Those who have been interested in the Somerton Man (TSM) case and are familiar with OKCIR’s recently published Tamám Shud: How the Somerton Man’s Last Dance for a Lasting Life Was Decoded — Omar Khayyam Center Research Report (Okcir Press, 2021) may find the following notes by its author, Mohammad H. Tamdgidi, Ph.D., helpful in further investigating the case. The report is readable freely online.
In the 2021 report, the Somerton Man’s code was deciphered to be a suicide note, written in the poetic form of a quatrain composed as a transliteration from Arabic, in the style of “Tamám Shud.” The torn-out piece found in his fob pocket basically served as a key to the transliterated nature of the code found on the back of the book from which it had been torn. The Somerton Man was thus revealed to be poetically inclined, creatively orchestrating his tragic suicide facing a terminal illness as a way of leaving a lasting trace in public memory, having been inspired by the enduring example of Omar Khayyam’s poetry.
Tamdgidi specializes in exploring and advancing the sociological imagination in comparative cultural and global/world-historical frameworks. The sociological imagination, a term coined by the noted American sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1959, is a mode of inquiry in sociology centering on the idea that human life can be best understood by way of exploring how personal and private troubles of individuals and the public issues of their times relate to one another. The Somerton Man case provides a tragic, yet fascinating, window for the cultivation of our sociological imaginations.
The new findings about TSM, identifying him as Carl ‘Charles’ Webb with 99.99% certitude, certainly raise new hopes and further venues for exploration, but at the same time add new questions about and challenges for interpreting previously collected data, ones that are still relevant and must also be explained.
0.01% error chances actually count in science, often proving to be more helpful than drawing 99.99% conclusions. In fact, major errors in science are often learned initially by way of unexpected 0.01% chances of error. Something minor is found not to quite fit a story initially; what seems logical at first proves not to be so upon further reflection. It is for this reason that those offering new scientific propositions usually share all the details of their new findings in advance and refrain from drawing final conclusions, to make it possible for others to also judge for themselves the soundness of any ideas that have been offered as solutions to longstanding puzzles.
Although science aspires to be value neutral, it can never be so without allowing for open and self-reflective acknowledgment of biases in investigators’ work. DNA study results and their interpretations are not purely physical facts or findings but result from human conducted studies and are always explored amid personal and institutional settings that are influenced by human values, interests, biases, and errors.
It is of course always wonderful to make breakthroughs in solving puzzles such as the Somerton Man case. However, seventy plus years of waiting would be better served by a more cautious and less rushed drawing of conclusions. Ultimately, this case is privately about a person, his relatives and friends, and their characters and lives, and publicly about Australia and how it handles its longstanding unsolved cases. Human beings are much more complicated than what may appear in a newspaper ad or divorce filing. Those who have wished to put to rest the story of the Somerton Man’s death must obviously care about returning him back to dust with dignity to the extent his life had and deserved.
There is a choice here, for example, of reburying TSM as a gambler or as a thoughtful poet who was depressed about having lost many loved ones suddenly to old age or a world war, reflecting on the meaning of life amid a marriage gone sour while facing a terminal illness. The best scientific explanation is always one that verifiably incorporates and synthesizes all the relevant existing data gathered so far, past, and present, and refrains from arbitrarily picking and choosing some clues or coincidences at the cost of others simply because new conclusions help gloss over past interpretive failures.
The following are some points to consider while investigating and interpreting the information being newly reported and analyzed. Let’s first consider the possibility that Carl ‘Charles’ Webb may not be the Somerton Man. Then we will consider the second possibility that the two may be the same person.
