Extremely intriguing case… I wouldn’t have minded working this myself.
In 1948, a man was found on a beach in South Australia. The mysterious circumstances of his death have captivated generations of true-crime fanatics. Today, one amateur sleuth has come close to solving the case — and upended his life in the process.
By Graeme Wood
By the time anyone noticed that he hadn’t moved in at least five hours, the man on Somerton Beach must have started giving off fumes. It was about 6:30 a.m. on December 1, 1948, at the beginning of the Australian summer, and he did not look like the kind of man to sleep in the sand.
He was in his mid-40s. He wore a nice suit, with a necktie whose stripes slanted down from right to left. The labels had been removed from his clothing. His leather shoes were molded to his irregular feet, which one man who saw the body called “wedge-shaped.”
No one who came to the morgue to view the dead man could identify him. In his pockets, the coroner found a packet of cigarettes (Kensitas brand, though the packet that contained them was Army Club), two combs, and public-transportation receipts indicating that he had come by bus from Adelaide’s railway station the day before he was found.
The man had unusually developed calf muscles, with a pronounced bulge near the knee. The coroner said these were characteristic of a dancer or someone who wears high heels. His teeth were odd: His sharp canines had grown in right next to his front teeth; his lateral incisors were missing. The medical report noted that his liver was full of blood and his spleen enlarged, but his official cause of death remained undetermined. The pathologist wrote “probably caused by poison” on the initial report, and a local expert suggested two readily available and undetectable poisons that could have killed him. The death was investigated as a possible murder.
Only weeks later did the coroner’s office search the man’s clothes more thoroughly and find, in a small inner pocket of his waistband — some characterized it as a secret pocket — a tightly rolled piece of paper printed with the words Tamám Shud. Within a few days, the police figured out that these words appear untranslated at the end of the Edward FitzGerald translation of the Rubáiyát, by the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyám. In the poem’s original Persian, they mean It’s Finished, or The End.
In July, a local businessman told the cops that around the time of the man’s death, he found a copy of the Rubáiyát in the back seat of his car. Someone had tossed it through an open window — and, yes, the last two words had been raggedly excised. More intriguing, though, were the scribblings on the book’s back cover —
— and, with them, a phone number.
The letters resisted decoding, but the phone number led the police to the doorstep of a young nurse-in-training named Jo. They asked whether she knew a missing man, and when she said no, they asked if she had given away a Rubáiyát recently. She had, but the recipient turned out to be alive and well. They prevailed upon her to visit the morgue anyway. When she saw a plaster cast of the man’s body, which had by that point been buried, she nearly fainted. She maintained that she didn’t know him, and she refused to speak of the incident again.
Another line of evidence stemmed from a suitcase left at the luggage counter of the train station on the day of the dead man’s canceled bus ticket and never collected. Inside were neatly folded clothes, a stencil kit, and thread that matched a small repair on the man’s suit. The suitcase contained a few days’ worth of clothes — again with the labels ripped off — but no socks.
Someone looked at the stitching and determined that the machine used was not yet available in Australia: The man had probably traveled to America or at least owned clothing from someone who had. Speculation ensued. Not far away was the Woomera Range, a secret missile-testing site. The dead man could have been Soviet or American — but probably not Australian, because the case had quickly gone national, and someone would have seen his picture and recognized him. Soon he was widely suspected of being a spy.
Nearly 70 years after the body of the “Somerton Man” was interred at West Terrace Cemetery, the case has become part of the Australian national mythos. It is still a mystery, like the identity of Jack the Ripper in England or the fate of Jimmy Hoffa in the U.S. Tabloids in Australia take note whenever some amateur sleuth comes up with a new theory, no matter how crazy, and would-be detectives around the world take turns trying to solve the case. One by one, they examine the clues and, like Arthur with the sword in the stone, jiggle the puzzle’s hilt. Most give up and assume it will be stuck forever.
