30 Jun 2015

On the trail of the Somerton Man

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 30 June 2015

For nearly 70 years, the identity of a man found dead, propped up on a seawall on Somerton beach in Adelaide, Australia in December 1948 has eluded both professional and amateur sleuths.

somerton man paper scrapHe’s known as the Somerton Man. His was found with no identification, no visible sign of trauma, just a tiny piece of paper with the words of a Persian poem in his pocket.

Also known as the Taman Shud Case “It is regarded as one of Australia’s most unparalleled mysteries” says Derek Abbott, a professor of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at The University of Adelaide. Somerton man tombstone

He tells Afternoons with Simon Mercep he’s leading a campaign to have the body of the Somerton man exhumed for DNA testing. “It’s something that is difficult to arrange. Adelaide is a conservative town, it’s not like America where these things happen all the time. I think it will happen eventually with persistence” says Abbott.

The rubaiyat of omar khayyam book coverDerek Abbott has been investigating the mystery since 2007. One of the few pieces of evidence is a scrap of paper from a rare New Zealand edition of a book of 11th century Persian poetry The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (published by Whitcombe and Tombs in 1941), found in a hidden pocket. Police appealed for information about the book.

“A guy rocked up to the police station with book with a back page torn and said this is what you are looking for” says Abbott. “His story was he had found it on the back seat of his car.”

The book also contained strange letters, believed to be a code and a phone number in tiny writing that belonged to a woman called Jo, who denied any knowledge of the Somerton Man. “The position where he was found dead on the beach was literally only five minute walk from where Jo lived” Abbott explains.

She had a son named Robin. “He became a ballet dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. There are pictures of him in newspapers” says Abbott. The photos show he shared a rare dental condition with the Somerton Man.somerton man notes in poetry book

“You’ve got a guy whose dead, he’s got a phone number of a woman who happens to have a child with the same rare dental configuration as he does. You can join the dots yourself there” Abbott says.

By exhuming the body and extracting DNA, Abbott hopes to settle once and for the mystery of the Somerton Man. “It can help us to see if he was Robin’s father or not. That’s important for the family simply to know who their grandfather was.”

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