Have Scholars Finally Identified the Mysterious Somerton Man?

New DNA analysis suggests a body found on a beach in Australia in 1948 belongs to Carl Webb, an electrical engineer from Melbourne

Illustration of Somerton Man's autopsy photo, overlaid on the "code" found in his copy of a Persian poetry book
Experts were unable to pinpoint a cause of death, but three medical witnesses who testified during an inquest into the Somerton Man case agreed that his passing “was not natural.”  Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons under public domain

For decades, authorities, academics and the public alike have traded theories about the identity of the mysterious Somerton Man, whose body was found on a beach outside of Adelaide, Australia, on December 1, 1948. He was a Russian spy. A jilted lover poisoned by his paramour. 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.

Derek Abbott, a physicist and electronic engineer at the University of Adelaide, and Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist who specializes in using DNA to solve cold cases, identified the Somerton Man using hairs caught in his death mask. Though the state coroner has yet to confirm the pair’s findings, Abbott tells the Guardian’s Natasha May that “as a scientist,” he is confident in the accuracy of the analysis.

The Somerton Man
Despite authorities' efforts to publicize the case, no one was able to positively identify the Somerton Man. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“We’re just saying this is what the DNA tells us,” says Abbott to the New York Times’ Alan Yuhas. “It’s up to the cops to make the legal determination of who this guy was.”

To narrow down the pool of potential candidates, Abbott and Fitzpatrick plugged the Somerton man’s DNA into the genealogical research database GEDmatch. After finding a match to a distant cousin, the researchers constructed a family tree of some 4,000 people. They then used archival records to search for individuals whose biographies mirrored what was known about the Somerton Man. Webb, who was born in the Australian state of Victoria in 1905, fit the bill.

“In all this soup and ocean of DNA cousins, we were able to connect one of them to Carl’s father and one of them to Carl’s mother,” Fitzpatrick tells the Times. “You really kind of narrow it down so much it could be any one of Carl’s siblings—but Carl is the one with no documented death.”

Discovering the Somerton Man

On the night of November 30, 1948, two separate couples noticed “a smartly dressed man lying on the sand, his head propped against a sea wall,” according to Smithsonian magazine’s Mike Dash. Dismissing the enigmatic figure as a drunk or a soundly sleeping beachgoer, the couples made no effort to approach him.

Police arrived on the scene the following morning after receiving reports of a dead body on Somerton Beach. Per a 1949 inquest report, a doctor who examined the Somerton Man’s remains placed his time of death around 2 a.m. The 5-foot-11, 40- to 50-year-old man carried no money or identification. In fact, all of the tags on his clothing had been deliberately removed. Tucked in his pockets were cigarettes, matches, a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, a used bus ticket, an unused train ticket and two hair combs.

View of the section of Somerton Beach where the Somerton Man's body was found (spot marked with an "X")
View of the section of Somerton Beach where the Somerton Man's body was found (spot marked with an "X") Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Experts were unable to pinpoint a cause of death, but three medical witnesses who testified during the inquest agreed that the death “was not natural.”

“There was no indication of violence, and I am compelled to the finding that death resulted from poison,” city coroner Thomas Erskine Cleland concluded. “[B]ut I cannot say whether it was administered by the deceased himself or by some other person.”

Despite authorities’ public appeals and mounting media coverage of the mystery, no one was able to positively identify the Somerton Man. A month after his death, police found a suitcase believed to belong to him at the Adelaide Railway Station. (A spool of thread in the suitcase matched the orange stitches used to repair the man’s clothing.) Also inside were a shaving brush, shoe polish, a knife, scissors, a screwdriver and assorted attire, some of which was labeled with variants of the name “T. Keane.” A tailor brought in to assess the clothing concluded it was made in the United States, lending weight to the theory that the Somerton Man wasn’t from the area.

The next clue in the case surfaced in May 1949, when pathologist John Cleland reexamined the corpse and discovered a rolled-up piece of paper hidden in the man’s pants pocket. It bore the phrase “Tamám Shud”—Persian for “it’s finished” or “it’s ended”—and was soon traced to The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a 12th-century book of Persian poetry popularized by an 1859 English translation.

Somerton Man "code"
Abbott thinks this "code" actually represents a list of the horses Webb bet on. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s hard to see this as anything other than intentional,” Fiona-Ellis Jones, host of “The Somerton Man Mystery” podcast, tells the Australian Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Bridget Judd. “A suicide note perhaps? Or maybe a final goodbye to a lover.”

In July 1949, a local man came forward with a copy of The Rubáiyát that he’d found tossed into the back of his car around the time of the Somerton Man’s death. The torn-out fragment found in the Somerton Man’s pocket perfectly matched a gap on the final page of the discarded copy. Interestingly, the book contained several handwritten annotations, including a suspected code and the phone number of a nurse, Jessie “Jo” Thomson, who lived near the site where the body was discovered.