“BY NOW THEY might know me,” Derek Abbott said, glancing around the Somerton cemetery for the groundskeepers. On December 1, 2014, 66 years to the day after the Somerton Man’s demise, Abbott, a physicist and engineer at the University of Adelaide, was taking me to his grave. For years, someone had placed flowers on it; some said it was the nurse. The original letters on the gravestone had become loose, and a few had fallen on the ground. We picked through the pebbles in the blazing sun, finding chunks of alphabet that we plugged back into the small headstone until it read: here lies the unknown man who was found at somerton beach 1st dec. 1948.
Of all the amateur detectives who have dedicated themselves to the mystery — including a postman in New South Wales who has claimed the Somerton Man was a Russian spy, another man who thinks he is the American big-band leader Glenn Miller, and a number of internet oddballs who specialize in magnifying the letters of the code and seeing micro-writing that isn’t really there — Abbott is the most devoted. He has become a celebrity among followers of the case — his Reddit “Ask Me Anything” last year yielded nearly 500 questions and answers — and sees his role partly as keeping wilder speculation in check. “As a scientist, you’re taught to be dispassionate,” he told me. “You’re not supposed to get crazy when your pet theory turns out to be unlikely.”
But some of Abbott’s fellow investigators think his obsessions and celebrity have led him astray and turned him into a Pied Piper of true-crime nerds. “Abbott is like a dog with a bone,” says Gerry Feltus, a retired Adelaide homicide detective who is his main rival. “If he weren’t such an educated man, he’d make an excellent busker.”
Abbott, 55 years old and with thinning dark hair, is gainfully employed, although over several days in Adelaide, his free time to discuss this case appeared almost limitless. He drove me around in hissuv, which had multiple child car seats fastened in the back for his three young children. (He also has two grown daughters and a son from a prior marriage.) Obsessions tend to find Abbott. He has, by his own account, been happily consumed by them since he was a child in London. Many were scientific: At the age of 10, he says, he requested a copy of theBritish Pharmacopoeia, a technical manual of pharmacology. At 15, he began traveling all over London and researching the history of old lampposts and letter boxes. His demeanor is distinctly professorial, though not in an absent-minded way. He talks slowly, with an engineer’s precision, and favors nice suits over tattered tweed, even in the Australian summer heat.
“It’s a bit like Phoenix,” Abbott said, a little apologetically, as we drove through his city. When the beach isn’t in sight, the comparison feels about right: Adelaide and its environs are mostly flat and arid, with the suburbs giving way to desert. Even its urban grid recalls the American Sun Belt, with orderly streets characteristic of a place whose city fathers left nothing to chance. Unlike other areas of Australia, Adelaide was settled exclusively by free British colonists, not by convicts. When planning the city in 1837, its founders didn’t bother to set aside space or resources for a jail, reasoning that it wouldn’t be necessary for a population of honorable women and men.
But to understand the Somerton Man case, Abbott told me, “you do have to know that Adelaide has a reputation for these things.” Ruth Balint, an Australian cultural historian, put it more bluntly: “It’s a city of churches and of weird, sick murders.” When Salman Rushdie visited Adelaide in 1984, he called it “the ideal setting for a Stephen King novel, or horror film.”
Adelaide’s homicide rate isn’t abnormally high, but what it lacks in volume it more than compensates for in creepiness. The city has become known as Australia’s “murder capital,” the site of a string of gruesome serial killings and mysterious disappearances. In 1966, three young siblings disappeared and were presumed kidnapped after a trip to Glenelg Beach, near Somerton; they were never found. In the 1970s and 1980s, a shadowy group of upstanding, professional citizens of Adelaide, known as the Family, drugged, sexually abused, and murdered young men; those crimes were never fully solved either. Last year, police in South Australiaannounced $13 million in reward money for information about the murders or disappearances of 18 children between 1966 and 2000.
