The Body of Australia's Somerton Man—a 70-Year-Old Cold Case—Might Be Exhumed

The grave of the Somerton Man in Adelaide, South Australia
The grave of the Somerton Man in Adelaide, South Australia
Michael Coghlan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the 70 years it has been open, the Somerton Man case has produced more questions than answers. Police still don't know exactly what led to the death of an unidentified man on an Australian beach in late 1948, who killed him, or what the murderer's motives were. But a new development in the mystery could finally reveal the story's most glaring missing puzzle piece: the victim's identity. As The Australian reports, South Australia's new attorney general Vickie Chapman is considering exhuming the corpse of the Somerton Man so that investigators can extract and test his DNA.

The case dates back to December 1, 1948, when a swimmer stumbled upon a lifeless body propped up against a seawall on the beach. After the victim arrived at a local hospital, it soon became apparent that identifying him wouldn't be as easy as thumbing through his wallet. He had no ID, and all the labels on his clothing had been removed. The most striking thing about the man was his outfit: a suit, suggesting that he was a well-off businessman, and polished dress shoes. It was unusual attire for the beach.

The autopsy didn't make matters any clearer. Doctors concluded that the man had likely died of heart failure, but significant internal bleeding suggested that it was poison, not natural causes, that led to that failure. If it was poison that killed him, it would have been a fast-acting and fast-disappearing substance, since no traces of it were found.

The Somerton Man cipher
The Somerton Man cipher

There was one more clue: After a more thorough re-examination of the body by a pathology expert, investigators found a previously unnoticed pocket in the waist of the man's pants. It contained a piece of paper with the words Tamám Shud—Persian for "It is ended." They were able to trace the page back to the book from which it had been torn, a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a Persian book of poetry), which had an inscrutable series of letters scribbled on the back cover. Military experts were unable to crack the code—assuming the letters even were a code—and it remains undeciphered to this day.

Someone had also written a phone number on the back of the book. That number led them to a nurse named Jo Thomson. With no friends or family members coming forward to claim the body, Thomson was the first and only lead in the case. She claimed she had never met the victim nor had she given him the book, but when she was shown a plaster cast of his face, she reportedly came close to fainting.

The case was ignored for years, but in 2007 Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide, decided to give it a second look. Thanks largely to his efforts, authorities may be closer than they've ever been to identifying the Somerton Man.

According to Abbott's theory, Jo Thomson had an illegitimate child with the Somerton Man before he died, which would explain why she was hesitant to admit that she knew him. When Abbott found an old photograph of Thomson's son Robin, he noticed that the boy shared some distinguishing features with the Somerton Man: Both had canines positioned right next to their front teeth, and the upper hollows in their ears were larger than the lower hollows. Both of these features are hereditary and only appear in 1 percent or less of the population.

Adding another intriguing layer to the story: Abbott married Rachel Egan, Jo Thomson's biological granddaughter, after getting to know her during his investigation. If his hunches are correct, the three children he now has with Egan are the great-grandchildren of the Somerton Man.

Abbott plans to test his theory by analyzing DNA from the Somerton Man's exhumed corpse and comparing it to Egan's. If Egan isn't a match, Abbott hopes the DNA could eventually lead him to someone alive today who is. But if the two are a match, it would provide some closure to a murder mystery that has baffled Australia for decades.

Interest in the case has been heightened by a new documentary called Missing Pieces: The Curious Case of the Somerton Man, which screened recently in Adelaide. Chapman has said the state government would consider requests to exhume the body as long as the costs were privately met. While no time frame for the body's disinterment has been set, Abbott told The Advertiser that if money is an issue, crowdsourcing the project is always a possibility.

[h/t The Australian]

A Shrine to Brine: The Mysterious Case of Missouri's Highway Pickle Jar

iStock.com/MorePixels
iStock.com/MorePixels

No one knows how it started. No one knows who was responsible. Some may even have dismissed it as an aberration, a glitch in the scenery that would soon be corrected. But eventually, drivers in and around Des Peres, Missouri who took a highway off-ramp connecting I-270 North to Manchester Road began to notice that a jar of pickles was sitting on a dividing barrier on the ramp. And it wasn’t going anywhere.

