A nearly 75-year-old mystery in South Australia is solved by a professor and a genealogist who are thousands of miles apart
What do you do with a cold case that happened a lifetime ago when things like DNA testing and forensic genealogy didn’t exist? If you’re a professor at Adelaide University in Southern Australia, you do everything you can to solve it. In December 1948, a man was found dead on Somerton Beach in a suburb of Adelaide. Tucked inside the watch pocket in his pants was a slip of paper with Persian words printed on it which meant “finished.” Over the years, dozens of people tried to identify the man with no success, but Professor Derek Abbott, who enlisted California forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick, made it his mission in life to solve the case. In this episode, we walk you through how the mystery of the Somerton Man was finally solved. Full transcript available at https://www.whatremainspodcast.com. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Amanda: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Montage: Australia's most famous mysteries, just who is the so-called Somerton man. The so-called Somerton man. It's the Somerton man, the Somerton man, the Somerton man. The Somerton man is not just a curiosity, um, or a mystery to be solved. It's somebody's father, son, perhaps grandfather, uncle, brother.
Professor Derek Abbott: So, the story is that in 1948 in Adelaide, Australia, a man was found dead, lying on the beach. On a beach called Somerton beach.
And what was strange is that he was very neat in a suit. His hands and feet were soft. His fingernails and toenails were nicely trimmed with no dirt in them. So, he was not a drifter, and he had a nice suit on tie on, and he was just found dead one morning. No ID.
And to this day, well, until a week ago we did not know his name.
Amanda: Derek Abbott is a professor at the University of Adelaide. I spoke to him in August.
And he told me about his long search for the identity of the “Somerton Man” -- named for the location where his body was found.
Back in 1948, police searched through his pockets and found cigarettes, a comb, matches, and an unused train ticket.
According to several news reports, investigators went to the Adelaide Railway Station to search for evidence. They discovered an unclaimed brown suitcase in a locker that had been checked in the day before the body was found. Inside, they found a regular assortment of items someone might travel with; pajamas, a robe, slippers, a handkerchief, a shirt, a tie, pants, and shaving tools. There were also scissors and a screwdriver. And the name “Keane” was handwritten on several labels found in the clothing items in the suitcase.
But on their initial search of the dead man, there was something they missed.
Derek: It wasn't until six months later that they found a little rolled up piece of paper stuffed into what's called, we call it here in Australia, a fob pocket. I think in America you say a watch pocket.
Okay. So, the interesting thing about this bit of paper that was found six months later, is it wasn't handwritten. It was printed and it said Tamam Shud, which is Persian for finished.
Amanda: “Finished” or “The end.”
Derek: And the police at the time took that as a kind of a suicide note. That's how they, that's how they understood it. But, you know, it could have any number of interpretations.
Amanda: The mystery of those words was just the first of many other puzzles within puzzles lurking as he unpacked this case. And to solve it, Derek found a partner to help him.
And their different skills together lead to new revelations in the case.
Colleen Fitzpatrick: I thought, oh, okay, now you're cooking with gas.
Amanda: On this episode, a forensic genealogist from California and a professor halfway around the world pair up and, they say, they finally find the identity the Somerton Man. 75 years after he was discovered.
From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
Amanda: Derek Abbott teaches electrical engineering at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. He first learned about the Somerton Man case in 1995 in a very ordinary way.
Professor Derek Abbott: I just happened to be in a laundry. Do you say laundry or mat?
Amanda: Either one works.
Derek: Oh, as you say, both in America. Great.
So, I happen to be in a laundromat, and you know, just watching my clothes whiz by and, you know, there's a pile of magazines next to me. So, I was just flicking through them and, um, saw an article about this case and it kind of piqued my interest, but it was a small article with very little detail.
Amanda: So Derek was interested but not hooked....yet.
