After more than 70 years, identity mystery of Australia's 'Somerton Man' solved

After more than 70 years, identity mystery of Australia's 'Somerton Man' solved

The Somerton Man: A Mystery Solved After 73 Years

Introduction

The Somerton Man was an unidentified man whose body was found on 1 December 1948 on the beach at Somerton Park, a suburb of Adelaide, South Australia. The case is also known after the Persian phrase tamám shud (Persian: تمام شد), meaning "is over" or "is finished", which was printed on a scrap of paper found months later in the fob pocket of the man's trousers. The scrap had been torn from the final page of a copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, authored by 12th-century poet Omar Khayyám. 

The case has been considered "one of Australia's most profound mysteries" ² for several reasons: the death occurred at a time of heightened international tensions following the beginning of the Cold War; the apparent involvement of a secret code; the possible use of an undetectable poison; and the inability of authorities to identify the dead man.

However, after more than 70 years, a researcher says he has solved the mystery - Somerton Man was Carl Webb, a Melbourne-born electrical engineer. 

Background

The man was found lying in the sand across from the Crippled Children's Home, which was on the corner of The Esplanade and Bickford Terrace. He was lying back with his head resting against the seawall, with his legs extended and his feet crossed. It was believed the man had died while sleeping. An unlit cigarette was on the right collar of his coat. A search of his pockets revealed an unused second-class rail ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach; a bus ticket from the city that may not have been used; a narrow aluminium comb that had been manufactured in the USA; a half-empty packet 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. 

He had no wallet, no cash, and no ID. The tags on his suit had been cut off, and forensic examiners suspected he had been poisoned. Other curious finds baffled authorities. They included a suitcase, more items of clothing with their labels removed, and incoherent writings believed to be a code. He also held a torn scrap of paper with the Farsi words Tamam Shud - meaning "it's finished" - printed on it. 

The Somerton Man's fingerprints were sent around the world, but no one could identify him. And so he was buried in Adelaide cemetery in 1949 with a tombstone reading: "Here lies the unknown man who was found at Somerton Beach." 

Investigation

The case attracted public interest and media attention for decades, with various theories and speculations about the identity and cause of death of the Somerton Man. Some believed he was a Russian spy, or a spurned lover who fathered the child of a young nurse who lived near the beach. Others suggested he was a sailor, a dancer, or a victim of foul play. 

The most intriguing clue was the code found in his book, which has not been deciphered or interpreted in a way that satisfies authorities on the case. The code consisted of five lines of capital letters:

    WRGOABABD
    MLIAOI
    WTBIMPANETP
    MLIABOAIAQC
    ITTMTSAMSTGAB

Some experts suggested it was a one-time pad encryption, while others argued it was an acronym or an initialism. Some even claimed it was not a code at all, but simply random letters written by someone with mental illness or under the influence of drugs. 

Identification

In 2022, Professor Derek Abbott from the University of Adelaide announced that he had identified the Somerton Man as Carl Webb, an electrical engineer and instrument maker born in 1905. He was able to analyse the Somerton Man's DNA using hairs preserved when authorities made a plaster model of his face. He teamed up with renowned US forensic expert Colleen Fitzpatrick, who specialises in cold cases, to build an extended family tree using the DNA. And from 4000 names, they narrowed it down to one - Carl Webb. They then tracked down his living relatives, using their DNA to confirm his identity. 

According to Prof Abbott, Webb was born in a suburb of Melbourne. He was the youngest of six siblings and married Dorothy Robertson, known as Doff Webb. That's most likely what brought him to Adelaide, the professor said. 

Webb was not a Russian agent, but rather a bit of a loner who wrote poetry. He had a passion for science and engineering, and was involved in several projects, including building a radio telescope and a solar-powered car. He also had a keen interest in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, and owned several copies of the book. 

Prof Abbott said he believed Webb died of natural causes, possibly a heart attack or a stroke, and that the code was not a secret message, but a personal note or a reminder. He said he hoped his research would bring closure to the mystery and honour the memory of Webb. 

Conclusion

The Somerton Man case is one of the most fascinating and enduring mysteries in Australian history. It has captivated the public imagination for over seven decades, with its intriguing clues, mysterious code, and unknown identity. However, thanks to the advances in DNA technology and the persistence of researchers, the mystery may have finally been solved. The Somerton Man was Carl Webb, an electrical engineer and poet who died on the beach at Somerton Park in 1948.

Sources

(1) Somerton Man - Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somerton_Man.
(2) Mystery of Australia's 'Somerton Man' solved after 70 years ... - BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-62314555.
(3) Somerton man mystery ‘solved’ as DNA points to man’s ... - CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/26/australia/australia-somerton-man-mystery-solved-claim-intl-hnk-dst/index.html.




FAQ's

Has the Somerton Man mystery been solved?

Charles moved out in 1947. Nobody knows for sure what drew him to Adelaide the following year. But most of the experts interviewed for tonight's Australian Story agree on one thing: It's most likely that Charles took his own life on Somerton beach that summer night in 1948.

When was the Somerton Man case solved?

CNN has reached out to the University of Adelaide for comment on Abbott's findings. In 2012, the university team extracted DNA from the hair showing the Somerton Man's maternal group.

Who is the new evidence for the Somerton Man?

A smuggler. A former ballet dancer. The truth, however, is seemingly more mundane. As Hilary Whiteman reports for CNN, a new DNA analysis suggests the Somerton Man is Carl “Charles” Webb, an electrical engineer from Melbourne who vanished from the public record in April 1947.

Is the Somerton Man related to Rachel Egan?

The process of DNA identification also ruled out that Abbott's wife, Rachel Egan, who he met through his research was related to Somerton man. Egan's father was the Australian ballet dancer Robin Thomson, who was the son of the nurse whose phone number was in the Rubáiyát.

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