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More Mysteries Of The "Somerton Man" Case Solved By Investigators

Some of the mysteries surrounding his clothing may now have been cracked.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockAug 11 2022, 13:46 UTC
Charles Webb, aka "The Somerton Man", photographed during autopsy.
Last month, hair taken from his death mask was used to reveal his identity. Image credit: Public domain via Bletchley/Wikimedia Commons

More details on the life of the "Somerton Man" have rolled in, and they may have helped solve one of the mysteries surrounding his death. The latest twist comes after a professor from the University of Adelaide identified him as electrical engineer Charles Webb using DNA sequencing of a hair found in the man's death mask. 

On November 30, 1948, several couples at the Somerton Park beach in Adelaide, Australia, saw an unknown man wearing a suit slumped against a wall in an unusual position. His movements appeared drunk to one couple who witnessed him, while another couple believed him to be sleeping.

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The following morning one of the witnesses returned to the beach, where they found him still slouched in the same position. This time, witness John Lyons took a closer look and found him to be dead. The police determined that he had died that morning, some time after 2 am. 

Finding a body on a beach isn't that unusual. Hell, finding numerous human feet washing up on the shore over decades can even have a logical explanation. But as more details became apparent, the more strange the case was to become.

For starters, the man – thought to be in his forties – showed signs of poisoning. His spleen was enlarged, and his liver swollen with blood. In his stomach, the pathologist found yet more blood, suggesting that he had been poisoned. However, tests repeated several times found no evidence of any known poisons. Blood pooling in the back of his head suggested his corpse had been lying down on its back for some time, before being propped up as he was found, with a cigarette found on his collar as if it had fallen from his mouth.

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Stranger still were his clothes, which appeared to be American. All the labels had been cut away, and nothing identifying the man could be found on his person. The labels had been cut off neatly – except for one in his trouser pocket, which had been neatly repaired with unusual orange thread.

With no leads, an extensive search for his possessions took place in January the following year, eventually finding a suitcase thought to belong to the man. Inside was clothing, labeled Kean and T. Keane (no missing people of this name would ever be traced), as well as a few other miscellaneous items and orange thread that matched the thread used to repair the unknown man's trousers. 

The only extra clue they gained from the suitcase was that he had a coat that had been stitched in a feather stitch used in America, but not Australia, though this too led to dead ends when they attempted to identify him using immigration records.

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Next came a re-examination of his body, which remained unclaimed. Pathologist John Cleland soon discovered a small pocket sewn into his waistband, containing a small piece of paper with the words “Tamám Shud" – Persian for "it is ended" – printed on it in unusually fancy script.

Image credit: Public domain via Omar Khayyam/Wikimedia Commons


The phrase was identified as being the final words of a popular book at the time, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. With no other leads, the police now searched for the book these two words were torn from.

Somewhat against the odds, the matching book did show up in July that year. A local man had found the copy in his car, which had been parked near Somerton beach, the previous December. When he heard about the campaign to find the book, he checked the final page – and sure enough, the words were missing. 

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On the book was written an unlisted number, which belonged to a local nurse, identified at the time only by the name of Jestyn. Though she claimed not to know anything of the unknown man, when she was shown a cast of his face she is said to have been “completely taken aback, to the point of giving the appearance she was about to faint". She also claimed to have given away a copy of the book in 1944 to a man named Alfred Boxall, though he turned out to be alive, well, and still in possession of the gifted book.

For one final twist, found in faint markings on the page as though someone had used it as a rest, was a cipher. It has not been cracked to this day, and not for lack of trying.

After years of efforts from amateur and professional investigators, Professor Derek Abbott and American genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick identified the "Somerton Man" as Carl "Charles" Webb, last month.

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Police had given Abbott – who is known for attempts to solve Australian mysteries – a hair that got caught up in the Somerton Man's death mask over a decade ago. After testing, the researchers found a match in a DNA database. They built out the family tree until there were about 4,000 people on it and they were able to find someone who fit the profile of the Somerton Man: electrical engineer Charles Webb, from Melbourne.

"By filling out this tree, we managed to find a first cousin three times removed on his mother's side," Abbott told CNN at the time. They matched DNA taken from the man's hair with DNA from Webb's distant relatives. Police have not yet confirmed his findings, which will be looked at by the coroner.

Webb was born in 1905, but was recorded “as a person with no death record”, Abbott told The Guardian. As for what he was doing so far from his Melbourne home, Abbott added "we have evidence that he had separated from his wife, and that she had moved to South Australia, so possibly he had come to track her down".

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Since the initial research, Abbott has been able to track down more details about Webb's life, including that he had five elder siblings – Freda Grace Webb, Gladys May Webb, Doris Maud Webb, Richard Russell Webb, and Roy Webb. His father, Richard August Webb, had moved to Australia from Hamburg, Germany, before setting up a bakery in Springvale, Victoria, in 1892.

Some of the details learned by Abbott may have solved the small mystery relating to his clothes. He had a nephew by the name of John Keane, son of Tom Keane, who died in 1943 but likely spent some time in America, which may well explain the label attached to his clothes.

"The hand-me-downs that (Carl) Charles Webb received from his brother-in-law might likely have included clothing of his nephew, explaining why a number of items in the Somerton Man's possessions appeared to be of US origin," Abbott explained to The Advertiser.

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In the years prior to his death, several family members – including his father, mother, and brother – died, before his marriage to Dorothy Jean broke down in 1947. Documents relating to the divorce petition claimed that Webb was a quiet man, who went to bed at 7 pm every night, but could become unpleasant, "sullen and rude to [his wife], or anyone else, if he lost at cards".

Dorothy Jean was finally granted a divorce years after her husband went missing.


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