How an Electrical Engineer Solved Australia’s Most Well-known Chilly Case


Lifeless, and in a jacket and tie. That’s how he was on 1 December 1948, when two males discovered him slumped towards a retaining wall on the seaside at Somerton, a suburb of Adelaide, Australia.

Photo of a person in a shirt and tie.The Somerton Man’s physique was discovered on a seaside in 1948. No person got here ahead to determine him.

Police distributed {a photograph}, however nobody got here ahead to say the physique. Eyewitnesses reported having seen the person, whom the newspapers dubbed the Somerton Man and who gave the impression to be in his early 40s, mendacity on the seaside earlier, maybe at one level transferring his arm, and so they had concluded that he was drunk. The place of demise led the police to deal with the case as a suicide, regardless of the obvious lack of a suicide notice. The presence of blood within the abdomen, a typical consequence of poisoning, was famous on the post-mortem. A number of chemical assays did not determine any poison; granted, the strategies of the day had been less than the duty.

There was hypothesis of foul play. Maybe the person was a spy who had are available in from the chilly; 1948 was the 12 months after the Chilly Battle obtained its identify. This line of thought was strengthened, a number of months later, by codelike writings in a ebook that got here to be related to the case.

These speculations apart, the concept an individual may merely die in plain view and with out mates or household was stunning. This was a person with an athletic construct, sporting a pleasant swimsuit, and exhibiting no indicators of getting suffered violence. The issue nagged many individuals through the years, and ultimately it took maintain of me. Within the late 2000s, I started engaged on the Somerton Man thriller, devoting maybe 10 hours every week to the analysis over the course of about 15 years.

Codes and Cyphers

All through my profession, I’ve at all times been curious about cracking mysteries. My college students and I used
computational linguistics to determine which of the three authors of The Federalist Papers—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—was liable for any given essay. We tried utilizing the identical methodology to substantiate authorship of Biblical passages. Extra not too long ago, we’ve been throwing some pure­-language processing methods into an effort to decode the Voynich Manuscript, an early Fifteenth-century doc written in an unknown language and an unknown script. These different initiatives yield to at least one or one other key methodology of inquiry. The Somerton Man downside posed a broader problem.

My one nice benefit has been my entry to college students and to scientific devices on the College of Adelaide, the place I’m a professor {of electrical} and digital engineering. In 2009, I established a working group on the college’s Middle for Biomedical Engineering.

A image of a piece of paper that says, "Tamam Shud."

The slip corresponded to the lacking a part of the ultimate web page of the ebook.


One query surrounding the Somerton Man had already been solved by sleuths of a extra literary bent. In 1949, a pathologist had discovered a little bit of paper hid in one of many lifeless man’s pockets, and on it had been printed the phrases Tamám Shud, the Persian for “completed.” The phrase seems on the finish of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a poem that is still common to this present day.

The police requested the general public for copies of the ebook during which the ultimate web page had been torn out. A person discovered such a ebook in his automobile, the place apparently it had been thrown in by an open window. The ebook proved a match.

An image of book pages with a piece ripped out.

The ebook was linked to the lifeless man by a slip of paper found in his watch pocket; the paper bore two Persian phrases.


The again cowl of the ebook additionally included scribbled letters, which had been at first thought to represent an encrypted message. However statistical checks carried out by my workforce confirmed that it was extra doubtless a string of the preliminary letters of phrases. Via computational methods, we eradicated the entire cryptographic codes recognized within the Forties, leaving as a remaining chance a one-time pad, during which every letter is predicated on a secret supply textual content. We ransacked the poem itself and different texts, together with the Bible and the Talmud, however we by no means recognized a believable supply textual content. It may have been a pedestrian aide-mémoire—to record the names of horses in an upcoming race, for instance. Furthermore, our analysis signifies that it doesn’t have the structural sophistication of a code. The Persian phrase may have been the person’s farewell to the world: his suicide notice.

An image of a page with letters on it.

A replica of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was discovered months after the demise of the Somerton Man. Letters scrawled on the again cowl had been at first mistaken for code.


Additionally scribbled on the again cowl was a phone quantity that led to at least one Jo Thomson, a girl who lived merely a five-minute stroll from the place the Somerton Man had been discovered. Interviewers then and many years later reported that she had appeared evasive; after her demise, a few of her kin and mates mentioned they speculated that she should have recognized the lifeless man. I found a doable clue: Thomson’s son was lacking his lateral incisors, the 2 tooth that usually flank the central incisors. This situation, present in a really small share of the inhabitants, is typically congenital; oddly, the Somerton Man had it, too. Had been they associated?

And but the try to hyperlink Thomson to the physique petered out. Early within the investigation, she advised the police that she had given a duplicate of the Rubáiyát to a lieutenant within the Australian Military whom she had recognized through the battle, and certainly, that man turned out to personal a duplicate. However Thomson hadn’t seen him since 1945, he was very a lot alive, and the final web page of his copy was nonetheless intact. A path to nowhere, certainly one of many who had been to observe.

A plaster cast of a person

A plaster demise masks was molded immediately from the cadaver 6 months after demise, throughout which era the facial options had grow to be distorted.


Upclose images of hair.

The physique was reported to have had graying hair on the sides; this grey hair [left], proven underneath magnification, was pulled from the masks. A light-weight brown hair was additionally discovered [right]; the person had been reported as having “mousey” coloured hair.


DNA from the Demise Masks

We engineers within the twenty first century had a number of different gadgets to look at. First was a plaster demise masks that had been made six months after the person died, throughout which era the face had flattened. We tried a number of strategies to reconstruct its unique look: In 2013 we commissioned an image by Greg O’Leary, knowledgeable portrait artist. Then, in 2020, we approached Daniel Voshart, who designs graphics for Star Trek films. He used a collection {of professional} AI instruments to create a lifelike reconstruction of the Somerton Man. Later, we obtained one other reconstruction by Michael Streed, a U.S. police sketch artist. We revealed these pictures, along with many remoted info concerning the physique, the tooth, and the clothes, within the hope of garnering insights from the general public. No luck.

Because the demise masks had been molded immediately off the Somerton Man’s head, neck, and higher physique, a few of the man’s hair was embedded within the plaster of ­Paris—a possible DNA gold mine. On the College of ­Adelaide, I had the help of a hair forensics professional, Janette Edson. In 2012, with the permission of the police, Janette used a magnifying glass to search out the place a number of hairs got here collectively in a cluster. She was then capable of pull out single strands with out breaking them or damaging the plaster matrix. She thus secured the tender, spongy hair roots in addition to a number of lengths of hair shaft. The acquired knowledge of forensic science on the time held that the hair shaft could be ineffective for DNA evaluation with out the hair root.

Janette carried out our first DNA evaluation in 2015 and, from the hair root, was capable of place the pattern inside a maternal genetic lineage, or haplotype, generally known as “H,” which is broadly unfold round Europe. (Such maternally inherited DNA comes not from the nucleus of a cell however from the mitochondria.) The check subsequently advised us little we hadn’t already recognized. The focus of DNA was far too low for the expertise of the time to piece collectively the sequencing we wanted.

Happily, sequencing instruments continued to enhance. In 2018, Guanchen Li and Jeremy Austin, additionally on the College of Adelaide, obtained the complete mitochondrial genome from hair-root materials and narrowed down the maternal haplotype to H4a1a1a.

Nonetheless, to determine Somerton Man utilizing DNA databases, we wanted to go to autosomal DNA—the type that’s inherited from each mother and father. There are greater than 20 such databases, 23andMe and Ancestry being the biggest. These databases require sequences of from 500,000 to 2,000,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced “snips”). The focus ranges of autosomes within the human cell are usually a lot decrease than these of the mitochondria, and so Li and Austin had been capable of get hold of solely 50,000 SNPs, of which 16,000 had been usable. This was a breakthrough, nevertheless it nonetheless wasn’t adequate to work on a database.

Making an attempt a Determined Transfer

In 2022, on the suggestion of Colleen Fitzpatrick, a former NASA worker who had educated as a nuclear physicist however then turned a forensic genetics professional, I despatched a hair pattern to Astrea Forensics, a DNA lab in the USA. This was our greatest hair-root pattern, one which I had nervously guarded for 10 years. The outcome from Astrea got here again—and it was a giant flop.

Seemingly out of choices, we tried a determined transfer. We requested Astrea to research a 5-centimeter-long shaft of hair that had no root in any respect. Bang! The corporate retrieved 2 million SNPs. The id of the Somerton Man was now inside our attain.

So why did the rootless shaft work in our case?

The DNA evaluation that police use for traditional crime-solving depends on solely 20 to 25 quick tandem repeats (STRs) of DNA. That’s effective for police, who principally do one-to-one matches to find out whether or not the DNA recovered at against the law scene matches a suspect’s DNA.

However discovering distant cousins of the Somerton Man on genealogical databases constitutes a one-to-many search, and for that you just sometimes want round 500,000 markers. For these genealogical searches, SNPs are used as a result of they comprise info on ethnicity and ancestry typically. Word that SNPs have round 50 to 150 base pairs of nucleotides, whereas typical STRs are usually longer, containing 80 to 450 base pairs. The hair shaft incorporates DNA that’s principally fragmented, so it’s of little use while you’re in search of longer STR segments nevertheless it’s an incredible supply of SNPs. So for this reason crime forensics historically targeted on the basis and ignored the shaft, though this apply is now altering very slowly.

Another excuse the shaft was such a trove of DNA is that keratin, its principal element, is a really powerful protein, and it had protected the DNA fragments lodged inside it. The 74-year-old tender spongy hair root, alternatively, had not protected the DNA to the identical extent. We set a world file for acquiring a human identification, utilizing forensic family tree, from the oldest piece of hair shaft. A number of police departments in the USA now use hair shafts to retrieve DNA, as I’m positive many will begin to do in different nations, following our instance.

An image of a family tree.That is the important a part of the household tree that led to the identification of Charles Webb. On the database, the researchers discovered Jack Hargreaves, who offered the preliminary DNA match for this phase of the 4,000-person tree. A statistical measure of genetic affinity confirmed that DNA extracted from the hair was associated to that of the 4 dwelling folks proven in pink. Two siblings usually are not proven, as they didn’t have descendants.COLLEEN FITZPATRICK & DEREK ABBOTT

Libraries of SNPs can be utilized to untangle the branching strains of descent in a household tree. We uploaded our 2 million SNPs to GEDmatch Professional, a web-based genealogical database positioned in Lake Value, Fla. (and not too long ago acquired by Qiagen, a biotech firm based mostly within the Netherlands). The closest match was a somewhat distant relative based mostly in Victoria, Australia. Along with Colleen Fitzpatrick, I constructed out a household tree containing greater than 4,000 folks. On that tree we discovered a Charles Webb, son of a baker, born in 1905 in Melbourne, with no date of demise recorded.

Charles by no means had youngsters of his personal, however he had 5 siblings, and I used to be capable of find a few of their dwelling descendants. Their DNA was a lifeless match. I additionally discovered a descendant of certainly one of his maternal aunts, who agreed to bear a check. When a optimistic outcome got here by on 22 July 2022, we had all of the proof we wanted. This was our champagne second.

Reconstructing Somerton Man’s Life

In late 2021, police in South Australia ordered an exhumation of the Somerton Man’s physique for a radical evaluation of its DNA. On the time we ready this text, that they had not but confirmed our outcome, however they did announce that they had been “cautiously optimistic” about it.

Suddenly, we had been capable of fill in a whole lot of clean areas. Webb was born on 16 November 1905, in Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne, and educated at a technical school, now Swinburne College of Know-how. He later labored as {an electrical} technician at a manufacturing facility that made electrical hand drills. Our DNA checks confirmed he was not associated to Thomson’s son, regardless of the coincidence of their lacking lateral incisors.

Photo of a family with names over the top.The {photograph} reveals a youthful Charles Webb together with his brother Roy and their mother and father, Dick and Eliza. T. GERALD KEANE

We found that Webb had married a lady named Dorothy Robinson in 1941 and had separated from her in 1947. She filed for divorce on grounds of desertion, and the divorce legal professionals visited his former place of job, confirming that he had stop round 1947 or 1948. However they might not decide what occurred to him after that. The divorce lastly got here by in 1952; in these days, divorces in Australia had been granted solely 5 years after separation.

On the time of Webb’s demise his household had grow to be fairly fragmented. His mother and father had been lifeless, a brother and a nephew had died within the battle, and his eldest brother was unwell. Considered one of his sisters died in 1955 and left him cash in her will, mistakenly considering he was nonetheless alive and dwelling in one other state. The legal professionals administering the desire had been unable to find Charles.

A image of two spectrographs.

These two mass spectrographs evaluate hairs from the Somerton Man [blue] and from modern reference hair materials [red]. The spectrograph for arsenic [left] reveals an insignificantly elevated degree within the Somerton Man. Word that the Somerton Man’s hair pattern is 1 centimeter lengthy, which represents a few month’s progress. The spectrograph for lead [right] dropped from a excessive degree within the month earlier than demise, a clue that his routine modified throughout that point.


We obtained greater than DNA from the hair: We additionally vaporized a strand of hair by scanning a laser alongside its size, a method generally known as laser ablation. By performing mass spectrometry on the vapor, we had been capable of monitor Webb’s various publicity to guide. A month earlier than Webb’s demise, his lead degree was excessive, maybe as a result of he had been working with the steel, perhaps soldering with it. Over the subsequent month’s price of hair progress, the lead focus declined; it reached its lowest degree at his demise. This could be an indication that he had moved.

With a trove of pictures from household albums and different sources, we had been capable of evaluate the face of the younger Webb with the artists’ reconstructions we had commissioned in 2013 and 2021 and the AI reconstruction we had commissioned in 2020. Apparently, the AI reconstruction had finest captured his likeness.

An image of a smiling man.

Daniel Voshart used AI-based software program to supply this reconstruction of Charles Webb’s look.


A gaggle {photograph}, taken in 1921, of the Swinburne Faculty soccer workforce, included a younger Webb. Clues present in newspapers present that he continued to take part in numerous sports activities, which might clarify the athletic situation of his physique.

An Engineering Strategy Paid Off

What’s fascinating about fixing such a case is the way it depends on ideas that will appear counterintuitive to forensic biologists however are fairly easy to an electronics engineer. For instance, when coping with an ordinary crime scene that makes use of solely two dozen STR markers, one observes very strict protocols to make sure the integrity of the total set of STRs. When coping with a case with 2 million SNPs, against this, issues are extra relaxed. Lots of the old-school STR protocols don’t apply when you’ve entry to a whole lot of info. Many SNPs can drop out, some may even be “noise,” the sign is probably not clear—and but you may nonetheless crack the case!

Engineers perceive this idea nicely. It’s what we name sleek degradation—when, say, a number of flipped bits on a digital video sign are hardly seen. The identical is true for a big SNP file.

And so, when Astrea retrieved the two million SNPs, the corporate didn’t depend on the normal framework for DNA-sequencing reads. It used a totally totally different mathematical framework, known as imputation. The idea of imputation shouldn’t be but totally appreciated by forensics specialists who’ve a organic background. Nonetheless, for an electronics engineer, the idea is just like error correction: We infer and “impute” bits of knowledge which have dropped out of a acquired digital sign. Such an strategy shouldn’t be doable with a number of STRs, however when dealing with over one million SNPs, it’s a distinct ball sport.

A lot of the work on figuring out Charles Webb from his family tree needed to be executed manually as a result of there are merely no automated instruments for the duty. As an electronics engineer, I now see doable methods to make instruments that will pace up the method. One such device my workforce has been engaged on, along with Colleen Fitzpatrick, is software program that may enter a whole household tree and symbolize the entire start areas as coloured dots on Google Earth. This helps to visualise geolocation when coping with a big and sophisticated household.

The Somerton Man case nonetheless has its mysteries. We can’t but decide the place Webb lived in his closing weeks or what he was doing. Though the literary clue he left in his pocket was most likely an elliptical suicide notice, we can’t verify the precise reason behind demise. There’s nonetheless room for analysis; there’s a lot we have no idea.

This text seems within the April 2023 print situation as “Discovering Somerton Man.”

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