Since 2012, the pickle jar has confounded drivers and internet sleuths alike, according to Atlas Obscura. Some have speculated that someone was trying to send a secret message or share a private joke. Perhaps someone pulling off to the side due to car trouble felt the need to place the brine-filled jar on the concrete wall and then forgot about it. Maybe someone thought it would be a kind of three-dimensional graffiti, incongruous amid the bustling traffic. Maybe it’s an indictment of commerce.

Whatever the case, once the pickles appeared, advocates refused to let them go. Jars that end up toppled over or otherwise damaged are replaced. Sometimes they reappear in protective Tupperware or with a holiday-themed bow. Sightings are photographed for posterity and posted on a Facebook fan page devoted to the jar, which currently has over 4200 members and has morphed from a place to theorize about the mysterious jar's origins to a place where people swap pickle-related recipes and stories.

There are dry spells—no one has posted of a pickle sighting in several months—but followers remain optimistic the jar will continue to remain a presence in Des Peres even if the motivation for placing them near the roadway remains as murky as the briny juice inside.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Why is Punxsutawney's Groundhog Called Phil?

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

A groundhog has been making weather predictions in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, since 1886, but we've only been calling him "Phil" since 1961. Before that, the critter was usually just called the "Br'er Groundhog" or "The Punxsutawney Groundhog." Most sources (including the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club) say he eventually earned the moniker "Phil" as homage to "King Philip," but that explanation is as dubious as it is vague.

The problem is that they never specify which King Philip. The tradition of foretelling the weather with a marmot's shadow has its origins in Germany, but Deutschland hasn't seen a "King Philip" for more than eight centuries. France, Greece, Spain, and even the Wampanoag people of New England have all had a King Philip, but it's very unlikely that a small Germanic Pennsylvania community would ever name their beloved groundhog after any of these kings, either.

Rather, the name might actually refer to a prince—and it may have gotten its start thanks a pair of heinous murders and some good old-fashioned small-town competition.

In 1953, Punxsutawney sent two baby groundhogs to Los Angeles's Griffith Park Zoo. The critters had been named after Britain's new reigning couple, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the future Prince (not King!) Philip. While the zoo gladly welcomed Liz and Phil with open arms, the state of California did not. The California Department of Agriculture declared the baby groundhogs "agricultural pests" and demanded they be "destroyed." The animals were summarily killed.

Back in Pennsylvania, people were deeply insulted. (The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club went so far to say that the groundhogs had been "executed.") The head of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, who worried that the killings could spark an international incident, told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm going to ask [my Congressman] to take the matter up with the State Department so we won't get into complications with England. Killing these groundhogs was an insult to the royal family." Indeed, a congressional representative would issue a statement criticizing California. The two groundhogs were eventually buried back home.

Eight years later, the name "Punxsutawney Phil" first appeared in newspapers. It's possible that this new moniker was a shout-out to one of the dearly deceased royal groundhogs. (That, however, is a matter of speculation.)

Regardless, the new name was also a necessity. Multiple Pennsylvania towns—such as Quarryville and Pine Grove—also had their own prognosticating woodchucks, and the towns were stuck in a vicious debate over who was home to the real sage. Adopting a new name was not only good branding, but also a practical way to help differentiate the different groundhogs. (The competitors would also get unique names: Octoraro Orphie and Grover.)

Eventually, Punxsutawney would get a huge PR boost from the 1993 movie Groundhog Daythough it was always home to the leading marmot. On Groundhog Day in 1904, the Pittsburg Press reported, "The ticket-sellers in the various railroad offices noticed a surprising increase in receipts this morning. First-class rates to Punxsutawney went so fast that the advisability of raising the price was considered. All the cold weather interests were off to the lair of the groundhog to see him see his shadow."

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