The Somerton Man Mystery

On December 1, 1948, a man was found deceased on a beach in Somerton Park, South Australia.  Police were contacted by a member of the public at 6.30am on that day.  The dead man was found lying on the sand, with his head resting against the seawall.  His legs were extended and his feet were crossed.  

He hadn’t been washed up on the beach, it is thought that he died while sleeping which would explain his ‘resting’ position when found.

An unlit cigarette was resting on the right side of his coat.  

When police searched the man’s belongings, they found an unused second-class rail ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach and a bus ticket from the city which also may have not been used. A metal comb that had been made in the USA was found in his pocket, along with a half empty pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, an Army Club cigarette packet which contained seven cigarettes of a different brand, Kensitas, and a quarter-full box of Bryant & May matches.

Witnesses who had seen the man on the day before his death, November 30, came forward.  

One couple saw him at around 7pm and said that they saw his arm move.  More witnesses saw him from 7.30-8pm and said that he did not move at all during that time period.  They believed that the man was drunk or asleep so they didn’t think anything of it.

A pathologist named John Burton Cleland said the man was of ‘Britisher’ appearance and seemed to be aged around 40-45.  He was in top physical condition. 

This is a description of the man:

180 centimetres (5 ft 11 in) tall, with grey eyes, fair to ginger-coloured hair, slightly grey around the temples,with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, hands and nails that showed no signs of manual labour, big and little toes that met in a wedge shape, like those of a dancer or someone who wore boots with pointed toes; and pronounced high calf muscles consistent with people who regularly wore boots or shoes with high heels or performed ballet.

The man was dressed in a white shirt, a red, white and blue tie, brown trousers, socks and shoes.  He also wore a brown knitted pullover/sweater and ‘fashionable’ grey and brown double breasted jacket.  The jacket was said to have ‘American’ tailoring.  All labels on all the clothing had been removed.  No hat was found with him, which was unusual for the time period.  No wallet was found either.  He was clean shaven and carried no form of ID.  

Following an autopsy, his time of death was estimated to be around 2am on 1 December 1948.

The heart was of normal size, and normal in every way …small vessels not commonly observed in the brain were easily discernible with congestion. There was congestion of the pharynx, and the gullet was covered with whitening of superficial layers of the mucosa with a patch of ulceration in the middle of it. The stomach was deeply congested… There was congestion in the second half of the duodenum. There was blood mixed with the food in the stomach. Both kidneys were congested, and the liver contained a great excess of blood in its vessels. …The spleen was strikingly large … about 3 times normal size … there was destruction of the centre of the liver lobules revealed under the microscope. … acute gastritis hemorrhage, extensive congestion of the liver and spleen, and the congestion to the brain.

The man was found to have last eaten 3-4 hours before his death and his last meal was a pasty. 

Further testing failed to reveal any foreign substance in the body.  

The pathologist who conducted the autopsy appears to have been a Dr Dwyer.  He said:

The pathologist, Dr. Dwyer, concluded: “I am quite convinced the death could not have been natural … the poison I suggested was a barbiturate or a soluble hypnotic”. Although poisoning remained a prime suspicion, the pasty was not believed to be the source.

The body was embalmed on December 10, 1948 after they had been unable to positive identify the Somerton Man.

A few weeks after the man was found, on January 14, 1949,  staff at a railway station in Adelaide found an abandoned brown suitcase.  It had been checked into the luggage hold at the station at 11am on November 30, 1948.  The label on the suitcase had been removed before it was checked.

It is believed that the Somerton Man checked the suitcase.  

When the contents were examined, authorities found a red checked dressing gown, a size 11 red felt pair of slippers, four pairs of underwear, pyjamas, shaving items, and a brown pair of trousers that had sand in the cuffs.  

They also found an electrician’s screwdriver, a table knife that had been sharpened into a weapon-like instrument, a pair of scissors with sharpened points, a small piece of zinc that is thought to have been used as a protective cover for the knife and scissors, as well as a stencilling brush which may have been used on ships to stencil cargo.

Investigators also came across a thread card of ‘Barbour brand orange waxed thread.’  The brand was not available in Australia.  The thread had been previously used to repair the lining of a pocket in the pants that the Somerton Man was wearing when he died.  

All ID forms on the clothes had been removed but police did find the name ‘ T Keane’ on a tie, ‘Keane’ on a laundry bag and ‘Kean’ on an undershirt.  There were also the dry cleaning marks of 1171/7, 4393/7 and 3053/7.  Police believe that whoever removed the labels missed these items or purposely left them on in an effort to mislead authorities.  

