If you read my book The Little Book Of Stuff You Didn’t Know: Histories, Mysteries, and More, you’re a bit familiar with the strange case of a man whose corpse washed ashore in Australia. Later, authorities found a suitcase they believed might have been his, and in the pocket of a pair of pants, they discovered a piece of paper with the words “Tamam Shud” written on it. After some investigating, they traced the page to a book of Persian poetry with handwritten capital letters written on one of the blank pages. No one has been able to break the code or identify the man. Now, DNA might finally solve the riddle of who the man – known as the Somerton Man – was.
A 70-year old cold case
Because the case was so odd and involved secret codes and Persian poetry, the public was very interested in the mystery of the Somerton Man when his body was found in 1948. An autopsy suggested he might have been poisoned, but there was no specific toxin found. Some believed he was a Soviet spy, but no evidence emerged as the decades past.
12 years ago, Derek Abbott, an engineering professor at the University of Adelaide, began investigating the case for fun. One of the leads he followed: a phone number written in the back of the book that also contained the code. It belonged to Jessica Thomson and in 1948, police showed her a plaster cast of the Somerton Man’s face and asked if she knew him. According to the technician, she had a visible reaction, but said she didn’t recognize the death mask. Abbott believes she was lying, and so dug further.
In 1947, Jessica gave birth to a son named Robin and after looking at pictures, Abbott sees a strong resemblance between Robin and the Somerton Man, who he commissioned a portrait of. Both Jessica and Robin had passed away, but he found Robin’s daughter, Rachel. Oddly enough, Abbott and Rachel ended up getting engaged just three days after meeting. Now the case is personal, since Rachel wants to know if the Somerton Man is her grandfather.
DNA testing needed
The next step for Abbott is to get permission to have the Somerton Man’s body exhumed. This would allow scientists to extract DNA from the body and learn information like where he was born, how healthy he was, and so on. It could also be compared to Rachel’s DNA to see if they are related. Abbott is currently waiting on authorities, who rejected his request once before a few years ago. Their reasoning is that learning the Somerton Man’s identity isn’t important enough.
Abbott isn’t the only person interested in the Somerton Man’s DNA. Journalist Aimee Knight and forensic scientist Renee Blackie swabbed the plaster cast (which is located at the South Australian Police Museum) and discovered a hair. This in itself is nothing new; Abbott actually has some hairs from the cast, as well. However, Knight and Blackie plan on attempting to build a DNA profile complete enough to match the Somerton Man with relatives. Critics say the DNA is too deteriorated and the method Blackie plans on using isn’t tested enough. However, if Abbott’s request for exhumation gets rejected again, Knight and Blackie provide the best opportunity for answers from DNA.
About a decade after the Somerton Man’s body washed ashore, ten hikers disappeared in the Ural Mountains, only to be found dead months later. What happened to them?