Now, remember the mysterious piece of paper found in the man’s pocket with the words “it is finished”. Turns out the paper was torn from the last page of a book. A book of poetry called the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Khayyam was an 11th century scholar, described this way by the BBC: “He had little confidence in the promises of religion, with its talk of Heaven and Hell, and even expressed doubts regarding the logic of God. There was only one thing Khayyám was certain about, and which he cherished: this life.
So, the police wanted to find the book the page was torn from. They advertised they were looking for it in the local newspaper.
Derek: Realizing this was a once in a million change because this is like six months after the man was found dead and who's going to still have this thing six months later? So, uh, they weren't expecting a result out of this and low and behold. A few people came in and handed in old Rubaiyats, it was like four or five people and they carefully checked the texture and, the weight of the paper, the type of paper, against the man's piece of paper. And they determined that one of the books was, was the right one.
Amanda: The man who turned in this book told police someone had tossed it into the backseat of his car a few months ago. That he had no idea where it came from, and he had just shoved it in his glove box and forgot about it until he saw the newspaper notice.
Derek told me that the police couldn’t believe their luck, first they found the book to begin with, and then that it had writing on the back cover. Derek found out about the writing in 2007, when he happened to see another article about the case – this one was more substantial than the one he saw in the laundromat more than a decade earlier.
This article showed the writing on the book included a series of strange letters strung together. Derek is a professor of electrical engineering. He says part of his training was in cryptography and security. The strange sequence of letters written in the back of a book. He, and others, thought it could be a code of some sort from WWII and that perhaps the Somerton Man was a spy.
Derek's puzzle solving brain thought figuring out whether it was code or not would be a good university project.
Over the years, his students always came to the same conclusion, the letters didn’t have the sophistication to be WWII code.
But the strange letters weren’t the only details from the book cover. There were also three phone numbers that the police back then followed up on. The first two led to a local business and a bank. But the third...
Derek: This phone number turned out to be a lady that lived in a house 5 minutes from where he was found dead.
Amanda: Derek says she told the police she didn’t know anything about the man, but they noted she sounded evasive.
Derek: So, one of the first tasks I did when getting onto this project many years ago was to figure out who she was because her name was not released in the press.
So, there was a little bit of detective work involved, but the press did just release enough information that it could be worked out. They said she lived very close to where the man was found dead. They even said she trained as a nurse in a particular hospital, you know, so I was able to look up records and kind of piece things together and find out who she was.
And it turns out. She went by the name, Jo Thomson.
Amanda: But by 2007, Jo Thomson had died. Derek then figured out that she had had a son, who was a ballet dancer named Robin Thomson.
Derek: And that piqued my interest because the Somerton man was said to have very strong half muscles like that, of a ballet dancer. So, I thought uh oh, there could be a connection here.
Amanda: Derek says there were also lots of photos of Robin in the paper because of his dancing, and when he looked at Robin’s face in detail.
Derek: I noticed that his canine teeth were right next to his middle teeth, which is rather unusual.
And, um, and that is exactly what is written in, in the coronial inquest for the Somerton man. The Somerton man's teeth were like that. And so I, I spoke to dental experts at the university and found out that that is a hereditary condition, and it can be inherited.
Amanda: Derek had a hypothesis that Robin’s mother and the Somerton Man had a relationship and perhaps Robin knew something about who the Somerton Man was.
Derek: Once I figured out, you know, his name and how to locate him and stuff like that, I was two months too late. He had already passed away of prostate cancer.
In Australia, the phrase we use is I was totally gutted.
And so, I thought, well does he have any descendant? And so, I found a daughter.
Amanda: So, Derek had found and reached out to Rachel Egan, the biological daughter of Robin Thomson.
Amanda: Over dinner, he told her what he’d found.
Derek: And interviewed her. She knew nothing about the case. Hadn't heard anything about it. None of her family ever told her anything about it.
Amanda: It was a dead end.
Derek: So, she was totally useless, but I married her!
