True crime meets forensic science in the What Remains podcast
Oct. 12, 2022

Solving the Mystery of The Somerton Man

Sometimes, a cold case is like an itch that you have to scratch in order to function. That’s what the Somerton Man case has been like for electrical engineering professor Derek Abbott who teaches at Adelaide University in South Australia. He first came across the case in 1995 when he was reading a magazine at a laundromat. A man was found dead on Somerton Beach in South Australia in 1948 and had never been identified. This 70+ year old mystery piqued Abbot’s interest. But life was busy, and he didn’t entertain jumping into the case at that time.  

One of the oldest cold cases in Australia 

Then in 2007, Abbott read another article that mentioned a note found in the man’s pocket that was torn from a Persian poetry book. The book had been located and there were a series of numbers written in the back of it, numbers that were believed to be some kind of code, maybe from World War II. So, Abbott and his students started by trying to crack the code. Eventually, this project morphed into Abbott trying to identify the man. 

A DNA sample more than seventy years old 

In 2014 Abbott enlisted the help of renowned forensic genealogist, Colleen Fitzpatrick in California. The two began a journey to find the identity of the Somerton man. First, they would need a DNA sample. Hairs from the mystery man, stuck in a plaster death mask provided the information they needed. By the spring of 2022, The Somerton Man’s family tree started to take shape. 

Building The Somerton Man’s family tree 

“We had 4,000 people and there was this name, Carl Webb, somewhere in that group of 4,000 people which we had our suspicions about. We had that name on the tree quite early on, around March, but we had no proof that this was the Somerton man,” said Abbott. 

In July 2022—a breakthrough. Seventy-four years after being found on a beach in South Australia, The Somerton Man finally had a name.

In this episode of the What Remains podcast we tell you how a professor and a genealogist teamed up one of the oldest mysteries in the world.