The children know the man whose portrait hangs above their playroom door as Mister S or Mister Somerton.
His real name remains a mystery more than 70 years after he was found dead in a smart brown suit on an Australian beach, a half-smoked cigarette resting on his collar.
The kids assume he’s a distant relative, but he could just be a stranger whose story has fascinated their father for more than a decade.
University of Adelaide professor Derek Abbott first heard about the Somerton man in 1995, and has spent several years campaigning for his body to be exhumed so scientists can analyze his DNA to determine his identity.
The exhumation finally happened last month in the city’s West Terrace Cemetery, where the Somerton man was buried in 1949, under a headstone marked “the unknown man”.
At the grave site, South Australia Police Detective Superintendent Des Bray told reporters the exhumation was about much more than closing the file on one of Australia’s most-intriguing cases.
“It’s important for everybody to remember the Somerton man is not just a curiosity, or a mystery to be solved. It’s somebody’s father, son, perhaps grandfather, uncle or brother, and that’s why we’re doing this and trying to identify him,” Bray said.
“There are people we know that live in Adelaide, they believe they may be related,” he said. “And they deserve to have a definitive answer.”
Those people include Abbott’s wife, Rachel Egan, who he met after sending her a letter to explain why he thought she may be the Somerton man’s granddaughter. After a single dinner dominated by talk of death and DNA, the pair decided to marry. They now have three children, a girl aged 8 and twins aged 6, and they are all are waiting to find out Mr S’s true identity.
“Whether he’s related to one of us or not, we’ve kind of adopted him into our family, anyway, because it’s him that has brought us together,” said Abbott. “His cause of death isn’t really what is of interest anymore. It’s more who was he and can we give him his name back.”
A smartly dressed corpse
The man was found lying on his back in the sand, his head and shoulders propped up against the seawall on Somerton Beach, in Adelaide’s southwest, on December 1, 1948. He was smartly dressed with freshly polished shoes, and looked out of place on a beach where the city’s early risers were starting their day with a walk.
Two apprentice jockeys stumbled upon the body, but several other people told police they’d seen someone of a similar description lying there the night before. One man said he saw his arm move, so he didn’t think to call police.
“Where he was lying was a fairly public place, not the sort of a place a man would be likely to choose if he wanted to go somewhere and die quietly,” said witness Olive Neill, according to the typed, yellowing notes from his 1949 inquest.
An examination of the body raised more questions than answers. There were no signs of violence, almost all the labels on his clothes had been cut off, and he wasn’t carrying any ID.
An autopsy was unable to determine the cause of death, but three medical witnesses testified that it was not natural. Detectives theorized he may have consumed a poison so rare it could quickly kill then disappear without a trace. No poison was found in his system.
“I think the immediate cause of death was heart failure, but I am unable to say what factor caused heart failure,” said Robert Cowan, a government chemical analyst who examined samples taken from the body.
The Somerton man was well-built, about 40 to 50 years old, 5 feet, 11 inches tall, with grey-blue eyes and gingery-brown hair that was greying at the sides. Pathologist John Cleland noted: “Many people who find their way to the morgue have toenails which are dirty and unattended to. His were clean.”
Forensic VR specialist Daniel Voshart created this visual representation of the Somerton man.
His calf muscles were particularly pronounced, said Paul Lawson, a taxidermist who was asked to embalm the body. “His feet were rather striking features, suggesting … he had been in the habit of wearing high-heeled and pointed shoes,” Lawson said. “(His) calf muscle was high and well developed, such as found in women.”
Some suggested he may have been a dancer, a blackmarket trader, a sailor, or even a spy. “The deceased to me looked like a European, I would say he looked very much like a Britisher,” Cleland told the inquest. “His hair was brushed back from the forward, and there was no part in it.”
He may have looked British, but his coat was distinctly American, according to a tailor who was asked to examine his clothing. “He had either been in America or bought the clothes off someone who had been there,” Detective Raymond Leane told the inquest, quoting the tailor. “Such clothes are not imported.”
The story of the “unknown man” made headlines across Australia and New Zealand, and his fingerprints and photograph were sent around the world, including to England, America, and English-speaking countries in Africa, his inquest heard. A letter dated January 1949, signed by FBI director John Edgar Hoover, confirmed the US had found no match for his fingerprints in its files.
A number of people came forward to claim the body, but none of their stories withstood scrutiny.
For example, one man claimed he was a pipe-smoking laborer by the name of “McLean,” but police said his hands were too smooth to belong to a laborer, and there was no evidence he had ever smoked a pipe.
The man’s body was embalmed to give police more time to identify him, and a plaster cast – or death mask – was made of his face, as a physical reminder of who he was.
With no more leads to pursue, detectives released the body for burial in June 1949.