Somerton Man’s identity – and how and why he died – has baffled an army of sleuths ever since his body was found by two apprentice jockeys on December 1, 1948.
Somerton Man’s identity – and how and why he died – has baffled an army of sleuths ever since his body was found by two apprentice jockeys on December 1, 1948.

Found: The pathologist’s report in Somerton Man case

The strange case of Somerton Man- one of Australia's most enduring mysteries - has developed a fresh touch of intrigue with publication of the investigating pathologist's personal notes.

Somerton Man's identity - and how and why he died - has baffled an army of sleuths ever since his body was found by two apprentice jockeys just after sunrise on December 1, 1948.

It was fully clothed, slumped beside the concrete public steps on Adelaide's Somerton beach.

The published report - by pathologist Professor John Burton Cleland - includes the revelation that there were bloodstains on the back of the neck and shirt.

 

 

The location at Somerton Beach where the unidentified body was found propped up against the seawall.
The location at Somerton Beach where the unidentified body was found propped up against the seawall.

At the time - 71 years ago, and just after World War II - the Cold War era was emerging.

This gave rise to a suspicion that Somerton Man might have been a Russian spy.

Another theory is that he was an American sailor who travelled to Adelaide to see the son that he had fathered with an Australian lover during the war years.

Last month, South Australia's Attorney-General, Vickie Chapman, who studied the case at law school, granted conditional approval to exhume Somerton Man's body in an attempt to solve this bizarre cold case.

Was it a natural death, the tragic tale of a lonely man who took his own life, or a murder most foul and - so far - undetectable?

It was April 1949, four months after the body was found, when Professor Cleland presented his final report to the South Australian coroner, Thomas Erskine Cleland, a distant cousin.

Pathologist Professor John Burton Cleland found the man had been poisoned, a common finding in unexplained deaths at the time.
Pathologist Professor John Burton Cleland found the man had been poisoned, a common finding in unexplained deaths at the time.

In his typewritten and handwritten 'notes to self', he concludes the man, thought to be in his mid-40s, was likely an American - based on his clothing and brushed-back hairstyle.

The pathologist writes that, with well-kept nails and hands, the cadaver was more likely to be that of "a clerk" or of "the officer class" than a labourer.

The case is also known as 'Tamam Shud', based on a scrap of paper the pathologist pulled from a tiny fob pocket in the dead man's trousers.

The paper, apparently torn from a book found in a nearby car, contained those two words: 'Tamam Shud'.

The pathologist understood the phrase to be Farsi (Persian) and to translate as "completely" or "wholly".

He speculates whether Somerton Man had served as a sailor in the US or British forces, and gained some linguistic understanding.

"Evidently (he) had stayed in the Middle East sufficiently long to acquire some smattering of the language," he writes.

The term 'Tamam Shud' was later identified as concluding The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, the 11th century poet, and to mean 'The End'.

The Rubaiyat
The Rubaiyat

That discovery added weight to Professor Cleland's suggestions that Somerton Man must have taken his own life through poison, although the evidence is hardly conclusive.

The autopsy showed no lesions likely to cause natural death, no coronary disease or cerebral haemorrhage.

There were no hypodermic needle signs, although the pathologist notes they are "hard to detect".

Lumps of potato in the stomach - possibly from a pasty - suggested death had occurred before digestion was complete.

Under his hypothesis, Professor Cleland considers the poison must have been taken before arrival at the beach and to be "something that kills in a few hours and does not cause convulsions or a struggle."

No money or official papers were found on the body, which he regards as "evidence that Somerton Man took pains to hide his identity and intended to commit suicide".

He spends little time considering if someone else could have gone to the trouble of trying to conceal the identity.

But he does wonder why a man with no evident connection to Adelaide travelled by train - most likely from Melbourne - to immediately catch a bus to the coast, and to take his life at a popular section of a suburban beach.

"The deceased was so close to the steps that one would hardly expect anyone contemplating a quiet death to choose such a situation"," he wrote.

The death mask of the Somerton Man.
The death mask of the Somerton Man.

 

 

As for the blood on the neck and shirt, Dr Cleland questions whether it might have come from "the mortuary slab".

He wonders who would have undressed Somerton Man at the morgue.

Other identifying features noted by Dr Cleland are that the victim was a heavy smoker, as indicated by staining on the fingers, and the impression that he was "particular" about his clothes and shoes.

Six weeks after Somerton Man was found propped against the sea wall, a suitcase was retrieved from the Adelaide Railway Station's left luggage cloakroom, where it had been deposited the day before his death.