- Has a Sound DNA Been Extracted? For many years TSM’s cast hairs were available for study. Clearly, they had been deemed insufficient for the purpose, leading unofficial and official teams to advocate exhuming TSM’s body for further analysis. It appears that more than a year following the exhumation (on May 19, 2021), his remains have still not officially proven suitable for offering comparison samples. Presumably, the official and the unofficial teams already had the TSM’s cast hairs from previous efforts, and they had not found them suitable, leading to the need for the body’s exhumation. So, the important question regarding solving the case by way of DNA analysis surrounds whether there exist reliable DNA samples from TSM, from his hairs or body remains. All solid research findings/conclusions must rely on the assumption that TSM’s DNA has been successfully and reliably extracted to be used for gathering further family tree data. Has it? If the unofficial team now finds it possible to draw final DNA conclusions by way of TSM’s hair, why did it insist on the exhumation in the first place? The official and unofficial teams seem to differ, so far. The official team has expressed interest in comparing its own DNA findings from the body to that obtained by the unofficial team by way of hair samples. This suggests there may be some doubt regarding the extent to which the hairs studied by the unofficial team were still viable or of the same quality as those available to the official team.
- New Ways of Splitting Hairs? For many years the hair samples have been available for analysis. What (new) technologies and/or techniques does the unofficial team has at its disposal that the official investigation team does not, ones that have allowed the former to feel assured about the reliability of the extracted hair DNA information’s reliability as a basis for identifying TSM’s relatives? The official investigators have even now had TSM’s remaining body at hand following his exhumation to extract additional useful information to corroborate and compare with any information that the hair samples have offered. Yet, the official DNA research remains inconclusive and cautious, so far. Has the unofficial findings and announcements meant to pressure the official process to draw its conclusions sooner than it is viable or in ways that are favorable to the unofficial team’s results and interpretations? Identifying any family tree rests on the extraction of sound and reliable DNA information from TSM. Presumably, wrong DNA information can send one to a wrong family tree. In ancestry or other family history sites online, one may find many who have no death dates that may match the TSM lifeline and whereabouts. They can also have many errors. For instance, a newspaper entry in the year 1949 in search of a “Charles Webb” is evidently about a different Webb, and not the Carl ‘Charles’ Webb under consideration, married to a different woman. Or, the date of birth still being offered online for Dorothy Jean (Robertson) Webb, 1905, is clearly wrong, since their unearthed marriage certificate clearly gives her age as 21, born in 1920 (making her 14-15 years Carl Webb’s junior). These errors have significant interpretive implications. The question is whether the 4000-sample set is the right or all-inclusive family tree to be looking into, and whether in fact what is found in online or offline sources are inclusive of all ACTUAL relative networks in which TSM was embedded.
- Recorded vs. Actual Family Trees? Even if the extracted hair and/or body DNA Information is reliable, we need to keep in mind that the recorded ancestry or other sources online or offline are only a portion of the ACTUAL network of relatives of the SM, especially those already naturalized in Australia. Some folks in the larger family tree may not even be on record, online or not. And there is a whole population that may not have had the chance of being recorded in online family histories. And the family records may also contain many errors. If TSM was a recent migrant to Australia, there would have been no way for his family data to be recorded online in the local data set, given his identity had remained completely unknown until now. In other words, we should always make a distinction between ACTUAL DNA family network of TSM and any recorded subset of it that has found a chance of being included in online or offline data sources. Even considering 4000 samples, it can take a missed but eligible 4001 case to disprove the findings.
- Arbitrarily Chosen “Coincidences”? The unofficial team has cited the clothing name “T. Keane” as evidence supporting their conclusions. But one can think of many, even more significant, coincidences that seem to be now long forgotten, since it makes things apparently easier to interpret. The coincidence of “T. Keane” tie signature must be weighed in relation to other, also undeniable (even DNA genetic), coincidences that had been previously reported even by the unofficial team themselves. TSM had very rare ear and dental mark matches with those of Robin. Even the unofficial team members and their consulted experts have strongly noted how rare such a match in the same two persons in the same investigation can be. How can one readily dismiss even more significant, even much more visible, DNA/genetic coincidences such as ear or dental marks with the coincidence of a name found on a piece of clothing, and simply favor one over the other so quickly and arbitrarily? Was the tie or other marked clothes found in a used store that TSM frequented? Why were there no personal IDs or identifying information on TSM? Why were all other labels that could be cut out, cut out, if there was no reason for TSM to hide his identity? Why was TSM trying to hide his identify?
