIABO AIAIQC

ITTMTSAMSTGAB”

But still, even the  Naval Intelligence in Australia was not able to crack the code. They lacked more leads and so decided to lay the Somerton Man to rest on June 14, 1949. 

The mystery seemed that it could never be solved. 

Theories about the Tamám Shud mystery

There are several theories about the  Somerton man’s death. The most believable theory was that he died by Suicide because of the Rubáiyát which is all about mortality, and so the scrap paper hidden in the man’s pocket was said to be a suicide note. He would have done it after Jessica Ellen Thomson had rejected him. 

Some suggested that Jessica actually had a son with the Somerton Man, due to similarities in their appearance. Rejected from their lives, perhaps the Somerton Man decided to end it all.

But there was another theory that claimed that the man was actually a spy and was killed by Russian spies. His death was at the dawn of the Cold War so there was a lot of paranoia around the Soviets. Many investigators were struck by his death as highly unusual, and it was indeed claimed that he had been killed by deadly poisons that disappear.

Despite publicity around the case, no one came to claim the body. And so this theory was supported. Moreover, the unreadable code and astonishing nature of the meaning of “Tamám Shud” seem like something out of a spy novel.

Since the Somerton Man was laid to rest, weirder clues have also been found. Gerry Feltus, a Retired Australian policeman wrote the book yet published on the case discovering a witness in 1950  who said they had seen one man carrying another on his shoulder on the night of November 30, 1948. It is still a doubt on could it be one drunk friend helping another or the Somerton Man killer finishing the job. 

Thomson’s own daughters picked up the investigation and suggested that they could be related to the Somerton Man and that both he and their mother could have been involved in a Soviet spy ring. 

Is the Somerton man mystery solved? 

Somerton Man Burial

In July 2022, an announcement from University of Adelaide professor Derek Abbott came with more concrete developments regarding the case. They identified Somerton man using DNA research. 

They figured it out by comparing a hair stuck in the plaster bust of his head with samples uploaded by millions of people around the world in online databases of family trees. The Somerton man has been identified as 43-year-old Carl “Charles” Webb. He was a local engineer. There was a DNA match on both the maternal and paternal sides of Webb’s family. 

He was born on November 16, 1905, in a suburb of Melbourne and was the youngest of six siblings. He got married to Dorothy Robertson, known as Doff Webb. The engineer had a passion for poetry and was described as a “bit of a loner”. Records showed that Webb enjoyed reading and writing poetry, as well as betting on horse races.

He left his wife in April 1947. And after his disappearance, she appeared in court and said that she wanted to divorce. she had moved to Bute in South Australia by 1951 and raised the possibility that Webb had come to find her. 

The Somerton man had unused train tickers in his pockets and had left his suitcase at the train station. When police searched his belongings they found items of clothing named “T. Keane”.

It was found that Webb’s brother-in-law was called Thomas Keane, to whom his sister was married. 

The information on the public records about Webb sheds some light on the mysteries that have surrounded the case. They reveal he liked betting on horses, which may explain the “code” found in the book. Webb liked poetry and even wrote his own. 

The mystery behind the man

In 1949, no one came forward to identify the body of Somerton man. So it was embalmed and a plaster cast was made of the man’s face to be a physical reminder of who he was. Some hair became trapped in the plaster preserving some DNA and the rest of the body was buried. 

plaster cast made of the Somerton man’s face

In 1995, Abbott heard about the case and set about trying to unravel it. Abbott was given 50 hairs in 2011 by police that were found embedded in the Somerton man’s mask for the scientists at the University of Adelaide to attempt to extract the DNA. At the university, around 20 people worked on the project over the years.

Abbott who has researched the Somerton Man for more than two decades, met his current wife, Rachel Egan through the case. He learned that Thomson had died in 2007 and Robin in 2009 and Egan was Robin’s granddaughter. 

She had been adopted as a child and grew up in New Zealand, unaware of her potential links to the cold case. A day after meeting each other, Abbott and Egan decided to wed.

Authorities in Adelaide exhumed the Somerton Man’s body and conducted genetic testing on the remains. 

In 2012, the university team extracted DNA from the hair that showed the  Somerton Man’s maternal group. Several years later they made a major breakthrough to refine the halo group further to H4a1a1a. Abbott and Fitzpatrick worked for years to re-examine clues from his body and the suitcase to find out anything that can provide light for the mystery. 

forensic genealogy was used to mine DNA databases to build the family tree that led to Webb and this is one of the older cases that had been solved using this methodology. 

The DNA has put to rest speculation that the Somerton man was the grandfather of Abbott’s wife Rachel Egan whom Abbott met when his search for answers led him to her father, Robin Thomson who seemed to share some of the same physical attributes. But there was no link. 

Abbott hoped that their findings will be publicly verified, and others will build on the information to create a fuller picture of the Somerton man. Abbott and company theorize that Webb may have come to South Australia to track down his estranged wife but little remains are known about the wealth of other disturbing details that surround this case.

Somerton man, Carl “Charles” Webb was not a spy but a Victorian man who died one day alone on a beach. 

Final thoughts

Somerton man was found at a beach in Adelaide, Australia in 1948, and there was no identification of whom he was. They found codes and phone numbers and thought that he might be a Russian Spy. 

The research was done and it took more than 70 years to find out the truth behind this mystery man. Now the mystery of the Somerton Man mystery case remains nearly as chilling as they were more than 70 years ago.

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