Amanda: They joke that Derek married Rachel for her DNA, but she actually gave him her DNA sample before they were married. He hoped that through 23 and Me and Ancestry.com it would lead them to a family tree leading to the Somerton Man, but no luck. Derek wouldn’t find out for sure if his wife was related to the Somerton Man until he actually cracked the case, and to do that he’d need the help of a good DNA sample from the Somerton Man himself, and the help of that forensic genealogist from the United States.
More, after the break...
Amanda: Here’s the recap
Derek Abbott had married the woman. The woman who was the daughter of the dancer. The dancer who was the son of the nurse. The nurse whose phone number was written on the inside cover of the book. The book a man discovered in the backseat of his car that had the torn page. A torn page that had “Finished” printed on it, in Persian. A page that was found in the pocket of the Somerton Man’s suit.
The Somerton Man was found in the late 1940s and he was kept in the mortuary freezer for many months before he was buried. The police kept hoping someone would come forward and identify him. A lot of people did come by in the hopes of identifying a missing relative, but no one ID’d him. So, after 6 months ….
Derek: You know they felt well, we, we should give this guy a funeral and bury him now, but before we do, so what we'll do is we'll create a death mask.
Amanda: This is not as unusual as it sounds. Death masks actually date back to the Middle Ages. Often these masks were made of famous people to help sculptors create realistic statues. In later centuries they were used to record the features of unknown dead people for later identification...like the Somerton Man.
Derek: You, actually mold it directly off the dead body using plaster of Paris. Uh, so that's what they did.
Amanda: In 2010, the police knew Derek was working on this very old cold case, and they gave him permission to take hairs embedded in that death mask made more then 60 years earlier. Derek’s team of graduate students painstakingly removed 50 hairs from the plaster to use for DNA testing.
Derek: And we’ve had those 50 hairs in my lab since then.
Amanda: A team of DNA scientists at the University of Adelaide tested the hairs. They were struggling to get a strong enough DNA profile that would allow them to build the Somerton Man’s family tree. But each time they extracted DNA, the results got a little bit clearer.
Meanwhile, in 2014, American forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick noticed Derek’s efforts.
Colleen: I was surfing the web and I saw that Derek Abbott at the University of Adelaide was doing a GoFundMe for the Somerton man. So, I didn't know what that was. And I read it. I was very intrigued, and I wrote him an email saying, Hey, I'm doing forensic genealogy. Is there any way we can do wide DNA on this? This is what I do. I mean, just a chatty, what are you doing? Type email. And I never heard back.
Amanda: Colleen is pretty famous in the forensic genealogy community. One case she worked on she says was the first to use genetic genealogy to create investigative leads.
Colleen: It was a 1991 homicide of a high school student named Sarah Yarborough. She was, had been, she went to school on a Saturday morning for a field trip and they found her in the bushes raped and strangled.
Amanda: It would take Colleen until 2019 to solve the case but she finally identified Patrick Nicholas, a previously convicted child sex offender, as the suspect in Yarborough’s murder. And did it while solving many other cases in between. Cases that put her on the map.
Colleen: So, in 2015, I went to Australia as a, you know, invited speaker to one of the genealogy conferences. And while I was there, I set up a book tour for myself to sell some books. I'm an author of three books. And when I got to Adelaide, you know, I said, hey, I'll look up Derek Abbott. Which I did and we just hit it off. And we talked about the Somerton man and he knew, I knew a lot about the genealogy and the DNA and stuff. So, you know, we wound up chatting some more.
Amanda: The chatting turned into a friendship that endured for years despite the 8000 miles between them. They spent a lot of their time doing old-fashioned investigating together, going down paths they thought might lead somewhere only to find dead-ends.
Colleen: I helped him research some of the items in the Somerton man suitcase. The ties, the kind of shirt he was wearing. Wrigley Spearmint gum. The kind of metal comb. There were, you know, a number of things. And so, we just talked about, you know, how we could move forward.
Amanda: Ultimately, it was those hairs, the ones stuck in the plaster cast made of the Somerton Man that finally led them to a strong DNA profile that Colleen could use to do her magic.