Detectives examine clothing found in a suitcase at Adelaide Railway Station in January 1949. The suitcase was later linked to the Somerton Man.
Detectives examine clothing found in a suitcase at Adelaide Railway Station in January 1949. The suitcase was later linked to the Somerton Man.

A patch of orange-coloured linen thread in the case was found, under a microscope, to match thread used on the suit buttons of the dead man,

Professor Cleland is in "no doubt", accordingly, that the suitcase belonged to Somerton Man.

Three cloth items were marked "Kean", "Keane", and "T. Keane", but there was nothing else to identity the owner.

Instruments for stencilling were also found among the belongings, and a head of barley grass was lodged in the turn-up of a trouser leg.

All tags identifying where the owner had travelled had been removed from the suitcase.

Stitches on his coat were said to be in "an American style".

Professor Cleland's preparatory notes for the coronial inquest were discovered by University of Adelaide electrical engineering professor Derek Abbott, an authority on the case.

They were uncovered in the university' Mortlock Library in 2011, but have not been previously published in the media.

Professor Abbott is married to Rachel Egan, whom he believes to be the granddaughter of Somerton Man.

Some time after the body was found, a copy of the Rubaiyat was discovered in the back of a car at Glenelg.

It was the same book the scrap of paper was torn from, and on the back cover of the book was scribbled a phone number.

It belonged to a nurse, Jo Thomson who lived at Moseley St, Glenelg, less than five minutes' walk from the death scene.

Thomson had a son young son at the time named Robin who became a well-known dancer with the New Zealand ballet.

Somerton Man's ears were highly unusual with his cymba (upper ear hollow) larger than the lower, a feature possessed by only one per cent of the population.

Studying photos, Professor Abbot noticed Robin's ears were strikingly similar to Somerton Man's.

Experts considered the chance of coincidence to be one in 10,000.

As Robin had died Professor Abbott sought out his daughter Rachel to ask if she would agree to DNA testing to progress his theory.

Professor Derek Abbott from the University of Adelaide and US forensic DNA specialist Colleen Fitzpatrick before their talk at Ayers House, in 2016, on the Somerton Man mystery. Picture: Tom Huntley
Professor Derek Abbott from the University of Adelaide and US forensic DNA specialist Colleen Fitzpatrick before their talk at Ayers House, in 2016, on the Somerton Man mystery. Picture: Tom Huntley

The two fell in love and now have three young children.

Professor Abbot finds the most interesting revelation from the pathologist's notes is that a "shirt-coat" was among the items discovered in the suitcase.

"A shirt coat is a very long shirt that can be tucked in as a shirt or left hanging out as a summer coat," he says.

"I found a ton of ads for shirt coats in US newspapers in the 1940s but little in Australia apart from a photo of a man wearing a shirt-coat in the Brisbane Courier of 1949.

"The caption said the man was an Aussie returning from the US in the coat but 'is not game enough to set the trend in Australia'.

"This is one of a number of details that leads me to think the man may have been American."

From the very start of the extensive police and coroner's investigation there was a strong suggestion that Somerton Man, who had light sandy hair, greying at the sides, and several missing teeth, was from the United States.

 

In 2016, the renowned American forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick presented evidence to a conference that DNA testing - from a presumed relative of the dead man - virtually confirmed Somerton Man was from the east coast of the US.

Her research, matched against worldwide genealogy DNA databases, revealed links to a large group of relatives in the US state of Virginia.

Every detail small and large of Professor Cleland's notes adds to the intrigue of what precisely happened on Somerton beach, and in the hours before, seven decades ago.

The funeral of Somerton Man on June 14, 1949 at West Terrace Cemetery.
The funeral of Somerton Man on June 14, 1949 at West Terrace Cemetery.

 

 

 

 

 

Professor Abbott believes the answers could include that the man died suddenly, where he was found, of natural causes - possibly from positional asphyxiation, a form of death better understood today.

It occurs when the body is positioned in such a way that breathing is impeded.

"How and why he died is one thing but I think the most important detail overall is finding his name," he said.

"When we discover who he was, then that is more likely to answer other questions that at the moment just look odd.

"The ID is the number one priority."

Somerton Man's remains were buried in Adelaide's West Terrace Cemetery, on June 14, 1949.

The Salvation Army conducted the service. and the SA Bookmakers Association paid the full cost of the funeral to save the necessity for a pauper's burial.

Remarkably, given the unparalleled mystery, and that the case file remains open, Somerton Man's brown suitcase and its contents were destroyed as being "no longer required" in 1986.


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