In 2003, during the investigation of another grisly set of killings known as the Snowtown or “bodies-in-barrels” murders, local detectives approached Abbott and asked him to examine the unusual characteristics of one of the 12 victims’ hair. The detectives had found tiny bubble-shaped articulations at the tips, and they wanted an electrical engineer to determine whether the deceased had been electrocuted. “I tried electrocuting samples of my own hair,” Abbott said, “and I found that the only thing that would do that is heat.” The body had been cooked, not electrocuted.
Thrilled by his small contribution to the prosecution’s case, Abbott remembered an article he’d read about the Somerton mystery in 1995, in a magazine he picked up at a laundromat. “There’s something in this that stuck in my mind — something haunting,” he said. He was, in part, troubled by the inconsistencies and contradictions. “There were so many loose ends. And there was something sad about it — something desolate about a man dying alone,” without anyone to mourn him or even to confirm that he ever lived.
In 2007, Abbott began investigating the case. He eventually turned to Facebook and like-minded obsessives around the world to track down facts that in previous eras might have taken Holmesian knowledge or resourcefulness. Take the necktie. The direction of the stripes turns out to be significant because Commonwealth tie makers and American tie makers slanted their stripes in different directions: The Somerton Man wore an American tie, a rarity in Australia at the time. Other clues have led Abbott to look up, say, the record-keeping habits of laundry services in mid-size Australian cities in 1948 or the price of various tobacco brands. Sometimes this information yields faint clues to the Somerton Man’s story. Most often it reveals how far from the truth Abbott remains and produces only more questions. Someone suggested that the Rubáiyátwas a book cipher — a spy codebook — setting in motion an eerily difficult quest to find an identical copy and test it against the code. (The cops threw away the original at some point during the 1950s.) No identical copy could be found. It appeared that the Somerton Man’sRubáiyát was unique and published by a company in the habit of issuing, for obscure reasons, one Rubáiyát at a time.
On the hunch that the Rubáiyát was being used as a book cipher, Facebook group members combed Australian newspapers for stories about other men who died unnaturally, accompanied by a Rubáiyát. Incredibly, they found one, an immigrant named George Marshall who poisoned himself with barbiturates and died with a Rubáiyát next to him in Sydney. It was not the same edition as the Somerton version. Instead, it was identified as a seventh edition published by Methuen, a London-based press. The interest would have ended there if Abbott hadn’t tried to find a Methuen seventh edition of the Rubáiyát and discovered that the company never published any edition beyond the fifth.
Abbott’s code-breaking efforts, for which he initially held high hopes, stagnated. He tried to solve the code by treating it as a substitution cipher, in which every letter stands for another. He has tested that theory with computational models and conclusively ruled it out. He tried to determine if the letters were random, and even at one point had his students drink beer and write down random letters in progressive stages of inebriation to see if the letters resembled the patterns of those in the code. They did not.
So far, he has excluded, with mathematical certainty, a whole range of standard code types — 40 types of known cipher. Recently he’s been testing another theory, first put forward by Navy cryptographers in 1949. The frequency of occurrence of letters on the Rubáiyát’s back cover fits unusually well the frequency of occurrence of the initial letters of English words. Abbott now thinks that the code is not a code at all, but a series of letters someone — perhaps the Somerton Man — wrote in order to commit something to memory. The first five letters — wrgoa — could, on this hypothesis, have just been a reminder to buy watermelon, rice, grapes, oats, and artichokes. Abbott tested the initial-letter hypothesis against samples of text from more than 30 languages, and English repeatedly surfaced as the best statistical fit. But of course, to know what the letters stood for, we’d have to ask their author.
