How an investigation into Australia's most baffling cold case led to romance

The fascinating story of how an unlikely romance emerged from a 70-year-old cold case has been told in a revealing ABC documentary.

A university professor who set out to uncover the identity of a man mysteriously found dead on Adelaide’s Somerton Beach in 1948, instead found love with the woman who is possibly the dead man’s granddaughter.

It sounds like something from an airport crime thriller. But this is not paperback fiction, it’s one of Australia’s most enduring mysteries.

‘The Somerton Man’, as he has been known for the past 70 years, was a well-dressed dead man who was found slumped on an Adelaide beach with an unlit cigarette tucked behind one ear, and another partially smoked one lying on his chest like it had been momentarily dropped there after he fell asleep in the hot December sun in 1948.

In his pocket was an unused bus ticket. There were no tags attached to his clothes and he had no wallet nor any other form of identification on him.

An autopsy which was later carried out on the body found he had not died of natural causes.

A newspaper article from the Melbourne Argus from January 1949 about the Somerton Man. Source: National Library of Australia archive

The perplexing mystery of the unknown man was further intensified by a scrap of paper which was found deep in his fob pocket nearly a year later. The printed words read: “Tamam Shud” –– which meant “the finish” or “the end” in Persian. The tiny scrap of paper had been ripped from a 12th-century Persian poetry book called The Rubaiyat.

South Australian Police put out a call to the public asking if anyone had a copy of the book with these words ripped out. A man came forward with a copy of the book which he said he had found dumped in the back of his car around the time Somerton Man was found.

In addition to having the Tamam Shud words ripped out, another page which was also removed had been written on first, with the indentations of those words still visible to investigators.

Unidentified nursing student’s key role

The marks still visible revealed some kind of encrypted message which has never been deciphered, but also, a phone number which led to a 27-year-old nursing student who lived just five minutes from where the Somerton Man was found.

University of Adelaide Professor Derek Abbott has been investigating the Somerton Man case since 2007. Source: Australian Story

The young woman refused to cooperate with the police though, and denied knowing the man whose body was found on the beach. However, when she was taken to the office of the taxidermist who had made up a cast of the dead man’s head and bust, she almost fainted. It was obvious to detectives that she was hiding something.

Who Somerton Man was and how he died has evaded both investigators and amateur sleuths since 1948, his story has become the subject of countless news articles, documentaries, podcasts, conspiracy theories and now, an episode of Australian Story.

Among the many seduced by the mystery of the Somerton Man was Professor Derek Abbott who taught electronic engineering at Adelaide University.

“I just happened to be sitting in a laundrette watching my clothes go around and there was a stack of magazines beside me. I picked one up and it was an article about the top 10 unsolved mysteries in Australia and the second one was the Somerton Man case,” he told Australian Story.

The Professor’s interest in the mystery began when he thought it would make a good project for his students. He had previously assisted the police with criminal investigations and wanted to show his pupils how the mathematics in engineering wasn’t “pie in the sky” numbers but had practical real-world usage.

The Somerton Man was well-dressed and had no ID on him when his body was found on Adelaide's Somerton Beach on the morning of December 1, 1948. Source: Australian Story

Within very little time though, the Somerton Man case quickly became a 10-year-long personal obsession for Professor Abbott.

“In trying to solve the case it seemed to me the key was finding out the identity of the young woman,” he said.

Her identity had never been made public by police so it was up to him to try and track down the mystery nursing student who acted strangely in front of the plaster cast of Somerton Man all those years ago.

By the time Prof. Abbott discovered her name was Jessica Ellen "Jo" Thomson she had died two years previously. When the Somerton Man died in 1948, Thomson had been unmarried but had a toddler son.

The more he researched, the more certain the Professor became that Thomson had known the Somerton Man and that her son, Robin Thomas, was his.

But he needed DNA to prove this.

“By the time I had figured out that name [of Thomson and her son] and how to contact him, alas he had passed away just two months before I had figured that out. So I had just missed him,” Prof. Abbott said.

Somerton Man's grave in Adelaide. Professor Derek Abbott has finally been granted permission to exhume his body. Source: Australian Story

Tracking down Somerton Man’s possible granddaughter

After even more digging Prof Abbott found that Robin Thomas, a professional ballet dancer who had toured with the Australian Ballet Company, had had a daughter while he was in New Zealand and she had been put for adoption.

“What was going through my head were reports I’d read that the Somerton Man’s calf muscles were like that of a dancer,” he said.

“So this is what sent me on the track of wondering whether they were related.

"Perhaps he did come to see Jo Thomson and his son and died for whatever reason there out on the beach, and perhaps it was in her interest to de-identify him.

“After I’d found that Robin had died.. I thought, well, does he have any descendants? It turned out he did. That’s when I located Rachel. His daughter.”

University of Adelaide Professor Derek Abbott and wife, Rachel Egan, sit on Somerton Beach where the man who could prove to be her grandfather was found more than 70 years ago. Source: Australian Story

After growing up in New Zealand, Rachel Egan had learned she was adopted while at university. After connecting and forming a relationship with her birth mother Ms Egan had relocated to Australia. She was living in Brisbane the first time she heard about the case of the Somerton Man, the information coming via a letter from Prof Abbott.

Unsurprisingly, Ms Egan initially dismissed the Professor’s hypothesis that she was the granddaughter of an unidentified man whose suspicious death on an Adelaide beach in 1948 has captivated the nation and the world for more than 70 years.

“It seemed to be way too crazy. Too fanciful. It was like something that could have been made up in a fictional novel,” she said.

Nevertheless, she decided to meet him for dinner. Despite the fact she thought he was a “nerd” who was strangely interested in her ears and her teeth (her father and Somerton Man had both had identical hair and teeth), something very quickly blossomed between the pair.

Their relationship moved so fast that Ms Egan’s mother was even suspicious that the professor only wanted her for her DNA.

Attorney-General grants approval to exhume Somerton Man

The couple are now married with three young children who could very well be the great-grandchildren of Somerton Man –– which Prof Abbott is, as of this week, a step closer to discovering with South Australian Attorney-General granting conditional approval for Somerton Man to be exhumed.

It is expected to cost about $20,000 which Prof Abbott will need to find himself, but he is optimistic of raising the funds. The last Attorney-General of the state had refused his request.

"It is frustrating that so much time has passed and an exhumation hasn't happened yet but I think the time is now right for that. The technology is there and I think the will is there," he told Australian Story.

"We really need to find out the truth, whatever the truth may be.”

However, he acknowledged, that truth could still likely prove to not bring a “happily-ever-after ending”.

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