By Daniel Keane
It’s been 70 years to the day since the body of an unknown man was discovered along the shoreline of a South Australian beach. But will we ever know the truth about his identity?
In summer, the beach at Somerton in suburban Adelaide is a glistening stretch of sand, surf and sun.
But on a mild summer morning on December 1, 1948, the site became steeped in cold case mystery filled with rumours of spies, lovers and an untraceable poison.
We delve into how the story unfolded, why the case has been so hard to crack and whether we will ever know the truth about who the “Somerton Man” really was.
December 1, 1948: How it all began
Slumped against a wall at Somerton Beach beneath the esplanade was a man’s body.
His hair was fair and his eyes were grey.
He was wearing a brown suit, had a clean-shaven face and appeared to be about 40 years old.
He had a half-smoked cigarette on his lapel, and according to a newspaper report his legs were crossed.
Neil Day was one of the first people to discover the body.
The then 16-year-old apprentice jockey and a mate were riding horses along the beach.
“We never took much notice because people used to sleep on the beach sometimes, especially if it was a warm night,” he said.
“He was dressed in a suit — I think it was a brown suit, if I remember right. His face was straight up looking at the sky, laying on his back.”
Not realising the man was dead, the two jockeys continued along for a couple of kilometres south towards Brighton.
“When we came back he was still in the same place, so we went over to see if he was alright,” Neil said.
“We couldn’t see him breathing so my friend Horrie hopped off his horse and lifted his leg.
“He was dead.
“It was a bit of a shock because I’d never seen anyone like that before.”
A man named Jack Lyons was on the beach at the same time and contacted police.
What Neil didn’t realise was the decades-long mystery their discovery was about to trigger.
“I never had anything else to do with it,” he said.
Police began an investigation they have never closed
In 1948, it was not uncommon for police to find bodies along the beach.
But there was something that set this one apart from the deaths by suicide or alcohol.
The man had not washed ashore, his clothes — all of which had their labels removed — were dry.
And but for a few personal items — two combs, a box of matches, a used bus ticket to the area, an unused second-class train ticket, a packet of chewing gum and cigarettes — there was little to identify him.
A post-mortem discovered the man had a “strikingly” enlarged spleen and internal bleeding in the stomach and liver.
But the autopsy was inconclusive.
“There was no indication of violence,” the coroner wrote.
“I am compelled to the finding that death resulted from poison.
“But what poison?”
The suitcase, the book and the mystery woman
In January 1949 a suitcase holding dozens of items was uncovered in the cloakroom of the Adelaide Railway Station.
It had been checked in the day before the Somerton Man’s body was discovered, and police suspected it belonged to him.
In it was clothing — and like those found on his body — the labels had been removed.
A waxed thread not sold in Australia — the same kind used to repair the unidentified man’s trousers — was also found.
The names “Keane” and “Kean” were written on a few other items, but they offered no more clues.
Odds and ends included scissors, a shaving brush, a knife in a sheath and boot polish.
But one of the most intriguing pieces of evidence was discovered four months after the man’s death.
A pathologist re-examining the body found a slip of paper in the man’s pocket which read “Tamam Shud”.
When the words — torn from the poetry book the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam — were translated from Persian, they read “it is finished”.
That was enough for coroner Thomas Cleland to deem the man’s death “not natural”.
Shortly after the first inquest concluded, police appealed to the public to help find the book with the missing words “Tamam Shud”.
An anonymous businessman came forward with a matching copy.
Retired detective Gerry Feltus, who has investigated the case for decades, revealed to the ABC that the businessman was a chemist called John Freeman, who lived not far from where the Somerton Man was found.
“His brother-in-law was reading a book and when they got to their destination … his brother-in-law put the book in the glovebox of his car, and he didn’t take any notice of it at all,” he said.
Mr Feltus said that when the police made the call-out, Mr Freeman went out to his car and pulled out the book.
“Sure enough [on] the last page, down the bottom where the ‘Tamam Shud’ would have been, [it] was missing,” he said.
“He contacted his brother-in-law and said: ‘You know that book you put in the glovebox of my car — that’s the book the police are looking for.’
“The brother-in-law said: ‘No. It was on the back floor of your car and I was sitting there and I picked it up and fiddled through the pages and I thought it was your book so I put it in your glovebox.'”
Once the book was handed in, it revealed two final clues: a sequence of letters — believed to be a code — and a couple of telephone numbers.
While talk of spies and secret agents ran rife, no cipher specialists have ever successfully cracked the code.