FOR YEARS, the person roundly suspected of knowing more than she let on was Jo, the nurse. But she said nothing. The news stories around the time of her questioning did not name her, declining to sully the reputation of a respectable young woman by associating her with the corpse of a drifter. But the story of her swooning has interested everyone who has looked into the Somerton Man mystery. Gerry Feltus, the retired cop who wrote a book about the case, interviewed Jo before she died in 2007 and is sure she knew something. He says she was “evasive” under questioning and went to great efforts to avoid attention. “Every time this case had a big blast of publicity, she either disappeared on holiday or changed addresses,” Feltus says.
In 2009, Abbott began hunting down Jo’s acquaintances and surviving family members — at first just to find out whether she confessed anything, but later to see whether they could offer any clues at all. In time, he was able to construct a year-by-year — and sometimes month-by-month — chronology of her life: where she lived, whom she knew, what she talked about, and what she avoided.
Jo was born Jessica Harkness in 1921, outside Sydney. About her childhood little is known: She cut off ties with her parents and rarely spoke of them. She took up with a car salesman, Prosper Thomson, and had a child, Robin Thomson, in 1947. She and Prosper hadn’t yet married — he had recently divorced his previous wife, and Australian law didn’t permit remarriage until a cooling-off period had passed — but they wed in 1948. She raised their two children through the 1950s, then began work as a nurse.
Her association with the Somerton Man has led some to speculate that she was a Communist spymaster posing as a housewife. One friend claimed she spoke Russian. Abbott dismisses these allegations. She was “a free spirit,” he said, “a slightly airheaded, arty type.” She and her husband seemed mismatched in some ways, with Prosper obsessed with cars and his wife interested in art, and some people I spoke with, including Abbott, suspected that they were not physically intimate, though they remained married until Prosper’s death in 1995.
Abbott didn’t focus on the Jo angle until after both she and her son, Robin, had died. But he hunted Robin’s story down with almost as much fervor as Jo’s — even though Robin was only a year old when the Somerton Man died — and learned that Robin had likely lived his whole life unaware of his mother’s role in the mystery.
Abbott fixated on one detail of Robin’s life: When he was a small boy, his mother signed him up for dance lessons. Robin took to dancing naturally and flourished — first as an amateur and ultimately as a member of the Australian Ballet. Abbott reminded me: “The Somerton Man had those oddly shaped calf muscles — so bulbous and defined that the coroner marveled at them.” Abbott stressed their dancer-like definition. One effort to identify the man even focused on looking for missing Australian dancers.
Was Jo pushing her son into the Somerton Man’s line of work? To Abbott, this coincidence was irresistibly suggestive, and he now believes a theory that might propel the Somerton mystery into the realm of solvability: that the man was Jo’s secret lover, and Robin Thomson their son. Another fact that Abbott cites as support for this idea is that Robin had a rare anatomical abnormality: He never grew lateral incisors, so his canine teeth, like the Somerton Man’s, abutted his front teeth.
Abbott cautiously tested this theory by writing a letter to Roma Egan, a dancer in the Australian Ballet who was married to Robin Thomson from 1968 to 1974. Abbott enclosed a picture of the Somerton Man and asked if she knew any dancers who looked like him. Roma wrote back saying that the corpse resembled her ex-husband. She also told Abbott, darkly, that her ex-mother-in-law had been a woman with secrets, and that Jo — like the young Abbott — had an obsession with pharmacology.
Abbott convinced Roma of his theory and enlisted her support in a legal crusade for permission to dig up the Somerton Man’s body and test his dna. By adding the dna to a few databases, they might even be able to find a distant relative and, working backward, identify the Somerton Man. (Robin Thomson had one younger sister, Kate, who opposes Abbott’s exhumation campaign. She declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Abbott has twice petitioned the government of South Australia to discuss exhuming the Somerton Man and twice been denied, on the grounds that obsessive curiosity does not justify disturbing human remains. He plans to resubmit his request.