Colleen employed a technique called “snip testing.” It’s short for the acronym SNP which stands for Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms. Basically, snips are the genetic differences between people. So, if you picture DNA as a series of building blocks of who we are, the snip is the variation that occurs in our genetic makeup that makes us unique...they occur in between our genes.
It was Colleen and Derek’s third try to get DNA from the hairs.
Colleen: We got lucky, we got lucky because the hair was not in bad shape, because when he took the hair from the plaster, he worked with a graduate student, and they really took hair from the center of the bundle. So, the hair he had had not been exposed to the chemistry of the plaster. So, we had hair that had been actually protected through the years. So, we had good hair. We worked with a good lab that gave us good data from that good hair.
Derek: We got viable DNA from the hair, very early this year, 2022. And the first thing I did was check it against my wife's DNA. And guess what? Absolute zero match, that she might be related to the Somerton man was only a hypothesis. So, you know, when, when the DNA result came through and ruled her out, as of being a relative, it was, that was fine. Cause we just wanted to know whatever the truth was, whatever it was.
Amanda: They finally had good data and now they needed to find a match to the Somerton Man’s DNA. Colleen says genealogy is a mostly an American phenomenon and the numbers of people who have taken the test from Australia are far smaller. So, it wasn’t a given that a 70-year-old hair would finally lead them to a genetic match online.
Derek: We put his DNA. Up on one of these websites. Bang straight away, we found a distant relative three generations away from the Somerton man.
Amanda: What they knew in early 2022 was this distant relative was adopted, and he was in the process of looking for his biological father. He had no idea who his relatives were that might connect him to the Somerton Man. In February of 2022, Colleen found the man’s father and began building the Somerton Man’s family tree.
Colleen: The young man who was in the database that we kind of made the tree for, his great-great grandfather was somebody named Thomas Keen. And if you remember what was in the suitcase, there were several items that had Keen where it, it was marked K E E N or K E E N T, Keen. So, when I saw Thomas Keen was his great, great grandfather, I thought, oh, okay, now you're cooking with gas.
Derek: And so, we were able to tell the family that this is the real father. And so, they were delighted with that result. So, we were able to help, help someone out, but it was also helping the case too, because now once we had the father, we were able to then grow the tree up.
Colleen and I grew out that tree over that was from all the way from February this year, through June we had 4,000 people.
Amanda: And there was one name in that group of 4000 that jumped out at them.
Derek: Carl Webb, but we had no proof that this was the Somerton man.
Amanda: Not yet that is. Why they had suspicions about him and how they finally cracked the case... when we come back.
[Midroll 3 Break]
Amanda: As soon as Colleen Fitzpatrick and Derek Abbott found the name Carl Webb, they had a hunch about him. He was the youngest of six children, and there was something that made him different from his siblings...
Derek: They all had death certificates and, you know. Defined dates of deaths and funerals in newspapers and all that sort of stuff. And he had none. So, thinking, Hmm.
Amanda: Derek says sometimes someone is a loner and they don't have an obituary or sometimes records get lost. Especially in years right after wartime --there are so many reasons this could have happened. It wasn’t reason enough to think Carl Webb was the Somerton Man, but it was enough to get their attention.
Derek: So, he was a person of interest. and we had no proof. So, because we had found him through a paternal line to prove it. We now have to find a DNA connection through the maternal line.
Colleen: That would make like a unique connection. It would triangulate. So, we had to research Carl's brothers. We had dates of death on them. We followed them through time. And then we had to find a relative through his mother's side.
Amanda: And that wasn’t going to be easy.
Colleen: First of all, it's so long in the past. There aren't very many relatives, and the family is dilute, and there's been divorces. And there's been relatives that don't know where they, you know, their uncle lives anymore and stuff like that.
And then you have to do genealogy to find them in the first place. And then, Carl's mother had an unusual history.