The phone numbers came to nothing, except for one that belonged to a nurse called Jessie Thomson, also known as Jo.
She lived just hundreds of metres from where the Somerton’s Man’s body was found.
When she spoke to police in July 1949, she told them she once owned a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, but denied knowing the Somerton Man.
Intrigued, police took her to see a plaster bust of the man’s head and shoulders, in the hope it would jog her memory.
According to reports, she behaved strangely when she saw it, but never revealed why.
Today, the bust remains firmly locked away in the South Australian Police Historical Society’s museum.
Why has the case never been solved?
Despite a few new pieces of information emerging over the years, the case is still a mystery.
Most of the key witnesses are now dead.
SA Police told the ABC it was an “open inquiry” that remained with the Major Crime Investigation Branch.
Genetic testing on the Somerton Man’s hair, embedded in the plaster cast, revealed the man’s mother had European ancestry, but offered no further clues.
Jessie Thomson died in 2007, six years before her link to the investigation was made public.
Rumours swirled that her son Robin was the biological son of the unidentified man.
In 2013, her daughter Kate Thomson said her mother knew the identity of the man on the beach.
“She said to me she knew who he was, but she wasn’t going to let that out of the bag,” she told current affairs show 60 Minutes.
Romance blossomed during investigations
While sleuths around the world have conducted their own investigations over the years, Adelaide University professor Derek Abbott has dedicated more than 20 years to solving the case.
He found himself more deeply involved in the story while researching the connection between Robin Thomson and the Somerton Man.
While Robin Thomson had died by the time Professor Abbott made the connection, his daughter Rachel Egan was alive and living in Queensland.
Professor Abbott contacted her, and before long, the two developed a relationship. They married.
Professor Abbott said comparing the DNA of his wife and the Somerton Man — her possible grandfather — could prove whether or not Robin was the Somerton Man’s son and whether Mrs Thomson had been in a relationship with the mystery man.
The only problem?
No state government has agreed to the exhumation. Until now.
Attorney-General Vickie Chapman told the ABC the State Government had offered its conditional support for an exhumation.
But there’s a catch.
“If somebody can come up with the funds to support that, and there is sufficient supervision of this process, then I will consent to it,” she said.
Ms Chapman has had informal talks with police about an exhumation but said they had not indicated it was a priority.
“We would need to have a clear plan as to what the exhumation arrangements would be, what particles of fibre or tissue might be required for forensic assessment, who would undertake that, the security of that, the reinterment,” she said.
“At this stage, I haven’t had any plan presented or indication that there’s finance available, but I would of course act as expeditiously as possible, if those things were in place and approved.”
Could it be funded?
Professor Abbott estimated the cost of an exhumation from the Somerton Man’s grave at West Terrace Cemetery would be $20,000.
It doesn’t sound like much, especially given the level of interest in the case, but a previous crowdfunding effort came to nothing.
“We’ve got the mother’s side, we need the father’s side which is the Y-DNA and we also need the autosomes, which is part of the DNA,” he said.
“That’s what we really want because it’s from [those] that you can use that data to go on genealogical websites and find close cousins.”
Derek Abbott (right) with Professor Jeremy Austin (left) said testing the DNA of his wife and the Somerton Man’s remains would help establish a rumoured link between the mystery man and Jessie Thomson. (ABC: Malcolm Sutton)
Professor Abbott told the ABC he was considering starting a new crowdfunding effort, to help find the answers to the questions he had been asking for more than two decades.
Ms Egan, who said she was only too happy to take part in genetic testing, said she felt a little like Alice in Wonderland — on the verge of an abyss, not knowing how deep it went.
“There will still be many questions that remain unanswered but hopefully it will give us far more information about who he was,” she said.
“In one sense it’s irrelevant if he’s genetically related or not because obviously he has a connection to my family.
“If we’re not his family, there’s another family out there who deserve to know what’s happened to him.”
While the world watches to see if this mystery will ever come to a conclusion, for Ms Egan it’s personal.
“Is the unknown man my grandfather, or not?”
- Reporting and research: Daniel Keane
- Photography: Tony Hill, Greg Ashman, Chris Lockyer, Carl Saville
- Artwork: Ruth Stentiford
- Editor: Jessica Haynes
Thanks to: Tim Leslie, Professor Derek Abbott, Gerry Feltus, Wayne Groom, Dr Carolyn Bilsborow, the SA Police Historical Society and the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority