The Somerton man: Cold case: Is a Kiwi mum the key to solving 72-year-old mystery?

Sometime soon, the body of an unknown man who died in mysterious circumstances on an Adelaide beach more than 72 years ago will be exhumed and DNA extracted from his remains.

Authorities hope the long-awaited process will end decades of intrigue about a person known only as the Somerton man, named for the beach on which his body wasdiscovered – propped against a sea wall and host to a series of puzzling clues including a morbid final line torn from a New Zealand-printed book of Persian poetry.

In the complete book, thought to belong to the dead man and later found by a stranger in the backseat of their nearby car, was a series of nonsensical writing believed to be a code.

To some it was a sign the man – whose autopsy suggested he may have been poisoned, although no poison was found in the body – may have been a Cold War spy.

Also hoping for answers after the body is exhumed will be University of Adelaide electrical engineering professor Derek Abbott and his New Zealand-born wife, Rachel Egan, thought to be the mystery man’s granddaughter.

He tracked down Egan, believing she was connected to the case, and the couple became engaged within a day of meeting.

Egan, who grew up with her adoptive parents in Christchurch before moving to Australia as an adult, isn’t as interested in the cold case as he, Abbott told the Herald on Sunday.

“She’d like to know the truth. But it doesn’t matter to her either way. She calls him the cupid from the grave, because he brought us together. So whether he’s related or not doesn’t really matter.

“And we’ve kind of adopted him as a kind of grandfather. He’s part of our family anyway, [if he’s not related] he’s still our adopted grandfather.”

'It is ended'

Abbott, who emigrated to Australia from the United Kingdom in 1986, learned of the Somerton man while reading a women’s magazine in a laundromat nine years later.

In 2007 he read a longer story and decided to use the case as an exercise for his university students, asking them to investigate the series of letters written in the back of the Persian poetry book believed to be connected to the dead man.

Code-crackers from the FBI and Scotland Yard had previously attempted to decode the message, without success.

He didn’t ask his students to crack the message, but to test whether it actually was a code, Abbott said.

Their findings poured cold water on Cold War spy theory.

“We took all sorts of known WWII codes … and we kind of eliminated them all and were left with the hypothesis that it’s not actually a code but just the first letters of words in English.

“It’s nothing sophisticated, it’s just first letters of words. It could be a memory jogger. It could be a little puzzle out of a newspaper he’s tried to solve.”

The string of letters found in the poetry book is just one of many curiosities connected to the man’s death.

The book itself was a 1941 Whitcombe and Tombs-printed – now Whitcoulls – edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a translation of 12th century verses denouncing religion and promoting hedonism from Persian poet Omar Khayyam, which was popular in the west in the 1940s.

Months after the mystery man’s death, the coroner found a scrap of paper torn from the last page of the book in a hidden fob watch pocket of the man’s clothes.

The paper read “Tamam Shud”, Farsi for “it is ended” or “finished”, further intriguing investigators.

Other mysteries included that the dead man was found well-dressed with immaculate hair and carried an aluminium comb, unavailable in Australia, which suggested he’d previously been in the United States.

He also carried expensive cigarettes in a cheap brand cigarette packet – the opposite of what most people did at the time and leading police to suspect he was trying to appear lower class.

He carried no wallet, but a bus ticket led police to the train station, where they discovered a suitcase they believed belonged to him – but the clothing inside had all tags and identification cut from them, bar three shirts with the name “Keane”, which police decided were either overlooked or left as a red herring as no missing people with the name were reported.

His photo, widely circulated, sparked no leads, his fingerprints weren’t on any databases, further international investigations turned up nothing.

Seven months later the man’s body was buried in Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery, with the small service conducted by The Salvation Army.

The nurse with a secret?

Egan’s possible connection to the case comes from her biological paternal grandmother, Jessica Thomson.

She was a nurse who lived about 400 metres from where the man’s body was found and the indentation of her unlisted phone number was found on the copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam thought connected to the man.

