The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A body found in 1948 became an Australian obsession. Now, there’s an ID.

Derek Abbott, above, and another scientist used genetic genealogy to identify Carl “Charles” Webb as the “Somerton man.” (Mark Brake/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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On Dec. 1, 1948, a man’s body was discovered lying against a wall at a beach in Adelaide, Australia. He was wearing a suit, and in his pockets were a pack of cigarettes, a box of matches, a train ticket and a small slip of paper with a Persian phrase. The translation: “It is finished.”

An autopsy concluded the man did not die of natural causes. Yet for decades, investigators were stumped in determining exactly how he died and ended up on the beach. He also went unidentified, known only as the “Somerton man,” named for the beach where he was found.

Now, a pair of scientists say they have identified the man as 43-year-old Carl “Charles” Webb, an electrical engineer and instrument-maker from Melbourne, marking a major breakthrough in one of Australia’s most vexing cold cases.

“He’s the most well-known John Doe … in Australia, the most well-known forensic case — and we solved it,” Colleen Fitzpatrick, a genetic genealogist and founder of Identifinders International, told The Washington Post.

Still unknown is how Webb died and how he arrived on the Somerton beach, Fitzpatrick said. But the identification will lead to other answers, she said.

Using DNA extracted from his hair, Fitzpatrick and Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide, were able to narrow down the man’s identity using genetic genealogy, which has helped investigators in recent years identify crime suspects and victims in numerous cold cases.

Last May, the South Australia Police exhumed the Somerton man’s body so it could perform a DNA analysis of its own, but it declined to verify Fitzpatrick and Abbott’s findings this week, telling news outlets it would not comment until “results from the testing are received,” CNN reported. The South Australia Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post on Wednesday.

For some seven decades, the Somerton man and the mysterious circumstances of his death have been a source of intense speculation. The unsolved case has been the subject of documentaries and books, as amateur sleuths have pored over the details and raised theories.

“For more than 70 years people have speculated who this man was and how he died,” said Vickie Chapman, who served as South Australia’s attorney general when the man’s body was exhumed last year. “It’s [a] story that has captured the imagination of people across the state, and, indeed, across the world.”

An autopsy performed after the man’s death determined that he did not die of natural causes, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. It noted that his stomach was congested with blood and that he died of heart failure, possibly due to poisoning — yet no poison was found in his system.

After opening an investigation, police found a suitcase at a nearby train station that they linked to the man. Aside from some clothing with torn-off labels, it contained a tie with the name “T. Keane” written on it, the ABC reported. Officers also found stenciling equipment.

Police also began studying the slip of paper with the Persian phrase “tamám shud,” meaning “finished” or “it is ended.” Investigators learned the words could be found at the end of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” a book of Persian poetry.

Months later, a man came forward saying that he had discovered a copy of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” that he believed had been tossed into his car around the time the unidentified man was found, the ABC reported. The ending had been torn from the book, an investigator told the ABC. Also on the back of the book were two phone numbers and a series of scribbled letters thought to be some kind of code.

The rise of consumer genetic tests has provided law enforcement with new tools that have the potential to break open cold cases. (Video: Daron Taylor, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

The odd lettering in the book led to speculation that the man was a spy, especially as the Cold War was intensifying. There was also speculation that the man had been a ballet dancer because of his muscular calves.

Now, Fitzpatrick and Abbott have determined that the man was an electrical engineer named Webb. They say he was born in Footscray, Victoria, on Nov. 16, 1905, to Richard August Webb and Eliza Amelia Morris Grace and lived in Melbourne around the time of his death.

They also determined that he had a brother-in-law named Thomas Keane, who lived a 20-minute drive away, Abbott told the ABC.

Although Keane is presumably long dead, the researchers say Webb does have living relatives, though none who remember him. Abbott told the ABC he’s spoken to some of those relatives, but they don’t even have photographs.

“I’m hoping, as his name gets out there, there will be somebody that will have an old photo album in a garden shed somewhere,” he said.

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