- “Two People”? The unofficial team members have themselves admitted that there were “two people” in their 4000 names set who presumably passed (their) DNA test. Both had no death dates, we have been told. Why has the name of the other, the second person, not been announced, so he (or she) can be also considered and readily dismissed in a verifiable way? Do not the forever waiting audiences of this case deserve such details to make up their minds about the hurriedly reported conclusions? Has the other eligible candidate been written off fairly from the list? It may well be the case that the second person is clearly not relevant for good reasons. But, if that is the case, why the second person’s name or whereabouts has not been readily announced in advance? Without such details, this would clearly not be a 99.999% (nearly) closed-shut case, but a 50% chance case (between the two eligible candidates), that TSM could be that second person. Even so, keep the previous point (3) in mind. There could be matching DNA holders in the family tree who are not even on online or offline records. So, unless the unofficial team identifies the second matching person they have acknowledged exists, we are not facing a 0.01%, but at least a 50% chance of error (even considering data and arguments offered). Who is the other “second person”? Why was he or she not readily identified from the outset? Could possible “coincidences” be also found for this second person? Why can there not be more of such “other” persons that somehow have not made the unofficial team’s 4000 list, simply because they have been neglected in family tree lists, or their data have been mistakenly entered? Where is that 4000 list, and what criteria were used to limit it to “4000”? Usually, scientific findings are published in detail in advance, allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions. Why is the unofficial team putting the horse before the cart in releasing its findings?
- Arbitrarily Chosen ‘Clues’? Seventy plus years of analysis and findings about TSM are now being seemingly dismissed overnight as irrelevant based on a still-to-be-reported-in-detail finding. If the unofficial team had found more solid evidence, they would have likely shared it, but everything they had strongly attributed to TSM in the past, many of them undeniable facts, have suddenly been set aside or given little attention. Horse racing can be an easy way of accounting for past failures in deciphering a code. Ear and dental matching coincidences are summarily disregarded as being no longer relevant, as being mere chance or ‘freak’ accidents. Calf muscles and ballet dances are now in the storage room of the TSM museum. Jestyn (Jo Thomson), one who saw his cast and was shocked by it, and who reportedly said years later that she knew TSM but could not divulge her information, does not matter anymore, since the DNA of TSM (presumably extracted properly) does not match that of Robin, whose DNA until recently was itself in doubt (due to the cremation of his remains), and given his daughter’s DNA was deemed to be insufficient for identifying purposes (since her father’s DNA could not be extracted). Khayyam and the Rubaiyat, the code, all that suddenly do not matter anymore. All this sounds like a rushed judgment to shape official analysis or public opinion and is not indicative of scientific rigor, of a patient process of constructing and sharing a detailed narrative that incorporates as much of the old legitimate data into its explanatory structure. The unofficial team could have simply prepared the report and shared it with the official team as a proposal, also publicizing it, before going public with their 99.99% certainty conclusion. If the hair samples were sufficient for the purpose, why bother with going through the exhumation of the man in the first place? There seems to be a pattern of announcing results in public without offering the details in advance in a clear way, the lack of which serves to shape public opinion and mold scientific outcomes preemptively. This is not how science is supposed to work, and rightly so the official team has chosen to be more cautious, which is refreshing. One can understand an eagerness on the part of the unofficial team to share their discoveries to open new possibilities of family data collection resulting from public interest and energy; they have contributed significantly to learning about the case, and deserve much appreciation for their efforts, of course. But it makes more scientific sense to prepare the detailed report in advance than claim victory too quickly, hoping that the rest of the results will somehow fall in place, and expecting that now a global audience must agree with the announced conclusions without sufficient details. The manner of deciding the case based just on DNA, hoping the rest of the answers will come, tells of a narrow disciplinary, not a transdisciplinary approach to scientific investigation. If the point of all this is to put to rest the story of a man who died seventy plus years ago in a public way, in a way that brings rest and peace to his descendants (and to Australia), does it not make sense to avoid rushing into judgments about TSM’s tragic life and any physical or mental health issues he may have understandably faced?