When presented with the Somerton Man’s death mask, Thomson appeared “completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance she was about to faint,” according to Detective Sergeant Lionel Leane. Still, she denied knowing the man, and authorities didn’t press her on the issue. From there, the trail went cold.

The enduring mystery of the Somerton Man

For the next 70 or so years, speculation and increasingly outlandish theories dominated discussion of the Somerton Man. Some observers cited the “code” found on his copy of The Rubáiyát, as well as the apparent attempts to mask his identity, as evidence that he was a Russian spy. (Cryptography experts contend that the string of letters don’t actually constitute a code; Abbott, for his part, tells ABC they probably represent the first names of horses Webb bet on.)

Others posited that the Somerton Man was a former professional ballet dancer, drawing on the coroner’s comment that his calf muscles were “high and well developed, such as found in women,” and suggestion that “he had been in the habit of wearing high-heeled and pointed shoes.”

Burial of the Somerton Man on June 14, 1949
Burial of the Somerton Man on June 14, 1949 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most convincing theory centered on Thomson’s son Robin, whose distinctive ears and teeth closely resembled the Somerton Man’s. Born in 1946, Robin enjoyed a career as a dancer with the Australian Ballet Company. Speaking with ABC’s Ben Cheshire and Susan Chenery in 2019, Abbott speculated that Robin was the Somerton Man’s son; Thomson, he proposed, had failed to identify him because she “was in a relationship with another man who would go on to be her husband, and she just didn't want this ghost from the past coming back to mess up her current existence.”

Abbott, who has researched the Somerton Man for more than two decades, met his current wife, Rachel Egan, through the case. Learning that Thomson had died in 2007 and Robin in 2009, he set out to find Robin’s living descendants. Egan was Robin’s granddaughter. She’d 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.

“People have said that possibly Derek married me for my DNA,” Egan joked to ABC in 2019. “And I think there is some truth to that.”

Authorities in Adelaide exhumed the Somerton Man’s body last May and are currently conducting genetic testing on the remains. (The DNA studied by Abbott and Fitzpatrick came from the Somerton Man’s death mask, not his body, and was analyzed as part of a separate, parallel investigation.) Officials declined to comment on the new findings, instead telling CNN they would respond “when results from the testing are received.”

Contrary to Abbott’s initial suspicions, the new DNA survey showed no genetic ties between Egan and Webb, definitively proving that Robin was not Webb’s son.

“Whether there was some social connection to Robin’s mother is still on the table for investigation,” Abbott tells ABC, “but may be one of those things we’ll never know now.”

Beyond the DNA results linking the Somerton Man to Webb, Abbott and Fitzpatrick found ample archival evidence supporting the identification. Born in Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne, on November 16, 1905, Webb was the sixth child of a German-born man and an Australian woman, writes ABC’s Rebecca Opie. In October 1941, he married Dorothy Jean Robertson, who is listed on the couple’s marriage certificate as a 21-year-old foot specialist. Webb was then a 35-year-old instrument maker.

The last mention of Webb in the historical record dates to April 1947, when he left his wife. In October 1951, three years after the Somerton Man’s death, Dorothy placed a notice in the Age newspaper stating that she had begun divorce proceedings against Webb on the grounds of desertion. By then, Dorothy had moved from Melbourne to Bute, a town 89 miles northeast of Adelaide.

“It’s possible that [Webb] came to this state to try and find her,” Abbott tells CNN. “This is just us drawing the dots. We can't say for certain say that this is the reason he came, but it seems logical.”

Records showed that Webb enjoyed reading and writing poetry, as well as betting on horse races. He had a sister who lived in Melbourne and was married to a man named Thomas Keane—likely the T. Keane whose name appears on the clothing in the Somerton Man’s suitcase. (As for the American origins of the attire, Abbott speculates that Keane bought the clothing second-hand from a G.I. stationed in Australia.)

Abbott and Fitzpatrick have been unable to locate a photograph of Webb, but ABC’s Opie reports that an image of Webb’s brother Roy, who died as a prisoner of war in Malaya during World War II, bears a “striking resemblance” to the Somerton Man.

Plenty of questions surrounding the case remain: Why did Webb come to Somerton Beach? What was his cause of death? Did he die by suicide? Was he murdered? What, if anything, was his connection to Thomson? The researchers hope to address these mysteries and more through archival and genetic research.

“Some answers may come soon, some may take years, and some may never be answered,” Abbott tells ABC.

Reflecting on the identification, Carolyn Bilsborow, a filmmaker who directed a 2018 documentary about the Somerton Man, tells the Guardian:

We had all these grandiose ideas about him being Russian, American and European. I was convinced that he was from Europe—maybe a displaced person after the Second World War [who] was here alone. But to find out that he’s Australian, from Victoria, and that he died, and no one obviously noticed he was missing, or no one followed up with the police that he was missing—I find that particularly kind of tragic.