ABBOTT WARNED ME not to tell Feltus, the ex–homicide detective, that I had been meeting with him. “He hates my guts,” Abbott said, accurately. They both spend vast amounts of time tracking the same clues, collecting the same Rubáiyáts, and scrutinizing the same grainy photos. But the two do not speak. Feltus regards Abbott as a grade-A pest and a bane of serious investigators. “If this were a different era, I could see him in a chuck wagon going through Indian territory, selling moonshine, and being left alone because he’d look half-crazy,” he told me.
Feltus, who’s 72, grew up in the countryside outside Adelaide. Before retiring in 2004, he was one of the city’s top murder investigators. He has an easy, earthy Australian vibe, more open and informal than Abbott, and the mottled complexion of someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors. He had heard of the Somerton case as a young boy, and after years on the force he investigated it as a hobby, despite warnings from colleagues that it would lead only to madness.
Part of what irks Feltus about Abbott is his amateurism. Feltus spent 40 years hunting murderers and solved dozens of cases, whereas Abbott, he says, “came in in a blaze of glory, saying he was going to crack the code, solve a murder, and identify an unknown man.” One gets the sense, talking with Feltus, that acquaintance with death has made him reluctant to treat the dead as intellectual puzzles.
Consider the flowers left on the Somerton Man’s grave. Abbott had implied to me that they might have been Jo’s doing or that of some other mysterious figure who knew secrets. When I raised this theory with Feltus, he sighed. “If you spend much time in cemeteries, you get to know the graves around the graves of your loved ones, and you do your part to keep them respected,” he says. His own daughter died of an illness in her 30s, he told me. Her grave is near that of Megumi Suzuki, a Japanese exchange student who died in Adelaide. In 2001, Feltus found Suzuki’s body hydraulically compressed into a bale of trash, and he sent her murderer away for a life sentence. “If I’m going to the cemetery, I’ll sometimes place a flower on her grave, too,” he told me.
The gap between the two men’s approaches comes down to a difference in worldview. After decades of bearing witness to the evil that men do, Feltus seems to have accepted the investigative consequences of the Second Law of Thermodynamics — that the universe tends, over time, toward disorder. He knows that some cases cannot be solved. In his book about the Somerton Man, Feltus meticulously logs every interview, every piece of evidence gathered from police records and contemporary accounts. But he reaches no conclusion. Taken as a whole, the book is a striking documentation of one man’s bafflement.
To Abbott, the idea that the answer might be lost is unacceptable, and Feltus’s comfort with uncertainty unnerves him. “Every time we met, one of his favorite jokes was to say, ‘It would be a real shame if the Somerton Man is identified because it would spoil a great mystery,’” Abbott told me. “He’s more wedded to the mystery than to the solution, and I’m the other way around.”
Feltus’s perspective is aided by age. As someone who was alive during the Somerton Man’s last years and remembers the upheaval of postwar Australia, he does not see the Somerton Man’s anonymity as unusual or mysterious. “There were lots of displaced people around,” Feltus says. “People were jumping ship, changing their names, becoming a whole new person.” Wartime rationing was still going on, and black marketeers had good reason to sneak around without identification.
Balint, the cultural historian, concurs. “[The Somerton Man] cuts a lonely figure, and people want to rescue him,” she says. “But we had lots of people like him: returned soldiers with shell shock, people who came back and were strangers to their own families. Some of them would just get up, disappear, and go on walkabouts.” Feltus’s hunch is that the Somerton Man was not a spy, but one of the thousands of socially isolated immigrants who drifted like tumbleweeds around Australia during those years.
That, he says, is where the trail must end. He has known victims’ families and has an aversion to disturbing the dead — either physically, by exhuming their remains, or spiritually, by speculating about the dramas that consumed their living days.
ABBOTT SPOKE GARRULOUSLY about his investigation. But he was also guarded. I came to wonder how his obsession with the Somerton case affected his work at the university or, for that matter, his home life. The child seats sat empty in the back of his suv as he drove me from site to site, yet he never mentioned his kids or their mother, nor how they felt about his all-consuming project.