- Where’s the Ring? An interesting and most relevant question resulting from the new findings, that is, the finding that the Somerton Man was in fact married and not formally divorced at the time of his death, is this: where was his wedding ring? The unofficial team has said they have information that point to a separation date in April 1947 for Carl Webb from his “estranged” wife. In her divorce paper filings, clearly his wife had noted his telling her in Jan. 1946 about his desire for separation. So, it was he who initiated the idea of the separation, not her, according to his wife. But then why should we find it “logical” that he be looking for his estranged wife in other states, still far from where the wife now presumably lived. This does not make good sense especially if he did not still have his wedding ring on him. Details from the divorce filings by his wife have suggested they were not happy in their marriage. But important questions can be raised regarding how such details have been and can be interpreted. The unofficial team’s rushed narrative has made us become less sensitive to details such as having on a wedding ring. According to the unofficial team’s prior reports, TSM was evaluated to be an unmarried man, without a wedding ring or its related marks on him. No ring was in his clothing or suitcase either. The newly revealed details about her divorce filing need to be taken into consideration in the context of the timeline of his story. They married in 1941. Webb’s classified ads in a Melbourne newspaper went as late as May 31, 1947. He had apparently expressed his desire for separation in Jan. 1946 (according to the unearthed divorce filings) but was still at that address in May 1947; that is about a year and a half later. The first search ad for him in The Age on Sept. 12, 1949, is not about Carl Webb married to Dorothy Jean, but about a different Charles Webb married to Irene Winnifred Webb (see an entry by ‘Thomas’ on July 27, 2022, here), the two Charleses living at two different address that were just a few minutes’ drive from each other. So, if a separation took place in 1947, it took Dorothy Jean about four years to file for divorce and put out a missing husband notice in 1951, when after Dec. 1948, his picture had been widely publicized. Why did she wait that long, if she had already moved to another state and small town? Besides, her details offered in divorce papers must be considered in the context of her not knowing what happened to him. Thinking that he had deserted her, she was offering some justifications or explanations for his leaving her and for her filing for divorce. This does not mean she was filing divorce because of the traits she found in him or his behavior. As a member of the unofficial team has herself correctly pointed out, there is always two sides to the story of a failed marriage or divorce. If Webb was estranged from his wife, why would he look for her in late Nov. 1948 away so far away (still) in Adelaide? Obviously, they had not divorced formally, so why should we expect him not to have a wedding ring on him or in his bag or pockets, or even a ring mark on his finger, if he is looking for his “estranged wife” that day? Why does he look for her in Jestyn’s (or Thomson’s) house and dies (by an apparently pre-planned suicide) a walking distance from the latter?! The presumed wife had put a divorce notice out after presumably 4 years following separation, not necessarily because she wanted to initiate divorce herself despite their issues, but because he was no more around and she did not know what else to do, thinking that perhaps he had indeed deserted her for good. Why would Carl Webb look for an estranged wife (remember, this was before her notice in 1951), in case he still had hopes of mending their marriage, and yet not have his wedding ring handy on him or in his belongings? They had not yet divorced in 1948, and she did not file for divorce until 1951. His looking for her does not make logical sense, unless other information supports that idea. Not having a ring on him does not make logical sense.
- Nobody Cared? For So Long? Why no one in Webb’s family (or his wife’s family) identified TSM’s death photos as that of Carl ‘Charles’ Webb? Or, did they try, not finding the TSM to be their man? Since Dec. 1948, the word about the strange man found dead on the beach had passed around. In January 1949 TSM’s picture was published in The Herald, saying the information had been shared with police “all over Australia,” adding “They think the mystery may be solved after publication of the picture in Melbourne.” In another Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, on Jan. 1949, the police noted they had “asked Melbourne newspapers to publish the photograph of the dead man, to see if anyone in Victoria can recognize him.” Based on online data, Carl Webb’s family had lost their father in 1939, mother in 1946, and a brother (Roy) and a nephew (John Russell Keene) both in 1943! Sisters Gladys (d. 1955 aged 57), Doris (d. 1956, aged 55), and Freda (d. 1964, aged 68) were still around and young enough to search for their youngest brother; so were their grown-up children and their families. Many in his presumed wife’s family must have been also actively searching for him. His siblings even lost the oldest brother Russell in 1949, so Carl Webb was the only remaining male sibling left for them (they must have thought), and he had gone missing. The siblings seemed to have had loving families, so nothing plausibly explains why they did not try to identify TSM to be their brother for many years (and their children for many more, as TSM increasingly received public attention). Is it possible they had seen TSM’s photo or even attended his cast showing or talked to the officers to identify their brother and had not found TSM to be him? Was there a visitor log for when the cast was made available for identification? Police say thousands tried to identify him. Did any Webb visit to identify the cast? Is it not possible that the Webb family and his ex/wife (and her family) did read about TSM and from the photos realized that he is not their Carl ‘Charles’ Webb, and that explains why they did not come forward to claim him? That seems like a more logical conclusion to draw, no?
