The mystery began seven decades ago on December 1, 1948, when a man was discovered dead, slumped by the sea wall on Adelaide’s Somerton Beach. It looked like a peaceful enough passing but as nobody came forward to identify the man and police failed to match his dental records or fingerprints, the intrigue began.
The Somerton Man, as he became known, was immaculately turned out. His shoes were new, his double-breasted jacket was pressed but, oddly, all the labels had been removed from his clothes. He carried no wallet, money or identification either on him or in his suitcase, which was found at a train station six weeks later.
An autopsy found he was a fit 40 to 45-year-old man, possibly an athlete, ‘in top physical condition’ and his death was not from natural causes. The doctor who carried out the post-mortem believed the man had died from heart failure brought on by poisoning. The case had become either suicide or murder.
The peculiarities didn’t end there. Months later, a small rolled-up piece of paper was found in his hidden fob watch pocket. It read ‘Tamam Shud’, which is Farsi for ‘it is ended’ or ‘finished’. The scrap of paper was discovered to have been ripped from the final page of a book of Persian poetry, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
After a nationwide hunt for the book with its final page missing, a man came forward. He had been parked near Somerton Beach at the time of the death and someone had thrown the book through the open window of his car. Enticingly, an encrypted message was scribbled on the back page but nobody could figure it out. Perhaps, people theorised, the Somerton Man was a Russian spy.
A phone number was also written in the book and police discovered it belonged to a nurse named Jessica Thompson, who lived 400 metres from where the body was found.
She was shown the Somerton Man’s face and reportedly almost fainted. But she categorically denied knowing him. Police officers believed she was hiding something but she refused to work with them. Jessica died in 2007, taking any secrets with her to the grave.
The 1948 case has baffled amateur sleuths for decades but one, Professor Derek Abbott, believes he’s as close as anyone can get to the truth. After decades of research, he has come to the conclusion that Jessica Thompson’s son, Robin, was fathered by the Somerton Man.
In 2009 a dental expert confirmed the Somerton Man had a rare genetic disorder affecting his teeth which affects only two per cent of the population. He also had a very rare anatomical feature relating to his ears. Photos of Robin showed he shared both of these anomalies.
By the time Dr Abbott had discovered this, Robin had already died and so his search moved on to Rachel Egan, Robin’s daughter.
“He wanted to look at my ears and my teeth. He was also after my DNA,” Rachel told Australian Story. “It’s probably the first request I’ve had from a man to do that.”
Incredibly, from that starting point, a love story blossomed. Within days of meeting, Derek and Rachel were engaged. Now happily married, they have three children together. The only thing missing is confirmation that the Somerton Man is in fact Rachel’s grandfather, as Derek suspects. But that final piece of the puzzle might now be close.
South Australian Attorney-General Vickie Chapman, who studied the case at law school, has granted conditional approval for an exhumation of the Somerton Man’s body so his DNA can be gathered and compared with Rachel and Robin’s. It comes with the provision that taxpayers don’t foot the bill and is expected to cost about $20,000.
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