Detectives who visited Thomson, carrying with them a plaster cast of the dead man’s head, would describe her reaction – taking one look at the cast before looking down and appearing faint – as betraying her denial of any knowledge of the man’s identity.

Sixty-five years later daughter Kate Thomson told 60 Minutes she believed her now late mother was a Soviet spy, after once hearing her speaking in hurried, hushed Russian on the phone – a language Kate Thomson didn’t know her mother spoke.

“She said to me she knew who he was but she wasn’t going to let that out of the bag … and she told me that it is a mystery that was only known to a level higher than the police force.”

Thomson’s son, Robin – who would later father the adopted-out Egan while he and her mother were working on this side of the Tasman as ballet dancers for the Royal New Zealand Ballet – was born the year before the Somerton man’s death. He died in 2009.

Family don’t know who Robin Thomson’s father was, but photos showed he shared rare genetic traits with the mystery man, including missing incisor teeth and unusually shaped ears.

His profession of ballet dancer also had a potential link with the mystery man some think was his father – the autopsy of the Somerton man found he had pronounced high calf muscles consistent with people who regularly performed ballet.

It was the potential genetic links which prompted Abbott to write to Egan suggesting she might be related to the man at the centre of one of Australia’s most enduring mysteries.

Egan would later tell Australia’s ABC Abbott showed an unusual interest in her ears and teeth – she doesn’t share her biological father’s rare teeth and ear traits – and wanted her DNA when they first met at a fancy Brisbane restaurant.

“Oh yes, I was having an intense look [at her teeth and ears], but I couldn’t see anything”, Abbott said.

But Egan, who’d never heard of the Somerton man, wasn’t put off – a day later the pair were engaged and, 10 years and three kids later, Abbott’s desire for her DNA was a running joke among family and friends.

“We fell in love and got married, but the joke that people like to say is that I was ‘just after her DNA’, and we just laugh about that.”

Investigation could help solve others

Now, they wait.

Last month, South Australia attorney-general Vickie Chapman – who studied the Somerton man case at law school – approved a police exhumation order relating to the mystery man.

“This man could be someone’s father, brother or cousin, and those relatives and friends deserve answers.

“I hope advances in forensic technology will enable a DNA profile to be ascertained, and, finally, shed some light on who he was, and how he died.”

The exhumation, which Forensic Science SA director Linzi Wilson-Wilde told ABC last month would likely be in the “short-term”, is yet to occur.

The age of the remains and the fact the body was embalmed – chemicals used could break down DNA – meant their task was “extremely challenging”, Wilson-Wilde said.

But Abbott said because the body was embalmed after the man’s organs were removed the fluid likely missed the head, with whole mitochondrial genome already obtained from hair taken from the body after embalming.

“[Mitochondrial] means the DNA’s from his mother’s side, unfortunately that’s not the type of DNA you need to identify him with, but it shows there’s no formaldehyde in his scalp.

“To identify him you need part of the DNA called the autosomes, they come from both your mother and father.”

The whole process – extracting DNA and then finding any relatives through matches on DNA already on databases such as ancestry.com, including Egan’s, could take up to two years, Abbott said.

“[It’s] called forensic genealogy, which is looking at the family trees of distant cousins that he connects to through his DNA, and then triangulating the family trees to find the missing person on them – and that’ll be him.”

The benefits of solving the Somerton man mystery went beyond the individual.

“I gave up a long time ago trying to make sense of these random letters on his poetry book. It seemed to me what’s more interesting is to actually do … human identification.

“It’s like a really tough problem, and if you solve it the kind of software tools and techniques, the things you develop, all come in handy for modern cases that need to be solved.”

There was also the deep human need to “always have mysteries solved”, especially those where somebody died without their name.

“This one’s extra special because there’s just so many mysterious things about it – the guy’s found dead on the beach, he’s got no labels on his clothes, he’s unidentified, there’s no cause of death and he’s got this mysterious piece of paper, with words from a Persian poet on it.

“It’s all very exotic and mysterious, isn’t it?”

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