- 4000, and Counting? Again, who is the “second person” in the 4000 list that match the unofficial team’s own DNA data for TSM, and why can’t there be a 4001 “another person” that did not make their list, and why assume that a 4002 person’s data is absolutely expected to be available on online ancestry and family tree sources, especially if TSM was a recent migrant to Australia without any family roots there?
Let us now consider the opposite possibility and suppose Carl Webb to be the Somerton Man:
- Shades of Gray. Why should an affair between Carl Webb and Jestyn (Jessica Harkness Thomson) be ruled out offhand and so quickly? Is DNA reductionism at work here? Just because the unofficial team has found Webb’s DNA not to match Robin’s (even if true), it does not mean the two stories are not connected. For instance, if Jestyn had had an affair with an unhappily married Webb at the same time she had with other(s), she may have even herself wondered if the baby was Webb’s, or Webb may have thought it was his. They did not trace DNAs back then to know which man a baby belongs to, so all such non-DNA analysis matters are valid considerations from a broader, social scientific point of view. If just before or around 1947 Webb had an affair with Jestyn, being caused by or causing his estrangement from his formal wife, that can explain why he was searching not for his wife, but for Jestyn in Adelaide, wishing to also see his (presumed) son, since he or even she may not have been certain if the baby was his and assumed that to be the case. Putting a name on TSM does not have to lead to the dismissal of seventy plus years of analysis, data collection, and considerations. Whatever his name, TSM did have a serious, likely terminal, illness; he did die likely of poisoning, alone on the Somerton Beach a short distance from Jestyn’s home; his manner of death was most likely that of a pre-planned and orchestrated suicide. He had the ‘Tamám Shud’ cut-out piece in his fob pocket, indicating his interest in the Rubaiyat and relation to the poetry book and the code therein. Two years earlier a man, George Marshall, had died with the Rubaiyat beside him, well publicized in newspapers. If TSM was interested in poetry and writing it, as the unofficial team now acknowledges (but has not provided further details about, since it seems they like more the gambler story), so he may have as well written his suicide note in a poetic form as a code (in the style of Tamám Shud), as a transliteration using Arabic alphabet (which Persian also uses). If he was interested in Khayyam, he may have even had an interest in Persian or Arabic languages or consulted a dictionary to write his code in the style of Tamám Shud. We don’t know about his life’s details, but he was old enough to have had time to pursue his poetry interests, be likely fascinated with Khayyam’s poems, and try to learn some Persian (which uses Arabic language). TSM’s signature handwriting on his marriage certificate does not quite resemble the handwritten codes (although the latter were not strictly speaking the original handwritings but traced over by the police). Could he have sought help from a friend who knew Arabic to help him write his suicide note as a quatrain in the Tamám Shud transliteration style?