Only after I’d left Adelaide did another question present itself: If he succeeded in extracting the Somerton Man’s dna, what would he compare it to? The whole point was to prove that the man was Robin Thomson’s father, but Robin is dead. Did he have living descendants?
Robin did, it turns out, have one daughter, with Roma Egan. Rachel Rebecca Egan had appeared with Abbott on television in 2013, endorsing the exhumation effort, but he had never mentioned her to me. I looked her up.
Rachel was born in 1967 in New Zealand and put up for adoption by her parents, who were touring with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. She reconnected with them as a young woman, eventually settling in Brisbane with Roma. On Facebook, her likes included various ballet-related pages, the work of a Brisbane painter, and a store for baby clothes. There were also some photos, which have since been removed, including a series of Rachel, with the same round, blond-ringed face as her mother, holding a baby. Standing next to her in one of the photos was a bemused-looking man wearing a proud paternal expression: Derek Abbott.
I blinked. Abbott had been generous with his time and, it seemed, information. But this detail — his having possibly tangled his own dnawith the Somerton Man’s — was a noteworthy omission. I reran all our conversations in my head, preparing to press him if he tried to evade the topic.
But when I called Abbott, he immediately and sheepishly confessed. In June 2010, he said, he’d mailed Roma, then living in Brisbane, his letter asking about dancers she might have known who resembled the Somerton Man. When he went to interview her, he met Rachel, who was living with Roma and working as a schoolteacher. Rachel was completely unaware of her father’s Somerton connection, Abbott said, and was at first skeptical of Abbott’s theory. To Abbott himself, however, she was immediately attracted. “We just hit it off, I guess, and it all happened from there,” he said. They married about four months later and, in the four and a half years since, have had three children. Rachel and Roma moved to Adelaide, and now Abbott’s crusade to dig up Rachel’s presumed grandfather has become a family affair.
Rachel, 47, says she still finds all this “surreal” and is not sure how an idea she first wrote off as one of her mother’s conspiracy theories has led, in less than five years, to her being a married mother of three — with the Somerton Man “playing cupid from beyond the grave.”
Abbott also seems flummoxed by the development, his normally analytical mind stuck in neutral when pressed to explain. “It was a whirlwind marriage, and we’re still trying to process all this and figure out the consequences,” he told me. “I haven’t psychoanalyzed myself.” When I asked why he hadn’t told me about his personal connection to the case, he said that he and Rachel both worried about the Australian tabloids fixating on their young family.
As he spoke, uncomfortable as the investigated rather than the investigator, questions clamored in my mind. Did he marry the woman or the mystery? Was there not at least a touch of the uncanny — a secret love in Adelaide, six and a half decades after the Somerton Man’s own possible covert romance, with the woman Abbott believed to be the Somerton Man’s granddaughter? Had his obsession burrowed so deeply into his brain that he had subconsciously written himself into the mystery?
But Abbott was uncharacteristically blank, for once unwilling to speculate. “I didn’t want it to look like I married some chick just so I could exhume a body,” he said. “I really do love her.”
Feltus, of course, delights in this. “Abbott is a strange bird, with a sick sense of humor,” he told me. “He would think that would be a great joke, wouldn’t he?”
This case’s final irony is not lost on either Abbott or Feltus. We may never know what happened to the Somerton Man, not because witnesses have died and evidence has disintegrated, but because knowing would require an understanding of his inner life, something that cannot be deduced.
“When I look at the case,” Abbott told me, “I think, ‘If only [Jo] behaved normally and told the police everything, we wouldn’t have this mystery.’ But then I wouldn’t be married. Maybe that’s just the way it’s all meant to happen.”
Abbott still wants to dig up the Somerton Man’s body, extract his dna, and prove his theory once and for all. “But in a sense it doesn’t matter,” he admitted. “The Somerton Man has given birth to three children for me, and he will always be their great-grandfather in some way. That, I suppose, gives a sense of closure.”