The Somerton Man case throws theories about Cold War spies into Australia’s most baffling mystery

A Cold War spy. A ballet dancer. A disguised black market trader. Maybe a sailor.

These are just some of the theories about the nature of the work that may have led an unidentified man to Somerton Beach in the South Australian city of Adelaide, where his body – dressed in a suit and tie – was found on January 12, 1948.

It’s a case that has baffled investigators for decades, attracting amateur detectives from around the world, and even saw the mystery man’s remains exhumed last year to undergo advanced DNA testing. But the identity of the so-called Somerton Man remains a mystery more than 70 years later. Nobody knows who he was, what he was doing in the area, where he came from or how he died. But many intriguing clues remained.

The man had a smoked cigarette hanging from his collar with no visible burn marks, his hair was immaculately styled and his double-breasted jacket was ironed. The tags on his clothes had been cut off. His pockets contained chewing gum, a box of matches, a pack of cigarettes, unused train and bus tickets and an aluminum comb that was not sold in Australia.

The Somerton Man was found in a suit and tie, slumped against a seawall.

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/South Australia State Records

In January 1949 a suitcase was found at Adelaide railway station and tied to the man by a spool of thread matching repair work in his pockets. It contained a strange assortment of items, including clothing that also had their tags removed. But still there was no identification or anything that could help connect the dots as to who the man was.

The garments were all examined by experts, it said Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man Mystery by Kerry Greenwood. Police called in a tailor, Hugh Possa of Gawler Place, who explained that the coat’s meticulous manufacture with machine feather stitches was definitely American, as only the US garment industry uses a feather sewing machine, Greenwood wrote.

A few months later, Pathology professor John Burton Cleland found a tiny, rolled-up piece of paper hidden deep in the pocket of the man’s pants, with the Farsi words “Tamam Shud” written on it – which translates to “it’s finished” or “it’s finished.” means – was printed.

The torn paper was later traced to a book of Old Persian poetry Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyamwho had been left in the back seat of a car near where it was found. Some believe this is evidence he was a spy or double agent who was executed. On the back cover of that book with the missing page was an encrypted message that both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Scotland Yard’s code breakers were unable to decipher. It read:

“W [or possibly M] RGOABABDWTBIMPANETP

“MLIABO AIAIQC

“ITMTSAMDTGAB”

Clues in the man’s pockets on the suitcase only seemed to confuse investigators even more.

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/South Australia State Records

A phone number was also scrawled in pencil on the back of Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat. It belonged to a local nurse named Teresa Powell or Johnson, who was questioned by police and said she didn’t know who the unidentified man was before she died in 2007 Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man Mystery.

The Somerton Man was well built, around 40 to 50 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall, with gray-blue eyes and reddish-brown hair that turned gray on the sides, according to authorities. He had what the pathologist described as a “fine British face”.

Mr Cleland also noted: “Many people who find their way into the morgue have dirty and unattended toenails. His were clean.”

There has been some speculation among internet sleuths that the Somerton Man may have been poisoned by a dumped lover. An autopsy revealed an enlarged spleen and a liver in poor condition but could not determine a cause of death, factors leading to speculation of poisoning although no trace of poison was found this could not be ruled out either. The examiners also noted that the man had unusually strong calf muscles, a detail that fueled the idea that he was trained in ballet and could have been a professional dancer. Other theories about him are that he was simply an American sailor who traveled to Adelaide to visit a child he had fathered during the war and died of natural causes, or that he was a merchant seaman making his visit to Adelaide had crossed Australia.

The man’s body was embalmed to give police more time to identify him and a plaster cast – or death mask – was made of his face as a physical reminder of who he was before he was buried in an Adelaide cemetery a tombstone only read “the unknown”.

The Somerton Man’s body was exhumed last year as part of Operation Persevere, which is trying to name all the unidentified remains in South Australia, but forensic experts have still been unable to identify him.

“For more than 70 years there has been speculation as to who this man was and how he died,” Vickie Chapman, then Attorney General of South Australia, said in a statement last year.

“It’s a story that has captured the imagination of people across the state, and indeed around the world — but I believe we can finally find some answers.”

The story of the ‘unknown man’ made headlines across Australia and New Zealand and his fingerprints and photos were sent around the world including England, America, and English speaking countries in Africa, heard his coronal exam. A January 1949 letter signed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover confirmed that the US had found no match to his fingerprints in its files.

“I think the immediate cause of death was heart failure, but I can’t say what factor caused heart failure,” said Robert Cowan, a government chemical analyst who examined samples taken from the body.

South Australia Police Superintendent Des Bray previously said many theories had been put forward over the years but “the truth is nobody knows”.

“There was talk of whether he was a Russian spy, whether he was involved in the black market, whether he was a seaman,” he said.

“People have done their best in the past, everyone has done everything they can to solve the case, but they haven’t been able to.”

Speaking at the grave site last year ahead of the exhumation, Det. Supt Bray said it was “important for everyone to remember that the Somerton man is not just an oddity or a mystery to be solved “.

“It’s someone’s father, son, maybe grandfather, uncle or brother and that’s why we do that and try to identify them,” he continued.

“We know people who live in Adelaide who think they may be related,” he said.

“And they deserve a definitive answer.”

The Somerton Man was embalmed to give investigators more time to figure out who he was.

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/South Australia State Records

Anne Coxon, deputy director of Forensic Science SA, said a number of different DNA techniques would be used but warned that “we may or may not be successful”.

“The fact that the remains were also embalmed [72 years ago] adds another complication, and that’s because the embalming fluid can break down the DNA,” said Dr. Coxon before exhumation.

“At this stage it is difficult to set a time frame.

“Even if we find DNA, we may not find a match. It depends on who is in the databases we are looking at and what information can be extracted from the comparison made.”

Professor Derek Abbott recently commissioned Canadian virtual reality artist Daniel Voshart to reconstruct what the Somerton man might have looked like when he was alive.

Professor Abbott, a biomedical engineering specialist at the University of Adelaide, was advised by Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, a pioneer of forensic genealogy in the United States, with Voshart. Using artificial intelligence software, Voshart combined the Somerton Man’s physical descriptions with the autopsy photos and images of the plaster bust.

The stunning images bring to life the face of a man whose name is yet to be known and whose life and death remains one of Australia’s most intriguing mysteries – and an open police investigation.

Uncovering the Somerton man’s true identity has also become something personal for Professor Abbott, who has spent years researching the case and believes there may be a family connection.

In the course of his investigation, Professor Abbott met his now wife, Rachel Egan, after he sent her a letter to explain why he thought she might be the Somerton man’s granddaughter. After a single dinner dominated by talk of death and DNA, the couple decided to get married and have three children, CNN reports. “Whether he’s related to either of us or not, we kind of welcomed him into our family because he was what brought us together,” Professor Abbott said.

A portrait of the Somerton man – known to the children as Mr S or Mr Somerton – now hangs above their playroom door.

“His cause of death doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s more about who he was and can we give him his name back?”

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