- Deaths in the Family. If TSM was Carl ‘Charles’ Webb, he had lost in the last ten years of his life both parents, and a brother and a nephew to war in the same year (1943), and his marriage coincided with the start of a new world war. Did his illness prevent him from enlisting, and that was a cause of his depression as well, going early (at 7 pm) to sleep, being quiet, mourning for his lost relatives, reading Khayyam, not having hopes for a long-married life with anyone given what he felt was physically happening to him resulting from his terminal illness? Obviously, these can make him think about matters of life and death, which are basically at the heart of the Rubaiyat. It would make him think about living something behind, given his terminal illness. Not only his relatives had died so suddenly, but he faced his own death due to the illness. If a son had not been forthcoming from a presumably estranged wife, it would make sense for him to be, as a terminally ill man, longing for an offspring with a lover, and seek after her and his newborn, finding himself in Adelaide. Being rebuffed by her, for one or another reason, as not being a viable future husband (likely not even being possible in her view since she may have known he was a married man, or that he had a terminal illness), did not make things any less depressing for him. The deciphered meaning of the code as a suicide poem reveals a lot about TSM, and does match the state of mind and life Carl Webb had faced in the last few years of his life.
- The Ring’s Absence Now Makes Logical Sense. If TSM, as Carl Webb, estranged from his wife since 1947, was in Adelaide to see Jestyn and his presumed newborn son, following a year or more of on and off affair, it makes sense for him not to be wearing his wedding ring for a while, especially on Dec. 1, 1948. That seems like a more logical interpretation to make of the absence of the wedding ring.
- Poetry Writing Interest. It has now been acknowledged even by the unofficial team that Carl Webb was into poetry, not only reading it, but also writing some. Why is it that the suspected ‘code’ is now presumed to be made of horse name initials, and not be a poem? Why does the unofficial team opt for one interpretive scheme resulting in TSM being a gambling man, and not another resulting in his being a sensitive and depressed soul writing his own suicide note as a poem? Was not this search for TSM an effort to bring some dignity to his life and death? Why TSM being a thoughtful poet is discarded as a possibility in favor of a horse race gambling man? He was depressed about a marriage gone sour amid a tragic world war, with a spouse 14 years his junior (according to the official marriage certificate) with whom he did not share mutual understanding. He lost many close family members in a matter of a few years. He was ill, most likely terminally (or at least he sensed, was told, or perceived it to be so), not finding it feasible to have and raise a child amid an unhappy marriage. Does he not deserve a less hurried, and a more balanced judgment day? His code as a suicide poem can provide new insights to help complete the picture of TSM’s story. It can prove to be another, even more significant and telling, DNA of the Somerton Man, as far as completing his life’s tale is concerned. It can help us also see him, despite any shortcomings he had in his life, as a sensitive soul, poetically inclined, even though depressed given his life and times circumstances, writing a farewell note about a love not fulfillable, and to a son not raisable, due to a terminal illness, carefully planning the last dance of his life to at least leave an enduring trace in public memory. If he had planned that to happen as a poet, we must give him credit for it since he certainly succeeded in his aim. After all, he had Omar Khayyam as a role model to follow, who still live in our memory after nearly a thousand years, worldwide.
Impartial scientific work requires considering other and others’ point of view and taking all the relevant details into consideration when constructing a sound explanatory account. To ignore and dismiss others’ input and contributions, simply because we assume ours to be more superior, does not make a project any more scientific. A good theory results from cautious consideration of all relevant and legitimate data, especially those that contradict our findings. TSM’s poetic ‘code’ is also a legitimate DNA, of his soul.
Mohammad H. (Behrooz) Tamdgidi is the founding director and editor of OKCIR: Omar Khayyam Center for Integrative Research in Utopia, Mysticism, and Science (Utopystics) (www.okcir.com) and its scholarly journal Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, which have served since 2002 to frame his independent research, teaching, and publishing initiatives. A former associate professor of sociology specializing in social theory at UMass Boston, he holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in sociology and a graduate certificate in Middle Eastern studies from Binghamton University (SUNY) and received his B.A. in architecture from U.C. Berkeley. Besides his work in progress on the 12-volume series Omar Khayyam’s Secret: Hermeneutics of the Robaiyat in Quantum Sociological Imagination, his previous publications include Liberating Sociology: From Newtonian Toward Quantum Imaginations: Volume 1: Unriddling the Quantum Enigma (Okcir Press, 2020), Gurdjieff and Hypnosis: A Hermeneutic Study (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and Advancing Utopistics: The Three Component Parts and Errors of Marxism (Routledge/Paradigm, 2007). Due to research commitments and preference for written communication, the author can only be reached via email.