Amanda: Turns out the last name listed on Carl Webb’s mother’s birth certificate wasn’t accurate. According to Colleen, Carl’s grandmother had remarried almost right away, after Carl’s grandfather had died and took her new husband’s name. Carl’s mom was raised as a Grace instead of a Stevens – they followed the Grace line. Which ended up not being helpful, until someone on the team figured it out.
Derek: So, we had to do a little bit of detective work to find out her real birth father's name. We were able to do that with some difficulty. And so, we were able then to tunnel down her family tree and find some distant cousins of the Somerton Man. That had the DNA test done and we eventually found a first cousin three times removed. On her side and that, that was a match with the Somerton Man. And so that was the aha moment... That’s when we decided this is it.
Clips from news reports
Somerton man’s identity reportedly discovered by Adelaide university professor Is it after more than seven decades his identity exposed, ending a lingering mystery ...
Because university professors and investigators in the US believe it's a Melbourne man named Carl Webb
Somerton man’s identity reportedly discovered by Adelaide university professor ….Age 43 from Melbourne. The son of a pastry chef, Derek Abbott, says Webb was an electrical engineer and not a spy or in a love affair as once claimed.
Amanda: Yup. Carl Webb was an electrical engineer. Professor of electrical engineering Derek Abbott says the identity of Somerton Man has not been independently confirmed by the police yet but they have announced publicly that they are pleased with Derek and Colleen’s findings. Derek says the Forensic Science office of South Australia has a lot of current cases that are taking priority right now, but he expects them to confirm his findings by the end of the year.
What did it feel like to solve a case that was almost 75 years old?
Colleen: It's like passing through a keyhole. You see the nice room on the other side with all the nice furniture and the people and what they're doing. And then you, you actually pass through the keyhole and you're in that room with all these exciting new things. And it was like solving the mystery was one thing, but now tracking how Carl got to the beach. Trying to find, you know, where he came from and his story. That’s very been very exciting for me.
Amanda: And Colleen has started to try to piece together his life by looking at his divorce decree from a woman named Dorothy Webb, who was a local pharmacist.
Colleen: Dorothy filed for divorce in, I believe in 51 or 52 now that's after he died. Okay, whether she knew that or not, we don't know. So, she files for divorce on the basis of abandonment, and she describes incidences that happened in their marriage that causes her to request a divorce. He's very moody. He doesn't like to lose anything. I mean, lose like at poker. You know, he smashes all the dishes in the kitchen. He gets fits of anger and then he has other times he won't get out of bed. He, you know, locks her out or he, you know, she goes and stays with a friend because she can't stand it. There are calls to the police because of domestic abuse and when the police show up, he’s in a good mood and so they don’t believe her.
Amanda: Colleen says the divorce papers go on to say that Carl was suicidal.
Colleen: She comes home one day and he's laying in a bed soaking wet. The house smells like ether and he tells her he just swallowed 50 tablets of phenobarbital. She gets him out of bed, saves him while he's screaming. If you save me and I get better, I'm going to kill you. So, evidently tried to commit suicide.
Evidently according to her narrative, he, he has written poems. He loves to write poems. A lot of them are about death and she claims that he says, that's what he longs for the most.
Amanda: But Colleen is not totally convinced that Carl died by suicide.
Colleen: She's a pharmacist and you know that there's phenobarbital in the house. You know what I'm saying? Sort of murky. About what really is going on there. So, there's a big mystery.... Was it suicide? Was it assisted suicide? Was it murder? Was it an accident or was it natural causes? That's still way up in the air.
Derek: Finding the guy's name is the beginning of the story, not the end. So, now the next step is to find out this man's story, who exactly was he, what was he doing? Who were his connections? And this could take another 10 years. If the story goes on. It never ends.
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This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb. It was produced and edited by Rachel McCarthy, with final mix by Doug Miller. Our Director of Podcast Operations is Anita Normanly and our Executive Producer is Ashley Talley.
Thanks for listening.