There was still rationing from WW2 happening at the time and clothing was difficult to come across.  When people would buy second-hand clothing at the time, it was common for the tags of previous owners to be removed.  

Police thought it was strange that no spare socks were found in the luggage.  They did also find pencils and unused stationery.

Police found that there was nobody from any English speaking country missing with the name T Keane.  

They also attempted to investigate the dry cleaning marks to no avail.  They did discover that one of the man’s coats had been made in the USA.  That coat had never been imported into Australia, so the man either had to buy it in the USA or buy it from someone who had.

Police believe that the man made his way to Adelaide on the overnight train from either Melbourne, Sydney or Port Augusta.   They believe he showered and shaved and caught a bus to Glenelg.  

An inquest was conducted into the Somerton Man’s death.  Coroner Thomas Erskine Cleveland noted during the proceedings that the man’s shoes were very clean and appeared to have been polished right before his death.  

He floated the theory that the man may have been bought to Somerton Beach and dumped after his death.  He said that this would explain why there was no evidence of vomiting.

A professor of Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Adelaide, Cedric Stantion Hicks, testified that there were drugs that would be extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible to identify in a body after death.  The drugs he was referring to were finally made public in the 1980s – they were digitalis and ouabain.  Both were cardenolide-type cardiac glycosides.  

The coroner Thomas Cleland said that he thought poisoning could be a probable cause of death for the Somerton Man.  

‘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.’

Despite him thinking this was a probable cause of death, he did not definitely rule on the cause of death at the time.  

Interestingly, around the time of the inquest, a tiny scrap of paper was found in the fob pocket of the man’s pants.  The words ‘Tamam shud’ were printed on the paper.  Tamam Shud is a Persian phrase meaning ‘is over’  or ‘is finished’.  The scrap had been torn from the last page of a copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, authored by 12th century poet Omar Khayyám.

Police launched a public appeal to find the copy of the book that the scrap of paper had come from.  A man came to police with a 1941 edition of Rubaiyat which had been published in Christchurch, New Zealand.

It is not entirely clear how the book was found. One newspaper article refers to the book being found about a week or two before the body was found.

Former South Australian Police detective Gerry Feltus reports that the book was found “just after that man was found on the beach at Somerton”. The timing is significant as the man is presumed, based on the suitcase, to have arrived in Adelaide the day before he was found on the beach. If the book was found one or two weeks before, it suggests that the man had visited previously or had been in Adelaide for a longer period. Most accounts state that the book was found in an unlocked car parked in Jetty Road, Glenelg – either in the rear floor well, or on the back seat.

This info about the discovery of the book comes from

In December of the previous year, he reported, he had taken a drive with his brother-in-law and parked a few hundred yards away from Somerton beach.

When they returned to the car, his brother-in-law noticed a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on the floor. Both men had assumed the book belonged to the other.

The theme of Rubaiyat is that one should live life to the fullest and have no regrets when it ends. Due to the nature of the book, this led police to start speculating that the man had took his own life by poisoning.  

In the back of the book were faint indentations representing five lines of text, in capital letters. The second line has been struck out – a fact considered significant due to its similarities to the fourth line and the possibility that it represents an error in encryption.







In the book it is unclear whether the first line begins with an “M” or “W”, but it is widely believed to be the letter W, owing to the distinctive difference when compared to the stricken letter M. There appears to be a deleted or underlined line of text that reads “MLIAOI”. Although the last character in this line of text looks like an “L”, it is fairly clear on closer inspection of the image that this is formed from an “I” and the extension of the line used to delete or underline that line of text. Also, the other “L” has a curve to the bottom part of the character. There is also an “X” above the last “O” in the code, and it is not known if this is significant to the code or not. Initially, the letters were thought to be words in a foreign language before it was realised it was a code. 

Code experts over the years have tried to crack the code but have been unsuccessful.  

In 1978, following a request from ABC Television’s journalist Stuart Littlemore, Department of Defence cryptographers analysed the handwritten text. The cryptographers reported that it would be impossible to provide “a satisfactory answer”: if the text were an encrypted message, its brevity meant that it had “insufficient symbols” from which a clear meaning could be extracted, and the text could be the “meaningless” product of a “disturbed mind”.

Police also found a phone number written in the book.  The number belonged to a nurse named Jessica Ellen Thomson (known as Jo or Jestyn in the media).  The women had been born in Sydney in 1921.  Jessica lived in Moseley Street, Glenelg at the time the Somerton May died – which was around 400 metres (1300 feet) from where his body was found.  

