Mystery Solved? DNA Tentatively Identifies Somerton Man

By: Diana Brown  | 
Authorities distributed this photo of the Somerton Man to try to  identify him, but came up short. In July 2022, researchers announced that DNA technology had finally caught up, tentatively identifying the man as Charles Webb, an electrical engineer from Melbourne. Public domain
Authorities distributed this photo of the Somerton Man to try to identify him, but came up short. In July 2022, researchers announced that DNA technology had finally caught up, tentatively identifying the man as Charles Webb, an electrical engineer from Melbourne. Public domain

In December 1948, the body of an unknown man was found dead on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia. Did he commit suicide on the beach, maybe because of a broken heart? Or was he a spy, killed during the course of his work? He was never identified, and the few clues unearthed left investigators scratching their heads. Until now, that is.

Researchers Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide, and American genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick, president of Identifinders International, say they have finally put a name to the so-called Somerton Man, tentatively solving a mystery that has baffled investigators for 73 years.

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Thanks to recent advances in technology that allow for the extraction of DNA from rootless hair, Abbott was able to analyze hairs from a death mask of the corpse taken in 1948, according to The New York Times.

DNA was succesfully extracted from the hair in 2012 and 2018 by the University of Adelaide and, with the help of a California company, Astrea Forensics, Abbott and Fitzpatrick were finally able to use it to begin a real search.

Using GEDmatch, they were able to find a distant cousin on the mystery man's paternal side. They then set to work building a family tree of more than 4,000 people and eventually traced the man through his mother’s side to find a living relative and formulate a match.

Their conclusion? The man found on the beach on Dec. 1, 1948, according to The Guardian, was Carl “Charles” Webb, a 43-year-old electrical engineer from Melbourne.

Of course, there is still the matter of a positive identification from law enforcement before the case can be officially closed. And, needless to say, a lot of questions still to be answered, such as how he ended up dead on Somerton Beach and, most importantly of all, what caused his death.

Police in South Australia, who exhumed the man’s body last year for testing, have not verified the identity and are not yet ready to give an update on their investigation, according to The Washington Post.

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

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A Corpse on the Beach

The dead man was found in a sitting position, slumped over, with a cigarette either in or near his mouth. He wore a nice suit and polished shoes, but no hat. Two couples claim to have seen him as they walked along the beach, and one said he raised his arm and pointed at them. They thought he was probably drunk. Another witness claimed to have seen a man looking down on the body.

Upon inspection, the dead man was found to have strong calves, like those of a dancer or an athlete, and his toes grew together in a way that suggested habitual wearing of high heels, or perhaps point shoes, again suggesting he could have been a dancer. He carried an American comb in his pocket, but no wallet.

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His autopsy revealed he had a bleeding stomach and a spleen three times the normal size, though his body showed no cause of natural death. The coroner suspected he'd been poisoned with some kind of undetectable toxin, despite the lack of vomit or evidence of convulsions that accompany a poisoning, though the death certificate listed cause of death as unknown. Maybe the man was killed elsewhere and moved to the beach?

But authorities also didn't have proof the man didn't ingest a toxin himself. So, could it have been a suicide — or was it a homicide?

Police could not identify the body through fingerprint ID, and though they shared his information and picture internationally, no one knew who he was. They widened their search and found a suitcase that was abandoned at main railway station in Adelaide, suggesting he had come from out of town, but there were no identifying markers in its contents, and the case stalled.

somerton beach man
Code breakers have tried to decipher this messaging on a scrap of paper found in the Somerton Beach man's watch for decades.
Public domain

But then, police enlisted the help of a pathology expert to re-examine the dead man's body and possessions, and he found something the initial investigators didn't. A "secret pocket" sewn into the man's pants contained a watch fob, but inside the watch was a tightly rolled up piece of paper. It was a page torn from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a book of 12th-century poetry. On it were two words: "tamam shud," which mean "ended" or "finished."

The book from which the page was torn was tracked down, and close examination yielded further clues — handwriting impressions of a telephone number, another unidentified number and what appeared to be an encrypted message. Could he have been a Cold War spy?

The telephone number was found to be the unlisted number of Jessica Harkness Thomson, an Adelaide resident. When she spoke with police, she said she didn't know the Somerton Beach man, and didn't know why he'd had her phone number. But when they showed her the plaster cast of his face, the investigator thought she acted "surprised, almost to the point of fainting," and that she refused to look at the face again, only repeated that she didn't know him. She did own a copy of the Rubaiyat, and had given it to an old friend named Alf Boxall, a military man who worked in intelligence. Authorities began to believe the Somerton Beach man was Alf Boxall, until they found out he was alive and well. His copy of the book of poetry was intact, and he didn't know the dead man either.

The encrypted message on the tiny piece of paper was never cracked — some code breakers thought that the unknown man had used some sort of shorthand, or that he was simply a disturbed mind. One theory was floated out that Jessica Harkness was also a spy; her daughter said in interviews that she knew Russian, but would never tell her why or when she'd learned. Maybe both the Somerton Beach man and Alf Boxall had worked for her. Perhaps the Rubaiyat was essential to understanding the code, and that's why both men had copies.

With the tentative identification of Carl "Charles" Webb as the body on Somerton Beach, all of this speculation may turn out to have been merely supposition, the fanciful imaginings of people intigued by a mystery man found dead on a beach. One way or another, the truth can't be very far away and, inexorably, the answers to the questions posed by the body on the beach will slowly begin to come to light.

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Originally Published: Sep 13, 2017

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