The Body of Australia's Somerton Man—a 70-Year-Old Cold Case—Might Be Exhumed

The grave of the Somerton Man in Adelaide, South Australia
The grave of the Somerton Man in Adelaide, South Australia
Michael Coghlan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the 70 years it has been open, the Somerton Man case has produced more questions than answers. Police still don't know exactly what led to the death of an unidentified man on an Australian beach in late 1948, who killed him, or what the murderer's motives were. But a new development in the mystery could finally reveal the story's most glaring missing puzzle piece: the victim's identity. As The Australian reports, South Australia's new attorney general Vickie Chapman is considering exhuming the corpse of the Somerton Man so that investigators can extract and test his DNA.

The case dates back to December 1, 1948, when a swimmer stumbled upon a lifeless body propped up against a seawall on the beach. After the victim arrived at a local hospital, it soon became apparent that identifying him wouldn't be as easy as thumbing through his wallet. He had no ID, and all the labels on his clothing had been removed. The most striking thing about the man was his outfit: a suit, suggesting that he was a well-off businessman, and polished dress shoes. It was unusual attire for the beach.

The autopsy didn't make matters any clearer. Doctors concluded that the man had likely died of heart failure, but significant internal bleeding suggested that it was poison, not natural causes, that led to that failure. If it was poison that killed him, it would have been a fast-acting and fast-disappearing substance, since no traces of it were found.

The Somerton Man cipherWikimedia Commons

There was one more clue: After a more thorough re-examination of the body by a pathology expert, investigators found a previously unnoticed pocket in the waist of the man's pants. It contained a piece of paper with the words Tamám Shud—Persian for "It is ended." They were able to trace the page back to the book from which it had been torn, a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a Persian book of poetry), which had an inscrutable series of letters scribbled on the back cover. Military experts were unable to crack the code—assuming the letters even were a code—and it remains undeciphered to this day.

Someone had also written a phone number on the back of the book. That number led them to a nurse named Jo Thomson. With no friends or family members coming forward to claim the body, Thomson was the first and only lead in the case. She claimed she had never met the victim nor had she given him the book, but when she was shown a plaster cast of his face, she reportedly came close to fainting.

The case was ignored for years, but in 2007 Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide, decided to give it a second look. Thanks largely to his efforts, authorities may be closer than they've ever been to identifying the Somerton Man.

According to Abbott's theory, Jo Thomson had an illegitimate child with the Somerton Man before he died, which would explain why she was hesitant to admit that she knew him. When Abbott found an old photograph of Thomson's son Robin, he noticed that the boy shared some distinguishing features with the Somerton Man: Both had canines positioned right next to their front teeth, and the upper hollows in their ears were larger than the lower hollows. Both of these features are hereditary and only appear in 1 percent or less of the population.

Adding another intriguing layer to the story: Abbott married Rachel Egan, Jo Thomson's biological granddaughter, after getting to know her during his investigation. If his hunches are correct, the three children he now has with Egan are the great-grandchildren of the Somerton Man.

Abbott plans to test his theory by analyzing DNA from the Somerton Man's exhumed corpse and comparing it to Egan's. If Egan isn't a match, Abbott hopes the DNA could eventually lead him to someone alive today who is. But if the two are a match, it would provide some closure to a murder mystery that has baffled Australia for decades.

Interest in the case has been heightened by a new documentary called Missing Pieces: The Curious Case of the Somerton Man, which screened recently in Adelaide. Chapman has said the state government would consider requests to exhume the body as long as the costs were privately met. While no time frame for the body's disinterment has been set, Abbott told The Advertiser that if money is an issue, crowdsourcing the project is always a possibility.

[h/t The Australian]

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22 Creepy Cryptids From Around the World

Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.
Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.

According to Merriam-Webster, a cryptid is an animal "that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist." But as Bigfoot believers and Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts are often quick to point out, it’s pretty difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. Plus, it’s much more fun to indulge in the idea that giant sea monsters and hairy humanoids are roaming the uncharted corners of the planet.

On this episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is taking viewers across time and space to unearth legends about lesser-known monsters that, again, haven’t been proven to not exist. Take the Mongolian death worm, a lamprey-like nightmare that supposedly lives in the Gobi Desert and radiates a poison so strong that you could die just by standing near it. If you’re an ill-behaved child or a Catholic who scarfs down steak every Friday during Lent, watch out for the Rougarou, a Louisiana-based werewolf that sniffs out those two demographics.

Learn about more fearsome, fascinating cryptids of all kinds in the video below, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for future episodes of The List Show.