Police interviewed Jessica and she said she did not know the dead man and had no idea why her number would have been in the book.  She did say that at some point late in 1948, an unidentified man attempted to visit her and asked her neighbor about her.  

In 1949, Jessica asked police not to keep a permanent record on her and she asked that her details not been given to any third parties.  She said it would be harmful and embarrassing for her to be linked to such a case.  

Police showed Jessica a plaster cast that had been made of the Somerton Man, depicting his face.  She told police that she could not identify the man.  A Detective Leane who was working the case, described her reaction upon seeing the cast as “completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint”.

In an interview many years later, Paul Lawson–the technician who made the cast and was present when Jessica viewed it–noted that after looking at the bust she immediately looked away and would not look at it again.

Jessica told police that she was working at Royal North Shore Hospital on Sydney during WW2.  She told them that she owned a copy of Rubaiyat.  She told them that in 1945, she had given her copy to an Australian Army Lietuenant called Alf Boxall.  She said she moved to Melbourne after the war ended and got married.  She got a letter in Melbourne from Alf and she wrote back saying that she was married.  

Police then began to investigate that the dead man was Alf Boxall.  They tracked him down to Sydney in July 1949 and found him to be alive and well.  His copy of the Rubaiyat was in tact, with the words Tamam Shud still in the book.  

Jessica died in 2007.  Her daughter Kate did an interview in 2014 with 60 minutes and she said that she believed her mother did know the Somerton Man.

The Somerton Man was eventually buried in 1949 in Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery.   Flowers eventually began appearing on the man’s grave.

Police questioned a woman named Ina Harvey at one point.  Ina had been a receptionist at the Strathmore Hotel, which was located opposite Adelaide Railway Station.  She said that a strange man had stayed at the hotel for a few days and had checked out on November 30, 1948, She said that he spoke English and was carrying only a small black case.  An employee allegedly looked in the case and found a ‘needle’. 

In May 2021, the Somerton Man’s remains were exhumed after years of legal battles regarding the process.  The remains were deeper in the ground than authorities previously thought.  

The authorities have said that they intend to take DNA from the remains if possible. Dr. Anne Coxon of Forensic Science South Australia said: “The technology available to us now is clearly light years ahead of the techniques available when this body was discovered in the late 1940s,” and that tests would use “every method at our disposal to try and bring closure to this enduring mystery”

So of course, there would be an update to the coldest case we have ever covered, right before we recorded!  I can’t believe it.  On July 26, 2022 Adelaide University researcher Derek Abbott said that he believed he had discovered the identity of the Somerton Man.

He says the man is Carl “Charles” Webb, a 43-year-old engineer and instrument maker. 

This info about the alleged discovery is from ABC Australia:

He said after using hairs from a plaster bust of the man to gather DNA evidence, researchers in Australia and America had further narrowed the search “to build out a family tree containing over 4,000 people”.

Professor Abbott, who last week spoke to the ABC about his work, added “the final pieces of DNA proof came into place” on Saturday, “triangulating to Charles Webb”.

Professor Abbott said Webb was born in Footscray on November 16, 1905 to Richard August Webb (1866-1939) and Eliza Amelia Morris Grace (1871-1946).

He said their investigations had also found a link to the name “T Keane” which was printed on the Somerton Man’s tie.

“It turns out that Carl Webb has a brother-in-law called Thomas Keane, who lived just 20 minutes’ drive away from him in Victoria,” he said.

“So it’s not out of the question that these items of clothing he had with T Keane on them were just hand-me-downs from his brother-in-law.”

Professor Abbott also said there was a potential explanation as to why the Melbourne resident was in Adelaide.

“We can’t say for sure, but we can speculate,” he said.

“We have evidence that he had separated from his wife, and that she had moved to South Australia, so possibly, he had come to track her down.”

Professor Abbott said the team had used popular genealogical DNA databases, like, to find Mr Webb’s distant relatives.

“The first cousin we found was on his paternal side and the second one we found was on the maternal side,” he said.

“So, it’s a triangulation from two different, totally distant parts of the tree, so that’s very convincing.”

He said he had tracked down and spoken to Mr Webb’s living relatives.

“I have spoken to them, except they’re all of a generation well below him and so none of them knew him and have no photos in their old family albums or in their garden sheds, unfortunately,” he said.

“I’m hoping, as his name gets out there, there will be somebody that will have an old photo album in a garden shed somewhere.”

He added that there was sufficient DNA evidence to “definitively” disprove any links with his wife Rachel Egan, whose father — ballet dancer Robin Thomson — was believed to have potentially been a descendant of the Somerton Man.


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